Author Topic: On the need for (not) changing memories  (Read 2978 times)

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Sun

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On the need for (not) changing memories
« on: February 03, 2018, 04:34:39 AM »
Warning: Rambling thoughts ahead, if you have no patience for that, just read the last line.

When playing FP, it felt like a lot of the things happening were the result of Reives pondering deeply on the loads of negative feedback people gave for TTM's actual changing of Johnny's memories.
To summarize this criticism, people said that in his newly created memory, Johnny was no longer with the real River, but a fake version of her, and that he threw away the good real-life memories the two had together. And that that soured up the taste of the story.
It made sense in that while Johnny and River had had their misunderstandings, we learnt that in the end, they did love each other. And of course this memory involved two people, so it must have felt unfair that real River would be replaced by someone who was just an approximation.

Enter Colin who wants nothing really changed but a few undefined regrets that, in the end, turn out to come from him re-evaluating his life after having heard of Sigmund's service. All he really needs is to forget about the idea of memory change and to embrace what he already has. Sounds like a concept that the above critics should be happy with, and it's one that is generally true for real life - you can't change the past, so you better take it as it is, warts and all. Yes, I'm oversimplifying things; Colin's lesson was more along the lines of "Learn to see all the good there was, and embrace that; don't get bogged down by the few bad things there were".

And it bugs me a bit because this is not the only story to repeat that things are best left as they are, that status quo is the very best. Don't get me wrong - in Colin's case it was mostly true, and I did enjoy the story a lot.
But as a general concept, I'm doubtful. Sometimes, change is for the best. I hate it when people say that because everything that happened made you who you are, you mustn't try and change it because then you'd no longer be yourself. Who says that one's better off being this exact result of a chain of events - like, what if your past has played a role in making you a bitter, nasty jerk? Or if it has left you with wounds? In my life, a few not that great things have happened, and they didn't make me stronger, they just left me scarred. Would it be that bad to be able and replace them with happier experiences?
The whole argumentation of "everything that happened was good for you in the end, don't change it" falls down when it wasn't good in the end. Now, obviously, in our world, we cannot Sigmund our way out of an unpleasant past; we do have to learn to make peace with it and try to find some good way to deal with it. But if we had that power, well ... once again, why would it be bad to change things?
The argument that that would make you a different person and you're no longer you, that's harder to counter. But still ... so? In the end, any way a Sigmund patient would react to a happier life would come from themselves, from who they are deep down. Their potential new personalities would still be them, only them in a different course of events. I mean, they wouldn't be replaced by doppelgangers, it would still be them experiencing and reacting to everything. So any change would be "them", too. Just without scars.

So, in the end, my question is: Is it possible to have a Sigmund patient whose new life is very different from their old one, and where that's a good thing?

(Edit: Now I got just the idea for a fanfic on that concept, lol. If I wrote fanfics, that is.)
« Last Edit: February 03, 2018, 12:33:46 PM by Sun »

Duodecim

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Re: On the need for (not) changing memories
« Reply #1 on: February 04, 2018, 01:34:04 PM »
So for this, I think there are 3 thematic questions that the story tackles, that are related but don't always have the same answers:
    1a. Should we live in a fantasy or engage with reality and put in the work needed to live our lives?
    1b. Should we keep thinking about our past regrets and about how we wish things could have gone, or make peace with them and move on with life?
    2. If we could, should we change our last memories so that we remember a different life than what we actually had (i.e. via Sigmund), or should we leave them alone?

I think that in trying to answer these questions, the story is a bit more nuanced than "you should always accept the status quo, because it's the best":
  • Question 1a: the story obviously leans towards engaging with reality rather than fantasizing; young!Colin needed to let Faye (his most important fantasy) go before he could truly live his life to the fullest.
  • Question 1b: this is closely related to 1a, but it applies to the past rather than the present. The story again makes the point that continuing to obsess over past regrets makes you unhappy, which is what happened to Colin.
  • Question 2: I think the story leaves this question largely unresolved, at least in this episode. It's easy to think that the story is saying "you shouldn't ever change your memories, your past experiences are always for the best", because Colin says something like this at the end, but he's only saying this with regards to what actually happened in his own life, rather than some sort of hypothetical about everyone's life, and he did live a pretty good life overall. For Sigmund patients as a whole, though, I feel like the story really doesn't say much about whether it's actually right for them to make the memory change at the end or not.

The distinction between 1b and 2 is critical, I think. Colin's main problem wasn't that he made use of Sigmund; it was that because of Sigmund's existence, he kept obsessing over his past regrets, making him miserable in the last years his life; this would have been true regardless of whether he actually signed up for Sigmund or not. So I think the theme for FP is not so much "you should always accept the status quo" but more "obsessing over your past regrets will make you miserable in the present". I completely agree that the former statement would be pretty silly in cases of actual, bad things that diminish us; however, the latter one does apply pretty broadly, especially for those bad things. Even in a world where Sigmund is possible, we couldn't actually change the past - just our memories of it in the out last moments; before we get to those last moments, it's still better to not be miserable and regretful.

So then, is it possible to simultaneously make use of Sigmund, but not get pulled into a regretful spiral as a result of it? I have to think that it is possible for some patients at least, even though for Colin it clearly wasn't. If a patient has made peace with their life already, and just sees Sigmund as a way at the very end to get a glimpse into a different world, then that's got to be okay, right? But it probably requires some mental discipline and a particular type of mind to not let that other possibility infect one's thoughts in the years leading up to the end.
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EatingToastYay

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Re: On the need for (not) changing memories
« Reply #2 on: February 04, 2018, 07:24:17 PM »
Ahh my brain isn't exactly working right now, but I think both Johnny and Colin are individual cases that don't always apply to each other. John had an okay life except when it came to the beginning and the end, plus his hardships with River; he even says it "himself" speaking to the doctors when he meets them. What he wanted was something totally out of the realm of normal possibility, so he needed Sigmund Corp if he wanted to realize it. Colin had a good life, all things considered, but was notoriously withdrawn for the first half of his life and pessimistic for part of the last half. He seems to overcome this as he ages, though -- until SigCorp shows up, sparking his discontent and speculative tendencies again.

As for Sun's particular argument about "change can be good", this is true-- but in especially in real life, what should be changed is the present. If something happens to you in the past, you can't change what happened then, but you can learn from it now. So, you can change what you do now to make your life better in the future. I know I've taken a couple tumbles myself (though I'm sure it's nothing compared to what a lot of other people have to deal with) with racism and exclusion, struggling to fit into society's roles, and both objective and subjective failures, but I hope that these experiences open my eyes and make me more, er, "woke". And coming back from them every time makes me feel just a tiny bit stronger.

Sun

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Re: On the need for (not) changing memories
« Reply #3 on: February 05, 2018, 03:51:18 PM »
To reply in order (because the first post was lacking in that):

Duodecim, awesome analysis of Finding Paradise and the questions it ponders.
I think we are on one page in regard to what is the core of the story:
So I think the theme for FP is not so much "you should always accept the status quo" but more "obsessing over your past regrets will make you miserable in the present".
Yes, I'm oversimplifying things; Colin's lesson was more along the lines of "Learn to see all the good there was, and embrace that; don't get bogged down by the few bad things there were".
What you say at the end is what I was interested in when writing my post: Under which circumstances would it be "okay" (from the audience's point of view) for a Sigmund patient to change their memory? You assume that at least when someone is at peace with their past, they may escape Colin's trap of no longer seeing the good they had when they decide to use the service, and that that might be an okay way to use it.

EatingToastYay, yes, Johnny's and Colin's needs are different. I assume that is the case because firstly, Reives said himself that when he writes a story, he takes care to address the points where people might have concerns, by making the story address them. And then, he seems to always try and incorporate people's criticisms into his next work, as we have seen before when there were protesters in the first minisode and they made Eva question the value of her work. I remember how before that, I had read a bunch forum posts complaining about the ethical shortcomings of changing memories. And Colin's story is written in such a way that Sigmund even plays a negative role, being the one that causes regrets to bud (as you have said, too). All in all, Colin's story is written in such a way that I think people would have a hard time to disagree with its tenets.
Yes, we cannot change the past and can only try to make the best out of it for the future.

That being said, I wasn't actually looking at either story, TTM or FP, too closely, but stepping back and observing that stories often do this, introducing a change* and then saying that that kind of change would be bad, so let's keep things as they are. Okay, FP does a very good job of arguing against changing Colin's life, I'll admit that. And I hope I made it clear that it makes sense in his case.
It's just, is it possible to write a story where someone's memory gets changed and the audience might agree that it's a good thing? It seems we have a certain abhorrence against the idea because any change is only imaginary and thus fake. Should people die with a lie? Isn't that bad, shouldn't you always face reality?
I'm trying to come up with a situation in which memory change would be "good". Best I can think of is this: Imagine a patient had a life where they misunderstood many things that happened to them and that made them unhappy. If it were possible to walk them through the same situations again and this time help them to see what they couldn't see the first time around that other people didn't have bad intentions when they did certain things, that the patient was valued but just couldn't see it etc. - then they could come to a kind of peace with their life that is both achieved through the memory change and anchored in truth. Now that would be positive, wouldn't it?

*Usually those are stories that play in more or less our current world plus that one change - e.g. Terminator (addition: sentient AI = it tries to wipe out humanity), Remember Me (addition: memory storage and exchange between people = people get addicted to it) or Demolition Man (addition: society unlearns violence = society can no longer defend itself against violent criminals. Also, knowledge of three seashells needed for bathroom usage). I can only think of one story that showed arguments for both sides and then asked you to make your own decision - Deus Ex: Human Revolution (addition: cybernetic augmentations for the human body).
« Last Edit: February 05, 2018, 04:02:45 PM by Sun »

Duodecim

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Re: On the need for (not) changing memories
« Reply #4 on: February 06, 2018, 10:09:17 PM »
Quote
What you say at the end is what I was interested in when writing my post: Under which circumstances would it be "okay" (from the audience's point of view) for a Sigmund patient to change their memory? You assume that at least when someone is at peace with their past, they may escape Colin's trap of no longer seeing the good they had when they decide to use the service, and that that might be an okay way to use it.

Yeah, I was reading the question from a mostly utilitarian perspective, which is, are there cases where the patient is happier when they change their memories with Sigmund than when they don't? From that angle I think that should be very possible, as we're both positing here.

Of course, not all of the audience would be okay with changing people's memories, even when that might make them happier and even if it's at the end of their life, because they're not necessarily approaching it from the utilitarian, "is this beneficial" perspective. The objection is more that it's somehow not right to change one's memories, even the painful ones, regardless of whether it makes them happier or not. Personally, even from that angle I don't think there's anything wrong with memory change, mostly because I don't see one's memories at the very end of life as a particularly sacred thing.

Quote
I'm trying to come up with a situation in which memory change would be "good". Best I can think of is this: Imagine a patient had a life where they misunderstood many things that happened to them and that made them unhappy. If it were possible to walk them through the same situations again and this time help them to see what they couldn't see the first time around that other people didn't have bad intentions when they did certain things, that the patient was valued but just couldn't see it etc. - then they could come to a kind of peace with their life that is both achieved through the memory change and anchored in truth. Now that would be positive, wouldn't it?

That's... actually a really interesting scenario. The primary moral objection to memory alternation assumes that the original memory was somehow "true", even if it was painful, and that by changing it you're replacing it with a falsehood, which would be wrong even if it's more pleasant. But if their original memory was itself a kind of falsehood generated by misunderstanding, distrust... then perhaps by changing it what you're really doing is repairing it. The only real moral objection I can think of to the memory change is that the patient didn't earn this newfound understanding by themselves - they were spoonfed the truth, and so perhaps they don't actually deserve it. But I don't find that objection convincing, to be honest, because no one's capable of always understanding other people, and some people (like myself) are just really bad at it. They ought to get some illumination at the end, if they could.

(Note, if it's not clear enough already, I don't personally subscribe to that type of moralistic perspective. It's just that in these scenarios it's more interesting to consider that line of reasoning rather than something more utilitarian.)

I think stories in general tend to argue against changing people's memories because it's a much more palatable point to make. Most of us have some regrets in our lives, so we are fairly receptive to messages that assuage those regrets, that tell us that those bad things that happened weren't for naught, that we got something out of them, however traumatizing the experiences. It's like comfort food for the soul, really. Making the opposite point, that sometimes it really is better to change some memories, is a harder sell and requires a defter touch, though of course that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a better point.

One story I can think of that is more ambiguous about memory change is Memento, which is an older Christopher Nolan movie about someone who has lost the ability to make long-term memories, so has to rely on a whole system of notes to figure out what he is supposed to be doing at any given point. At the end of that movie,
Spoiler: show
which is actually chronologically the middle of the story (the story is structured in a similar way to FP), the main character essentially changes his records so that he doesn't have to live with a horrifying fact that he finds out,
and it's left to the viewer to decide as to whether that was the "right" decision or not, or if even there was a right decision to make.

@Sun - You outlined the argument against TtM's ending, but I'm curious what your take on it was. Did you think it was okay for Johnny to lose his original memories of River?
« Last Edit: February 06, 2018, 10:12:13 PM by Duodecim »

Sun

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Re: On the need for (not) changing memories
« Reply #5 on: February 07, 2018, 11:48:21 AM »
True, once you view it from a more utilitarian point of view, any alteration that makes the patient happier overall is a good one. That makes me notice how the other point of view is based in truth as the higher value - pure truth versus pure happiness.

I think one objection against a change that affects truth is that you lose something you shouldn't lose:
For one thing, your true self - once again, that idea that you are only yourself if you are the result of that exact chain of events which affected you in reality, and if you changed that, you'd be someone else.
For another, the true self of others - that's the "fake River" argument. It'd be a loss of the good you actually had together and you could no longer be sure that the ones you are with really behave like they would in reality: For example, River took Johnny's hand in the shuttle, something she wouldn't have done in real life.
But I'm only saying that as an aside, I'm not really convinced either way.

Which is also the answer to your question. When TTM was still a fresher experience to me, I'd have told you what bugged me the most was that River never got her wish, neither in her lifetime nor afterwards; the one that Johnny comes to remember their first meeting. The other thing was an afterthought when reading comments.
Is it bad that Johnny exchanged his real life for a fabrication? I'm torn.
We only know a few moments out of Johnny's new life; we can't even say what the rest looked like. I've always kind of assumed that it was pretty similar - after all, we do see the two move into the same house. And as Neil says, River being there at all, that's generated by Johnny himself. Why would he not use as many bits and bobs from reality as possible for his new life?
If it were mostly a different life and much more to Johnny's liking ... I can see the point in disliking that. It sounds like disrespect to River to take all the points of misunderstanding away, like losing who she really was (as mentioned above). From a utilitarian point of view, it wouldn't matter - if he were happier, it'd even be better. But yeah ... somehow it feels like there was value in the true story of these two.
« Last Edit: February 07, 2018, 11:54:21 AM by Sun »

Duodecim

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Re: On the need for (not) changing memories
« Reply #6 on: February 08, 2018, 11:03:51 PM »
Quote
For another, the true self of others - that's the "fake River" argument. It'd be a loss of the good you actually had together and you could no longer be sure that the ones you are with really behave like they would in reality: For example, River took Johnny's hand in the shuttle, something she wouldn't have done in real life.

Quote
Is it bad that Johnny exchanged his real life for a fabrication? I'm torn.
We only know a few moments out of Johnny's new life; we can't even say what the rest looked like. I've always kind of assumed that it was pretty similar - after all, we do see the two move into the same house. And as Neil says, River being there at all, that's generated by Johnny himself. Why would he not use as many bits and bobs from reality as possible for his new life?
If it were mostly a different life and much more to Johnny's liking ... I can see the point in disliking that. It sounds like disrespect to River to take all the points of misunderstanding away, like losing who she really was (as mentioned above). From a utilitarian point of view, it wouldn't matter - if he were happier, it'd even be better. But yeah ... somehow it feels like there was value in the true story of these two.

So I might be retreading the old arguments a bit, but heck, it's not like much else is happening in the forums right now, so might as well go for it. As far as I can tell, there are two separate strands of objections to TtM's ending, though they are related, and sometimes they are conflated:
  • By changing Johnny's memories, Sigmund removed a bunch of his real memories with River. Given that River was the whole reason he wanted to go to the moon, and that being with her is in some ways his real, subconscious wish, Sigmund isn't actually helping him at all.
  • The River in Johnny's new memories doesn't act like the one in his original memories, and instead is an idealized version of her that he subconsciously wanted her to be. Again, given that his wish was actually to be with the real River, this didn't fulfill his wish at all, since instead he's now with a River who doesn't behave like the real one would and is a different person.

(@Sun - I'm not implying that you made these arguments, I'm just trying to precisely delineate the various objections I know about.)

I fully respect objection 1, and I agree that there's a cost to removing his real memories of being with River. However, I also think the cost depends on how much of those memories are being removed. And as you mentioned, the bulk of his life with River remained pretty much the same (as we'd expect, since his wish wasn't ever to change that): they still had a wedding near Anya, moved to the same house near Anya, had the same friends (plus Joey), even went to eat at the same restaurant as before.

As far as I can tell, the only places where the new River-related memories are substantially different from the old ones are 1) between the period in school where in the old memories he would have met River again, and when he met her in the new memories at NASA, and 2) after where she would have died in the old memories, since in the new ones she lives to old age with him. These are pretty substantial changes, to be sure, but #1 still only cuts out some years before they get married, and #2 only really removes the parts where River was dying, which I've rarely heard anyone object to, because having her there was pretty much the point of his whole wish.

As for objection 2, I don't think there's actually much evidence that the River in his new memories acted differently than the one in his old memories. Yes, she offered him a hand in the shuttle, but in fact that was not out of character for her. The River in real life gave Johnny a big hug after he suggested moving to Anya, and we have to think that going to the moon would elicit at least the same level of reaction from her, especially given that at the time of the shuttle launch, they would've been married for a number of years. And that's not even getting into all that "dancing" they did on the night of the wedding...

I wonder if a lot of the whole "River would never do that" line of thought comes from folks thinking that because she's on the autism spectrum, she's never capable of expressing her affection. That... just isn't true, in the game or in real life. Every case is different, but for myself at least, I know that while generally it's really hard for me to express that kind of feeling, it's sometimes possible if the conditions are right. Or maybe the argument comes from extrapolating from her never being able to vocalize what she wanted Johnny to remember about the first time they met, but that particular desire had way more emotional baggage attached to it than simply holding hands. And for all we know, maybe even in his new memories the house is still full of paper rabbits...

Anyway, pretty sure this has all been said before, but I guess even after all these years I'm still not really convinced by the argument against TtM's ending.

(As for River's wish... well, there's that inter-credit scene of her waiting on the log and Johnny coming along to give her Platplat... this was after he flatlined, so in my headcanon at least they're together in the afterlife, finally.)
« Last Edit: February 08, 2018, 11:09:33 PM by Duodecim »