Trying to build telepathy devices misidentifies thought as data
Image: Gemini 1 (2017) by Sascha Braunig. Courtesy the artist.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness offers a sensitive and idealized account of what telepathy might achieve. Termed “mindspeak,” she posits a language predicated on compassion, where people only communicate via their thoughts and can only relay the truth. This brings a newfound depth and meaning to her protagonists’ dynamic, but also a greater vulnerability, as one divulges to the other: “That intimacy of mind established between us was a bond… not so much admitting further light (as I had expected it to) as showing the extent of the darkness.”
Mindspeak offers a host of practical benefits, as it allows for greater privacy, the possibility of conversing at a distance, and the ability to say what you mean without equivocation. These are characteristics that we might aspire to when communicating with one another, but they are also susceptible to exploitation. When discussing the telepathic weapon “mindlie” in City of Illusions, Le Guin shows how quickly the benefits of mindspeak may be inverted. This is because when someone’s thoughts are easily accessible, they are not only more open to surveillance but also manipulation.
While tempted with the idea of greater intimacy, we will likely be offered more of the banal and extractive “mind-reading” technologies we interface with every day
Tech companies regularly draw on tropes from science fiction when attempting to market themselves as ambitious and cutting edge. In recent years, the idea of actualizing telepathy has become increasingly popular, presented as the natural conclusion of digital communication. Akin to “mindspeak,” we have been told that this means of connection will not just be more efficient but also more meaningful. This idea has been touted by a throng of hubristic billionaires and multimillionaires: Mark Zuckerberg took to Facebook Live Stream to discuss how we might eventually share thoughts like posts; Elon Musk has regularly lauded his ideal of “conceptual telepathy”; and Kernel CEO Bryan Johnson mused about how technology could manifest “hypothetical” telepathy, making us more empathetic.
When these technologies are advertised to the public, videos of test animals and cumbersome headsets seem to imply that the mind must be “cracked” before such a connection is feasible — that is, opened up to the intermediaries who own the technology. Reminiscent of the trickery Le Guin cautioned against, current conceptions of telepathy would probably rely on a bait and switch — while tempted with the idea of greater intimacy, we will in all likelihood just be offered more of the banal and extractive “mind-reading” technologies we interface with every day.
Telepathy has long been viewed as a means of more honest and authentic communication. Named by the psychologist Frederic Myers in 1882, it was initially broadly defined as “the communication of impressions of any kind from one mind to another, independently of the recognized channels of sense.” In coining the term, Myers effectively widened the ambit of “thought-transference” to accommodate and legitimize a variety of occult phenomena: hallucinations, apparitions, and lucid dreams. This was motivated by his belief in the “subliminal self” or subconscious, which expresses itself in unorthodox ways, unimpeded by our immediate will and desires: when speaking in tongues, for instance, you might actually be tapping into a repressed part of yourself. While seemingly esoteric, Myers laid a framework for telepathy’s role in facilitating self-knowledge, as well as in furthering our understanding of other people.
While for Myers, telepathy was an extension of self-expression, for others it presented a solution to the failure of speech. This idea has been influential in modern conceptions of telepathy: as Elon Musk argued, “there’s a lot of information loss when compressing a complex concept into words.” However, it also figured into the early development of psychoanalysis. In The Distance Cure: A History of Teletherapy, Hannah Zeavin explores this point in relation to Freud: “Séances, mind reading, and telepathy all insisted that thoughts could be communicated immediately and without speech… For the nascent science of psychoanalysis and its founder, the immediacy and reach of this type of communication presented both a tantalizing ideal and a mortal threat.” It implied a leaky and unruly conception of the subconscious, but also promised unmediated access to it. Couched within this telepathic ambition is the assumption that communication might be clearer if it could reach behind the veil of human intention. This is because we cannot articulate things we do not yet know about ourselves, nor do we always represent what we do know faithfully — we can be obscurantist, lie, or offer accounts laced with error.
Couched within this telepathic ambition is the assumption that communication might be clearer if it could reach behind the veil of human intention
When pursued by scientists, telepathy became an empirical challenge, oriented less toward communication and more toward mind-reading. In The Invention of Telepathy, Roger Luckhurst argues that the concept of telepathy grew in tandem with scientific naturalism. While most scientists viewed it as aimless superstition, akin to religion, figures like William Crookes sought to prove that physic forces were consonant with natural laws. Luckhurst argued that Crookes’ work emerged during a phase of “extraordinary science, where experiments run in advance of theoretical paradigms and become messy and unbound,” testing the boundaries of what science could prove. Luckhurst notes that the internal culture of Spiritualism — which prized the ESP expertise of mediums and clairvoyants — also shifted, in line with Crookes’ work: “the rhetoric and conceptual language underwent transformation, changing from a predominant antagonism to science towards increasing attempts to formulate utterances inside scientific frameworks.”
In making the spiritual more scientific, a greater emphasis was placed on technological mediation. This marked a break from the understanding of telepathy as a sixth sense, rooted in human receptiveness and empathy, and a turn toward technologies that could do the “reading.” The emotional and inter-relational was supplemented with the technical. Crookes even developed new instruments to measure the physical effects of famous mediums like Daniel Home. In fact, some of the most notable inventors have been connected to the assumption that technology could access occult phenomena: Thomas Edison was said to have designed a device to contact the dead, and John Logie Baird experimented with nocto-vision as a séance tool. As Hannah Zeavin argues, “telepathy and séances were often described in terms of emerging communicative media.” What can be inferred from these advances is a belief that technology can function as a reliable translator for spiritual experience.
Attempts to place telepathy within a scientific framework have ultimately compromised its communicative possibilities, encouraging an imbalance between message sender and recipient. This dynamic is solidified by the use of mediating technology to observe thought, which ultimately empowers the mediator. Through its institutionalization, telepathy comes to exacerbate existing power dynamics, whether between therapist and patient or scientist and subject. This is a key part of its spookiness. The aesthetics of mindreading are laden in eeriness, evoking musty parlor rooms and the anticipation of collective dissociation. However, it is the fear of exploitation that really fuels its surrounding conspiracies.
Beyond Le Guin, the trope of mindreading is regularly recycled in science fiction, often through a dichotomy between those who read minds and those who learn to resist it. Telepathy becomes more coercive at scale, reconfigured as a tool of systemic violence. We have seen this play out in the likes of David Cronenberg’s Scanners. These narratives often play on our fears about the intrusiveness of technology and blur the line between telepathy and telekinesis. One of the greatest examples is John Carpenter’s They Live, which explores mass mind control by aliens via mass media. This story is an account of surveillance, where the masses are rendered easily observable, while those who watch remain invisible to them. Like most good science-fiction, the film’s relevance and excitement derives not only from its ambitions but also its real-life precedent.
When we feel as though our minds are being read online, often what is happening is that our preferences are being accurately inferred by algorithms
The greatest abuses of telepathy have historically come from state intelligence agencies. In the 1970s this was exemplified by U.S. intelligence initiatives MKUltra and the Stargate Project, which employed psychics as “remote viewers,” tasked with gathering intelligence information of military significance from the Soviet Union. Such endeavors have been contextualized in a broader psychic arms race, where the USSR similarly developed their own “psychotronics.” Annie Jacobsen, in her book Phenomena, writes of Russian scientists like Dr. Leonid L. Vasilev of the Special Laboratory for Biocommunications Phenomena, who sought to further sever telepathy from its occultist roots — reconfiguring it, in turn, as a “long-distance biological signal transmission” to be employed as a “psychotronic weapon.” The Soviet state even later employed such techniques as a means of propaganda, as was typified by Anatoly Kashpirovsky’s TV séances which intended to psychologically cure the nation from the impacts of economic decline. These failed state experiments in the occult are remembered for their abuse and exploitation, particularly MKUltra, which employed verbal and sexual abuse among other forms of torture.
At scale, the initial ethos of telepathy as a means of connection breaks down, as it moves further away from a one-to-one dynamic and closer to a centralized, controlled network. While MKUltra remains a thing of the past, its underlying ambition is still guiding military strategy. For instance, DARPA, a research contingent of the Pentagon, has worked on neurotechnology which would allow soldiers to control drones with their thoughts. More explicitly in line with telepathy, they have also worked on a program that would allow for the transfer of knowledge and thoughts from one mind to another via computer. The application of telepathy in military contexts may be more foreboding, but telepathy’s presence may sooner be felt in the realm of consumer tech.
Telepathy might appeal to social media companies for two reasons: First, it makes for a tantalizing sales pitch; and secondly, it has developed conceptually in a way that benefits them extremely. Inherent to the idea of a practical telepathy is both mediation and observation, which effectively legitimizes their business model. It necessitates a dependency on marketable hardware and software, while also giving credence to a surveillance dynamic. In other words, we must be surveilled for our minds to be read, and this is just the price we pay in pursuit of “better” communication. This isn’t so different from the bargain we’ve already accepted.
Like a trick leg at a séance, our current experiences of telepathic technology aren’t really telepathic at all. When we feel as though our minds are being read online, often what is happening is that our preferences are being accurately inferred by algorithms. A lot of predictive technologies fall into this tranche, whether it be predictive text, targeted advertising or programs like Amazon’s “anticipatory shopping,” which presumes our purchase and dispatches it to a nearby depot before we place the order. Our minds aren’t being read; rather, we are interfacing with an image of ourselves, shaped by the aggregation of our data. This gives rise to uncanny instances where we discuss something in person and have it advertised to us online soon afterward, fueling the conspiracy that we are being constantly listened to.
Telepathy becomes a puppet concept, intensifying surveillance by allowing private interest to become less conspicuous, while rendering the consumer more accessible
The most literal attempt at telepathy comes from brain-computer interface technology. Elon Musk’s Neuralink consists of a biological chip inserted onto the skull, which would collect neural data. Its commercial application remains ambiguous, but Musk purports that it will likely serve a medical purpose, treating neurological conditions prior to offering a social function in line with “conceptual telepathy.” Similar to Zuckerberg, he argued that it would eventually allow users to converse with one another purely through mental notes, making speech superfluous. This remains a far-off reality; in the short-term, Neuralink will more likely just extend the remit of data collection. As Danielle Carr argued in the Baffler, “what Neuralink does offer is an opportunity to harvest data about the brain and couple it to the kinds of data about our choices and behaviors that are already being collected all the time.” Telepathy becomes a puppet concept, intensifying surveillance by allowing private interest to become less conspicuous, while rendering the consumer more accessible.
As iterated earlier, pernicious stories of telepathy usually consist of a binary between those who wield it and those who resist it. Having your mind read online can be surprisingly visceral. As Big Tech moves closer to actually performing something like telepathy — the more they exploit the promise of being perfectly understood — the more apparent their shortcomings become. The more they mistake what we are thinking, feeling or desiring, the more apparent becomes the divide between how we are perceived and who we actually are.
Ironically, this awareness of being surveilled perhaps brings us closer to the occultist sense of telepathy. Described in psi communities as “scopaesthesia” or “psychic staring effect,” our innate ability to detect the surveilling gaze of others has been described in terms of telepathic affect. If tech companies do achieve a kind of telepathy, it may sooner be a testament to their failure than to their own grandiose fantasies of success.
Dolly Church is a London-based writer and editor. She writes about urban living, culture and technology, and is currently working on a potato salad.