The Erasing of Memories
Should people be allowed to erase their memories? Amanda Marcotte thinks so. She gives three reasons: 1) memory isn’t as sacrosanct as people think, 2) just because a memory isn’t stored in your brain doesn’t mean it’s gone, and 3) fears that people will be irresponsible with this technology are way overblown. Marcotte raises the issue because, apparently, the technology to erase specific memories may be available in our lifetimes. Her conclusion:
These technologies are intended for and will be used by people who have a memory that is crippling them. Post-traumatic stress disorder is no joke; symptoms range from insomnia to paranoia to fear or sadness so crippling that the patient can’t leave the house. Jobs are lost, marriages break up, and sufferers often resort to suicide. Purging their brain of the memory and putting it on paper where it can’t hurt them is an act of mercy. Again, it’s not like the patient will be unaware that they were in war/were raped/escaped from a tower on 9/11. They will know this and be familiar with all the relevant details, after they read it on paper. All that will really be missing is the feelings of fear and pain that are attached to the original biological memory.
You may have seen the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Marcotte references it several times as an example of what won’t happen with this technology. I’m not sure I agree, either with her memory of the movie or her application of it, but let’s assume that she’s correct in saying that most people who employ this technology to erase their memories won’t do so willy-nilly or as a way to forget and act as if some event didn’t really happen. I’m dubious, but okay. The application of the technology that should concern us most is not the use of those crippled by a memory, but the exploitation of it by those not interested in personal choices, but power.
Instead of Spotless Mind, think Dollhouse, the two-season Joss Whedon series about a corporation that erases people’s memories so as to give them new ones and a new identity. Why? To form them into dolls for use by the wealthy and privileged. The technology that makes the dolls is ethically problematic itself, but as the story progresses, it makes clear that the uses of technology cannot be restricted to some approved intentional operation, not when the technology gives access to incredible power.
With Marcotte, I see that the technology to erase memories has benevolent possibilities, but apparently unlike her, I’m apprehensive about its other uses, specifically by those with power instead of the freedom in mind.