Telepathy literally means “sending feelings.” It has come to mean reading minds.
I doubt that 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), and 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 on them by horseback was once pretty good. It gave the Sumerians who knew how to do it a competitive advantage over the tribes around them. They used it to organize labor, conquer vast kingdoms, and command thousands of people to erect monumental temple-castles and pay taxes to do so.
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 some implants and 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 the accuracy (fidelity) of transmitting our thoughts, good or bad. We are increasing the bandwidth and reach of those transmissions. We’re increasing the number of channels of our transmissions and variety of senses (sight, sound, soon touch, smell and taste if we want it). We are vastly increasing our collective recording and storing of thoughts, impressions, expressions, and events. And, of course, speed to the physical limit of instantaneity. A daughter laughs in Tokyo and her fathher smiles in Topeka. Think of the courier carrying the king’s urgent command to his troops 5000 years ago.
I call this collective project of civilization telepathy because that’s the flag on the mountain to which we’ve always been climbing since we could grunt with grammar. We’ve always chased perfect mind to mind intimacy, the pure sharing of what’s in our minds with each other, pure intersubjectivity. Some have, anyway, while others only wanted to find ever-more-effective means to persuade others to be dedicated with their minds to what’s in theirs, not to mention the more insidious collateral ability to find out what’s in others’ minds in order to exploit it.
We’re always on the road to this technologically mediated telepathy, this TMT. Call it a perpetual aspiration civilization has pursued, and now it’s accelerating breathtakingly. Geometry calls it an “asymptote.”
Along the way, we express, feel and elevate ourselves in increasingly subtle, varied and intimate ways. New media invite us to think and voice 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 and the tyrannies it’s abetted, 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 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 to 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, and writer. I’m the author of The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction (Methuen/Routledge and in Japanese; reprinted 2019), Rope Dances (Fiction Collective); A Short Guide to Writing About Science, (HarperCollins) plus articles, blogs, plays, & essays. I was CEO, co-founder, chairman, and/or senior executive of SUNY’s Learning Network, Spongefish,, the Society for Literature and Science, and Mentornet, professor of literature and media at William & Mary and at Rensselaer, and a Fulbright scholar at the Technion, Israel. I got my BSc from MIT and my PhD from UBuffalo.
You can write to me here.
The image above is a pic I took of a lovely, goodnatured jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium