Personalized Memories: an interactive non-linear storytelling experience based on the short story “Simulacrum” by Ken Liu

 

I. Original Text

Ken Liu’s short story “Simulacrum,” originally published in 2011, starts off with the following quote:

[A] photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.

—Susan Sontag

The interview-style narrative gives insight into the relationship between Paul Larimore, inventor of a reality-capturing technology called the simulacrum, and his estranged daughter Anna. The simulacrum, in addition to projecting a realistic 3D representation of the physical body, takes “a snapshot of the subject’s mental patterns—a representation of [their] personality.” This neural scan is used to re-animate the image, creating a portrait that can interact with the viewer just as if it were the subject themself.

As recognized in the short story, this technology is a realization of our obsession over capturing reality, a concept that we as humans have been fascinated by for centuries. Since the rise of photography, from film to digital, the culture around taking pictures has evolved into an odd set of norms. We tend to pause in the middle of an action and pose for the camera in order to freeze the moment into something that can be revisited in the future. Afterwards, the photo or video is examined over and over again, until it takes on the meaning of the memory itself. The form and shape of the images become integral to the recollection of that specific moment in our minds.

Anna has developed strong feelings against the technology and her father after walking in on him using the simulacrum to relive his sexual fantasy. She delivers the following lecture during the interview:

Photography, videography, holography…the progression of such “reality-capturing” technology has been a proliferation of ways to lie about reality, to shape and distort it, to manipulate and fantasize… The desire to freeze reality is about avoiding reality.

Ironically, she is also holding on to a moment in the past, when she witnessed her father’s weakness, to constantly reinforce her opinion about him. As the simulacrum of her late mother heartbreakingly laments at the end of the piece, “[she has] compressed him, the whole of his life, into that one frozen afternoon, that sliver of him that was most flawed. In [her] mind, [she] traced that captured image again and again, until the person was erased by the stencil.”

 

II. Alternate Version

My project recontextualizes the technology of the simulacrum from Ken Liu’s short story against the backdrop of surveillance capitalism. Tech industry today is largely driven by the commodification of personal and behavioral data of users. In an attempt to shine a light on the unsettling and deeply problematic reality, I imagine how such a personal and intrusive technology would function in our capitalistic society. In this rendition, the “holography” projections would attempt to manipulate the viewers by subtly inserting targeted advertisements and sponsored messages from within.

Personalized Memories will be a semi-autobiographical, web-based, non-linear storytelling experience during which the viewer is put in the shoes of the main character, Jung. A daughter of Korean American immigrant parents, Jung receives a gift from her mother that contains scans of her memories about Jung’s childhood. As the simulated memories are played and replayed, they morph over time to deliver more corporate messages in the voice of the mother. The viewer can visit the memories in any order they desire from the main interface, and each memory will go through “updates” to become more seamlessly integrated with targeted advertisements.

 

III. Simulacra

The concept of simulacrum is explored in depth by Jean Baudrillard in his book Simulacra and Simulation. He claims that it is not a copy or a replica of the real, but rather the hyperreal that is indistinguishable from reality. It is a “perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.” This image is described to follow four phases:

it is the reflection of a profound reality;

it masks and denatures a profound reality;

it masks the absence of a profound reality;

it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum.

The process of the simulacrum uncoupling with reality and becoming something of its own is explored in various science fiction texts, including Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris. Is the materialization of a memory disparate from the original? Is the core of our relationships with each other simply our perception of each other? Can such a relationship be manipulated?

 

IV. Surveillance Capitalism

During the first two decades of the 21st century, fast-paced technological advancements of the Internet and ubiquitous devices made knowledge and information abundantly available to the general public. Eventually, scrolling through news feeds, reading emails, and searching the web became part of our daily routine, essential to both our social interactions and productivity. What was not made clear to us is that as much as we consumed information through the inflow of data packets, we exposed information about our own preferences and behaviors outwards.

Large tech companies such as Google and Facebook realized over time that this vast amount of personal data from their users can be mined for profit. As Shoshana Zuboff defines in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, “surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data.” Such data can be analyzed to predict our behaviors in the future, and this prediction information is then traded in the market.

The most common form of surveillance capitalism manifests in targeted advertisements. Based on the data collected about which social media posts we interact with, where we are located, what type of people we communicate with, how long we gaze at a piece of content, and which sites we frequent on our browser, advertisements are delivered to us by Google and Facebook to ensure a high conversion rate. In other words, our actions are digitized, converted into an intricate graph of social and behavioral connections, and monetized by convincing us to spend more money on commercial products.

 

V. Moving Forward

A rough prototype and script can be seen at https://www.figma.com/proto/PMkGeL13iodVGmXgO0D9gE/Personalized-Memories?node-id=24%3A2&scaling=min-zoom

The plan is to get a voiceover of the mother’s messages and play them over visuals that represent each of the memories. The main interface, where the entry points to each memory are presented in a tangled mess, would be 3D navigable. Lastly, some pop-up modules would prompt the user to take specific actions in the perspective of the character Jung.

 

VI. Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean, and Sheila Faria Glaser. Simulacra and Simulation. Univ. of Michigan Press, 2019.

Liu, Ken. “Simulacrum.” Lightspeed, Feb. 2011.

Naughton, John. “’The Goal Is to Automate Us’: Welcome to the Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 Jan. 2019, www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jan/20/shoshana-zuboff-age-of-surveillance-capitalism-google-facebook.

Silverman, Jacob. “Privacy under Surveillance Capitalism.” Social Research, vol. 84, no. 1, Spring 2017, pp. 147–164. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=123367902&site=ehost-live.

Tarkovskiĭ Andreĭ Arsenʹevich. Solaris. Mosfilm Studios, 1972.

Yant, Christie. “Author Spotlight: Ken Liu.” Lightspeed, Feb. 2011.