We’re not very good at spotting the big, paradigm-changing things. Did they read Tycho Brahe’s Astronomiae Instauratae Progymnasmata in 1588 and think, “Despite his naff brass conk, that bugger’s on to something. I reckon there’s no God. Next thing you know we’ll have a robot crawling around on Mars”?
Did anyone read Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology in 1830 and think, “You wait, we’ll turn out to be a sort of fancy plankton”? Or Alan Turing’s On Computable Numbers of 1937 and go, “Blow me, here comes Twitter. Sign me up!”
The title may not be that snappy, but the publication this week of Pais-Vieira, Lebedev, Kunicki, Wang and Nicolelis’s “A Brain-to-Brain Interface for Real-Time Sharing of Sensorimotor Information” in Science Reports is another of those game-changing moments. If it had been me, I’d have called it, “Holy Shit! Telepathy! In Rats!”, but science values modesty over shouting.
Yet what they’ve done deserves to be shouted about. They have invented a new channel of communication, not sight or sound or touch or taste or hearing, but direct communication between brains. Rat A learns where the food is, and communicates it directly into the brain of Rat B, initially by fine wires running between their brains, and subsequently over the internet.
Argue how you will, it’s telepathy, and – I’ll stick my brain out here – it’s is a game-changer. What’s passing between the two rats is information, and information technologies grow exponentially. They always have. They always will.
Nothing is hidden
Imagine a world where I didn’t have to put this into language, and you didn’t have to get it out of language again. Instead, I deliver it straight into your brain, via the Cloud, which becomes more like the 14th-century Cloud of Unknowing. And we become, collectively, more like its God, unto Whom alle hertes ben open, and unto Whom alle wille spekith, and unto Whom no privé thing is hid.
Once I can see into your mind – and it may just start with a couple of rats and a spot of food, but it will soon be all of us and everything – and you into mine, and no privé thing is hid, the world is irrevocably changed. Now we have Amazon One-Click, arguably the root of its success; one day, we’ll have Orinoco No-Click: all you have to do is want it, and it will come.
The jokes come thick and fast – how much would you pay to have David Cameron disconnected from the MindWeb so that there was never any chance of finding yourself inhabiting his mind – but there’ll be no jokes because we’ll know the comedian’s punchline before he starts, just like he knows it. And what if there are people in the audience – people in the world – who don’t get the joke? It would be like dogs doing conjuring. They’d take one sniff and think, “It’s up his sleeve”, and ask for their money back. (Though it would make dog-training easier; you’d only need to train one dog, and all the others would know how to STOP that STOP IT NOW you are a BAD DOG.
At the other extreme, what of conscience, the thing that tells us how to behave when nobody’s looking? What when everyone’s looking, all the time? Would each of us, via our special RFID chip implanted at birth, and the global network of infinite bandwidth, become subject to a collective will? And what of democracy, when we all know what the majority is really after? More to the point, what of politicians? And what of PR people? What happens when we can hear their bland corporate blether but telepath the truth?
What, in short, happens to irony? Clumsy old language allows us to dissemble. Once I can telepath what you really think, or want, or hate, how can you fool me? What of sex? There’d be no point in seduction, no subtext, no subtlety. You walk into a bar and some woman shouts out, “In your dreams, pal”. No; they all do. But if a woman could telepath into the mind of a man, would she understand the delirium of our desire, which can never be spoken aloud? Would she then look more kindly upon us, or less? And how would we conduct intrigues which depend for their existence (and for much of their delight) on a web of impossible falsehoods, believed by consent?
Bang, too, go the police. Bang go the courts. Bang goes the spying trade and international diplomacy. Bang. Haggling? Bang. Business? Business? When the other chap knows you’re thinking, “Goddamn, this twazzock could bore the wick out of your Zippo”? Perhaps we will take to hiding in books and films, where telepathy is impossible because there are no minds in books and films, only representations of minds; and even then, only once the author or director, and all the actors, are all dead or in lead-lined anti-spoiler rooms.
It all seems fanciful. But 20 years ago, so much of today seemed fanciful that if someone had suggested it we’d have laughed. We’d perhaps have been more sensible to scream, and to immediately make plans to suppress it. But we didn’t, and we won’t. It will happen. What we must chummily call Pais-Vieira et al have opened it a crack, and when have we ever resisted pushing the door open wide? On Thursday, the day it was published, Sergey Brin of Google said smartphones were emasculating. He doesn’t know the half of it. And it may be the first thing Brin, co-creator of Google, hasn’t known the half of.
Emasculating – maybe even dehumanising – is what happens when we can no longer speak with forked tongue. The last assurance of our individual humanity is the ability to wear a false face. Now that we can see how we might – and therefore will – begin peeling away at that mask, I’m booking my place in a hermitage.
A lead-lined one, off the grid.