Dollhouse: Active-ly Unethical to Wipe Memory?

by admin on June 24, 2008

The Ethics of Erasing Memory

(This piece contains slight Dollhouse spoilers in the 3rd paragraph, regarding the length of time the volunteers remain as ‘actives’)

Today I read a most interesting article about the ‘ethics of erasing bad memory’. Dr. Haig tells the real-life story of a young woman called Ellen, who is undergoing a biopsy when she accidentally overhears that she has cancer. You see, she didn’t want to be put under general anesthesia because she didn’t like the idea of “losing consciousness”. Anyway, Ellen freaks out, understandably distressed and distraught, however the anesthesiologist quickly injects her with a chemical called propofol which erases the last few minutes of her memory. Sound familiar?

This is an amazing article, because not only is it a real-life happening, but it plugs right into the heart of Joss Whedon’s ‘Dollhouse’. After the biopsy Ellen doesn’t remember the events which took place, nor was she ever told..for the record, the news (about her cancer) was broken to her in a more appropriate manner and she eventually dies 6 years later. But the doctors knew that a line was intrusion of human rights and a breach of ethics. Until time-travel becomes possible, we as humans don’t get to go back and patch over the mistakes, we don’t get to just press ‘rewind’ and do it better next time around. But apparently, we can. Chemicals which can delete the last 10 or so minutes of a persons memory do exist. Whether or not Echo and her fellow actives are given a heightened form of propofol remains to be seen, but we can at least relate real-world science to the Dollhouse mind-wiping premise.

Echos undergoes erasureOf course there is a difference between what happened to the Ellen in the article and our what happens to our “actives”. Echo and the gang are ‘volunteers’, according to Topher, which means they gave consent to have their memories erased, wiped, deleted. One would assume that they were made aware of all of the consequences before-hand. But surely this doesn’t make it all above board? After all, what about the human ability to change ones mind? There seems to exist no get-out clause for the actives, and so they exist in a state of un-conciousness for 5 years, with no way of opting out. Madness! You can buy a car and return it (within a certain time-period) if it’s not to your suiting, yet you ask for your mind back and instead you get uploaded with another fact I assume that the actives wont even be able to tell whether or not they ‘like’ the process once they’re in it, therefore they wont be ‘able’ to say the words “I want out now”. Whilst this may maintain employer/active harmony, the actives are effectively plugged into a virtual reality machine for 5 years. Sounds like “robots, zombie slaves” to me, Adelle.

This is bad ethics in my book, but it’s a wickedly brilliant story device. If Whedon executes Dollhouse with the craft and skill that we all know he’s capable of, then he’s got a real gem on his hands.

I’ll end this article with the words of Dr Haig:

“It’s (Consciousness) arguably the most precious thing we have”

To read the article referenced in this piece, please head on over here.

Top image credit: Matthias Kulka / zefa / Corbis via Time

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