Discover more from william's coffee co
Stop the Madness!
Is the internet becoming a digital torture chamber?
Books discussed: Ready Player 1 and 2, and Joel’s Dimsdale’s Dark Persuasion. (We have both for sale now! Stop in soon!)
Ready Player One and Two, by Ernest Cline, are entertaining books to read, and certainly will become known as important books because the world created in them relies on accessing the internet via goggles. Interestingly, although these books are dystopian futures, having a manifest reliance on goggle internet is not the moral warning. Letting the government and corporations control our access to this internet world is.
The setting in both books is the US sometime in the future, after several plagues, civil wars, and dramatic global warming. People live in hellhole trailer parks that have trailers stacked as high as tall apartment buildings. These things fall all the time. People make money by stealing, by murder, and by selling drugs. They transfer their money through digital tokens in something called the metaverse, a version of the internet accessible by virtual reality goggles.
The main character is an orphan who through luck and pluck solves some riddles online and becomes a mega billionaire and then marries the woman of his dreams. She makes a living by discussing video games on her YouTube channel and subjecting her fans to advertisements so they can watch her. How modern. What this couple does after marriage is anybody's guess, since all physical, psychological, and emotional actions take place through these ridiculous goggles and internet connected body suits.
The second book is similar, but grander and there's a team, and gender switching takes a prominent role in the narrative, probably for commercial reasons. At one point the main character, who is a man, becomes a woman so he can have a homosexual liaison that unlocks a key to something or other in an arcade game. His wife doesn't seem to mind this dalliance, but she certainly does mind when his avatar decides to de-age and canoodle with a pornographic looking woman at a nightclub in fake Miami. Oh how fickle the digital heart can be.
The Ready Player books have elements of adventure but are different than classical adventure fiction. Treasure Island is about finding treasure and outwitting death. The Three Musketeers is about battle and brotherhood. The heroes are heroic, and the stories inspire one to take action. Ready Player has some action elements, but it’s about the internet. The physical plot is merely a guy on a fancy computer having images beamed into his eyeballs. The take away message is play more video games. Your literary minded WLS reviewer finds Treasure Island and The Three Musketeers to be particularly inspiring and invigorating.
It is popular today to blame classical adventure fiction, and the classics in general, for CIA coups, wars, and government incompetence caused by bravado. The thinking goes that those in power were privileged with education in the classics, and these books have shaped their world view in ways loosely related to the novels. Technology—a word that gets used in mystical ways—is viewed as an antidote, presumably because people take fake digital action instead of action in the material world. The heavy internet use in the Ready Player books is supposed to create a world of peaceful avatar bliss.
This open-minded WLS reviewer has a certain sympathy for that argument, however allow him to make a couple counter claims. A) Although our political class is wealthy, they come across as harlequin instead of educated and confident, and almost none of them speak in complete sentences, which would lead one to wonder whether any of them have ever read even one book, let alone all the classics. And B) Just about every metric of humanity is worse because we have abandoned real life for television and the internet.
Before the computer we were able to build the Empire State Building, Einstein calculated how the mass of planets affects the shape of the universe, and obesity was rare. Today we can't even build a rail line through California, our population is on the descent toward illiteracy and innumeracy, and more people are more overweight than ever. Kids during the pandemic had access to unlimited computing power and literature online yet ended up intellectually regressing by several years. What's more, everybody has friend apps, dating apps, sharing apps, yet people are lonelier than ever.
The LA Times and NY Times tend to believe in the benefits of new digital technology. Surprisingly, the Times Literary Supplement, out of classical curmudgeon London, recently published a glowing love-techno-everything review. Stop the madness! The WLS is taking a contrarian stand! All of our supposed digital gifts are actually poisons, and the goggle internet world of the metaverse is a literal hell.
Joel Dimsdale's book, Dark Persuasion: A History of Brainwashing from Pavlov to Social Media, is excellent in many regards. Dimsdale is a retired professor of psychiatry at UCSD, and a highly regarded scholar on psychology. He has done CIA funded work on the malleability of the human mind. His book is an informative, synthesized account of the important historical developments of of purposeful coercion.
Forceful coercion has been used since the beginning of time—ancient Greeks and Romans wrote about it, historical religious writings discuss it as well. Russian researchers in the early 1900s made significant breakthroughs.
They re-discovered something that nearly every culture has learned, that isolating somebody in a box can inflict almost infinite terror in somebody and induce them to take nearly any action. They also discovered that through systematic, highly repetitive actions, punishments, and rewards, the brain will make certain connections. Pavlov's dogs began to salivate at the chime of a bell. The same effects occur in humans.
In the 1950s the CIA became very interested in a quick way to get to somebody's brain and invested in a series of what turned out to be shockingly inhumane studies. It’s tempting to read these parts of the book and conclude various anti-government conspiratorial arguments are perhaps legitimate, yet it’s worth pointing out the history of the era. WW2 ended in 1945. The CIA was created in 1947. The Korean War started in 1950 and ended in 53. Then the Vietnam War started, and lasted until 1975. Add to all of this a cold war with Russia. We were in a world war, but of a different type.
During the Korean War some US POWs publicly denounced the US and joined the North Koreans. They wrote letters to their family accusing the US of a variety of evils, and they gave interviews saying the same things. These actions shocked the world. The same things happened during the Vietnam War. Something was being done to our soldiers to compel them to change sides. We needed to figure out what, how we can defend against it, and how we can use it against the other side.
The US experimented with various methods of torture and truth serums, the goal at first to extract information from enemies. None of it worked. Then in the 1960s LSD became popular, and there was a belief at the time (as today) that perhaps it could induce genius. The CIA studied it as a way to make a mind more pliant and receptive to influence, which was its later goal. The conclusion was that LSD does nothing besides cause people to fall into a type of temporary psychosis.
Unfortunately, we had to discover this in somewhat clownish ways. CIA agents would self experiment, they would drug friends, dinner guests, wives, enemies, enemies' wives, and innocent passersby, and try to record what happens. In one instance, researchers sprayed LSD over a group of cafe patrons in San Francisco, presumably hoping to induce a chemical trance. What happened instead is that people started puking, screaming, they ran from and attacked hallucinations, broke windows, ran into traffic. Later, they hired lawyers.
In a very dark chapter, in the 1960s, Cornell University set up a CIA funded hospital of sorts, in which patients were isolated, shocked, had their brain drilled into, and listened to self hypnosis tapes nonstop for months. These patients were also forced to take a variety of drugs. The goal was to find ways to wipe a brain clean and then impart thoughts onto it.
Well, the researchers failed, and it should have been obvious these methods wouldn’t work. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and a variety of ancient religions tried very similar things, and discovered that they don't work. Had any of these "researchers" decided to do research and read historical accounts, they could have prevented this tragic episode. Also, perhaps their conscience would have been awakened.
Despite all the failures, death and dismemberment, there were some discoveries. We cannot force information out of people through torture and truth serums, and we cannot turn people into robots through drugs and hypnosis. Extreme sensory deprivation and isolation do seem to make some people quite pliable, and combined with brutality can have dramatic personality altering effects. One example of this is Stockholm syndrome. Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped in 1974, went through something like this as well.
But something else was discovered, and it is this that lives on today.
There is a type of persuasion that exists between physical torture--beating somebody until they take an action to get the beatings to stop--and rational arguments, such as making a case to do something, as Plato would. In this spot, if somebody is isolated just enough, fatigued just enough, demoralized just enough, exposed to a certain idea repeatedly, and rewarded and punished with a certain system, then in some cases an idea can be implanted into one’s mind, and it will grow roots.
Dimsdale, the author, studied how sleep deprivation affects the mind. He found that extreme deprivation does indeed make the mind prone to wrong thinking and suggestion, but also that rather innocent levels of sleep deprivation have similar effects. Staying up late watching tv, for instance, can set the groundwork for poor thinking and suggestibility. It has been known for some time that people who are tired and depressed are more receptive to ads and shop more.
Towards the end of the book Dimsdale starts a discussion of the the internet and modern Pavlovian conditioning, but then truncates it. In doing so he seems to ask his readers: What else can I do? He was a researcher at UCSD, which is funded by government contracts, and did trials for our intelligence agencies, and still works with them in consulting roles. Of course he is extremely limited in what he can say. But that makes what he chooses to say and the conclusions he leads us to deliberate and valuable.
Dimsdale mentions that the conditions of typical home internet use—somewhat dark setting, periods of sleep deprivation, mindless scrolling and watching of websites, and very little stimulation except for what is being transmitted from the computer to us—are perfect experimental conditions for psychologically coercive persuasion. He also points out that it is a certainty that enemies, foreign and domestic, are using the internet for psychological experiments and digital Pavlovian conditioning.
You might wonder whether your intrepid WLS reviewer is somewhat old-fashioned and alarmist. It's just the internet, after all. Perhaps. Yet consider that teens who attempt suicide, join gangs, and go for gender reassignment procedures consistently report that memes, Instagram, and websites play a significant role in their thinking and behavior.
Try this, if you dare: Put on your explorer hat and take a quick jaunt into the jungle of the internet. Type narco lifestyle into Instagram, or transgender memes into Google Images, or any combination of similar themes. It is likely the case that you will be appalled at what you see and ask, in disbelief, Who would post these things online, and for what purpose?
Perhaps we will never know. However, it is clear from the historical accounts that Dimsdale presents that all throughout history the human mind has been perceived as the ultimate battlefield. We ignore this book at our peril.