Telepathy literally means “sending feelings.” It has come to mean reading minds.
I doubt the science-fiction, ESP, fantastical sense of having superpowers to get thoughts directly out of one mind into another is real … though my dog often surprises me. But we do have great tools and technologies for approximating telepathy. We call them media – the things between people we use to communicate to each other – like telephones (pretty intimate), writing (maybe more intimate), Twitter and Instagram and radio (broadcast media), Facebook (purportedly intimate but selectively broadcast). For that matter, maybe we should count just talking to each other, speech, as an artificial medium, insofar as it is a product of the human mind.
One measure of how civilization has evolved is the growing sophistication of the ways we get our thoughts across to each other. Sending clay tablets with marks by horseback was once pretty good. It the Sumerians who knew how to do it a competitive advantage over the tribes around them to the extent they could conquer and organize vast kingdoms and command thousands of people to erect monumental temple-castles. Now anyone with a smartphone and some rudiments of literacy or even just a camera can reach billions instantaneously across the internet thingy. You don’t even need creativity. You just need thumbs to copy, paste and send. Wait. My three year-old granddaughter just showed me how to do it by speaking. “Send mommy my picture.”
Pretty soon we’ll have direct neural links between brains with the help of a computer, just as science fiction has long predicted (since at least John Campbell’s Telepather in his 1930 story “The Infinite Brain”).
We can measure our progress this way: we are technically increasing our fidelity of transmitting our intentions, good or bad. We are increasing the bandwidth, speed, reach and number of channels we transmit through. We are vastly increasing our collective recording and storing, if not memory, of thoughts, impressions, expressions, and events. I call it telepathy because that’s the flag on the mountain to which civilization is climbing: perfect mind to mind intimacy, the pure sharing of what’s in our minds with each other, or persuading other people to be dedicated with their minds to what’s in yours, not to mention more insidious means of finding out what’s in your mind in order to exploit it. The good thing is I don’t think we’ll get there for a very very long time, if at all. Call it an perpetual aspiration of civilization, or as geometry calls it, an asymptote.
Along the way, we’re also multiplying the ways we can express feel and elevate ourselves in increasingly subtle and intimate ways. New media invite us to think and express things we couldn’t conceive before. We’re enlarging our realities, at least as we can record them, and we’re getting better at sharing those realities – potentially. I’d like to think we’re taking advantage of it for the good. I’d like to think the thoughts and feelings and soulfulness we’re exchanging is also growing. But gazing at the fluidity and passion of cave paintings 50,000 years ago, or reading the subtlety, complexity and inspiration in the ancient Hebrew of the Bible 3300 years ago and then looking at some of the barbarisms on the internet today, I’m not so sure.
So in the interest of keeping our better aspirations for telepathy alive along with our technical progress to achieving it, I’m looking backward at the greatest example I know of how culture was transformed when a new medium exploded on the scene of human history: the advent of the phonetic alphabet in the Sinai desert in the 14th century BCE. The phonetic alphabet made possible the Hebrew Bible, which among other transcendental things is a document of its own birth and a metanarrative about writing. Exploring the nuances of the changes it wrought led me consider close readings of texts, histories and mysteries that flow from the Jews, the first fully alphabetized people. I also suggest that understanding the future of new media and predicting its impact – you could see Elon Musk’s Neuralink efforts and brain-to-brain technologies coming decades ago – is made clearer if you look at how this one changed us.
ABOUT ME: I’m a student, teacher, writer. I wrote The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction (Methuen/Routledge and in Japanese), Rope Dances (Fiction Collective); A Short Guide to Writing About Science, (HarperCollins) + articles, blogs, plays, & essays. I was CEO, co-founder or executive of SUNY’s Learning Network, the Society for Literature and Science, and Mentornet, professor of literature and media at William & Mary, Rensselaer, and a Fulbright scholar at the Technion, Israel.
You can write to me here.
The image above is a pic I took of a lovely, goodnatured jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium