by Josie Kafka
Like all good dystopian fiction, “The Entire History of You” takes a modern obsession--documentation via social media--and edges it just a bit further down the garden path. Neural-occular implants allow nearly everybody to record what they see and hear. Anyone can replay key moments for their own nostalgic or neurotic purposes, or even share their “redo” with others. It’s social media, smartphones, and surveillance all combined into one “grain.”
The result is often quite dull, as when one man puts up a redo of him looking at the frayed carpeting in his home and forces everyone to look at it. The antagonist, Jonas, admits with prurient glee that he replays previous liaisons as nostalgic pornography. And not everyone has a neural implant: at a dinner-party scene, one character discusses the freedom that comes with “going grainless.” “I just couldn’t do it,” responds another in a tone suggestive of a discussion of enemas, or choosing to have your tongue removed.
But the real dramatic potential comes from the neurotic potential of re-doing (that is, re-watching) one’s life. Liam (Toby Kebbell), a lawyer on a career downswing, uses his grain to replay fragments of his recent job “appraisal.” Were they approving or disapproving? Was that a check-mark or just the letter V? Is he about to be downsized?
And that is just the beginning. Convinced he has lost his job, Liam begins to obsess about possibly losing his wife, or having lost her already. Liam obsesses over the way Ffion conducts herself around a former flame—the prurient Jonas I mentioned above. Then he replays everything she ever said about Jonas. Then he redoes a re-do from the dinner party to prove her earlier statements wrong, and the spiral continues.
Aside from a brief flashforward at the end, this entire episode takes place in about 24 hours, and the effect of Liam’s spiral of compulsive and injurious behavior is incredibly uncomfortable—not just because of some violence, but mostly because of the claustrophobia of Liam’s actions. He is unlikeable precisely because he is a representation of all of us at our worst moments, fixated on perceived slights and past sins, trapped in a self-created funhouse of digital despair.
The “grain” technology doesn’t cause Liam’s breakdown, though. The grain only exacerbates his tendencies because it allows for ceaseless recollection of events. Who hasn’t replayed a memory, looking for a clue or a hint or—most of all—that magical, unachievable answer that will suddenly make everything okay, or at least explicable?
In the Phaedrus, Plato raised the question of external memory. Socrates, perhaps ironically, reports that the Egyptians were worried that the new technology of writing would make it difficult for people to remember things the old-fashioned way, in their brains. Today, we outsource even more mnemonic tasks, from daily life (appointment reminders, auto-completed grocery lists, fitness trackers) to data (What year was the Gettysburg Address? Google it!) and more. And we worry, even more, that the kids these days don’t remember anything and couldn’t live without their phones.
But any type of memory—organic, digital, codicological—is inherently flawed. Knowing the date of the Gettysburg Address is meaningless if you don’t know what that speech is about or its historical context. In one of their fights, Liam tells Ffi that “You can’t just edit out the word ‘sometimes’” after she redoes him calling her a bitch. There is no perfect memory, because everything is both incomplete and subjectively interpreted. Liam can never find the answers he seeks, much less the closure he needs.
In Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, Lewis Carroll joked, in his way, about the only accurate map: one “on the scale of a mile to the mile.” But “it has never been spread out, yet...the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”
We tend to privilege the representational (like re-dos) over the real: the representational seems more expansive, less trapped in the minutiae of the present place and time. We can zoom in and out of a digital memory the way we can't do to an organic memory. But “The Entire History of You” emphasizes that the representational—from social media to surveillance to mnemonic “re-dos”—is a bait and switch that doesn’t just distract from real life, but can become its own toxic reality, and that to lose yourself in the digital past is no better than losing the present entirely.
• The most haunting scene in this episode was when Liam and Ffi had sex while independently re-doing previous times they’d had better sex.
• As someone without a smartphone, I really connected with the young woman who didn’t have a grain. Yes, people really do seem to think I’m some sort of freak for not having a smartphone. And you should see the looks on their faces when I reveal that I also don't have a microwave.
• Robert Downey Jr. beat out George Clooney for the film rights to this episode, because God forbid we leave some sort of British television un-re-done. (See what I did there?)
Four out of four re-dos.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)