Tomorrow people

In 2016, Elon Musk launched Neuralink with the aim of manufacturing an electronic implant in the brain that could link it directly to the computer network. Musk’s company was joining the race to build brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, which involved Meta, Google and a host of neurology start-ups funded by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Musk’s focus was, for a time, diverted by market-share and software problems with Tesla and by his well-publicised buyout of Twitter, but in May 2023, it was announced that Neuralink had received approval to proceed from controversial animal to in-human trials with brain implants. In early 2024, there was extensive coverage of the implantation of a chip into the brain of a quadriplegic patient, Noland Arbaugh, who, soon after the operation, could play chess and his favourite video game just by focusing his thoughts on moving a computer cursor.

Musk named the implant, which embeds 1,024 small electrodes into the brain to read its neural signals, Telepathy. At launch, he explained that Neuralink’s main aim was to create an interface to realise ‘consensual telepathy’. Seven years later, the press obligingly headlined the livestream of Arbaugh playing chess with his mind as actively ‘demonstrating telepathy’ (although the later paragraphs of the news stories all tended to severely qualify this claim).

Tech observers often note that many of Musk’s technological visions are indebted to his reading of science fiction, particularly when it comes to rocketry, satellites and the colonisation of Mars. These often follow fictional blueprints. His influences here are the post-1945 science-fiction works that extrapolated futures out of the military-industrial advances that had been accelerated by the war machine. The moniker ‘hard science fiction’ arose because this vein of the genre was rooted in the cold calculus of physics or engineering, and promoted as a serious scientific endeavour in itself by the legendary editor of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, John W Campbell, who championed such writers of hard science fiction as Isaac Asimov, Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke.

Telepathy might initially seem a much softer, psychological proposition, tainted with a sense of the supernatural. Yet both Campbell and Clarke were lifelong advocates of the view that telepathy was highly probable, the scientific proof of its existence likely just around the corner. The promise of telepathy – soon to be achieved, not far off, only a few test subjects away – feels very familiar when reading Musk’s boosterish announcements on Neuralink’s latest breakthroughs. The promise that telepathy is just about to be realised is not confined to entrepreneurs and science-fiction writers alone. For more than a century, there have consistently been figures in the scientific establishment who have entertained similar hopes that telepathy would soon reach the threshold of proof, promising everything from opening a new evolutionary phase of human development to a new psychic front in the global arms race.

The concept of telepathy was first coined in 1882 by the agnostic English poet and amateur psychologist Frederic Myers (1843-1901). Myers suffered a textbook Victorian crisis of faith: comfortably upper middle class, the son of a clergyman, with a wide social circle of artists and thinkers, he was troubled by profound doubts about the orthodox Christian narrative. He studied at the University of Cambridge under the agnostic philosopher Henry Sidgwick, much admired for the honesty with which he expressed his own ethical and religious uncertainties. A conversation with the novelist George Eliot, another principled agnostic, plunged Myers deeper into doubt.

Portrait of Frederic Myers by William Clarke Wontner; unknown date. Courtesy the NPG London/Wikipedia

A series of personal crises in the 1870s, among them the suicide of his paramour Annie Eliza Marshall, prompted Myers to explore the déclassé world of spiritualist séances, involving so-called mediums (often women) who claimed that in trance states they became channels for messages from the dead, most famously rapped out on parlour tables, but also tooted through spirit trumpets, scrawled in automatic writing, spoken in direct voice, or even delivered by conjuring up the dead in ethereal form in the darkened séance room. For many people suffering religious doubt, the séance experience seemed to offer empirical proof of survival after death and, as such, was fervently embraced.

Spiritualism was both a mass movement and a folk religion, and it had some surprising support from men of science. The co-founder of evolutionary theory Alfred Russel Wallace became a passionate advocate, much to the annoyance of a sceptical Charles Darwin. The transatlantic telegraph engineer Cromwell Varley became a public convert, while leading physicists such as Oliver Lodge and Lord Rayleigh were open to it and sympathetic. Yet, because of the constant association of spiritualism with claims of fraud, involving cheaply staged magic tricks and simple-minded credulity, Myers did not publicly announce his own research.

Engineer-inventors promised that a machine for transmitting direct, unmediated thought was not far off

Instead, along with Sidgwick and several other earnest Cambridge men, Myers was at the core of the group that launched the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London in 1882. The SPR hoped to turn the chaos of allegedly supernatural phenomena – spirit messages, haunted houses, uncanny dreams and visions, or mesmeric trances – into a respectable area of science. The SPR’s leading lights did not presume the ‘spirit hypothesis’, but rather suspended it, pending experimental evidence – which meant they split from the broader spiritualist movement. They set out to examine and theorise the physical or perhaps neuropsychological underpinnings of séance communications and the sighting of ghosts. In seeking natural explanations for supernatural phenomena, they developed their own distinctive nomenclature. Rather than ghosts, they spoke of ‘veridical phantasms’. Haunted houses became ‘phantasmogenetic centres’ – places where a previously undetected kind of energy called ‘psychic force’ might be at play.

Myers arrived at ‘telepathy’ by joining the Greek tele to pathos, to express the idea of ‘distant touch’. It was meant as a neutral term to describe, as he put it, ‘communication outside the recognised channels of sense’. This might cover messages from the unconscious, or minds connected somehow across vast distances, or messages from the dead. In a period of rapid innovation in electrical science and technology, the press marvelled at the arrival of telephones and phonographs that disembodied voice, and at detectors of ‘invisible’ waves made manifest somehow with the magical invention of both X-rays and wireless telegraphy. Many engineer-inventors of the time promised that a machine for transmitting direct, unmediated thought was surely not far off. Both Thomas Edison and his rival Nikola Tesla anticipated such a breakthrough in their various predictions about the future of electrical communications. After Myers died in 1901, his posthumous book Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903) promised that proof of telepathy lay but a handful of years away.

Psychical research never quite made it into the respectable hard sciences, and stayed on the edges of academic psychology too. The American researcher J B Rhine reinvented it as ‘parapsychology’ in his research unit at Duke University, where he conducted laborious studies of the statistical probabilities of mind-reading using Zener cards. These cards have a star, wave, cross, circle or square on them, which test subjects, who can’t see their graphic side, are asked to guess. Rhine searched repeated testing sessions for statistical anomalies that might capture fugitive telepathic powers. The tests were deliberately mundane and repetitious, designed to remove the research from the sensational scene of the séance. Rhine’s book Extrasensory Perception (1934) was a popular success, coining yet another general term that slipped quickly into general usage, but parapsychology, as such, was fixed as a fringe concern.

A telepathy experiment being conducted with Zener cards in 1940. Courtesy Wikipedia

In his science fiction, Arthur C Clarke often used the idea of emerging telepathic abilities in man to signal an epochal shift in human evolution. In his novel Childhood’s End (1953), the Overlords contact the human race not because of their high tech – specifically, nuclear weapons – but because they perceive that the development of human psychical powers is reaching a dangerous tipping point, where humanity might start to do damage beyond its own tiny planet. The alien contact heralds the start of a new stage of evolution marked by the awakening of telepathic powers. Humanity will leave behind its childish state. That vision feeds directly into the trippy finale of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which was scripted by Clarke and the director Stanley Kubrick. That film, too, ended with the vision of psychical rebirth.

Clarke’s interest in telepathy in this era chimed with a wider revival of interest in the subject, driven by the curious logic of the Cold War. In the 1960s and ’70s, telepathy was bound directly into the military-industrial complexes of governments, East and West. Once again full of near-future promise, telepathy was seen as a technology of the self that could radically disrupt the stalemate of the arms race, because both sides wondered if psychic powers could circumvent the nuclear stand-off. If psychic powers could be controlled and trained, could spies dodge defence systems using ‘remote vision’ or telepathy? This research also got a shiny new name for the new era: it was called ‘psionics’ or ‘psychotronics’.

In 1968, a conference on ‘technical parapsychology’, which invited the participation of physicists, psychologists and bioengineers from around the world, was held in chaotic circumstances in Moscow. The Communist Party authorities attempted to cancel it, even as delegates arrived. It eventually started, but as an unsanctioned event.

The conference released into the public realm some extraordinary information about extensive parapsychological research in the Soviet Union that had been conducted since Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. After the October Revolution in 1917, Bolshevik heroes of science had researched what the electrical engineer Bernard Kazhinsky had called ‘biological radio communication’. Kazhinsky argued that ‘Electromagnetic transmission of mental information over a distance is a vital function of the nervous system,’ and that the human body might be an instrument of ‘biological communication still unknown to contemporary radio engineering’. This kind of work had all been shut down under Stalin, but the Soviet physiologist Leonid Vasiliev, a veteran of that initial revolutionary era, had opened a new laboratory at Leningrad University in 1959 to explore the possibility of remote viewing and remote mental suggestion. Vasiliev tested telepathic communications between Leningrad and Sevastopol in 1963, with subjects allegedly exchanging accurate data over a distance of 1,700 km. Footage of the psychokinetic medium Ninel Mikhailova, who spent 20 years in laboratories moving objects apparently by mental power alone, was released at the 1968 conference. Edward Naumov, the leading spokesman of this Soviet science, claimed that the new field of ‘bio-information’ was leading to ‘machines capable of monitoring, testing, and studying “ESP”’. The proceedings of the conference were published as a mass-market paperback, translated into English with the title PSI: Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain (1970).

In 1973, the first international Conference on Psychotronic Research met in Prague. The Czech team coined the term ‘psychotronics’ for the new study into the potential powers hidden in the ‘bionics of man’. Psychotronics was less a passive record of spontaneous, anomalous phenomena, the model of Rhine’s parapsychology, and instead more interested in theorising an active, self-directed technology of focused psychic power. They proposed, in other words, the training up and potential weaponising of psychic abilities.

‘Remote viewing’ research explored the possibility of spying on Cold War enemies through psychic infiltration

In the United States, too, the national security state developed its own projects to explore psychical states. The Central Intelligence Agency’s MK-Ultra project, which looked at brainwashing and the effect of hallucinogenic drugs on willing and unwilling test subjects, sounds like a wild conspiracy theory but actually operated under various guises between 1953 and 1973. In the early 1970s, the physicists Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff at the Stanford Research Institute explored the technique of projective visionary experience they termed ‘remote viewing’, through which a ‘telepath’ was able to ‘see’ scenes of a crime, or spy on enemy undertakings, from vast distances. This research programme explored the possibility of spying on Cold War enemies through remote psychic infiltration.

It is striking that both this US project and its Soviet equivalents were documented in the public domain almost immediately. This suggests a pattern of deliberate release of information and disinformation, as if fringe research was now a way of psyching out your Cold War enemies through propaganda, forcing them to commit resources to the same areas of research, however odd.

An article by Puthoff and Targ, ‘Information Transmission under Conditions of Sensory Shielding’, was published in Nature in 1974 (it caused a controversy that the editors of Nature had allowed the piece to pass through their peer-review system). Puthoff and Targ concluded that ‘A channel exists whereby information about a remote location can be obtained by means of an as yet unidentified perceptual modality.’ Many of the Puthoff and Targ experiments were conducted with Uri Geller, whose 1973 display on British TV of his apparent ability to bend spoons with mental energy made him a world-famous showman as well as a frequent focus of attempts to debunk what many saw as simple stage tricks. TV in the 1970s often seemed decidedly psychic, with Geller a frequent guest on talk shows and popular science programmes, while Star Trek reruns replayed Spock’s Vulcan ‘mind meld’ – his ability to read minds through rigorous training. In the United Kingdom, children’s television was full of programmes about psychical powers, such as The Tomorrow People (which ran in the UK from 1973-79). This was because practically every schoolchild read John Wyndham’s novel The Chrysalids (1955), set in a post-apocalyptic society where telepathic children were persecuted (my copy was handed down to me from my older brother). In this period, any doubt about the value of psionics was always offset by a faint slither of largely science fiction-influenced promise: might these powers have military applications?

By 1978, the US had ramped up funding, leading to a secret army unit called Project Stargate, based at Fort Meade, Maryland, which brought together diverse avenues of experimental ‘psy-op’ research – psychological operations involving psychic projection, mind control and remote manipulation of unknowing operatives. The programme was full of the kind of paranoid fantasy imagined in the film The Manchurian Candidate (1962), of men broken down by psychological torture then ordered to become assassins by post-hypnotic commands embedded in their minds, once activated by their handlers. This military programme was given the comic treatment in Jon Ronson’s popular investigative book The Men Who Stare at Goats (2004), which uses as its starting point an experiment that aimed to kill animals with beams of focused psychic power made lethal by rigorous military training. Ronson sees absurdity here, but he also tracks the influence of these kinds of psy-ops in the methods of psychological torture used by US forces on terrorist suspects during the Iraq War.

Project Stargate was in part propelled, somewhat ironically, by the sudden public end of any official sanction of parapsychological research in the Soviet Union. This was already happening at the time of the 1968 conference in Moscow and, by 1974, Naumov had been imprisoned for accepting lecture fees on these proscribed subjects in the West. In a febrile Cold War era, Soviet silence was read as ominous secrecy, and rumours of militarised parapsychology continued to circulate. The Americans were certain the Soviets were employing a tactic of deliberate mystification, rather like the leaks of UFO investigations by the US Air Force, the government using the feverish speculations of fringe communities documenting UFO landings and alien abductions to hide much more conventional aerospace research projects.

This linking of American paranormal research to the worlds of science fiction and UFOlogy suggests that we need to see telepathy in the context of the wider culture, where its meanings were always unstable and unbounded by any scientific protocols. For instance, telepathy resurfaced in the hippy counterculture of the 1960s, among a group that often opposed the oppressive military-industrial machine. Stuart Holroyd’s Psi and the Consciousness Explosion, published in 1977, placed parapsychology as part of a ‘new gnosis’ for the New Age, in which, Holroyd argued, ‘faculties that have been fettered and inhibited by the rigid orthodoxies of the bourgeois life-style and the materialistic values that sustain it will freely flourish.’ As emergent signs of this flourishing, he listed examples of an openness to mystical experience, telepathic communication, psychic healing and the fusion of mind and matter exemplified by biofeedfack research. In the same argument, Holroyd directly linked the counterculture to ‘its allied experimental science, parapsychology’. New Age gurus in the 1960s and ’70s often spoke in the language of the sublime: in their lexicon, telepathy was an instance of expanded consciousness.

In these films, telepathy seems capable of upholding yet also unmasking the hidden machinations of power

That telepathy could take on starkly different valences in the culture is evident in its central role in the boom in horror fiction and film in the 1970s. Nicolas Roeg’s film Don’t Look Now (1973) was a dazzling rendition of Daphne du Maurier’s 1971 tale of a man so insensitive to his own psychical and telepathic abilities that he fails to understand that he has foreseen his own death. Stephen King has remained obsessed with psychic powers of telekinesis and telepathy from his earliest novels on. His first book, Carrie (1974) – memorably filmed by Brian De Palma in 1976 with a young Sissy Spacek in the title role – associated psychokinesis with a traumatised girl reaching puberty, a highly active area of psychical research in the 1970s. King’s 1977 masterpiece, The Shining (filmed by Kubrick in 1980), takes its title from the informal name given to the powerful telepathic abilities of a young boy who awakens malignant spectral forces lying dormant in an old hotel. King’s source materials for The Shining included Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which was itself inspired by an investigation of a haunted house in Scotland by the Society for Psychical Research in 1897.

De Palma’s film The Fury (1978) placed telekinetic and telepathic abilities inside a plot about a government conspiracy to weaponise psychical powers, just as the popular books on psychotronics suggested. Mark Lester’s film Firestarter (1984), based on yet another King novel, about a young girl with pyrokinetic powers, did the same thing, as she goes on the run to evade the dark forces of the security state. David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981) shifted this conspiracy to the terrain of anonymous Big Pharma corporations pursuing rogue research. In this case, a group of telepaths are the product of a rogue medical trial that generates a deadly power of telepathic projection. In these films, telepathy seems capable of upholding yet also unmasking the hidden machinations of corporate and government power.

Looking back, you can see a pattern in those eras in which interest in telepathy boomed. Coined by Myers and his fellow psychical researchers in the 1880s, telepathy gained traction because it was formulated inside a moment of scientific and technological revolution, where uncanny transmissions proliferated across the visible and invisible spectrum, seeming to collapse the natural and the supernatural together. In the 1970s, telepathy returned, if under different names, as part of another moment of crisis. The Cold War arms race was an essential part of this, feeding a strange supplemental world of fantasy technologies, from mind control to brainwashing, and playing on an all-too-widespread psychological paranoia around being seen, infiltrated and manipulated by invisible agents.

The cultural critic Fredric Jameson has argued that the 1970s is a period when we begin to get early cultural representations of a new ‘world system’– an understanding of how interdependent and networked the planet is becoming. This is the moment of instant global satellite communications and the frenetic interconnections of what the media theorist Marshall McLuhan called the ‘global village’. Jameson sees the popular culture of the period as being full of plots about hidden conspiracies, secret technologies and occulted networks. He points to those great conspiracy films of the 1970s, such as Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), about trying to grasp structures of power that hover on the edges of our understanding. In this emergent media space, to be increasingly means to be networked, bound into systems we can barely comprehend. Is the return of telepathy another way of figuring this new technological dispensation? In the 1970s, is it that the emergent global communication network makes telepathy thinkable again?

This returns us to Elon Musk, and the resuscitation of telepathy in the context of the digital revolution of the past few decades. It’s not just that we’ve witnessed another acceleration of networked communication, but also, just as importantly, we’ve had a traumatic experience of the sense of self being turned inside out as it transformed into a permanent state of being plugged into networks. Again, there’s that collapse between naturalism and supernaturalism: think of digital ‘manifesting’ or the collective thrum of hive minds; the psychic powers in those hits of the streaming age, Stranger Things (2016-25) or Sense8 (2015-18); or fears over the algorithmic manipulation and psychic capture of our attention by secretive corporations that seem intent on reading our minds to anticipate and shape our every desire.

Of course Musk is fascinated by telepathy. This sketch of its history embeds him, and his Neuralink project, in the conditions of its emergence, and the rich layering of meanings, metaphors and machines that have accumulated over a century. Yet this history also teaches us that when we start to hear the promise that practical telepathy is only a few steps away, it may be just part of the proleptic promise intrinsic to the very idea of telepathy. If it’s just around the corner, as Neuralink promises, it’s because telepathy is always on the point of arriving. It is always ahead of us, forever just out of reach. Like a spectre we can’t help but chase as it disappears over the horizon.

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