The Blessing and Burden of Methuselah

09-Jan-08 4:17 PM by
Filed under Films, Star Trek; Comments Off on The Blessing and Burden of Methuselah

They say the mind is the first thing to go — yet it's a part of the organ we understand, and are able to replace, the least.

Now, Dr. Gordon Bell intends to bring Harry Potter's pensieve to life by developing a way to duplicate the memories of the human mind as easily as any other storage device. Via Slashdot, Fox News asks, "What if you could capture every waking moment of your entire life, store it on your computer and then recall digital snapshots of everything you've seen and heard with just a quick search?" A query meant to excite — or scare?

This is more a science and human interest story than a cinematic one, but consider how many films deal with cybernetic transplantation of humanity. Recreating the essence of man through artificial means is at the core of films such as Blade Runner and episodes of Star Trek like "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" in The Original Series and "Schizoid Man" in The Next Generation (in contrast to Bicentennial Man, which is about a robot becoming human). These fictions embody a very real fear of death and a desire to live on after the failure of the organic body.

But at what price immortality? Besides ethical and spiritual dilemmas, there are also legal and privacy issues inherent in such permanent records. Consider the low-tech solution currently employed by the inventor cited above: "Bell wears a SenseCam, developed by Microsoft Research, that takes pictures whenever it detects he may want a photograph. The camera's infrared sensor picks up on body heat and takes snapshots of anyone else in the room, adjusting itself as available light changes." How would you like to be in that room with Mr. Bell, knowing he was playing Big Brother?

There's a film that employs uses a similarly problematic technique for recording human experience: Robin Williams' The Final Cut. In this movie's world, parents have the option of having their unborn child implanted with an EyeTech Zoe chip. This chip piggybacks on its host's senses to create a visual and aural record of its carrier's experiences. This chip is extracted upon death; someone with the profession of "cutter" then uses this footage to create a 90-minute "Rememory", a montage of experiences by which the living can remember the deceased. A cutter is bound by only three rules: he cannot sell Zoe footage; he cannot mix footage from different Zoe implants for a rememory; and a cutter cannot himself have a Zoe implant.

I stumbled across this film two years ago, roughly at the same time I was given an open-ended assignment to "write something academic about something cinematic." At the time, I had also been reading plenty of Star Trek novels, and the intersection of the two media begged for comparison and contrast. I put two different implants — the Zoe chip and a Trill symbiont — under the microscope and came up with a 2,000-word paper entitled "Preservation of Memory as a Means of Immortality: A Science Fictional Approach".

Though the professors evaluated the essay favorably, neither were familiar with the background material. I've yet to find to find someone who is and can thus evaluate my work from that perspective. If you're a Trekkie who's seen The Final Cut and are interesting in reading the implications of each medium's method of providing permanent mental capacity, please drop me a note.

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