These demure humming boxes contained the densest working out, the highest tide of everything that collective ingenuity had yet learned to pull off. It housed the race’s deepest taboo dream, the thing humanity was trying to turn itself into.
Richard Price, Plowing the Dark
Here are the four questions the concept of telepathy helps me answer:
1. Where we are: Our desire for telepathy tells us what we are turning ourselves into: truly intersubjective beings, transmitting pure thought, sensation, and experience to each other instantaneously, without mediation or translation. Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, creating artificial humans, finding alien life, colonizing other planets. Telepathy. These are the science fiction dreams that actually seem to propel billion or trillion dollar worldwide industries. But all of them seem to lie just out of reach, beckoning us. We’re always so close. We’re always not quite there, like Zeno’s Paradox, closing the gap but never reaching our target. Seeing all communication as telepathy tells us something about what it means to be human, maybe a little about what it means to be a living thing at all. My dog is barking, the bees are dancing, the trees are reading each other’s chemical minds. To be alive seems to be to aspire to telepathy.
2. What happened? If we use the dream of telepathy as a lens to look back, it helps us understand our history. Older communications technologies – the alphabet, printing press, radio, TV, and the Internet, were revolutions in telepathy, coming with increasing speed through the centuries and now decades, driving us to this ideal: getting experience and thought to pass from mind to mind. Each came with new hopes, new ways of interacting and defining ourselves, and new gods.
4.How to really read: This is minor but it is dear to my heart as an old literature professor: Telepathy implies a way of reading. Reading telepathically means really trying to find out what the author is thinking and intending before finding confirmation of my own bias or theory in the text. They should teach it in every literature class: how to read beyond ideology. Reading is an act of intimacy between the author and me. It comes with a certain responsibility that accompanies all acts of conjugation. I submit to entering and being possessed by another’s mind. When a writer sits down to write in good faith, even the most profane, they are writing a form of liturgy. And I should try to read faithfully, in good faith, like a prayer, beyond prejudice. Every time we try to make ourselves understood or try to understand another, there is a divine hope.
I’m the author of The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction (Methuen/Routledge), Rope Dances (short stories, The Fiction Collective); A Short Guide to Writing About Science, (HarperCollins & Pearson) and other books, as well as reviews, essays, blogs, fiction, plays, and articles. For 21 years, I was a professor of literature and media at William & Mary and then at Rensselaer. I am also the former CEO, co-founder and executive of several e-learning companies and programs at universities, non-profits and the private sector.
Inspired by the launch of the World Wide Web with the Mosaic browser, I originally explored versions of this material during a sabbatical year as a Fulbright scholar at the Technion in Israel (1993-94). I indulgently took it up with a doctoral class in literature at Rensselaer in 1994. I am indebted to them for their skepticism and indulgence of these “porushian studies,” as they mockingly called my rants, and with good reason. Though wisdom be eternal, cleverness is fleeting, and probably narcissistic.
I published a short version of the larger project appeared here in Mots Pluriels, an Australian journal. Some of it showed up in bits and pieces in numerous dense publications (e.g. “Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson’s Snow Crash” in Configurations, a Johns Hopkins University journal.) I am most recently grateful to Jason Silva who both resurrected my work and my interest in it by meeting me in San Francisco and then mentioning it in one of his ecstatic video posts “The Urge to Merge.”
I thank my many Talmud teachers and classmates past and present, who often served as the first, suffering audiences, saved me from much foolishness, and have immeasurably enriched my life and thinking. I am especially grateful to my wife, Sally, for her deep and abiding forbearance, to my children, and to my granddaughters for gazing into my eyes for long minutes, even as babies, with questions I can’t answer.
I am inviting you to get lost in this labyrinth, dear telepath, and if you have the time, like a fellow spider in this web, drop me a sticky line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As I write this, my granddaughter Siona is just shy of her second birthday, God bless her. She is very communicative and expressive and highly intelligent (aren’t all granddaughters?)
But she doesn’t speak much yet, at least in English. She has a few monosyllables: da, ma, pa, dee, co, ekk, choo, [sniff with nose = flowers], [cluck with tongue = horsey].. and a couple dozen signs: rub tummy for hunger, squeeze hand for milk, put fists together for “more,” thump chest for “teddy,” slap sides for “dog”…
All of us in her life know what these signs mean. And if you look in her eyes, she will hold your gaze and, well… I could write and she is telling volumes. But she makes plain her frustration. She is feeling and wanting to tell sentences, and through series of signs and sounds she is, but we, the adults, are only getting parts. Telepathy would be so much better.
In Siona’s frustration, you can see she discovered in the last few months that telepathy doesn’t exist. But until recently, she thought it did.Without belaboring the point, we know what lies before her, and though she doesn’t know the particulars, she knows the meaning of it. She will have to labor to learn how to make all the intimates around her understand what is in her head. And the monumental labor, the painful, glorious, fun of the journey in front of her makes me want to cry. It is like watching her getting kicked out of Eden. In fact, it is exactly like getting kicked out of Eden and losing your Adamic prelapsarian language. Siona is now learning she will have to communicate by the sweat of her brow and claw her way back into making people around her understand a vague and veiled version of what was just recently all-at-once known, obvious, and true.
Soon enough, she will experience the catastrophe of the Tower of Babel.
As she slowly adds words and connects them syntactically and begins her voyage through those infinite but constrained channels of spoken language and then written language, she will re-enact the evolution of TMT, and slowly lose her infantile, divine conviction that everyone is telepathic and learn how to play the keyboards of these telepathic technologies we invent.
Siona’s linguistic and media ontogeny will recapitulate the phylogeny of our civilizations. And so do all of our personal journeys. So the urge to be telepathic is something we carry with us ontologically, in our own life history. We can excavate and use this desire both to interrogate the history of learning to use language and each individual act of communication.
Every time we speak, write, sing there is at least some residue of desire and urgency to get inside the heads of others and let them into ours. We are all telepaths.
Chasing virtual reality, what we used to call cyberspace, has spawned a multi-trillion dollar worldwide industry, which makes it a pretty sexy phrase, right? But do we really know what we mean when we use it? In normal conversation today, when we say something is virtually true we’re saying something like,
“It’s just about almost perfectly completely and for all intents and purposes as effectively true as truth … but not essentially, really true.”
So when we call it virtual reality, this technology meant to fool you into thinking you’re experiencing something you’re not, we’re saying it is “almost really” real, or virtually real, don’t we? It’s a beautiful oxymoron, and more or less accurate, depending on how cool your hookup gear and the simulations inside are.
This is a heavily redacted prophesy about the end of the book and the coming of machine-mediated brain-to-brain communication I wrote in February 1993 to Kali Tal as part of a longer exchange about hallucinogenic drugs, the coming of mind-to-mind communication through VR, and other things.
Bumpercar enhanced empaths
Tools are human.
There are no technologies without humanities.
Artificial intelligence is a metaphor for the psyche. (And not much more, believe me.) Just as the idea of a psyche is a contraption of cognitive psychology and philosophy, and the brain is a concoction of neurology, so is AI just an idea of what it wants human intelligence to be. (A machine.)
Multimedia, even as virtual reality, is a metaphor for the sensorium, a perceptual gadget beholden to poetics and media studies. It’s got a wonderful future, but it’s just a stab in the dark theater of our desire to be more intimate and stimulating.
Nothing is yet quicker than the light of the slow word.
Yes, we are in the late age of print. What we whiff now is not the smell of ink but the smell of loss, of burning towers or men smoking cigars in the drawing room, thinking they are building an empire. Hurry up please, it’s time. Yes, the time of the book has passed. But it will persist to give glorious pleasure, like other obsolete forms that continually renew themselves and the soul: the poem, dance, graffiti. The book is dead, long live the book.
We will continue to read from paper just as we continue to write poems and tell stories. But we shouldn’t be so attached to the idea of the material thing called a book, which is after all just one of many technologies for delivering the word that began with scrawls on clay and stone. Think of the book as a metaphor for the process it inscribes, for getting one’s solo thoughts into many other heads, one at a time. Just one of many technologies we’ve devised to get what’s in my brain into yours and vice versa. Tech-mediated-telepathy.
When Sony showed Discman, a portable, mini-CD the size of a Walkman, capable of holding 100,000 pages of text, a discussion on the Gutenberg listserv complained with pain, with nostos algia, wistful pain for home: “The smell of ink … the crinkle of pages…”
“But you can’t read it in bed,” she said, everyone’s last redoubt, the last-ditch argument.
Meanwhile in far-off laboratories of what Stuart Moulthrop calls the Military-Infotainment Complex at Warner, Disney or IBApple and MicroLotus, a group of scientists work on synchronous smell-o-vision with real time simulated fragrance degradation shifting from fresh ink to old mold. Another group builds raised-text flexible touch screens with laterally facing windows that look and turn like pages, crinkling and sighing as they exfoliate.
“But even the dog can’t eat it,” someone protests. Smiling, silently the techies go back to their laboratories with bags of silicon kibbles.
Swimming amidst this undertow, tilting at this windmill, we should keep alive the idea of what the book was and can be, Don Quixote. Tristram Shandy. Gravity’s Rainbow.
In an age when people buy and do not read more books than have ever been published before, perhaps we will each become like the living books of Truffaut’s version of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, vestal readers walking along the meandering river of light just beyond the city of text. We face their tasks now, resisting what flattens us, re-embodying reading as movement, as an action rather than a thing, appropriating the metaphor that we think will diminish what we love. We should view the book as a network, a node in a network, each word an implicit hypertextual link to archeologcal layers of meaning and what has already been written elsewhere.
And as we appropriate the term, we should also colonize the territory, invade it, dominate it. The network is ours to inhabit. We will read there.
Think of what we need to get VR to work, I mean really work. You need a map of how cognitive modes function in the neurophysiology of the brain that then can be mimicked by a dumb ole binary machine, even a massively interconnected one … with enhancements (like direct electrical plugs into the brain).
As we get better and better at doing that, we’re gonna achieve some pretty good turnaround time in transcribing thoughts into evanescent images beyond words. We will produce other sensory kinesthetics (I should say performances). The time between upload and download shrinks, the kinesthetic performances become better and better at representing what’s in our heads, especially since the gear is our heads, and pretty soon you get telepathy, or tech-mediated telepathy, its asymptote.
Now amp up the part of the brain that integrates connections into feelings of transcendence – is it the dorsal raphe nucleus? — with a pattern that does something like Ecstasy or MDMA –forced massive sudden depletion of the serotonin reserves, so the big whoosh comes flooding down (or up) from the brainstem, and you get your waterbed bumpercar enhanced empath … Holy shit there’s more here than I thought. You just did it to me, that miracle:
Whether or not one believes that the Hebrew alphabet was a divine revelation to Moses on Sinai, we can understand why the cultural moment of its invention would be recorded as one of the most transformative revolutions in history.
We can see how the conception of an omnipotent, omnipresent and invisible God is coeval with it. We can understand why a powerful leader would want to expel or eradicate those who possess this potent new tech, especially of they were slaves: there’s lots of them and they have an ax to grind with Pharaoh’s rule. We can understand why slaves attribute to it mythologies of redemption, revelation, and revolution. That it coincides with the best evidence we have for the actual historic origins of this new technology of the alphabet lends force to the argument.
As such, the origin of the alphabet becomes a model for other moments in history that were wrought by sudden eruptions and deployment of disruptive technologies, especially technologies of communication, since they inevitably bring a new ethos, new cognitive tools, new arts, new epistemologies, and new gods. Telegraph, telephone, radio, television, the Internet – all were born amid prophesies for their transformation of civilization and even the invention or summoning of new gods.
We’ve seen in previous posts that, if we read the Hebrew closely and cleverly, the Bible tells the story of the origin of the alphabet as a gift from God to Moses on Mount Sinai. God instructs Moses to teach this new disruptive communication technology to the Children of Israel. Moses and Aaron use it to liberate them from slavery in Egypt by showing its disruptive power to Pharaoh in his court.
Whether or not one believes that the Hebrew alphabet was a divine revelation to Moses on Sinai, we can understand why the moment of its invention would be recorded as one of the most transformative revolutions in history. We can see how the conception of an omnipotent, omnipresent and invisible God comes with this new cognitive weapon. We can understand why a powerful leader would let those who possess this new technology would be torn between expelling them and eradicating them. And we can see why a culture of slaves who seem to come out of nowhere attribute to it mythologies of redemption, revelation, and revolution that changes humanity for millenia. That it coincides with the best evidence we have for the actual historic origins of this new technology of the alphabet lends force to the argument.
We’ve seen (in Part 1 and Part 2) that the Bible tells the story of the origin of the alphabet as a gift from God to Moses on Mount Sinai. God instructs Moses to teach this new disruptive communication technology to the Children of Israel and use it to liberate them from slavery in Egypt. He and his brother Aaron then stage a contest of scripts in the court of Pharaoh. Pharaoh summons his hieroglyphic scribes to show that the new writing system is not so special. The war of demos takes the form of magical-seeming transformations and “signs” (the Hebrew word for “thing” “plague” and “word” are the same). Water turn to blood. Frogs crawl out of the slime. But on the third contest, when Moses strikes the “dust of the earth” and summons “lice” all over Egypt, the Egyptian scribes are defeated. They throw up their hands and exclaim, “This is the finger of God!”
But why do the Egyptians give up now after having no trouble matching the transformation of water into blood or summoning frogs from the mud? A clue is in the nature of the transformation. Hieroglyphic signs for frogs and blood are well-known. What are hieroglyphs for dust and lice?
In Egyptian, the spoken word for lice is “tiny” or “diminutive” (the same word used for little girls). But they didn’t have a glyph for it in the older hieroglyphics in use at the time of Moses, nor are there glyphs for any adjective, because they are abstractions, a quality attached to a thing and enormously hard to represent by itself (you could color a tunic or show a small person, but how what is the picture for “smallness”?) Nor does there seem to be a hieroglyph for “dust.” Lice, like dust, are ubiquitous but nearly invisible little nothings. They are like the finger of a ubiquitous but invisible Deity stirring the pot of the universe and history. Kinim [כנם], the Hebrew word here translated as “lice,” is used in Israel to refer also to those tiny gnats that make a buzzing sound but which can’t be seen. In the American South, we call them “noseeums.”
Furthermore, the Hebrew letters for plague are D-B-R [דבר]. By supplying different vowels from those in traditional interpretations, these letters can also signify words or things or statements or even commandments, as in the Ten Commandments. As a word, DBR דבר is, like EHT את, a one-word demonstration of the power and facility of this new script to add abstraction and multiply layers of meanings. Hebrew without vowels, the Hebrew of the Bible, intrinsically adds complexity and even poetryto even simple texts.
Mind to mind metaphysics in alphabet and cyberspace
The brain is a sur-rational machine for bringing worlds into collision, a metaphor device, a translation circuit for closing and opening the loop between incommensurate and mutually incomprehensible universes. In my view, it is already “meta-physical.”
Nature was finished when it invented the human brain
What is the brain? At its very simplest it is an entity that takes impressions from out there in the form of energy striking different nerve endings in the organs of the body (eyes, skin, ears, nose, mouth/tongue), converts the energy into information, shuttles the information to a central processor, a black box homuncular body without organs sitting in an ecology of incomprehensibly frothing and turbulent hormones, and somehow translates them into wholly different things in here – sensations, thoughts, flocks of birds, schools of fish, swarming, buzzing. The brain is intrinsically a sur-rational machine for bringing worlds into collision, a metaphor device, a translation circuit for closing and opening the loop between incommensurate and mutually incomprehensible universes. It is already “meta-physical.”
Before we were homo sapiens and the brain was simple, there was a neat Kantian fit between animal and environment: The rules of the world out there, its physics, were not challenged by the rules of the world in here; there was a nice match. But then through some urgency that it is just as easy to talk about metaphysically or teleologically as in terms of some deterministic chaotic evolution, the brain exploded, human-like hominids started walking upright about 100,000 years ago, looking forward, using tools, colonizing the world, creating new social structures. The brain, like some imperial culture exploding off a remote island, started projecting itself onto the world, terraforming the Earth in its own image and leaving in its wake a trail of non-bio-degradable tools and waste. Nature was finished. It was finished in the sense that it reached a fulfillment and a culmination, but it had also committed suicide, finished itself off. Not only did humans begin to massively alter the environment, but the brain also started talking, depicting, enacting versions of its experience in cave paintings, ritual dances, gestures, and a grammar of grunts. It became self-conscious. It recognized a mismatch between the world out there and the world in here: Hey! The world persists; we die! Self-consciousness and the idea of death were born in one fatal stroke. Finally, the brain framed everything it looked at: nature became a pastoral scene in the cognitive museum. The cosmos seen through human eyes was an artifice, always already available for use.
The C3 Loop
On the flip side, the human brain is a prisoner of the loop of cognition, culture and communication, caught in its virtuous cycle. We call the cybernetic device that initiated and grew in this loop language or symbolizing. Frances Hellige in his book on cognition and the brain, Hemispheric Asymmetry, describes this loop initiated by the development of language, with feed-forward and feedback components, as a sort of “snowball effect,” a cycle of ever-widening gyres that eventually embraces and creates everything between the poles of culture and the biology of the brain itself, including physiological changes in structure and size of different regions.2
In cybernetic terms, we call this a positive feedback loop. The cybernetic system (in this case, human brain) sends information out into the world-culture-environment, which feed newly intensified signals back into the (brain) system to destabilize the system anew, which in turn re-amplifies its message, like an over-sensitive microphone, and again re-broadcasts this message back onto the world until the universe screeches with the noise of the human brain echoed back to it, in it, a cyborg rock concert. It also changes the brain itself. Another researcher, Charles Lumsden, calls this process “the selective stabilization of the synapses” as a result of continuous exposure to cultural effects or stimulation, a collaboration between cultural invention and inherited genetic characteristics,” or “Gene-Culture Coevolution.”3
Neurophysiologists and cognitive scientists who study the alphabet note that its effects on the brain can even be seen in the lifetime development of individual people. The use of language reshapes the brain from womb to tomb. A whole new discipline of neural plasticity has emerged in the last few decades, showing that the brain is not the static, genetically-determined machine we once thought it to be. In other words, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny in culture-gene co-evolution as well. Studies of aphasics and dyslexics show that the brain changes physiologically and progressively after injury, suggesting that parts of the brain grow even in the lifetime of individual humans.
Fun with your new brain: the rise of the alphabet
Using different alphabets (or losing the capacity to read the alphabet), even within the lifetime of an individual, is a bit like growing a new brain. Trying a new alphabet must have been (and still is) tantamount to an ongoing progressive hallucination. It lets you think things that you couldn’t have thought before, makes connections that simply didn’t exist physiologically – for which your brain wasn’t wired – and forces your brain into different information processing patterns, which presumably involve different mental events or experiences (as physiological-cognitive research overwhelmingly shows). It’s like having a whole new brain, or at least, a brain with whole new faculties, new circuits, new wetware. Now imagine the mass hallucination of an entire culture learning how to use an alphabet for the first time. Whole tribes of people, or important segments of them, put on this new cybernetic headgear, or what I have been calling a new form of telepathy, virtually all at once. We can imagine this mass cybernetic experiment would be accompanied by social, epistemological, and metaphysical revolutions, apocalyptic prophesies, and re-definitions of the self in relation to body, mind, others, and the invisible. In short, it might provoke the emergence of a new religion.
With this perhaps absurd hypothesis in our minds, let’s take a look at the advent of writing itself. Take (in our imaginations) a time-lapse photograph of the Nile Valley before and just after the advent of hieroglyphics, or (even earlier), the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia before and just after the very first invention of writing, Sumerian pictographs around 3200 B.C. These time-lapsed films would show millions of years of desultory animal activity, including the hunting gathering and low-level agricultural activity of upright hominids after 35,000 BC. As we approach 10,000 BC, activity begins to pick up pace and organization. Clusters of hominids show tool use, primitive mound building, expressive cave painting, and cultivation of the earth, though in indifferent and almost-random-seeming patterns. Then, suddenly, around 3200 BCE, BANG! Something leaps across the chaotic bifurcation into a new order of frantic self-organization. Compressed into a few frames is an almost instantaneous transformation; blink and you’ll miss the instant. These fertile regions undergo massive terraforming along rectilinear plots. Rivers are diverted into rectangular irrigation systems. Cities emerge, themselves rectilinear. Zoom in with me now into the square-ish walls of the cities, and into the very square-ish rooms of the city, and we will find the intimate source of this sudden change. There, a row of hard stone benches, arranged regularly. It is a schoolroom for scribes! Hundreds of boys, mostly the sons of privileged nobility, sit for hours hunched over clay tablets, learning to scrawl in regular lines. Indeed, if we superimpose the scratching of these lines they look like the lines of irrigation written on the face of the earth itself, as seen from an orbiting satellite. The harsh discipline of the schoolchildren being tutored in script “canalizes” their thought processes, reinforcing certain pathways. It is hard not to imagine that what’s written on the brain gets projected onto the world, which is literally “canalized,” too.
Looking at a picture of the ancient Sumerian classroom for scribes found in Shuruppak (from ca. 3200 BC),
we see familiar rows of benches and the headmasters desk up front. Then we are seized with a horrible and giddy vertigo, a terrible recognition: Five thousand years later, and we’re still canalizing the brains of our children in the same way, enforcing the discipline of writing in virtually the same methods and with not so dissimilar effects as did these ancient Sumerians, “that gifted and practical people” (as Edward Chiera calls them in his groundbreaking study, They Wrote on Clay). Sumerians invented cuneiform as a perfectly portable means to effect commerce, extend the authority of their kings, preserve metaphysical and transcendent information, and secure the stability of caste and rank.
The invention of pictographic writing by the Sumerians was “a secret treasure’ or mystery which the laymen could not be expected to understand and which was therefore the peculiar possession of a professional class of clerks or scribes,” Chiera writes. Furthermore, the metaphysics associated with this new telepathic technology becomes clear in the priestly functions these scribes served. Neo-Babylonian texts used the same ideogram for priest and scribe. Along with the script came a new mythology that, predictably, placed the power of language in the center of its metaphysics: “As for the creating technique attributed to these [new] deities, Sumerian philosophers developed a doctrine which became dogma throughout the Near East — the doctrine of the creative power of the divine word. All that the creating deity had to do, according to this doctrine, was to lay his plans, utter the word, and pronounce the name.
In fact, everywhere pictographic writing makes its advent, we find the sudden emergence of what we can think of as “tech writing empires”: civilizations geometrically akin in their compulsive rectilinearity to the hexagonal hive structures of bees. In China, among the Aztecs of Mexico or Incas in Peru, in Babylon, Sumeria, and Egypt, we see the same pattern of social, epistemological, and metaphysical organization. Along with these scripts come other inventions so predictably similar that they seem to derive directly from imperatives in the nervous system itself amplified or newly grown by use of the new cyborg device of writing: centralized authority in god/kings; monumental ziggurat-like or pyramidal architecture; hierarchies of priest-scribes; complex, self-perpetuating bureaucracies; fluid but clearly demarcated social/economic classes; trade or craft guilds; imperialism; slavery; “canalizing” educational systems; confederations of tribes into nations; standardized monetary systems and trade; taxes; and so on. Almost every conceivable aspect of empire, in its gross forms, was entailed in pictographic writing. Even the alphabet, with its greater efficiency and fidelity to speech, only seems to add abstraction and speed to what McLuhan described as the “exteriorization of the nerve net”
I am 16 years old and I am going to go crazy. I can’t stop thinking about the Apocalypse. I keep seeing and hearing things, and they all add up to one fact: It’s coming. I feel like it is pointless to even do things because I know it is all going to end soon, either by mass starvation with the death of bees, an asteroid hitting our planet, or by nuclear bomb, global warming, bird flu, or human flu, or AIDS, whatever. I am trying to cut high fructose corn syrup out of my diet and every time I think I have triumphed I realize that it’s in everything!!!!!! Splenda causes lesions to the brain, meat causes heart attacks, organic foods are twice the cost of non-organic, yet non-organic foods have pesticides and toxins.
At its most basic, a pun is a way of using the sound of words to make a connection between meanings that don’t exist otherwise. The husband confuses impotent for important. Of course, the major point of the joke is the ridiculous spectacle the man makes of himself because of his mistake. A minor point is the slim connection between his biological impotence and his impotence in language, although you can laugh at the pun without explicitly making that connection.