Sunday, September 7, 2014

Telepathy and the supervillain

There's a lot of misunderstanding, confusion, and outright deception about the psychic power of "telepathy". Rather than confirming whether it is or is not whatever people think, I want to talk about the general topic.

Telepathy is a game-changer for superpowers in the way that superpowers are game changers for politics and law enforcement. Back when it was just clubs or maces or swords, you could go get a better one (if you could afford it), or wait for someone to invent a better one. Technological advantages like bronze, iron, and steel allowed their owners to dominate the world stage for a time, but those advantages were always something that their enemies could eventually acquire. Not so with powers (for the most part), and not so with telepathy (as a specific power). Generally, a superpower is something you're born with.

Superpowers are also not something that can be easily reverse-engineered and used. Once you have a piece of steel, you can spend some time figuring out the hows and whys of it. Our civilization has split the atom and we're barely getting our feet wet with understanding powers. That goes double for purported "powers of mind", which aren't tied to a specific part of the cell. We at least know where to look for super-mitochondria.

Superpowers, like steel, are obvious in their application. You generally know that a power is in use because you see it in operation. Either the super's body is glowing with energy (even if it's just the Cherenkov radiation associated with many gravity and electroweak users), or you can clearly see the effects of the power. You can get out of the way, take cover, block it somehow. Your intuition is useful in devising a counter to the power. Again, not so with telepathy.

Because of all these things, the conventional "wisdom" is that telepathy, as a distinct psychic force or something, does not exist, and that things that look like telepathy are really neuro-symbiotic nanomachines or something similar. This is known to be the mechanism that people like Beast-Boss use to control animals, or people like Link use to interface with machines and computers. This is a nice, safe position to take if you're talking to Congress, because it avoids the difficult question of "how do we defend our national infrastructure against telepathy?" and the equally difficult answer of "we don't".

In theory, someone with access to mind-reading, at any reasonable range with no requirement for physical contact, could destroy the planet within a month. They could wreck the so-called First World nations within three months, leaving the rest of the planet intact. They could effectively take control of the NATO member nations within two months. These projections are based on NATO planning from their "heretic office" (which saw its start after the world got a load of Apollo). The only effective defense against this sort of takeover was a friendly team of telepaths. The only other fully examined defense would turn NATO's member nations into bastions of paranoid madness, and was widely considered not to be viable.

This conclusion led people at Wavelength (where else?) to postulate that the world had already been taken over by hostile telepaths, whose sole purpose was to induct new telepaths into their ranks - or to destroy them if they weren't willing to play along. A competing theory says that a benevolent conspiracy of telepaths does exist, but only to protect the world from this sort of attack. Which theory you should endorse really depends on how much you've been drinking, and how a coin flip turns out.