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When Paul Valéry Imagined Hacking the Human Brain

In his interwar work Les regards sur le monde actuel (1962), Paul Valéry intuits that civilization would one day enter a new era following the triumph of technology over contemplation. For Valéry (who worked as a clerk in the French War Ministry), an intelligence-disrupting regime had already been established by fraudulent intellectuals who disconnected thought from real life:

We are living through the most extraordinary times in which the most widely accredited ideas that were once seemingly incontestable are being attacked, contradicted, ambushed, and dissociated by facts, to the extent that we are now witnessing a kind of imaginative failure and a collapse of comprehension.[1]

He goes on to say that “this state of affairs prompts me to believe that we might be able to directly alter the soul and mind of man from the outside.” Half a century before the birth of the internet and personalized marketing, Valéry writes:

Undoubtedly, some slightly more powerful and subtle means than our own will one day enable us to impinge remotely not just on living beings’ senses, but on the most hidden depths of a person’s psyche. An unknown distant operator could stimulate the very sources and systems of our mental and emotional lives and expose our minds to illusions, impulses, desires, and artificially induced madness.

He even imagined hacking the human brain: “we are well aware […] that the pathways via which the castle of the soul can be penetrated and mastered are defenseless. There are substances that can coax their way in and seize their prize. What chemistry can do, physics’ waves will soon find a means to match.” Paul Valéry goes on to picture the terrifying consequences of these potential manipulations:

Imagine a world in which the power to make men live at a faster or slower pace, communicate ideas to them, make them frown or smile, discourage or encourage them, to stop a whole people’s hearts from beating when required, has been mastered, defined, and exerted! What would become of our pretensions to selfhood? Men would be in constant doubt as to whether they were ‘themselves’ or puppets, down to the deepest roots of their sense of existence.

We have well and truly entered the era of permanent connectivity. In 2019, 4.4 billion human beings were online. 2.5 billion of them shared information through one company (Facebook) and the same number gathered information using a single search engine (Google). There are more than 330 million active Twitter users. It is smartphones that capture the attention of these global crowds, for the most part, enclosed within their own informational bubbles. Major national and even global debates dance to the beat of social media platforms, whose colossal revenues are based on the cognitive and attention economy. Screen addictions have become a health issue, particularly among children. Countless times a day, the president of the world’s most powerful country, the United States of America, blows hot and cold in real-time on Twitter. Every kind of event, expression, and theory can be broadcast millions of times over in just a few milliseconds and provide the spark for a raging planetary debate. Permanently connected, over-informed individuals have become the norm. Given that this is opening up the potential to orient people’s thinking on a subtle individual basis, Valéry’s fears have almost become a reality.

[1] This citation, and all those that follow, are translations from the French text.