At the touch of a key, personal details about individuals can be compiled from computer data banks
By Stanley N. Wellborn
Is it possible to manipulate people covertly to behave in ways over which each has little control?
A number of researchers and social critics believe that science is on the verge of perfecting unconscious coercion. They point to subliminal advertising, tinkering with human genetics and exotic techniques such as microwave bombardment of the brain as portents of Orwell’s thought control.
Laboratory fertilization of human embryos is already possible, and researchers are working on techniques to alter genes to prevent diseases. One critic of modern genetic techniques, Jeremy Rifkin, believes that political preferences could eventually be spliced into human beings.
“Attempts to reform the internal blueprint of the human species will raise the ominous specter of biological caste systems,” says Rifkin. “When the individual can be programmed at conception, political power becomes more absolute and human freedom more elusive.”
Closer at hand are subliminal-suggestion techniques widely used in advertising. With one called time compression, computers can squeeze human speech into a smaller time frame, thus allowing advertisers to tuck more information into commercials. The listener is not aware of the speech manipulation.
Another method is to insert messages onto television or movie screens at such a fast pace that viewers aren’t aware that they are seeing them. Promoters say the technique can have powerful results when used over several months.
“People fear the use of subliminal advertising because they really don’t understand how the subconscious mind works,” says Stephen McDaniel, assistant professor of marketing at Texas A&M University. “Some perceive it as a form of brainwashing and don’t like the idea of receiving information and not consciously knowing it.”
An even more sinister behavior modification technique is cited by Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo: “Soviet scientists have been perfecting a device that bombards the brain with low-frequency radio waves. These airborne waves can travel over distances and are known to change the behavior of animals and humans in their path. Such remote control makes possible potentially frightening uses for altering the brain’s functioning.”
Technologies of tomorrow present Americans with new choices.
As Jacques Vallée, a computer scientist and founder of InfoMedia, Inc., of San Bruno, Calif., observes: “Technology is creating a new ‘nervous system’ for society, and we do not know how it is going to behave. What we must understand is that technology is not neutral. It forces us to make choices. It challenges business and society to conceive alternatives to the world that technology is producing.”
Even if society resists technical intrusions on individual privacy, the fact that the technology exists means that sooner or later someone - either in or out of the government - can subvert it for evil purposes. That is Orwell’s warning for 1984 and the years beyond.
U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 26, 1983, p. 89.