I'm terrified of forgetting things, especially after reading about early-onset Alzheimer's. But sometimes I just wish I had that memory-eraser from Men In Black, to forget bad dates and crappy movies. Will we ever have total control of our memories?
While scientists search for a real answer to that question, pop culture has already provided us with dozens of memory panic fantasies that reveal more about who we are than a million lab tests ever could. Look at Memento, a science-flavored thriller from Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan. In that movie, a man has suffered brain damage that prevents him from retaining new memories. To recall why he committed a terrible crime, he has to inscribe his memories in tattoo ink on his body. What could be scarier than having to track down a killer when you can't even remember what happened to you five minutes ago?
I'll tell you what's scarier - voluntarily giving up your memories for cash. That's the plot of classic William Gibson cyberpunk story "Johnny Mnemonic" (made into an OK movie with Keanu Reeves), and the plot of cheesefest Paycheck and shortlived TV series My Own Worst Enemy. In "Johnny Mnemonic," the titular character has nuked his own memories so that he can become a data mule who transports sensitive information using his brain as a hard drive. And in Paycheck and My Own Worst Enemy, guys who do dirty work for various "agencies" agree to have their memories manipulated for security reasons.
Same thing with awesomely-realized movie A Scanner Darkly, based on a Philip K. Novel. In that story, the main character winds up spying on himself, because half his brain works for the futuristic DEA and the other half is snarfing up mega-drugs.
Then there are movies like Total Recall, about a guy whose memories are implanted - did he really save Mars, or was it just an implanted memory he bought at the future version of Netflix? The skinjobs in Battlestar Galactica have implanted memories, as do the replicants in Blade Runner. Who the hell knows what the "actives" in TV series Dollhouse had - implanted memories, erased memories, enhanced memories. Whatever could be programmed into them.
People pay to have their memories erased in the brilliant flick Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - who wouldn't want to erase that bad relationship? And pretty much every alien abduction flick has some scene where a person pays to have her memories enhanced via hypnotherapy so she can recall that "lost time" when she was floating in the alien brain-needle machine.
So what does this litany of memory panic stories tell us about what could happen when the technologies are there to enhance, manipulate, and nuke our recollections? They tell us that we wish more than anything else that we could control what our brains have retained. That we could treat our brains like the perfect hard drive, erasing what we don't need and making offsite backup copies of that amazing date which started with a 1940s movie and ended with awesome sex all night. That we would never have to fear our neurons might one day be eaten away by Alzheimer's plaques.
Yeah, you're saying, big freakin reveal that we wish our brains were more like computers. But here's the catch. What these stories tell us is that we fear our brains will become like computers, too - we are terrified of it big time. That's the lesson in stories like Eternal Sunshine or "Johnny Mnemonic." Both are about people who wipe their memories on a whim - to make more money, or to get over a breakup quickly. If your brain becomes just like a computer, then it's too easy for somebody to manipulate your memories and take away all that control over them that you wanted to have in the first place.
Maybe the most interesting question about memory panic is why now? Why are we freaking out about our memories and neurologies so much, while previous generations worried about other things? Partly it's because so many people have access to health care that keeps our bodies alive while our brains fall apart. It's so common to hear people talk about dealing with Alzheimery parents or grandparents that it's starting to seem like half the planet has gone Memento.
I think another reason why memory panic affects people today is that so many people, at least in the middle classes, have jobs that depend on thinking. And let's face it - half of thinking is memory. Sure you can use Google as a memory aid, and believe me I do, but that's no substitute for the real thing. Being able to synthesize memories into a new idea, to recall all the research in your field - those are the foundations of great breakthroughs. You can't build something really innovative without remembering all the stuff that's come before. If you start struggling with memory, even just a little bit, oftentimes it means losing your edge at work.
Another thing to consider is the way memory panic fits into what I said earlier about using Google as a memory aid. When you offload so much of your memory to a web application, like Gmail or Flickr or whatever, you are at the mercy of companies to retain those memories for you. If Yahoo! borks your Flickr account - and why wouldn't they, at some point? - your brain turns into one of those doll brains on Dollhouse. You only get to keep the memories that the company has let you keep.
Of course I'm exaggerating to make a point, here. Obviously you can remember things without emails and photos and SMSes. But those traces of information are a part of what makes remembering things so vivid. That's why I cried when I lost access to an email account that had mail in it from my mother after she died. Of course I remember her without those bits of data. But I still felt like there was a hole in my memories when I lost her emails.
Memory panic tales give us a hint of what it will be like if and when our memories really are one and the same with what's stored on a computer. And they remind us why turning into machines has a dark side, as well as an awesome one.