Recently, someone recommended I read The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling by Ted Chiang. Just finished it about an hour ago. I liked it a lot.
For a while now I’ve been interested in how technology impacts society and shapes cultural evolution, and therefore how we ought to treat new technology. These are precisely the issues Ted Chiang works with in TToFTToF. (Man, that story needs a better nickname!)
Chiang specifically focuses on memory vs. permanent external records, though his kind of exploration could be done for many of our natural abilities and the technologies we use to augment them, plenty of which we take for granted. In general though I think Chiang has done a much better job illustrating these issues than I have so far in my writings.
I also really enjoyed the non-fictiony storytelling mode. The two interposed narratives were compelling and artfully cut together, and tastefully tied up at the end. The writing and storytelling was clear and beautiful.
Chiang’s narrator’s treatment of memory as a personal biography disappointed me, as if he was saying memory is a coherent story about yourself you can go to for consultation–even given his admission that our memories are error-prone.
To me memory seems more like an acid-laced crime scene investigation, where there isn’t necessarily a coherent story, and certainly not a consistent one every time you look at it. Who did what when, and how things turned out isn’t necessarily understood–even incorrectly–and things keep changing as you look at them and flashing out at you when you’re not.
The narrator’s ruminations about Remem supplanting our episodic memory could have been explored more. For instance, in the story Remem is kind of a personal search engine for all the video/audio footage taken by people’s wearables. But much of our memory is not visual or auditory; it’s olfactory, tactile, and sometimes more basic than that: the association of some event with stabbing hunger, or the urgent need to pee, or whatever else.
What if, in the story, people used wearables that recorded not just video and audio footage but heartrate and blood pressure and body temperature and things like that, and would stimulate in the user the same conditions that existed in a memory upon time of review? What if reviewing a memory with Remem was, from an experience perspective, no different from actually experiencing it again (rather than seeing it in a window in the corner of one’s vision, as in the story)? I don’t know whether that would have made the story any better, but it at least wouldn’t have seemed like such a frustratingly incomplete way to talk about memory or technology’s effects on it.
There was another piece I found incomplete, which was when the narrator worried about the effect of Remem on episodic memory. He seemed to be saying that by using Remem people would lose their natural episodic memory–that it would “become entirely technologically mediated”. If that was true, then would people’s Remem logs become recursive, mostly just showing themselves looking at their own logs throughout each day? Once a log was viewed, would it change something about the user–and if so, is there any way the user’s natural memory could not be one of the things that is changed?
These oversights only irritated me because they made the narrator seem limited in his thinking about the Remem technology and its impact. I also thought it was kind of bogus how he changed his mind about Remem at the end just because he wound up being more honest with himself and his daughter after using it. There was no consideration of the many other possible scenarios where no happy ending occurred.
That said, Chiang’s handling of how technology impacts society was, as I said, very strong and much better than any way I’ve written about it so far–in fiction or otherwise. There was a Black Mirror episode that featured a similar technology and dealt with similar issues but, like all episodes of Black Mirror that I’ve seen, gave the issues a shallow and juvenile treatment, focusing completely on the fact that the technology caused a big fight between a jealous husband and his cheating wife. In Black Mirror there was no or very little exploration of the technology’s impact on the broader culture, and that is precisely where Chiang’s story shines. It’s the more challenging aspect to write about too.
I glean ideas about similar technology ethics issues from Neal Stephenson books as well, though unfortunately Stephenson usually does not foreground them. If Stephenson and Chiang collaborated maybe I’d have my ideal sci-fi story!