The Tyranny of Perfect Recall
There’s something unsettling about Timehop, Facebook Memories and their ilk (besides the mining of personal data for their profit, under the auspices of “caring about” the content you share on their platforms). Our own memories fade in time. Clarity is lost through the act of remembering, something we now understand less as taking well-preserved snippets of the past off of a shelf and instead as a continual, active reconstruction of the past. The digital era, meanwhile, allows us that mythical ability to recall — at least a version — of our memories with hitherto-unforseen precision. Recently I stumbled across a LiveJournal account which had lain dormant since I was a teenager. Skimming through the blog posts brought on the natural embarssment of being faced with 15-year-old angst and ignorance, but also an eeriness. It was as if this adolescent version of myself still existed, a spectre given some (digital) materiality through this archive. Unlike my own memories of that period, the passage of time had not degraded these posts. Elements had not been lost. Nothing had been forgotten.
The 1972 television play The Stone Tape follows an electronic company’s “Pure Research Division” as they attempt to perfect recording technology. At the time of its broadcast, the most sophisticated format was magnetic tape. As one of the Ryan Electrics employees notes, tape is “delicate and prone to lose its memory.” They’ve already attempted something more robust in the form of the evocatively-named “digital crystal,” something which perhaps foreshadows the developments in recording and archiving which has followed in the decades since the play was broadcast. Douwe Draaisma writes in his book Metaphors of Memory about how we understand our powers of recall through the metaphor of the recording apparatus of the day. This means that, for the most part, we could rest assured that any recording technology would degrade the way our own memories do. Books are lost. Ink fades. Things burn. Vinyl scratches and scuffs, leaving permanent distortion, pops and crackles. Tape decays until it becomes unplayable. Drop a magnet on a floppy disk and their contents will be wiped. All of these mediums — and CDs and hard drives and USB sticks along with them — can also just be simply smashed into pieces.
The digital era offers us the power of perfect recall, with the decentralised archive of The Cloud ensuring all our data exists in a format as ephemeral as our memories, but with perfect recall, anywhere, at any time. The transicence of memory is transferred to the materiality of hard drives, media and lines of code. An article from an 1877 edition of Scientific American, cited by Jussi Parikka in her book What Is Media Archaeology?, suggested that “by making ‘speech immortal’…fragments of people in terms of voices and images were having an afterlife now through storage media such as the phonograph: ‘A strip of indented paper travels through a little machine, the sounds of the latter are magnified, and our great grandchildren or posterity centuries hence hear us plainly as if we were present.’” If memories never die, do people?
Written by Nigel Kneale and directed by Peter Sasdy, The Stone Tape was produced for the BBC’s annual “A Ghost Story for Christmas” strand. As such, the Ryan Electrics R&D department make their breakthrough thanks to a haunted house. The play opens with the company moving into Taskerlands, an old country manor which has been (mostly) renovated according to their needs. The one exception is a room the builders refused to touch. Head of the Pure Research team, Michael Bryant’s Brock, is initially furious that work has not started on renovating the space into a computer lab for Jane Asher’s Jill. That is, until his employee/extramarital lover tips them off to a haunting centred on a stone staircase in the corner of the room.
After some fiddling about with expensive, delightfully seventies high-tech equipment, the team surmise that the apparition — a woman in 19th century dress running up the stairs, turning, and letting out a blood-curdling scream — is not a ghost in the traditional sense. It is in fact a recording of an event that appears to be played back from the ancient Saxon walls that provide the house its foundation. Brock draws a parallel between the stone and the way in which magnetic tape makes use of natural minerals to record sound. Unlike traditional tape, however, this format can play back the traumatic event with perfect clarity, over a century after it was recorded.
The recording is a scientific breakthrough to Brock and most of his team, but a more disquieting discovery for other members of The Stone Tape’s cast. After meeting a local landowner, Alan, who used to play in the long-abandoned Taskerlands as a child, Brock and Jane invite him to the room. Almost immediately he has dropped to the floor in hysterics, eyes bulging in horror and tears running down his cheeks. After calming down, he recounts a memory of locking a friend, “Old Jackie,” in the room during their childhood excursions into Taskerlands. Forcing him to stand in the space and relive the experience unlocks a previously-supressed tidal wave of guilt, a remembrance best left undisturbed.
The fallibility and imperfections of our own memory is, to a certain extent, by design. It acts as a self-defence mechanism when it comes to traumatic, painful, or shameful memories. Psychology have identified a tendency for autobiographical memory to centre ourselves as the protagonist in any given situation. This surety allows us to carry on without, as during Alan’s reckoning with his part in childhood bullying, collapsing consistently in hysterics. But those who suffer from anxiety, depression or intrusive thoughts may find it harder to get out of bed in the morning, to get to sleep at night, to act at all with the unwanted resurgence of intrusive thoughts.
What to make, then, of a recording medium which does allow for perfect recall? For Jane especially, the discovery of the titular Stone Tape brings up distburing questions of never-ending loneliness and suffering. She tells Brock she is not frightened by the ghost, but profoundly distressed at the thought that the apparition may hold onto some level of consciousness. “It’s the thought of it,” she says. “Of there being nothing left of you, but just enough to repeat the worst moment of your life over and over again…It’s horrible. But it’s better than knowing. I couldn’t bear it if she knew…To be so alone…”
The new occupants of Taskerlands themselves exhibit behaviours which would do best to be consigned to the dust heap of history, and are difficult to watch in the present day. There’s the casual chauvinism and sexism directed at Jill, whether it’s Brock’s treatment of her as hysterical, Collinson’s suggestion she is especially “sensitive” to the house’s paranormal phenomenon, or the sexual harassment from her colleagues. Brock also jokes that the apparition is running and screaming from the long-dead founder of the house “trying to pinch her bum”. Then there’s the equally un-PC racism of the Ryan Electrics staff when referring to their business competitors in the East (“the Japs”) and the barmaid at nearby the pub who talks about a “coloured” boy who used to hang around Taskerlands and “had all these funny words.”
In Nigel Kneale’s previous BBC serial Quatermass and the Pit, the exhumation of Martian skeletons in the London Underground reveals an uncomfortable connection between human and extraterrestrial evolution that would otherwise have died with the aliens.
Throughout The Stone Tape, there’s the recurring notion that the past is better off not only forgotten, but buried and never touched. This is something it has in common with the stories of M.R. James, which provided material for the majority of the “Ghost Story for Christmas” series. If the past is allowed to be something more than a faded memory, if it achieves a physical form or some level of materiality, the protagonist is in real trouble. Indeed, Taskerlands housemaster Collinson insists Ryan Electrics would be better off tearing the building down and starting afresh, an attempt to strip the past traumas of the place of their materiality.
There are moments where the imperfections of human memory almost save the team from their eventual fate, when the physical remnants of the past are of no use, or absent. A visit to a local vicar to peruse the parish records is a particularly amusing moment, as his archive is in horrendous disarray and his own memory appears to be failing him. He is prone to disgression and forgetfulness, even mid-sentence, going off on tangents about pollution and prayer books. “I feel I’m obsolete,” he says by way of apology for offering little concrete about the history of Taskerlands, before adding: “but not sinful.”
We have multiple examples of times when the memory of the internet, which never forgets, has ruined lives, lost people their jobs, and so on. In 2013, the UK’s first youth police and crime commissioner resigned after racist and homophobic tweets she made between the ages of 14 and 16 were dredged up; since then, we’ve witnessed similar stories everywhere from football to Hollywood. On a more personal level, there is the uncanny ability of social media algorithms to kick you when you’re down, offering to reconnect you with romantic partners you have long since parted from, because you have mutual friends in common on the platform. Scrolling back far enough through your Facebook or Instagram lets you pore over posts and images featuring deceased or otherwise lost friends, pets, lovers, or periods of your life, recorded with all the clarity of a 12-megapixel phone camera.
It is unnatural to be able to recall past events this well. Inhuman, even. So it follows that the eventual conclusion of The Stone Tape sees the Ryan Electrics team, whom Brock reckons has “an exact grip on [the] thing, this clarity,” accidentally “erasing” the recording of the doomed maid in their attempts to harness it for commercial gain. In doing so, they reveal a much older, more malevolent and less easily graspable apparition that presumably dates to the Saxon era of the stone; or perhaps even further. The constant replaying of the maid’s last moments were already emotionally intense enough to have disturbed Jane, the landlord and multiple members of the team (as well as the audience, who also have to endure the wonderfully-designed and genuinely terrifying blood-curdling scream played over and over again), as past trauma which is difficult to bear in such clarity.
By insisting on the stone’s power as a recording device, the Pure Research team eventually afford the past enough of a physical presence that it causes Jane to fall to her death, in a reconstruction of the maid’s untimely demise in the past. Past and present come into terrible confluence, the tragedy of the 19th century happening again exactly the same in the contemporary world; a LiveJournal entry looks just the same now as it did when it was written a decade ago; jpegs of ex-partners don’t fade; statuses shared by now-dead friends and relatives will arrive in your Facebook Memories, tricking you into thinking there is a material presence behind them, that they’re still around.