Telepathy Was Science Fiction In 1972 But Today, It Could Benefit Humanity

August 20, 2014 | Sophie Weiner

ANIMAL’s Radicals Of Retrofuturism uncovers stories by the technological rebels of the past in vintage media and looks at their predictions in the context of today’s digital world. This week we discuss rapidly approaching telepathic technology, and how it could aid or hinder human communication. 

A few weeks ago, we delved into the world of Radical Software, an experimental video art publication from 1972. The Raindance Corporation, whose members created the periodical, had a penchant for futuristic pseudo-science, ideas that were on the cusp of reality and fiction. One such fantasy came from Tom Bender, who dreamed of a near future in which we could communicate via telepathy. Bender went on to be celebrated as one of the founders of sustainable architecture and economics. His piece “Telepa-Vision: The Communication Of Mental Images,” revealed a willingness to explore the fringes of science in pursuit of a better future.

Bender was frustrated, as many of us are, by the problems posed by human communication. Though he praised television and photography as major advancements, he also believed that the usefulness of language was overstated. Bender wasn’t by any means the first person to desire a more direct form of communication than language offered. His lament brings to mind Charles Bliss, whose little known Blissymbolics attempted to solve the problem of cultural divisions by creating a “pure” form of communication using symbols that could be understood by all. Bliss was hardly successful, although his system is now used in teaching mentally disabled children. “Pure communication” is a difficult ideal to attain. But Bender had a plan: telepathy.

“The ability to communicate directly and effectively between minds will begin opening the pathway towards integrating man into an operative super-organism which is now blocked by the difficulty and low relative speed of communication,” Bender wrote. In his piece, Bender comes off as a bit on the tinfoil hat side of philosophy, but his far-out ideas have come much closer to fruition today than his peers might have imagined.

As of 2014: scientists have created computer chips that act like brain neurons. Cochlear implants have been common for decades and the first retinal implant has been approved. There are brain stimulating implants that help treat Parkinson’s. Paralyzed people have been able to move their limbs with their mind. The Pentagon is funding research on memory-enhancing implants. Real telepathy has even been achieved: two rats communicated via neural implants across the world to complete a task. Telepathy is no longer the realm of quacks and sci-fi nerds: it’s real, and could happen for humans in the very near future.

But would a world with telepathy really improve things? Or would we all end up like Charles Bliss’ linguistic invention, which he believed would end human conflict but just ended up creating conflict between himself and other humans. The idea of the “singularity” is popular among the more fervent techies. A future in which human bodies become irrelevant and we merge with machines might sound like it would eliminate a lot of human suffering, but we’ve long seen technology advance while the promises of utopian equality never seem to pan out.

While Google employees bask on their campuses, poor people are forced out of their neighborhoods by people who think homeless people should be wifi hotspots and Soylent should replace food stamps. “If technologists are creating their own ultramodern religion, and it is one in which people are told to wait politely as their very souls are made obsolete, we might expect further and worsening tensions,” author Jaron Lanier wrote of techno-utopia believers in 2010. Perhaps telepathy won’t solve all our problems. 

But perhaps Bender, who lives on a secluded mountain in Oregon and preaches New Age values, wouldn’t be on board with the futurist visions of Silicon Valley prophets. Maybe the instantaneous, direct communication he referred to would rely more on the person-to-person encounters that so many warn are endangered by the internet and smartphones. Or perhaps once science advances enough for us to really see inside another’s consciousness, instead of continuing our self-righteous campaigns to better the world in our image, we will be able to attain a level of empathy for one another that was previously impossible. Compassion can be learned, research shows. Witnessing the widening divisions between people the world over, we need it more now than ever.