Though clearly science fiction, Vonnegut’s story about the Barnhouse effect brought to mind strange phenomena that really exist in our world and their consequences on the way we live. For example, I recently read an article about brain-to-brain interfaces that allow individuals to communicate without saying anything, without even having to see each other. The author, Mark Dingemanse, describes brain-to-brain communication this way: “From the sender’s motionless concentration to the receiver’s involuntary twitch, they form a single distributed system, connected by wires instead of words.” While early in its development, this kind of biotechnology promises to be transformative to the way we communicate. Many people, including Elon Musk and researchers around the globe, believe that eliminating language will facilitate the way we share ideas; no more misunderstandings, no more awkward interactions, just direct transfer of thoughts. However, Dingemanse warns that removing language will fundamentally change the way we think, perceive ourselves, and function in society. At the crux of his argument is this: “Language is what makes us human. It is not merely a conduit for information, it is also our way of organising social agency.”
This fundamental change in our brains and our societies reminded me of the concept of dynamopsychism and its far-reaching effects from Vonnegut’s story. The narrator of the story claims that, “there is [not] a civilized person yet to be convinced that such a force exists, what with its destructive effects on display in every national capital” (173). We learn later in the story that Professor Barnhouse ended up using his dynamopsychic abilities to “ systematically destroy[…] the world’s armaments”, not ending wars, but changing the way they are waged and essentially creating a twisted version of an arms race where nations seek out people with the potential for dynamopsychic power. While powerful phenomena (like the Barnhouse effect) and technology (like electroencephalography and transcranial magnetic stimulation in BrainNet) can be exciting leaps in human advancement, Vonnegut’s story sends a clear warning that we should be wary of the effects they can have on life as we know it.
“The space between our heads”, Mark Dingemanse, 4 August 2020. https://aeon.co/essays/why-language-remains-the-most-flexible-brain-to-brain-interface
“BrainNet: A Multi-Person Brain-to-Brain Interface for Direct Collaboration Between Brains”, Linxing Jiang, et al., 16 April 2019. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-41895-7
It’s interesting, Sophie, that you describe Barnhouse’s efforts as not ending wars but waging them by different means. I think it’s pretty clear that Barnhouse wants to have peace; do you think he’s failed?
This is interesting Sophie, I’ve never heard of brain-to-brain communication. As I was reading the chapter about Professor Barnhouse, I thought about how crazy it would be if someone like that existed in our world today. It’s both incredible and frightening to me that there are people in the world creating new technologies that could transform life as we know it today.
Brain-to-brain communication is a frightening thing, but I guess we could also chalk it up to being a tool that just so happens to have the capacity for not-so-good things. I agree that language is integral to how we think though, because if you don’t have a name for something, it is much harder to think about. Like how northern Native Americans have different words for types of snow, but we don’t because we don’t need them.
I think this chapter was really interesting related to Hiroshima/Nagasaki and the USA’s decision to drop the bomb. Fear of the bomb was so overwhelming post WWII as the sheer knowledge of it’s existence was enough to terrify people. An interesting fact I just learned in my film class, post WWII there were over 200 science-fiction films created worldwide that featured radiation, and nuclear weapons.