Images via Focus Features
Six years ago, I broke up with a jerk. The sob story leading up to that point is irrelevant now, but suffice it to say I was crushed and being confronted with his face whenever I signed into Facebook or MySpace didn’t help me get over him any faster. I yearned for some kind of button or switch to just turn this person off, but the conceit of those social networks seemed immune to my pain—whatever happened online stayed online, regardless of whether it had ceased to exist.
Though it took awhile, the founders of KillSwitch eventually challenged this notion that our digital lives should function less as an evolving snapshot than a fixed time capsule, especially when it comes to affairs of the heart. Their clever and free smartphone app will re-launch by the end of the week (pending Apple approval) and aims to help people get over breakups faster. For $0.99, KillSwitch will do everything I couldn't: unlike status updates, delete wall comments, untag photos and sweep any casual mention of the ex under the carpet of one’s digital domain. It’s like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, except for the social network.
For those wary of erasing their former flame, the iPhone version of the app will offer a “severity slide,” geared to show you how much to delete, says Clara de Soto, co-creator and co-founder of ClearHart Digital, the company behind KillSwitch. There’s also the option to cherrypick what you trash, whether it’s saving tagged photos or deleting every post from the past six months. “We’re going to make it so you don’t have to stay friends with your Facebook ex either,” she adds, a strong selling point given how awkward "staying friends" after the fact has become in the new millenium.
“Social media tends to reflect a big part of the human experience, but it ignores the fact that sometimes relationships end,” de Soto explains, noting how a “gap in the market,” where people wanted “a less permanent web” and were gravitating toward of-the-moment apps like SnapChat, inspired KillSwitch. “The way we interact in life doesn't have a permanence, and it's weird that our digital lives do. We saw KillSwitch as a tool for people to move on the way they can in their non-digital life.”
The mourning period following a breakup has been fetishized in pop culture to a sickening extent, partly for the way it symbolizes moving on, or just getting over the shock. The ritualistic burning of snapshots and nights spent in watching “Golden Girls” is more than a staple of romantic comedies, it’s the way we get by until we realize self-pity is boring.
But the digital equivalent—delete, delete, delete!—seems hardly as effective or final, given all the random ways our clutter can linger. When we hit that top right button, all we’re left with is the feeling that someone, somewhere has screen-grabbed the evidence, or worse still, that our ex saved it to a hard drive. Everything we share is inherently public, even if we don’t want it to be. And that mix of paranoia and reality—the Library of Congress is saving our tweets as you read this—doesn’t help us sleep better at night.
That's why the idea of hitting fast-forward on breakup grief sounds so appealing. When we Facebook stalk our ex, it's like we're reliving the trauma over again because we're confronting the source of the pain, says Dr. Paul Greene, a clinical psychologist based in New York. But with an app like KillSwitch, you get to move on without those distractions, behaving as if the breakup never occurred.
“I think it certainly can be a healthy thing to do,” Greene says about using an app like KillSwitch. “But it can’t be healthy if you [use the app] forever. You might be missing out on aspects of recovering from breakups that might be healthy for you,” like learning to face reality. You might even convince yourself “you have the power to eliminate anything,” which isn't the best mechanism for coping with disappointment.
But what if we could take an app like KillSwitch further and simply erase bad memories? Futurologist and former engineer Ian Pearson says the technology isn't far away; in fact, one day we might be able to pay for “mental cosmetic surgery," downloading a personality that replaces “the bits in your head” that make you, you.
“Whether we want to consider it to be good or bad or neutral, we may have an ability to edit our past or reality” at some point, confers David Freedman, contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us—And How to Know When Not to Trust Them. “I doubt it will make a huge difference in our lives one way or another, but the larger issue of putting so much on our lives and being able to edit it will have some impact.”
Yet "some impact” might be an understatement, given the rainbow of emotions we endure after trauma. As our romantic lives continue expanding online, humans are bridging the gap between what's real and perceived to be real, as we simultaneously grant others the permission to rewrite and interpret those stories.
People do this already, using information gleaned from social profiles and online activity. (Think Facebook friends who strike us as hermits only because they never log on, or couples who keep things under wraps on Twitter.) But in the future, romantic apps like KillSwitch could take this habit of filling in the blanks one step further, making our edited reality a permanent one that could majorly disrupt relationships.
For the time being this might only occur in our mind or terrain on Facebook, but imagine if everyone could see what you're doing. Suddenly, that guy you brought to a dinner party would be nothing more than a distant memory, and a romance gone wrong would be something to be forgotten, not just by you, but everyone who participated in it. If this sounds too good to be true, congratulations, you've found a healthy new way to cope with breakups. If not, then you've just realized how harmful this could be to our memory if taken too far.
When someone digitally alters some part of the past, they’re not just tampering with reality, they’re denying someone of their past. As Pearson explains, “those memories are a part of you, and when they cease to exist, it’s as if you’re killing yourself bit by bit. You’re erasing real existence from the world and replacing it with a cosmetic one.”
"...some place that does a thing"
It’s a tad dishonest, and if put in the wrong hands, who knows what kind of The Net-style scenario we might wind up with. Perhaps the government would want us to forget about taxes, or cheating husbands would convince their long-suffering wives that everything is just hunky-dory. Then again, perhaps we would rewrite the past with a story we can all agree on. Surely we'd want to forget years of bloodshed after a brutal war, or the assassination of a president like J.F.K.. Who's to say we wouldn't be better off as a nation if we could simply move on and look forward?
And yet for all the desire we have to forget the bad things, they're the very things that define us as people. We carry them with us, they shape how we think. They inform what we know to be true. It's like the Bukowski line in Ham on Rye: "Sitting there drinking, I considered suicide, but I felt a strange fondness for my body, my life. Scarred as they were, they were mine."
For now, at least, breakup apps like KillSwitch seem useful, so long as you don’t go overboard and rely on them forever. But over the long-term, who knows. We should probably set it aside and work on facing the facts instead. Painful as they are, reality always wins out—just ask anyone who's tried covering their tracks online. On a more personal level, perhaps that’s why KillSwitch offers an option to save those unwanted memories of your ex in a folder. Not everyone is so quick to forget the past.