10 min read

The Terrible Permanence of Technological Memory

Is redemption possible in a world where the machine never forgets?
The Green Knight movie, the poem "Gawain and the Green Knight," and the video game Red Dead Redmption.
What do The Green Knight and Red Dead Redemption have in common? Both question whether redemption, mercy, and forgiveness are possible in a world where nothing is forgotten. Images from wikimedia commons and picryl.

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory the past few years.

It started probably after reading Augustine’s Confessions a few years ago, specifically the famous sections about memory towards the end of the book. I had this in mind while watching the excellent TV show Severance (highly recommended, also focused on memory/identity) and even wrote an article for Plough Quarterly about it.

And, of course, memory features prominently in Gene Wolfe’s work. In The Book of the New Sun, Severian remembers everything (allegedly). “It is my nature, my joy and my curse,” he says, “to forget nothing.”

The reverse is the case in Wolfe’s Latro novels, where the eponymous main character can’t remember anything, a case of anterograde amnesia rather like in the movie Memento.

In each of these stories, memory is rather organic and individualized. Latro and the characters in Severance forget everything. Severian remembers everything. Augustine, a more normal person, is like the rest of us—remembers some and forgets some too.

Technological memory, on the other hand, is vastly different.

We fall prey, often, to viewing computers as thinking machines. Our language reflects our misattribution of agency and interiority to them: hard drive memory, random access memory, and so on. They don’t remember anything, strictly speaking, but they do, however, record everything. And in our tech-besotted world, digitized, computerized memory is a real and omnipresent thing: actions and words on social media, personal emails hosted on some cloud server, even save files for video games, are all permanently etched into the vast digital empyrean. In the land of 1’s and 0’s, nothing is forgotten.

It seems to me that we’re only beginning to reckon with what it is like for human culture to exist in a world where everything is recorded and preserved in some capacity. What does this mean for personal change, growth, or—if needed—redemption?

Gawain and The Green Knight

Title image for the A24 film The Green Knight
Title image for The Green Knight. Image from wikimedia commons.

The A24 movie The Green Knight offers a thought experiment on the way sin and redemption might work (or not work) in a society with permanent memory. It revised the original poem “Gawain and the Green Knight” in tone, but more notoriously it made the ending of the story rather ambiguous.

In the movie and the poem, the Green Knight visits the round table and offers himself up for a blow from a blade, under the condition that a year hence he will return the same blow to the one who strikes him. Impetuously, Gawain swipes his head clean off, only to recoil in horror when the Green Knight rises, picks up his own head, and rides off into the sunset with the ominous promise that in one year he will repay such violence in kind.

In the poem, Gawain is a confident and knightly persona already, but commits an act of grave cowardice at the end, secretly wearing a green sash that will protect him from all harm. When he reaches the Green Knight and confronts him, the resulting blow simply nicks his neck. The Green Knight pronounces that satisfaction has been met, and says Gawain is faultless.

Only then does Gawain shamefully reveal that he gamed the system and cheated. But the Green Knight simply laughs it off and says, “Thou hast made such free confession of thy misdeeds, and hast so borne the penance of mine axe edge, that I hold thee absolved from that sin, and purged as clean as if thou hadst never sinned since thou wast born.”

Confessing his cowardice, Gawain is granted forgiveness from the Green Knight. And Gawain is free to return to Camelot, though he always wears the sash as a reminder of his failure: “if it hath clung to thee once, it may never be severed.” Forgiveness does not mean that there aren’t still consequences and reminders of the original transgression.

Gawain tempted by the Lady, from "Gawain and the Green Knight."
Gawain tempted by the Lady. Image from picryl.

In the movie, things are a little different. It is overall an excellent adaptation and was strikingly filmed, with rich colors and a startling center-on cinematography where many of the scenes featured a character standing directly in the middle of the screen, almost like a kind of warped, medieval Wes Anderson film.

Gawain, in this version, is a rank coward who is largely pathetic, and is (importantly) extremely inhospitable to pretty much everyone he encounters. But just as in the poem, he eventually acquires the green sash that will protect him from the Green Knight. And as he meets the Knight he offers up his head knowing that he cannot be harmed while he wears it.

However, in a presentiment of his future, he sees just how dismal such a life purchased by deceit will be. At the last moment, as the Green Knight readies the axe, Gawain reveals that he is wearing the sash and throws it to the ground. The Green Knight says “well done,” and smiles, telling him (in the very last line of the movie), “Off with your head.”

Such an open-ended final line could go two ways. Perhaps, just like in the poem, the Green Knight is releasing Gawain after he finally proved his courage. It could be that he said, “Off, with your head.”

But, just as plausibly, it could be that this is really the end of the line for Gawain. That, regardless of how he has matured, and however much he truly regrets the thoughtless cruelty of his crime, the only solution is an eye for an eye, and he really, truly, must lose his head as the only possible recompense for his sins. It might be that, no matter what, his crime cannot be forgotten.

The film seems to me to be pondering whether forgiveness, redemption, and transformation can exist in a world where nothing can be forgotten. In the poem, Gawain must always wear the green sash to remind himself of his sins—but it also reminds him of his salvation. In the movie, he throws it to the ground like so much trash. And, perhaps, it is his sin, not his sash, that “if it hath clung to thee once, it may never be severed.”

What changes in a culture—in its social expectations, even its religious psychology—when it becomes a world of permanent records and eternally encoded digital memories?

Red Dead Redemption and Technological Memory

Title image for Rockstar Games' Red Dead Redemption
Title image for Rockstar Games' Red Dead Redemption. Image from flickr.

To pivot rather drastically, though to a story that is more obviously and directly about technology, I turn to the video game Red Dead Redemption (the original, released in 2010).

The game is a western, set in the very early 20th century. The protagonist is a reformed criminal named John Marston. Formerly, he rode with a gang. After attempting to leave his criminal life behind and go straight, his wife and son are apprehended by the government and held ransom—the only way he can get them back is to hunt down and kill his former gang members.

While the story starts off in the far frontier, in a small town called Armadillo, it becomes increasingly apparent that the world is simply not as big as it used to be. The more Marston explores, the closer he realizes he is to civilization (or, perhaps, as Melville called it, “Snivelization”). One finds railroad tracks and telegraph wires linking coast to coast.

At one point, Marston comes across the Marshall of Armadillo attempting to use a telephone, a new piece of technology he’d never seen before. “Sounds fun,” he remarks dryly. And when the Marshall fails, he remarks that “they’ll send someone” if it’s important. “Suddenly the world is full of ‘theys’,” quips Marston.

“I remember when we first got here,” says the Marshall, “we used to consider people from Dade County to be exotic. Now guys can get here from the Midwest. And they can do it in six days.”

“Things have changed,” remarks Marston.

“I don’t understand it no more, boy, honest to goodness,” says the Marshall.

As the player progresses through the story, Marston tracks his former gang members through the west, into Mexico, and even back to the Midwest. Eventually, the lawman who’s been controlling him the whole time, Edgar Ross, orders Marston to kill his old mentor and leader, Dutch van der Linde. When he finally does, confronting him on a mountaintop, Dutch tells him, “Our time has passed.”

Marston is reunited with his family and spends a few idyllic months with them. But, in this new world, where things have changed, memory is permanent. In the final, gut-wrenching scenes, Ross arrives at the Marston home with an army of lawmen and, knowing he has no way out, Marston is killed while buying time for his wife and son to escape.

There is no real escape from one’s past, and so no real redemption.

Every Idle Word

closeup photo of cutout decors
Photo by Raphael Schaller / Unsplash

The poet Malcolm Guite has an especially keen poem on this topic. “What If” is intentionally unsettling. It was inspired, he remarks in a video, from one of the least quoted sayings from Jesus: “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.” It reads:

What if every word we say
Never ends or fades away,
Gathers volume gathers weigh,
Drums and dins us with dismay
Surges on some dreadful day
When we cannot get away
Whelms us till we drown?
What if not a word is lost,
What if every word we cast
Cruel, cunning, cold, accurst,
Every word we cut and paste
Echoes to us from the past
Fares and finds us first and last
Haunts and hunts us down?

One of the stanzas even remarks on the technological permanence of idle utterances and thoughtless words.

What if every murmuration,
Every otiose oration
Every oath and imprecation,
Insidious insinuation,
Every blogger’s aberration,
Every facebook fabrication
Every twittered titivation,
Unexamined asservation
Idiotic iteration,
Every facile explanation,
Drags us to the ground?

You can hear the whole thing read (with some differences) here:

What if nothing is forgotten? What if every word is permanently recorded? What if sin is never blotted out?

Now, there is a way in which this is an obviously good thing. An increasingly permanent memory record can make it so truly reprehensible people, monstrous individuals, cannot as easily hide their past (or present) cruelties and abuses. That should be celebrated. “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).

But this isn’t, I think, the point that Guite, The Green Knight, or Red Dead are trying to investigate. Rather, they are more concerned with the idea that ordinary, mundane, even stupid things might never be forgotten. Idle utterances, thoughtless words we wish we could immediately take back, casual biases we didn’t realize we had and then later regretted. What if all these things are recorded? What if they’re never forgotten either?

For Augustine, the paradox of memory was that it made you who you are, but it also made it difficult if not impossible to change. He would always remember who he was before his baptism.

Memory makes true moral progress hard.

However, there is always, along with this, the religious promise within Christianity was that even though there are consequences that will not go away (IE, the green sash), there is nevertheless a divine promise to “forget” our misdeeds.

King Hezekiah, for instance, says, “thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption: for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back” (Isaiah 38:17).

In the same book, God says, “I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.” (43:25).

Poetically, in Psalms, “As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us.” (103:12).

Such liberation from memory could prove salvific, redemptive.

But in our modern, technological age, the gap between the east and west has been diminished if not completely eradicated. We live in a global world, a planet-spanning mechanized culture. The figurative east and west are one, not separate. So, too, are the past and present fused in an eternal Now. Every post and pic and pithy comment memorialized far longer than we ever thought.

This is, I think, the conclusion of Red Dead’s meditation on technology, memory and redemption. The world got too small. The Green Knight posited whether mercy and change is possible, Red Dead suggests it might not be.

Your past is your present, because it’s always there. The transcendent God might deliberately forget, but the machine god never can. It needs everything to be permanent—for training data.

The Machine God Never Forgets

There is a fascinating questline in Red Dead in which John Marston meets—three times—an enigmatic figure called only The Strange Man. He knows who John is, but John claims he can’t remember him.

The Strange Man remarks on John’s past wrongs, and depending on the players actions, questions his morality in the present.

“I’ll let the appropriate authorities judge my morality, friend,” says John angrily.

“Yes, you will, and they shall,” says the Strange Man.

Towards the end of the game, he appears at the very spot in which John will eventually be buried. John demands again to know who he is, and the Strange Man says, “I’m an accountant…in a way.”  

Enraged, John threatens him and says that he can’t be “held responsible for his actions.” But the Strange Man is unfazed, “Oh, but you will. You will be responsible.”

There are several theories as to who the Strange Man is. One is that he is God. Another, the Devil. Perhaps he is the personification of Death. Or he is Cain—the first murderer, condemned to walk the Earth for all time.

But I wonder if, in addition to these options, he is also the machine god, the omnipresent digital accountant that keeps track of everything and from which no one can escape. John can’t. The Strange Man looks to John’s future gravesite and says, “This is a fine spot.”

In the face of such memory, one can only hope that forgiving forgetfulness is still possible. An apocalyptic promise that might be the only way out. As Guite concludes:

Better that some words be lost,
Better that they should not last,
Tongues of fire and violence.
O Word through whom the world is blessed,
Word in whom all words are graced,
Do not bring us to the test,
Give our clamant voices rest,
And the rest is silence.

But while, religiously speaking, this is a possibility (devoutly to be wished); in the land of the machine god it might not be. It simply is. It has no real memory, no personal agency. It is only data. And it lasts forever. It cannot be escaped, and it has only one outcome.

“This is a fine spot.”

John Marston's Grave in Red Dead Redemption.
John Marston's Grave in Red Dead Redemption. "Blessed are the Peacemakers."