Imagine the moment when you can wear Google’s Project Glass spectacles. Real-time information, all the time. The ability to take video and audio, and transmit it wirelessly to another storage medium. Which means, in theory, the ability to remember absolutely everything, forever.
And while I doubt many scientists at Google have thought about it, that might be the end of mankind.
The ability to remember everything, called eidetic memory, has never been shown in a human, so we cannot say with complete confidence that we know what will happen. But considering the thousands of experiments that demonstrate the ways in which humans adaptively misremember, misinterpret, and misplace, there has to be an adaptive strategy at work. After all, we know we have the technical ability to remember many things accurately, and yet our brain has adapted so that we don’t.
Human beings thrive on ambiguity, on the ability to manipulate our memories, beliefs, emotions, and decisions in order to serve our sense of well-being. When we do that manipulation badly, we grow depressed and self-destruct. And it is a manipulation only made possible by the fact that we do not have perfect recall.
Its true that Project Glass cannot record our emotions (yet), so we can still manipulate the meaning of the audiovisual that will potentially now be saved. But how far can that really take us? Could it be that in developing technologically the ability to precisely record and replay everything, we’re opening ourselves up to a type of mental-like abilities that we are not adapted to handle emotionally?
The examples are endless. A couple fighting about what someone said, with no catharsis of apology and acceptance, just the cold finality of someone being factually (but not emotionally) right. A buyer who can play back the entire buying experience, perfectly accurately, and is thereby denied the cognitive dissonance that makes him happy with his eventual purchase. Two brothers who witness a gruesome event, that morbid fascination allows them to repeatedly view.
There are just as many examples of the ways in which perfect recall can help society. But while many will consider those, psychologists need to start now in considering the potential negative effects and how products need to be shaped in order to avoid them. Project Glass is certainly going to exist in the mainstream at some point – we psychologists need to start thinking about what that means.
And Google is the natural place to do that, or any tech company that is starting to change the way we actually structure and deal with information in real-time. As the producers of the product, they will be the ones most tied to its adoption…and the ones held most responsible.