Brainhacking: On Our Way to Neurocapitalism?


Miriam Meckel at #rp17

First there was a social two-tier society, then the digital, and now we are moving towards a neural class differentiation, Miriam Meckel stated. In her re:publica talk about brainhacking she explained how humans and machines are merging and why that isn’t an exclusively positive thing.

"Instead of phoning, we’ll be communicating telepathically", according to Miriam Meckel, editor-in-chief at the Wirtschaftswoche. Writing words on a screen through pure concentration and the help of a computer programme is already possible today. But it doesn’t stop at simple communication, self-optimisation through electrode implants in the head are already possible: in the US you can already put yourself in a good mood with the push of a button. An electrode and the corresponding app can change your mood for 300 Dollars.

In medicine, “brainhacking” means: electrodes fixed to, or implanted in, the body that allow disabled persons more autonomy. Paraplegics can use their thoughts to move robot arms to hand them something to drink. An animal experiment, on the other hand, sketches a scary scenario: it was possible to embed learning processes into rats via brain implants. It was the first bio-neural network. This type of thought transmission isn’t possible in humans yet, but brain implants are already a reality.

Meckel asks uncomfortable questions:
“How autonomously will be able to think if our brains become a hub in the global data network?”
“How will we be able to know which thoughts are really our own and which ones were transmitted to us?”
“Is there a right to mental self-determination?”
“What is left of us if our brains can be monitored by others and thoughts can be implanted in them?”

In the end, it’s about who will profit when an electrode head implant becomes a mass product. Meckel sums up that a neural class divide will follow the social and digital disparity: “We will be living in a time of neurocapitalism.” That means that anyone who can’t afford a brain implant won’t be able to afford a good mood and won’t find a job. They won’t be able to adapt to the new demands and competition in the self-optimised society. Miriam Meckel called for a more widespread discussion of the issue before head implants become a normality. "We can still think and decide what we want. We’re so free!"

by Franziska Hoppen (EJS) and Christina Spitzmüller (EJS)

Photo credit: re:publica/Gregor Fischer (CC BY-SA 2.0)