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Technology and its Effect on Identity, Self, Past, and Memories

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With the debate on the emerging technology of AI raging, it is no surprise that people have taken sides. After all, technology like this has the power to change lives for better or worse. This paper will explore how technology can alter lives by using two works. Frances Stonor Saunders’ essay “Where on Earth are You” is entirely non-fictional, while Rana Dasgupta’s short story “The Memory Editor” is science fiction. The two are altogether different literary narratives. However, they both share an essential concern. That concern is how technology in the 21st century threatens an individual's identity, sense of self, past, and, therefore, memories. Both literary narratives share concerns about the governments and corporations that willfully use this technology on individuals who do not realize that they are being controlled, profited from, and even categorized as essential or less critical. The technology alone is harmless; it is the individuals who abuse the technology that others should worry about. 

In Saunders' essay, technology comes in many forms. There are passports, credit cards, and even biometrics. Biometrics include "personal information, behavioral traits, and unique physiological characteristics such as DNA, blood group, fingerprints, facial geometry, iris features, dorsal vein patterns" (Saunders 5). Saunders says that biometrics aims to "reformulate identity as collectible, readable, exploitable data" (5).

Interestingly enough, this is what the company, MyPast, that Thomas works for does precisely in Dasgupta's story. They exploited humanity's loss of their memories for profit. While memory is not considered biometrics, it can affect physiological characteristics such as your signature and behavioral traits. This can be seen in Dasgupta's short story about Thomas' father. A once accomplished and talented individual, Thomas' father (Dasgupta 16) turned manic and poiseless without his memories (26). In this case, his father lost everything; his identity, sense of self, and past, all because he lost his memories. As Saunders would put it, he went from being "fat with identity" to a "lack of identity" (4). In "The Memory Editor," the private company MyPast was not the only entity involved in exploiting and profiting from humanity. Various intelligence agencies worldwide, such as the CIA and MI6, were interested (Dasgupta 20), and MyPast was formed from this think tank. This section indicates that governments were involved in exploiting their people for profit and cared nothing about protecting them.

Further proof that governments were involved comes from the line, "Frantic phone calls raced between the MyPast offices in London and Washington" (25). London and Washington are not only the capitals of England and the United States, respectively, but also their governments' seats of power. When selling memories no longer became profitable, they abandoned the venture without culpability. Instead of initially trying to protect their citizens, the governments wanted to control, exploit their fears, and profit from them but lost their means when memories returned. 

This process of governments exploiting, controlling, and profiting from their citizens' fears and using technology is not only found in science fiction. Especially after 9/11, various technologies are used to prey on their citizens' fears rather than to protect them truly. In her essay, Saunders talks about an independent security researcher Evan Booth who proved that it was possible to "build lethal weapons using only items for sale at the shops beyond security checkpoints" (Saunders 8). So now, the question that must be asked is, "What is the point of these high-tech security checkpoints if they cannot do as advertised and truly protect us?"

Simply put, they are a way the government can say they are protecting us and for the corporations to profit. In reality, these high-tech checkpoints do a poor job. It instead serves as one border in a tangle of many that exist to not only control biometric subjects with verified selves but also as another hurdle to exclude those considered biodegradable subjects with migrant identities. Biometric subjects with verified selves are people whose identities are available at all times, and they have a variety of documents, such as passports and driver's licenses, that can be used to identify said subject when needed. Biodegradable subjects do not always have migrant identities, but migrants are almost always considered biodegradable subjects. These people do not have the necessary documents or biometrics to identify them and are considered just another statistic, whether alive (migrating somewhere else or a refugee) or dead.    

They mostly have to start again from scratch and rebuild their identities and sense of self. Starting over again is often hard for them because technology is used against them. A visa to the United States becomes an "intrusive contrivance" (Saunders 8). Everything that you are and own is put under scrutiny. The slightest mistake on your visa form can result in a denial. Even when someone is accepted, they have to leave their past behind as it no longer fits into this new world they have the chance to be a part of.

Furthermore, applying for citizenship requires staying in the United States for several years. This rule additionally causes more separation from the subject and their past, memories, and identities. They are essentially killing who they used to be for the chance to become an entirely different person. The biodegradable subjects consent to have every part of themselves scrutinized, and their biometrics, such as fingerprints, are entered into a system where they can be monitored. Eventually, they will cease to be biodegradable subjects and become biometric ones with an entirely new identity and sense of self.

Saunders and Dasgupta both approached the severe concern of how technology can affect our identities in different narratives. Nevertheless, they both believed governments and corporations could use technology to exploit humanity for profit and control. This control and profit can present themselves in many ways, both subtle such as collecting data from your Apple Watch (Saunders 4), and blatant, such as how we are screened at airports (9). However, despite knowing this, most humans still follow along, always hoping for a better life. 

Edited by: Whitney Edna Ibe


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