8-2 technology2

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

8.2 (Spring 2008)


technology and ethics


scene from The Prisoner (1968)

iBrain: The Future of Mind Power
Rosalinda Nava

The guitar, the car radio, the walkman, and the CD player are all ways that people have developed to keep music close.  The Apple iPod is very well known among the more recent developments.  It stores music digitally, so no disks are scratched and no cassettes wear out.  My iPod Nano doesn’t measure half the size of my CD player.  The latest variety of iPod is no bigger than the screen of my iPod.  How much more convenient can it get?  I suppose people might go so far as simply to implant a device into their minds that would allow remote access to music stored on a personal computer somewhere:  maximum portability with minimal effort.  I’d call that very convenient.

This iBrain would be the ultimate hands-free device.  One could sift through and listen to music by the power of thought alone.  There would be no buttons or dials to mess with.  Just deliberately think the key word and iBrain is put into active mode and ready for use.  There would be no uploading music to the iBrain.  It would have music translated into a series of electrical shock patterns by a device hooked up to the “home” source that would transmit information to the iBrain necessary to “relay the message” (i.e. stimulate parts of the brain to understand that it is hearing music).  This marvel would be streaming media directly into the brain.  Listen to music anywhere, any time.  The iBrain would be discreet and not bother bystanders because only the user could hear the music, no matter what volume said user might understand it to be—and with no damage to the ears, at that.  As long as synapses in the brain were firing, iBrain would have power.  No one with an iBrain would have to waste time and money dealing with batteries like everyone still using CD players, nor would iBrain-users have to worry about charging up like those with iPods.  Yes, the iBrain would be the ultimate hands-free device.

Of course, there are the obvious issues with the iBrain.  Despite the fact there is nothing physically impeding the ears, the auditory senses would understand that the user is listening to something and that most likely would draw an unsafe measure of awareness away from the user’s surroundings.  There would also be the issue of age appropriateness.  Would the adolescent mind be considered not yet developed enough for such an intrusion?  There might have to be policies on whether or not mental stability played a role in who qualified to have an iBrain, as well.

Then the obligatory and notorious technological problems are to be considered.  What if the device malfunctioned?  If something went wrong with the streaming capabilities, someone might literally be walking around with a song stuck in his head.  Would there be some kind of reset button?  It would be hard to reset something that has no “off switch”, since to cut power to the iBrain would mean no brain activity, which (I’m sure everyone will still agree) is necessary to a healthy living existence.  If the iBrain’s ability to draw power from the firing synapses were to somehow get cut, would the device just be a foreign object in a place it shouldn’t be?  How would the body react to that?

For that matter, we’d have to wonder if the human body would accept a foreign object so close in, to begin with.  There are those of us, after all, who can’t even get piercings because the body rejects foreign objects and tries to fight, which usually results in an infection of some sort.  No one would want an infection in the brain.  No procedure is fool-proof, either.  Professionals in many fields botch a job at some point or other.  For this device to be as widespread as manufacturers would likely be planning on, a market in commercial brain surgery would have to open up.  The odds of everything going splendidly in such an operation are not likely to be higher than those for conventional brain surgery.  Considering that the iBrain would most probably go into the temporal lobe, there would surely be a risk of damaging or even destroying the powers of speech and/or hearing.  What if it zaps the wrong part of the brain?  The parts of the brain are by no means isolated from each other.  Just because the iBrain might be programmed only to stimulate those parts of the brain that are necessary for its function, who’s to say that something might not go awry and an electric zap might not hit a vital spot?  The iBrain could be a potentially fatal attempt at convenient entertainment.

At an entirely different level of concern, what if someone figured out how to use iBrain technology to hack into people’s heads?  As I type these words, some scientist somewhere in the world is driving a living remote-controlled rat through a maze.  Someone else has a quadriplegic hooked up to a machine to watch him control a mouse on a screen with nothing more than his will power, the same way anyone else might move his foot left or right.  The ability to control the human mind may seem merely a favorite terror in the pages of science fiction; more and more, however, science fiction is anticipating the next technological revolution.  Studies are happening around the world whose end is to decode the human brain.  For the sake of science?

For some, these studies are an innocent way to understand the way the mind works.  Yet people never can leave information on “pure” display once it has been unearthed.  Having become known, it must be put to use.  The question will always be, as it is here:  to what use?  It’s easy enough to laugh now at the thought of a government conspiracy in which the general populace would one day be controlled through the use of such technology as the iBrain, cleverly disguised as a toy for the entertainment of the masses.  But is it so outlandish?  When most of the science fiction involving mind control devices was written, the idea that we could reasonably stick a foreign object into somebody’s brain without doing considerable damage was ridiculous.  It has now happened (in the case, for instance, of certain implants designed to assist the deaf).  We would be very naïve to assume that there wouldn’t be a figure out there who would want to control and track (because what good is control of a tool when the tool cannot be located?) the minds of a population.  Possibilities such as this would not go unexplored.

With the development of the iBrain, a heightened sense of paranoia might also begin to infiltrate the contentment of a society well off enough to create dangerous toys for pleasure (a scenario also often evoked by science fiction).  If history has taught us anything, it is that a rise of fear and  unrest in the people of a society does not bode well for the future of that society.  If the ideas that revolve around the iBrain are not so absurd, what else becomes not so absurd?  Maybe, in a mindset reminiscent of The Matrix, we might learn to draw power from living beings.  That is what the iBrain does, after all.  What projects might it inspire?

On the individual level, outlook and expectations would certainly be affected.  It is far from absurd to imagine a child growing up in the understanding that gratification should be instantaneous with the desire.  (Have children not already reached this point?)  People would soon lose their appreciation of any technology that requires more than thought-power to operate.  There would be more “internal focus”, less willingness to be involved with anyone else.  Although teachers and parents all claim that headphones are a way to tune out the world and remain anti-social within a group, headphones may at least be shared.  They do not promote the trend of isolation as a device like iBrain would, for one cannot share the internal functions of the brain.  As those who suffer from depression well know, one of the hardest feelings to digest is loneliness.  If being isolated from everyone in so many senses of the word isn’t lonely, then the word has no meaning.

With this in mind, we can reasonably predict that as people become more distant from one another mentally and emotionally, the number of those who suffer from depression—and from other illnesses that depression is shown to influence—will rise.  Accompanying this increase will be another in antisocial behavior, naturally.  As if people aren’t stressed enough!  When stress sets in, so does the yearning to escape from causes of stress—a yearning that may grow well nigh universal.

Very rarely does anyone look at a source of obvious pleasure and tag it as a cause of stress.  People review their responsibilities and complain, “These bills make my head hurt,” or, “Work was so tiring.”  How convenient if someone else would do it all!  Babies are forced to rely on others for all needs—are indeed born expecting someone to address those needs.  None of us would have cried as an infant if we hadn’t expected something to come of it.  For most of us, something did come of it.  We were fed, changed, kept warm and loved.  Our worlds were comfortably controlled.  We were content to have our decisions made for us, to have everything done for us.  The development of technologies that are frequently drawing less and less supervision suggests that we’re still looking for that natural expectation to be met.  In the case of devices like iBrain, perhaps the temptation we should eye most fearfully is not that which lures power-hungry leaders to seek more control, but that which lures us into envying the robot’s dependent existence.

Works Consulted

Horgan, John.  “The Myth of Mind Control:  Will Anyone Ever Decode the Human Brain?”  DISCOVER Magazine 29 Oct.  2004.  6 Sept. 2007 <http://discovermagazine.com/2004/oct/cover>.

“Mind Control.”  Produced by ScienCentral, Inc. DISCOVER Magazine.  13 Sept. 2007 <discovermagazine.com/brightcove>

ScienCentral, Inc.  “Mind Control.”  ScienCentralNEWS 24 Sept. 2002 .  13 Sept. 2007 <www.sciencentral.com/articles/view.php3? language=english&type=&article_id=218391807>


  Rosalinda (Linda) Nava, a native of Austin , Texas , currently attends The University of Texas at Tyler as an undergraduate devoted to writing.  Despite our era’s academy- and culture-wide indifference to literate expression, she hopes to find an appropriate major soon.