A short story excerpted from my book, A New History of the Future in 100 Objects (MIT Press, 2020).
New York, US, 2055
An account from the inventor of Superzoom:
Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. Isn’t that what Don Draper said in Mad Men? Don’t tell me, the truth won’t measure up to how I remember it.
The truth is we remember too much nowadays. There’s no room for Rashomon when cameras are watching from every corner. We only need to blink and we can see the past as it really happened. Every joke that fell flat, every stumble, every roll of the eyes, it’s there in our permanent record. And don’t even try erasing your records, because there was another camera just over your shoulder.
But for those of a certain age, we remember when we couldn’t remember. In the small years of the 21st century, you could go for minutes, even hours, without making the faintest mark in digital records. It was perfectly normal to have simply forgotten a meeting or an obligation. Imagine that! The downside was that you would forget the peaks as often as the troughs, and with only your imagination to hand, those peaks would be eternally shrouded in fog.
Let’s imagine that your heart’s desire is to pierce that fog. You wait for the perfect moment on a clear day, you unpack an expensive camera with a powerful telephoto lens mounted atop a sturdy tripod, and you step back very carefully. The camera opens and closes its shutter, and you have the very best photo you can take of your peak – a peak that, yes, is a pinch sharper, a touch more detailed than you first remembered, but still dispiritingly grey and misty.
So you load the photo into image editing software and you click (because that is what we did in those days, clicked) a button labelled “Enhance”. If I asked you how this button worked, you might bluster something about “artificial intelligence” or “content-aware fills” but if you ever did know, you honestly can’t remember now. Your answer is very different when I ask what this button does, because its results are very clear: it strips back the fog to reveal crags and cliffs and sprays of ice and snow that were once obscured. It makes the photo look better. It is full of detail.
If you were to travel back to that peak on a day so bright and hot that the fog has burned away entirely – and why would you, because now you have a very fine, fully-enhanced photo – and you were to compare that photo to what you could see with your own eyes, you would be shocked. Reality is different from your photo! The overall shape of the peak is the same, absolutely, and so are the gross details like the ridges and cornices, but the smaller crags and ridges and trees in your photo, they’re nowhere to be seen.
Except you never revisit that peak. You can’t. You just keep the photo, a photo that teeters on the precipice between real and invented, but as far as you know or care, a photo that is perfect, and perfectly real. Just like you remembered it.
What really happened when you clicked that button? How were the details filled in? It’s quite simple. The software compared your photo’s features to others it had seen before, and it found a match with other peak-like features. It then filled in the fog with a hybrid of those peak-like features, not unlike the reverse forensic linguistics developed in the forties. It would be unfair to dismiss this as fakery. We can instead say it is controlled hallucination.
Just as we can hallucinate the details of a fog-shrouded peak, we can hallucinate events of the past. We do this all the time in our heads, of course. Who hasn’t mixed up their friends’ favourite movies or books, or remembered something than never happened? What I invented is a way to do this outside of our heads. It takes all the data you can supply, from your lace and other public and private sources, and it reconstructs any memories you wish to see more clearly.
That first wonderful dinner with your partner: you might remember the restaurant and the date. You have a vague recollection of what you spoke about and what you were wearing. But you want to see it again. So I look at the features of your memories, I compare them to your more complete memories and to the records and memories of similar people in similar situations. Then I use controlled hallucination to clothe you, to fill your plates, to choose the music, to scent the air. It’s not real, but it could be real. That witty line I imagine you said when your partner sat down – even if you didn’t say it, you should have said it.
The more you want to see, the more I will provide. There is no limit to how far you can zoom in. If you find contradictory data, who cares? I can incorporate that into the hallucination, if it helps. Or maybe you prefer what I’ve remembered for you.
Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. I made something better.
Photo by Guillaume Bourdages on Unsplash