Movies and video ads make clear that minute cameras and microphones on increasingly smaller drones can get to lots of places and see/hear/record events. Who can doubt that a large percentage of people who eagerly live much of their lives with ear buds virtually glued in place will not also quickly move to technologies embedded in various nooks and crannies of their heads for both input and output.
We’re already well along. Police body-cams and increasingly ordinary video cameras in public spaces have exponentially increased the amount of “film” available to law enforcement. Google glasses and virtual/augmented reality headgear are bringing these kinds of capabilities even closer to our brains, seeing what we see and hearing what we hear. The “internet-of-things” will ride on ubiquitous Wi-Fi and other networks to send that information to any data warehouse instantly. AIs will enable sorting and retrieval of particular incidents.
Still, my concern today is not with the State crushing personal privacy aided by the onslaught of technology. After all, most of us have precious little of interest that would be of interest to spymasters or even to Mark Zuckerberg and other would-be moguls of our techno-future. Rather, I’d like to consider the implications on a smaller scale: How will the presence of (seemingly) ubiquitous recording devices affect day-to-day interactions in stores and offices, comings-and-goings in homes and cars, and conversations with families and friends.
Historians are quite aware of the fallacies of memory. Indeed, anyone who has ever played a round of the “telephone game” knows that even instant repetition is fraught. Memories suffer not only from wholly unintentional omissions and limited perspectives (increasing over time), but also from unconscious desires to construct a friendlier, more self-supporting, and more coherent past.
Now (or in a not-very-distant future), we will be able to reach that defining goal of modern history: to find out what "actually happened.”
- Did little Kim start the fight with their sibling Robin over the use of some critical toy or vice-versa?
- Did a certain spouse wink at an ‘ex’ at a recent party as was later debated in the car on the ride home?
- What was the expression on Rosemary Woods’ face when she famously erased 18 minutes of the Nixon tapes?
Will family life become more peaceful? Will law enforcement become more mundane?
I suspect that each of us often take refuge in the ambiguity and irretrievability of the precise past. A little fudging has undoubtedly preserved many relationships, not least of which with each of us ourselves. We may find out whether, as Jack Nicholson’s character posited in A Few Good Men: “you can’t handle the truth.”
Are we ready for the “truth”? How will the awareness of an “objective” record affect how we behave? Will little Kim stop picking fights with Robin? Will cocktail party flirting cease? If the case of George Floyd is any indication, it has taken some time for police body cameras to change their habits and patterns. Likely for ordinary folks, in ordinary situations, it will take longer. But perhaps, we will internalize the presence of this cyber Jiminy Cricket, who, perched on our shoulder, regularly reminded us to “let your conscience be your guide.”
From another perspective, the ubiquity and constant nature of such surveillance might well work as a further modification for how we record and process information. Why take notes in class or meetings when you can easily call up an actual recording (or have an AI do it for you)? Fascinating work has been done on the impact of writing on the social practices of memory, which became less central to accessing the past. It’s easy to imagine that we won’t tax our organic memories nearly as much as techno-memories become more commonplace. The rap against older people that their memories are failing may acquire less resonance, since the quality of their internal neural network won’t matter as much.
For historians, one of the fundamental challenges of research was finding enough original material to try to discern what “actually happened” in the situation under study. Did anyone actually argue with Napoleon about launching his ill-fated adventure into Russia? Who did stab Caesar? Who was the first to make a salad named after him? The problems generally get worse the further back we go. In the electronic ages, Historians are already getting swamped with thousands of emails and, soon, hours of videos. We will have to turn to AI Historians to parse through all the material (there aren’t enough underpaid grad students to throw at this).
It may be that, as with many aspects of human social/psychological adaptation, making any of these fundamental behavioral adjustments will take generations. The transitions, especially inter-generational, promise to be somewhere between “interesting” and problematic. In any event, this revolution will be televised.