Friday, 19 October 2012


We have always had complete freedom with our thoughts so long as we have kept them to ourselves.  A person can have all sorts of nasty thoughts including all kinds of sexual daydreams, fantasies about criminal activities, thoughts about killing the boss, cravings about cruel revenge against the next-door neighbor with the yappy dog, and not be subject to prosecution. Even in authoritarian societies people have been able to maintain freedom when it comes to their thoughts so long as they didn’t foolishly verbalize them.
Is freedom of thought about to come to an end?
There is already some indication that expressing your thoughts in nonverbal ways can get you into trouble. For example some of the anti-bullying legislation extends to gestures. Quebec’s new bill states "bullying means any direct or indirect behaviour, comment, act or gesture, including through the use of social media, intended to injure, hurt, oppress, intimidate or ostracize." This definition can encompass gestures such as eye-rolling or sticking out one’s tongue.
Bullying’s first cousin is harassment. Definitions of harassment usually cover sexually suggestive looks, staring and gestures. Sometimes looks and gestures are specifically mentioned. Other times they are implicit. Look at this typical definition of harassment: "unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment"
Lets distill the "broadest" reach of this definition. It would read "unwanted non-verbal conduct with the effect of violating the dignity of a person when creating an offensive environment." Unwanted non-verbal conduct? Sounds like looks and gestures. 
When looks and gestures are included in harassment we are indeed in the realm of thought control because we are using them to "discover" the underlying thought. The only problem is that the guess about the underlying thought can be wrong and probably frequently is wrong. Perhaps in a traditional culture a gesture can have a highly defined meaning but that is not the case in a complex, contemporary society.
I remember when I was in Grade 5 and a teacher screamed at me "take that look of your face". She screamed at me again. Whatever look was on my face it was only a manifestation of my inner thoughts at the moment which were utter confusion.
There are human rights decisions like the Dutton Case in British Columbia where it was held that the good professor created a sexualized environment when at a meeting with a thirty plus female graduate student he dimmed the lights, served dinner and wine by candlelight, played seductive music, offered the graduate student a gift (a recording of the music) and stoked a blazing fire. There was a specific finding that there was no evidence of a physical overture. Nevertheless this so-called sexualized environment was said to constitute sexual harassment and the aggrieved party was awarded a total of $13,000 including $4,000 for injury to her dignity, feelings and self-respect, and $5,200 for counselling expenses. This decision virtually says that Dutton was guilty of sexual harassment because he had thoughts about seducing the graduate student as evidenced by the "sexualized environment" that he supposedly created. 
Obviously deducing a person’s intentions because he likes candlelight and lyrical Armenian music is highly unscientific and fraught with danger. In the Dutton Case it required a particularly arrogant judicial mind. We may however soon be in a technological situation where we can be much more certain and actually determine what people are thinking. 
Dr. John-Dylan Haynes and his associates in Germany have demonstrated that it is now possible to detect hidden intentions by observing patterns of brain activity. This may amount to the most sophisticated lie detection available. Participants were instructed to secretly choose between two possible tasks: either to add, or subtract, two numbers. They were then asked to hold in mind their next plan of action, their 'intention', until the relevant numbers were presented on a screen. Haynes and his colleagues were able to recognise the participants' intentions from observing their brain activity alone with a striking 70% accuracy rate, even before the participants had seen the two numbers.
Similar work has been carried out by Toronto-based Interaxon. Ariel Garten, CEO of Interaxon quickly identified a use for the technology "Lie detecting. If you showed a criminal something, say the crime scene and asked them `is that familiar?' His brainwaves would give him away." There is a device called an iBrain, created by San Diego-based NeuroVigil which fits over a person's head and endeavours to measure the unique neurological patterns connected to specific thought processes. The plan is to develop a large enough database of these brainwaves such that a computer could essentially read a person's thoughts out loud.
Once we reach the point where we can determine what people are thinking we will undoubtedly pass laws to do just that. It will be defended on the basis that it is best to apprehend someone before he or she commits a criminal act. In recent times the logic of policing always seems to win out.
It will be especially justified in the context of children; that is, in isolating adults who are having pedophilic thoughts. If the technology is available, there will be inexorable pressure to subject all those people who in an employment situation might have contact with children to this kind of thought analysis. Invariably there will be an ugly case involving say a soccer coach and a youth player and a legislator will shortly thereafter be introducing Nathan’s Law requiring all teacher’s and coaches to be checked for undesirable thoughts.
The next step will be to exert some kind of ongoing monitoring over people identified as having these bad thoughts - perhaps it will be some kind of bracelet, or restrictions on movement or restrictions on contacts. Definitely there will be prohibitions on many areas of employment.
Our make everything illegal society is already prepared to punish seductive scenarios, rude gestures, staring, etc. - when we can only guess at the underlying thought. When scientific certainty can be added to the policing, thought control can expand exponentially. Unfortunately it might turn out that bad thoughts of one sort or another are widely prevalent - perhaps universal - and a substantial portion of the population will be subject to ongoing policing. We will be monitoring each other 24/7.


  1. If we can save even just one child from a predator, then we should do everything in our power, even if that means monitoring everyone's thoughts. A child's life is priceless.

  2. "even if that means monitoring everyone's thoughts." This is clearly fascist. Stalin could not have supplied a better argument.