Object 58

This Mass of Memories

2037, Russia

He looks out from a balcony, casting his gaze across the valley. "I'd talk to my boy about how we'd look after this place together." He laughs, strained. "He had an idea to plant trees on the island, to try and bring all the wildlife back. Always badgered me about it, kept on showing me seed catalogues. Rewilding, he called it. I told him he was foolish, that the soil wasn't good enough."

He blinks, and turns away. "I was too hard on him. All he wanted to do was make something that would last. I couldn't give it to him, and she said she could. She took everything away from him. From me."

An early morning mist lingers over the valley, obscuring the island and the hills beyond. From a certain angle, you could imagine that this is all there is. "I’m going to leave," he says. "There's nothing left for me here now."

...

Stephanie's not the assured, cocky woman I've seen in the videos or the sims. One moment she's confessional, the next she's aggressive.

What changed, I ask her. Wasn't deleting everyone's data the entire point? Wasn't self-annihilation the goal?

"It was. And I still believe it was the right thing to do. Thousands of my followers have told me that their lives are better now," she says.

But it didn't go well for everyone, did it?

"No." She deflates. Her eyes flicker across her glasses, clearly reading a script. Seconds pass. "I can't be responsible for everything my followers do. They have a responsibility to act in their own interests. Erasing all your digital memories is a big step to take, and if it went wrong for some people, I regret that."

It's not a question of 'if'. You gave your followers a direct instruction.

"He — he should have had an agent, a doctor, someone, tell him that he couldn't do it. I didn’t know he had that condition." She shakes her head. "I'm sorry."

...

"We're truly lucky, living in this world. We need never forget anything we ever see or hear or feel or touch. Everything we do is recorded and stored permanently, in digital memory. Every moment of joy and sadness and pleasure and pain can be reviewed and relived.

"In another life, this wasn't possible. In another life, we didn’t feel compelled to relive those saved moments every day. Sometimes they bring a smile, but more often they stab like a dagger at our hearts.

"It doesn't have to be like that. We can delete them, permanently and irrevocably. We can leave them behind.

"This mass of memories you've accumulated is dragging you down. Sadness, joy, it's all part of another self, another life, and it's holding you back from becoming a better, purer person. Don't be frightened to give them up. Cast away your burdens and have confidence. We will sustain you. And you will become a better person.”

...

Anterograde amnesia. It means you can't create new memories, but you can recall long-term ones. Total digital memory, as recorded by glasses and lenses and other sensors, was one of the most potent weapons against it. For the first time, sufferers could retrieve episodic memories at will. It wasn't a cure, but it was the best solution until advanced laces.

It's tempting to think that digital memories are permanent. Most services have multiply-redundant backups stored in at least two distinct physical sites, protected by military-grade encryption. They can only be accessed with three-factor authentication. The law protects them, and they are as sacrosanct as our very lives.

But they can still be deleted.

...

"I can't face seeing him. He really doesn’t recognise me. Of course I can't ask him to leave. He hasn't done anything wrong, after all. So that means I have to leave. This town is too small and we’ll keep running into each other," he says. His house is being emptied by movers; everything will be packed up and gone in just one hour.

"It used to be different when you had to do this by hand. You'd hold your past in your hands, pack it in a box, carry it down the stairs and into a truck. Now everything is just so weightless. There isn't even a handful of dust left at the end."

The movers finish and roll silently off to their next job. We walk through the rooms of the house, pausing in his son's bedroom. On the wall by his desk is a small drawing of a hand, with his name scrawled next to it. His father touches it and then walks away.

"He really doesn't remember anything. After he wiped his memories, that was it. The scientists said something about long-term potentiation, that maybe he would still recall something of me. I like to think that he remembers, that when he sees me in a shop or in the park, he pauses. But I'm probably just imagining it, like a fool."

I think he's right.

...

Her lawyer looks composed, but you can tell she's on edge. Anyone would be.

The father speaks. "I don't want you to do this any more. You shouldn't ever be able to hurt people like this again. I know you didn't mean it. You're not an evil person. I don't care about jail or fines or anything like that. But you can't do this any more."

Stephanie looks like she's going to be sick. "I'll do anything you ask," she says. "I'll go away forever and you'll never see me again. But this is what I do, I can't change that. I have 10,000 people who follow me. I have to give them guidance. I'm sorry. I really am. But I can't change who I am."

"You changed my son. You can change yourself."

"I can help people."

"You've helped enough."