The experience of sharing another person’s consciousness would be one of the most profound and ego-shattering events possible. “What if my red is your green?” Imagine all of those speculative questions answered while truly seeing the world through someone else’s senses. In principle such experiences should be sought after and highly valued but the dangers of consciousness altering technology becoming commoditzed and marketed should also not be underestimated.
The story about the “Telepathic Rats” is all over the internet, scientists at Duke university have created a form of telepathy in rats (see the article here). Essentially what was created was a system where the experiences of one rat were communicated to a second one, allowing it to push the correct lever in a mechanism that dispensed food. In one version of the experiment the rats were separated by thousands of kilometers, with one in a laboratory in North Carolina, and the other in Brazil.
The technology is being referred to as a ‘brain-net’ in an attempt to evoke an analogy to the internet where information can be uploaded and accessed remotely from any connected location. A marvel of science, and one that has instantly captured worldwide imagination. Behind the fanfare however, the commoditization of information technology that has taken place over the last 20 years gives a glimpse of how such capabilities can evolve, and what it shows should make everyone wary.
In the story “The Little Black Box”, by Philip K. Dick, There is a new religion called Mercerism sweeping through the world. The religion is spread through a device called an “empathy box”. These devices are small boxes with two metal handles attached to them, when a person takes hold of the handles they are connected to the consciousness of Wilbur Mercer, sharing his thoughts, and feelings, as he makes a religious pilgrimage to the place where he will die. The person holding the box shares in his tireless march or jagged terrain, feels the pain as he is struck with rocks thrown by jeering onlookers, everyone who participates takes part in his apotheosis. Clearly depicting a Christ-like martyr figure, it is a transformative experience, and one that makes instant converts of anyone who shares in it.
Governments, in this alternate history, view this religion as a menace to their political systems, and much of the plot revolves around the main characters trying to evade capture. The reader is given the message that the religion deserves our sympathy, being something that evokes compassionate emotions in its followers. But it is just a story, in our world the production of advanced technology is completely in the hands of governments and for profit corporations, whose motivations in influencing human behavior are quite different from those of Wilbur Mercer.
Looking at the short history of the internet, it did not take long for corporations to begin manipulating information in order to push their individual agendas. In seeing that people value comments made by their peers and neighbors when making decisions on what product to purchase, companies began paying people to write positive comments. When they became aware that consumers value independent, and original content, influencing where they spend their discretionary incomes, companies began hiring people to write authentic looking fake blogs to push their marketing messages. Observing how crowd behavior makes people gravitate towards posts with lots of ‘likes’, they simply began paying people to like posts that help them sell. This kind of ‘herd mentality’ is one of the dangers that could arise from synthetic telepathy.
Also called ‘information cascade‘, it is defined as:
the process of people observing the actions of others and then making the same choices that the others have made, independently of their own private information signals.
The cascade is when people “abandon their own information in favor of inferences based on earlier people’s actions”. A simple example is when people are choosing a restaurant to eat in. Prior to the dinner hour two adjacent restaurants may both be empty, and a couple walking down the street might choose one of the two restaurants simply by chance. The next person coming along seeing one restaurant empty and one with customers could make the same choice as the first couple under the assumption that they had already made the better choice.
Much of the time this kind of behavior is harmless, but what makes it subversive is that this kind of decision making often takes place unconsciously. If I worked in marketing in a world where people were connected to a ‘brain-net’, I would simply hire people to go and make the decisions I wanted them to make in order to influence the behavior of others into following their example. A global, or even national level ‘brain-net’ would contain too many participants for people to be able to consciously process all the information they would receive. Our minds are very effective at damping excess information in order to avoid an overload, but the information does not simply pass us by, it becomes embedded in the unconscious mind and is a source of influence in future decision making. The global ‘brain-net’ would easily homogenize crowd behavior with the unconscious knowledge of what millions of others are doing, making it much easier to predict, and thereby control. A dangerous tool in the wrong hands.
In The Black Box, the empathy box is a positive force because it forces people to share in the suffering of another. Caritas. How difficult would it be to construct similarly powerful experience on a film set given sufficient funds? It is hard to imagine how this could be controlled or regulated to the public good, with those regulations becoming too invasive in and of themselves, and this would hardly be the only danger.
A more obvious concern would be government monitoring and surveillance.
Limiting the speculation to developed and rather liberal countries we could put together an imaginary timeline for telepathic technology going mainstream:
- Technology goes to market, price is high, users limited to the wealthy and eager early-adopters.
- Advances, competition, and economies of scale come into play lowering the cost and encouraging mainstream use.
- Moderate level use, first cases of abuse earn widespread media attention leading to calls for regulatory intervention
- First regulations introduced addressing privacy and fraud concerns satisfying early public outcry
- Evidence of government use for surveillance purposes is discovered by a few users but is limited to fringe media reporting
- Widespread use, market is dominated by a handful of service providers generating millions in revenue with powerful lobby arms
At this point the technology would now be entrenched, with both corporate lobby dollars, and military/intelligence influence in force the ability of the public to influence the landscape would be virtually zero.
This has already happened with mobile phones and conventional e-mail. The use of echelon style surveillance is, at this point in time, almost completely unquestioned. Tuning in monitoring equipment to detect key-words that potentially indicate criminal or violent intent in a powerful (and I would say under-reported) force in modern society. The problem with current systems is that the organizations using them have to infer intent, what might this become if people’s very thoughts could be read?
At this point I will stop the ominous speculations. The scientific advances taking place around us are fascinating, and I suspect that in the majority the motivation behind them is a genuine curiosity or sometimes even a real desire to better the condition of humankind. Discoveries should never be shied away from, but the rest of us must still remain vigilant in the face of the amoral and self-interested entities that have the backing of global finance to achieve their own ends. Look for inspiration in the new – yes, but trust in your own mind to get there.