The Lifebrarian was installed just after Sumi’s first birthday. Her grandparents insisted on paying for it. They insisted on the whole thing. Liliana was reluctant; she wanted her daughter to have the kind of life she still thought of as normal.
“It will probably affect the way her brain evolves,” she argued to Hideyoshi. “Imagine if you never had to remember anything.”
Hideyoshi didn’t feel as strongly about it. A lot of people were having it done for their kids at that point. “She doesn’t have to ever use the recall function if she doesn’t want to.”
“And she’s so young to have surgery.” Liliana’s voice sounded as if she was pleading, and Sumi, too young to understand if not too young for surgery, looked up from her building blocks, eyes huge. It was one of the last moments in her life that would not be recorded, and as soon as Sumi’s short-lived consciousness of it melted away, it was gone forever.
“It’s minimally invasive,” Hideyoshi reminded his wife. “There’s barely any scar, and she’s only under anesthesia for an hour.” He didn’t want to go up against Liliana’s parents on this question. Besides, he could already see that Sumi’s childhood was going by too fast for him.
Everyone talked about the operation like it was something you did for your kids, to arm them with the best bodyware for a highly competitive future. But Hideyoshi knew he wanted Sumi to have a Lifebrarian for purely selfish reasons. There was the immediate draw of being able to upload her feed at the end of the day and watch the world from her perspective, but overarching that was the reassuring thought that her quickly passing childhood would be stored somewhere, safe and sound and in high definition.
They disagreed again on when to tell her about it. Liliana wanted to wait as long as possible. “So she doesn’t become self-conscious,” she said.
Hideyoshi agreed that they should wait until she was old enough to understand but also wanted to give her time to get used to the idea while she was still a child. “Can you imagine explaining this to her when she’s a teenager and predisposed to be pissed off about anything we do?”
Like so many parenting decisions, this one was removed from their hands. When she was 6 years old, Sumi came home from school with the question “What’s a Vidacorder?”
“Who mentioned that?” Liliana asked, looking up quickly from the vegetables she was chopping with Rosario, the cook.
“Beni says he has one,” Sumi told her, sitting herself at the table. “And then Isa said she has one too, but Beni said it wasn’t true.”
“Ah.” Liliana wiped her hand on her jeans and jotted a quick memo on her phone to remind herself which parents she could compare notes with.
“Do I have one?”
Offered the choice of prevarication, obfuscation, or truth, Liliana took refuge in one-upmanship. “You have a Lifebrarian, which is the same thing but better.” She closed her eyes briefly, pausing her chopping; she could imagine the look Rosario was giving her without having to see it.
At least it stopped Sumi’s questions for 10 seconds while she thought about that. “How is it better?” she asked finally.
“Oh, higher resolution, better sound quality, easier uploading.”
“Good,” said Sumi.
“Mami,” Sumi said, coming home from equestrian practice at age 12, “Esteban says that the Lifebrarian is like that little black box they have on airplanes, so that people know how I die. Is that true?”
“No!” Liliana gasped out. “Of course not, honey.” She reached out for Sumi, but her daughter was already at the counter making herself a sandwich, as if what she had just asked didn’t bother her at all.
“It’s so people know how you live, sweetheart,” Hideyoshi said, looking up from the news. “And I told you before, nobody has to see your recall feed unless you want them to.”
Sumi considered this as she fished out a pickle, using her fingers as usual. “How will they know if I want them to, if I’m dead?”
Liliana pressed her fingers to her temple.
“I told you, you don’t have to wait till you’re dead,” Hideyoshi said. “You can recall any time you want. It’s just that your mother and I think it’s better you wait till you’re out of school before you start using that function.”
“But what if I were dead?” Sumi went on. “What would happen to it?”
“You just have to make a note of who you want to be able to see it, if anyone,” Liliana said, trying to show that it didn’t bother her. “Legally, no one else can look.”
The sandwich took priority. “I want you to be the one to look,” Sumi said when it was gone. Her voice was aimed at a point between her parents, who exchanged a smile.
“We already have that right, as your parents,” Liliana said, thinking this was comforting. “You don’t have to worry about it at all until you’re 21.”
Sumi was silent then, but over the next nine years writing them out of her recorder-will was one of her most frequent threats.
“No!” Sumi shouted, slamming her door. She couldn’t help crying, and she imagined the Lifebrarian videofeed blurring. She threw herself onto her bed, squeezed her eyes shut, and thought of nothing as hard as she could. Black, black, black, like the screen after the movie ends in the split second before the ads start up again. Nothing, nothing, nothing.
She flipped over onto her back, her eyes still runny. It was a childish superstition, this belief that if she blanked out her mind hard enough and long enough it would erase what had just happened from the recorder if not from her life.
Sometimes she would even try to make a deal with the Lifebrarian, as if it were a person. As if it were God. “If you delete what just happened,” she would mutter under her breath, “I’ll talk all my thoughts out loud for a full day.” Sumi knew that the recorder didn’t care if she was good or bad. When she tried to bargain with it, more of herself was all she could think to offer.
It was all a silly way of thinking, a leftover from when she was small and believed the Lifebrarian was an actual person, sitting inside her skull, wielding an old-fashioned video camera.
At 16 she could be smarter than that. What she should really do was start thinking as blandly as possible before bad things happened, as soon as she started feeling cranky or evil, and make her life totally boring so that whoever watched it would fast-forward and maybe miss the bad stuff.
If only she could know when bad things were about to happen.
Sumi was hoping for a loophole. Surely the Lifebrarian didn’t record while she was using recall, right? Four days earlier she had used the recall function to relive her first truly complete sexual experience, which had taken place two days before that, and since then she had replayed it so many times that anyone watching the repeats would know she was a nympho. Why would the recorder waste memory rerecording what it already had?
Of course there was memory to spare in that sliver-thin chip next to her skull. Enough for four extended lifetimes, her dad had told her once. That idea gave her the creeps, the thought of it recording blankness for years and decades and centuries, nothing after nothing, more nothing than any human being could ever watch in its entirety. But that wouldn’t happen; there was some sort of trigger to cut recording when her heart stopped pumping. She didn’t want to think about that either.
Sumi is 44 and 25,000 feet above Johannesburg when she decides to get the black box upgrade for her Lifebrarian. There’s not even any turbulence, but landings always make her nervous, and she starts to think about what will happen if they crash.
The black box protective casing will make accessing the recall function a little more complicated, but Sumi doesn’t use recall much anyway. She doesn’t have time to be mooning over memories. Maybe when the kids are grown and she’s retired she’ll want to look back more, but then she can have it adjusted again, and the technology will probably have improved too. Besides, her wife has her own recorder, and both kids have the latest versions: smaller, faster, and complete with real-time brain scans. If she ever wants to remember a moment, it’s almost certain to have other witnesses who can do the recall themselves.
Unless she dies while alone on a business trip, like right now. For anyone to know what happens in that case, she needs her recorder to be protected from fire, massive trauma, or water immersion for up to six months, as they say in the vidpitch.
They also make it sound like it’s something you do for your family, because after all, you won’t be around to watch the replay. But Sumi wonders about that. Is it really that different for your wife or children if the last contact they have with you is when you say “I love you” before hanging up the phone or if they can see the end of your life right up to the blunt trauma of your last moment? Either way there’s an end, and grief.
No, she thinks, the black box is for her, so that she will know in that second of consciousness before she goes that someone will be able to see exactly what happened to her.
If she dies violently. If not, well, it won’t make any difference. The black box upgrade is just a precaution, like life insurance. Hopefully she won’t need it, but it’s good to have in case she does.
The upgrade is a simple operation, minimally invasive. They don’t even need anesthesia for it; Sumi just sits in a comfortable chair watching vids while they do it. Kind of like being on a plane, she thinks at one point, but they’ve asked her to try to relax and use her own brain as little as possible, so she concentrates on the vids.
It’s not that she doesn’t intend to tell her wife, Kara, but one day after another it just doesn’t happen. The operation was so easy that Sumi almost forgot about it herself once it was over. There is no scar for anyone to ask about, and every time she opens her mouth to bring it up the subject just seems out of place. She can imagine Kara’s face as she makes the morbid connection between the upgrade and what it’s meant for. She sees Kara trying to hide her worry while the kids ask loud, insensitive questions about what it is, about why they don’t have one, sees her pressing her palm to her forehead. There’s just no need.
It almost comes up a couple of times when there are questions about the past: at Lili’s school film, at a fund-raiser after a hurricane hits in the north, at a work seminar. But each time Sumi pretends to fumble with something else or be distracted for a moment, and each time someone else does recall and finds the answer first. It’s really not that hard to do recall with the black box, just a little awkward in a way that people might notice. The few, the very few times when she personally wants to remember a time, a place, she also resists. This is what it was like to live before, she tells herself; this is how my grandparents lived their whole lives.
She’s glad she got the upgrade, even if she never really has to use it. Even if her loved ones never really have to use it. If she dies quietly in her bed, they’ll never even have to know she had it done. And if she dies violently, well, they’ll know exactly how.
As it turns out, Sumi does die violently, some 12 years later. However, an estimated 14,000 other people die in the same earthquake. There are tent cities, there are aftershocks, there are rapidly dug mass graves. There is no time to delve into anyone’s last moments. Not even rich people’s.
For the 10th anniversary memorial, a committee of family and survivors does gather (meaning exhume, for the most part) what recorders can be salvaged. Sumi’s is displayed, tastefully, along with the others, but it is inert: a sliver of dead circuitry centered in a glass case. Some of the newer models survived the long wait and are played on endless loops in the experience rooms, but the older hardware of Sumi’s Lifebrarian has long since been corrupted.
Tales From an Uncertain Future