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Techno-Telepathy: You Do Not Want to Be the Borg

An interview on NPR Tuesday morning about the evolution of technology caught my attention with this opening:

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: In the TV show "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the ultimate evil enemy threatening to destroy humanity was an alien species known as the Borg Collective.


PATRICK STEWART: (as Locutus) I am Locutus [of] Borg. Resistance is futile.

PALCA: One of the things that made the Borg so lethal was that they had a collective consciousness. Every Borg was connected neurally with every other Borg, so they could share knowledge.

CORINNA LATHAN: If you could spin the Borg Collective in a positive way, that's almost exactly how I envision the future [Joe Palca, "Envisioning the Future with Inventor Cori Lathan," NPR: Morning Edition, 2013.05.07].

Locutus of Borg
Locutus of Borg

Stop right there. There is no spinning the Borg in a positive way. Resistance is not futile; it is necessary.

Lathan envisions machines that could automatically read our physiological and emotional states and broadcast that information to everyone else's brains. We have a machine like that now: the human face. It's far from perfect. It has limited range, and skilled users can send false signals.

But think about how often you use that machine every day. At any given moment, how many faces can you read? How many faces do you need to read? My largest French class currently has 17 students (ugh! prime number! How's a teacher supposed to divide kids into equal groups?). I can scan the room, get an idea of who's got a question, who's worn out, who's paying attention, and who's playing Tetris. But could I make practical use of data overlaid next to each child's face on my Google goggles? If I receive all that supplementary information on some near-optical display or an in-cranium hummingbird, how much attention is drawn away from my peripheral vision and my general situational awareness of the classroom?

I revel in the near-ubiquity and omniscience of our current Internet. I like being able to find out almost any fact I want in seconds. The South Dakota Blogosphere couldn't do what it does if it didn't have access to such an extensive global library of media clips, research, and other texts to highlight and link and incorporate into arguments.

But we don't turn on the firehose and drink everything. We divert tiny streams of information from the global flood of data and say, "This is worth looking at closely." Out of the countless things demanding our attention, we point to just a handful.

The same would happen with Lathan's envisioned Borg consciousness. We'd have the potential to know anything about anyone's location, mood, concerns, etc. But barring a major leap in evolution, we'd still have the ability to pay attention to only a few strands of that global human tapestry.

And we'd only want to pay attention to a few strands. My daughter is probably already developing a complex from seeing me so often intensely scowling at the computer screen while she waits for it to register with me that she could use some raisin bran. 10% of the people in our lives deserve 90% of our attention.

Seeing young lovers tweeting on a date is bad enough. Seeing them gaze blankly at each other while processing a flood of techno-telepathic inputs from a thousand elsewhere Facebook friends is worse. Technologically enhanced collective consciousness has its place, but not in most of our human interactions.

The Borg know no love. Let that collective consciousness flow into your brain unimpeded, and neither will you.

Resistance is essential.

* * *
Related: My wife is gnashing her teeth over a seminary assignment to read a whole bunch of Wikipedia articles. Among her complaints is that Wikipedia isn't written very well. It has lots of information, but since it's written by committee, it has no voice, no identity. It sounds like the Borg.

Access to lots of data is great, but we learn through storytelling. And stories must be told with a unique voice.


  1. Michael Black 2013.05.10

    Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The sense of individuality which he has gained with us... might be transmitted through the entire Borg Collective - every one of the Borg being given the opportunity to experience the feeling of... of singularity. And perhaps that's the most pernicious program of all. The knowledge of self being spread throughout the Collective, in that brief moment, might alter them forever

  2. mc 2013.05.10

    We were never ment to know eveything please note what happened to poor Irina Spalko in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, when the aliens filled her brain. ouch! What a way to go. Information overload?

    We are designed to work as a team, we each person with their different skill set lending their experience, knowledge, and skills to a common goal or cause. If everyone knew everything, then we would become our own worst enemy.

    Besides If I 'experience' what goes through some people minds.............I really don't want to know. and I would like to keep at least of my thoughts to myself. I really don't like the idea of sending some over the cliff.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.05.10

    You're right, MC: feeding the data of the collective consciousness into an individual brain is a recipe for brain fry. There may be advantages for machine processing of that big data to identify big socio-economic patterns, but individuals need filters to focus on the important people in their lives. The best filter is the will power that hits the Off button.

  4. Stan Gibilisco 2013.05.10

    Cory, now I know you better as a true liberal and not so much a leftist.

    If you want to see humanity at its borgiest, you need look no further back than China's "cultural revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.05.10

    Do leftists really favor that kind of sacrifice of individuality?

  6. Roger Beranek 2013.05.11

    I recently saw a brief interview with a technology writer that decided to completely unplug from the internet for a year. He didn't find that he was any more productive with his time even though he felt calmer for cutting off the deluge of the frivolous information. I find that the easier it becomes for me to contact friends and family, the more rare it becomes for me to actually do it. Its all so subversive to our humanity somehow.

    Larry: Spock speaks from the perspective of sacrifice. He decided his needs were outweighed and made a decision that was wholly his own. The needs of the many do not outweigh the rights of the few, or the one.

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