I wrote a teaser for this on this blog a while back, then the full version for my Patreon a little over a week ago — though, if you care to become a patron and support my starving-writer self, you get to read things early, see exclusive posts, and sometimes even get free ebooks a month or more before release.
But — here’s the actual post now. Enjoy.
There are a couple of ways telepathy is depicted in science fiction and fantasy. One way is literal reading, where the thoughts of the target come through in words and sentences just as we speak. Since an awful lot of our thinking is preverbal – in fact, words are a filter through which we pass our own thoughts in order to send them to another mind in audible form, which passes them through its own filter – this seems like an awfully limited form. Though still an interesting form you can build a story or skit around.
The other way is a trippier depiction. The telepath receives a mixture of what the telepathee is thinking in words, plus sensations, thoughts, memories, likes and dislikes, experiences, sensory impressions.
You are the telepathee. So am I. We do not have the power of telepathy. Nor do they, technically. But still, they do and they’re reading our minds.
Who are they?
We already know, of course. There have been scads of essays and news stories and studies and marketing plans revolving around the gigantic load of information that Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon – pretty much anyone you buy from, anything you do, anything you say on the internet potentially yields useful information about you. What you’re thinking in words, plus sensations, thoughts, memories, likes and dislikes, experiences, even sensory impressions. All of those things provided you mention them online, actively by typing in the words of a post or passively by posting a picture, a meme, a mood, a like/favorite/whatever, reposting or retweeting, hashtagging, buying or wishlisting a thing, leaving a review, banking online – even speaking (or just being in a retail space) in range of your smartphone apps.
If your location is enabled on your smartphone – and lots of us love to use navigation and find out which restaurants are nearby around lunchtime, which depend on it – the speed, pattern, and destinations of your travel are valuable information about who you are and what you do.
But that’s not telepathy, you protest.
Isn’t it? Isn’t it? It’s access to all the things about you that actual telepathy would sniff out. Now, it’s doubtful that a human is accessing your information individually to figure you out. There are programs and algorithms for that, and humans see the results. Humans may be reaching out to you, through junk mail and spam and the advertisements that pop up on your screen unless you’re adblocking, and from political campaigns – which are loving what analyzing the results of this kind of pseudotelepathy can do for them.
What can you do about it?
You can go offline. It’s highly inconvenient, but it can be done. No googling, no online buying, no social media, no blogging, no navigation, no asking your phone where to go for the best burger, no email.
No publishing online.
There goes my whole writing thing!
Which brings us to the other alternative.
Embrace the beast. It’s a scary thing fraught with the potential for abuse. Unlike previous major social shifts, this one strikes to the heart of privacy, which is a thing almost all of us like. However, you do have a certain defense. It’s the same defense as an antelope in a herd has.
It’s being in a herd. An immense herd of billions.
The odds of you being targeted by any particular negative thing are pretty low – though it happens. One time years ago someone in Brazil tried to use my debit card to buy airline tickets (I was in Norfolk, Virginia at the time, and I haven’t gone sleepwalking since childhood so I know it wasn’t me). Luckily I was as poor then as I was now and the purchase was declined, I was alerted almost instantly, and I changed my card number which was a moderate pain in the butt as I was on a subscription service or two at the time.
It’s sort of a weird helpless feeling to be sure. But it’s probably the same as someone busting in your car window and ripping off your radio (I’m immune to that right now as the family car died and I had it towed away by a parts seller to squeeze the last $150 out of it). That happened to me once.
What is going to happen is that the mercantile powers that be will use what they pry out of you and me via this telepathy type thing to put temptation on every corner.
Temptation was on every corner before – though admittedly now it will be more efficiently targeted, which is a concept that shows up in a lot of science fiction like The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth, a pretty in-your-face version, or a lot of cyberpunk in a usually more implied fashion.
A bigger negative is one I hinted at above – political use. Right now we’re seeing it as a huge wave of fake news propaganda aimed at the people most likely to be radicalized, and seeking out as-yet-unidentified radicalization targets.
So, no nothing to do about it other than be one in a large herd, and hope to be passed by?
There is one more thing to add to this. It doesn’t stop someone from trying to buy a flight in Brazil on your dime, or from figuring out who you’re likely to vote for and filling your snailmailbox with eight thousand political flyers.
But pursuing an education in digital literacy, marketing awareness, and critical analysis of information and claims can help immensely. It will also help immensely if you teach your children, whether you’re a parent or a teacher or an authority figure of some sort, those skills.
Get to it, folks. There’s a future to navigate.