Surveillance Capitalism + Psychedelic Science = A Neutron Bomb Set to Detonate?
What happens when AI-enhanced machine interactions and neuroscience fuse with psychedelics
I’m not a fan of sensational headlines, normally, but for the past few months I’ve been both eavesdropping on and participating in ongoing discussion about the outsized impact Compass Pathways, ATAI and other Silicon Valley profiteers stand to have in controlling and shaping the future of psychedelic medicine. A business news announcement on April 9 heralded Compass Pathways Investor Peter Thiel’s new stake in a device that allows “computer interfaces to help treat people with mental conditions.” The announcement sent a frisson of horror down the spines of many concerned with the direction psychedelic medicine is taking.
Psyber, Thiel’s newest acquisition, is a brain computer interface which enables direct communication between a human brain and an external device.
Psyber forges surveillance capitalism to a stilletto point, and plants it in your cerebral cortex.
Such a prototype device already exists, demonstrated on a monkey with brain implants playing Pong, brought to you by Elon Musk’s new company Neuralink. Musk described it as a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires that go into your brain.
Musk’s Neuralink is poised to enact at the brain-implanted electrode level what mobile phone apps do: they confuse the distinction between the consumer and the consumed. Consumer: the guy who thinks he’s paying for something of value when he buys a Fitbit. The consumed: the same guy giving away data about his heart rate, number of steps he walks, his blood pressure, speed, location, who knows what else, knowingly or unknowingly, whenever he wears his Fitbit, uses an app, does a Google search, or signs a form granting a healthcare institution permission to use data extracted from his blood test to create a predictive profile of his health risks. Nobody informs him in advance the data compiled from a million people like him is for sale to his insurance provider; and the data will be used to adjust his premium accordingly. He’s no longer part of a risk group, a human being who might get sick, whose life path may influence his health and vice-versa, he’s a data point among other data points in a liability algorithm. The state of his health and his very being is dehumanized in a way he never understood he signed up for it to be.
Here’s another example: a company called Flatiron Health “enables cancer researchers and care providers to learn from the experience of every patient” in the interest of advancing research in the field of oncology, according to its advertising. Actually, Flatiron’s founders made themselves a mint by agreeing to be bought by multi-national drug pharma Roche in 2018. Anyone signing away his data to help cancer research is performing an act of corporate charity.
The Psyber development would not be possible without the remarkable progress of neuroscience over the past 30 years. We know more about neuroanatomy, brain circuitry, cellular structure, neurotransmitters, metabolic pathways, and feedback loops than anyone would have thought possible back in those days. Data collation around your psychedelic experience in the interest of ‘understanding’ and ‘science’ is already underway – and yes, you will give your data away if you really want to use an app to accompany you on your trip. There are several out there.
Now neuroscience, and AI-enhanced machine interactions are coalescing in the psychedelic space. This fusion adds an ethical and existential dimension to the direction of psychedelic science, producing a once unthinkable scenario: an implanted mind/brain computing interface coupled with a mood-and-mind-altering psychedelic drug administered for the purposes of curing your OCD, or treating your intractible depression. Great, right? A biomedical breakthrough that stands to relieve a huge amount of suffering. A skull implant measures your mood by way of your affect (your feelings as displayed, say, in your facial expression—assume a machine reader for this); autonomic nervous system (temperature, blood pressure, heart rate); and electrical activity in your brain. Not only does the AI interface have access to all the biological and emotional data you’re providing, it has access to the entire collected, collated, retrievable database of knowledge of every fact ever compiled, written, studied and experienced by any being, human or animal with OCD or depression which it can riffle through, combine, assess and recontextualize to maximum effect as aid in treating your condition. A cure? Maybe.
The following scenario I provide is by way of pushing the concept known as “surveillance capitalism” to its logical extreme. Facebook-level data crunching to aid and abet you, presumably, while you’re at your most vulnerable, on your psychedelic trip, becomes something else, when surveillance capitalism gets involved.
Let’s say, during your curative psychedelic session, an AI interface allows you to view a screen, and provides cues to induce thoughts that make you feel better, to cure you so to speak. The cues can at first be passive – you view them on the screen, you respond to them automatically, positively or negatively. You feel better, or maybe nothing changes. The more you react positively to certain cues (you’re being measured by the electrodes, and by body monitoring equipment the whole time) the more the learning AI system provides better, more effective ones, enhancing them with music, or even scents, for example, which are emotionally evocative. Your limbic system is aroused; and you are at your most susceptible. Then, at some point, the AI system takes over: instead of your actually responding to an external cue – what you see on the screen; the music you hear; the scent of lavendar— the AI system directly triggers your highly-suggestive, highly vulnerable brain on psychedelics. Without your knowing, or perhaps even caring, the AI system directly modulates your mood and behavior for you by stimulating your brain through the implanted electrodes. It can’t happen, you think. It can. Simply put: if a signal can travel in one direction down a wire—or wireless—network, it can travel the other way too.
If this kind of influence can occur in a psychedelic context, where else can it happen? Everywhere, every day, all the time, in the background, without your explicit knowledge. If you believe otherwise, have a look at an experiment carried out by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, elucidated in the film “The Great Hack.” Or look at what happens when you particate in a Pokemon Go Festival.
The concept of “surveillance capitalism” was introduced originally by Harvard University Graduate School of Business Professor Emerita Dr Shoshana Zuboff, one of that institution’s first tenured women professors, in a 2015 paper: “Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization.”1
Dr Zuboff defines “surveillance capitalism” as “information capitalism [which can] predict and modify human behavior as a means to produce revenue and market control.”2
Until Dr Zuboff redefined it, the thinking around data collection was confined to the notion of data as a product in and of itself, “the inevitable consequence of a technological juggernaut with a life of its own, entirely outside the social. We are but bystanders.”3
“Bystanders” is exactly what we are not anymore. Bystander status implies we still have a choice about participation in the datasphere. We can recuse ourselves. We don’t have to buy stuff over eBay if we don’t want. Dr Zuboff describes how surveillance capitalism has voided what we thought of as contracts between consenting equals. She cites political philosopher Hannah Arendt who described the centrality of making promises in human interactions, in both the political and business arenas. “For Arendt, human fallibility in the execution of contracts is the price of freedom.”
Writes Dr Zuboff: “...computer-mediated transactions [empty] the contract of uncertainty [eliminating] the need for – and therefore the possibility to develop – trust.”4 To rephrase this a bit: contracts are removed from the sphere of social and economic interactions and reimagined as machine processes.
“Consensual participation in the values from which legitimate authority is derived, along with free will and reciprocal rights and obligations, are traded in for the universal equivalent of the prisoner’s electronic ankle bracelet.”5
Surveillance capitalism does the opposite of enhancing and improving human bonds– the hollow promise of Facebook, once upon a time—such as those formed when we transact with other people directly, whether shopping in a physical store, renting rooms from a landlord, buying cars, learning how to play the piano, getting sick, getting well, or going on guided psychedelic trips with other human beings. It eliminates them.
“A computer mediated world strikes me as an arid wasteland—not a community of equals bound through laws in the inevitable and ultimately fruitful struggle with uncertainty. In the futurescape, the the human community has already failed...The last vestiges of trust have long since withered and died.”
Dr Zuboff introduces a term she christens “Big Other” to characterize “a ubiquitous networked institutional regime that records, modifies, and commodifies everyday experience from toasters to bodies, communication to thought, all with a view to establishing new pathways to monetization and profit. Big Other is the sovereign power of a near future that annihilates the freedom achieved by the rule of law. It is a new regime of independent and independently controlled facts that supplants the need for contracts, governance, and the dynamism of a market democracy.”
Dr Zuboff frames the difference between the old, pre-surveillance form of capitalism as the difference between a panopticon (a prison built around a central tower surrounded by prison cells) and a world in which all habitats “inside and outside the human body are saturated with data and produce radically distributed opportunities for observation, interpretation, communication, influence, prediction and ultimately modification of the totality of action....there is no escape from Big Other. There is no place to be where Big Other is not.”6
Every so-called choice, in the surveillance capital universe, is subsumed into “a lived experience of pure stimulus-response.”7 Human autonomy, she writes, becomes “irrelevant and the lived experience of psychological self determination is a cruel illusion,” and “if power was once identified with the ownership of the means of production, it is now identified with the ownership of the means of behavioral modification [emphasis mine].”8
There is no better means to manipulate someone than having the tools of manipulation directly to hand. For sentient beings these include access your deepest fears and most intimate feelings and experiences. Normally, these innermost feelings are yielded privately, and only when one is at ones most vulnerable, most open, and trusting.
During a psychedelic trip it is possible to gather information about the most frightening experiences a person has ever endured; the most traumatic, the most joyful, the most hoped-for and the most anxiety-fraught. Each of these instances, once identified and tracked through the video recordings of your facial expressions, and via the implanted brain electrode, and continuous autonomic nervous system monitoring, yield a treasure trove of information and eventually extractable data about you, and how you respond to the world.
The currency of surveillance capitalism is power and control.
Once Big Other has access to these most interior of truths about you, it is in the position not only to manipulate you by luring you towards or averting you away from behaviors and decisions, but also by means of the intracranial implant to control you directly through targeted electrical impulses into your brain.
The possibility of gathering data from someone’s inmost self during a psychedelic trip adds a horrifying dimension to data collection. Passive influence and behavioral modification as tools of manipulation are left in the dust, once Big Other has access to your cerebral cortex.
Unthinkable? I assert that think about it we must. If not, Peter Thiel and friends will think about it for us.
If you have feelings and ideas about where this leaves psychedelic science, and promise of psychedelic medicine, please leave comments on this post on the Substack Website. I look forward to reading insightful and thoughtful commentary, and perhaps creating a newsletter around your ideas—all attributed, should I use them.
Zuboff, Shoshana. Big Other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization. Journal of Information Technology (2015). vol 30, pp. 75-89, doi:10.1057/jit.2015.5. See also Dr Zuboff’s 2019 book: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.