Books Would Be So Much Better if They Could Read Your Mind
Hannu Rajaniemi is a science fiction author, a self-described “recovering string theorist,” and co-founder of the biotech startup Helix Nano. Recently he and his friend Sam Halliday got their hands on an EMOTIV Epoc headset—a very simple brain scanner—and started wondering how it might be used to tell stories. The result was a piece of experimental writing called “Snow White is Dead.”
“‘Snow White is Dead’ is what we ended up calling ‘neurofiction,’” Rajaniemi says in Episode 220 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It’s an interactive fiction piece, like a Choose Your Own Adventure, but without conscious choice.”
The two friends recently exhibited their creation at the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Volunteers would don the Epoc headset, then read the story of Snow White, and the story would branch and change in different ways, depending on whether the volunteer showed more affinity for ‘life’ or ‘death’ imagery.
“I think people enjoy the experience,” Rajaniemi says. “I think people enjoy the feeling of being in control, even if it’s to some extent an illusion.”
He’s quick to note that this is a very simple demonstration, and that much more interesting uses of the technology will be coming along soon. One thing he wants to try is scanning someone’s brain while they’re reading one of his stories.
“It would be really cool to see if, in a science fictional context, we could find elements that would elicit a ‘sense of wonder,’ for example, and then try to write a story that optimizes for those,” he says.
Unfortunately that’ll have to wait until more sophisticated brain scanners become widely available.
“We couldn’t do that with the hardware we had access to,” he says. “That would have required an fMRI scanner or something like that.”
Listen to our complete interview with Hannu Rajaniemi in Episode 220 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Hannu Rajaniemi on LARPing:
“There’s this whole larger phenomenon of Nordic LARPs—which includes games in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland—where the games are very ambitious, in terms of storytelling and experimental game mechanics and immersive play, and scale as well. So people have science fiction games on these big cruise ships that sail between Finland and Sweden, or stage big LARPs about refugees with hundreds or thousands of players. So it’s really artistically pretty ambitious, and there is some government funding there as well. I think actually one of the current cabinet ministers in Norway is an active LARPer.”
Hannu Rajaniemi on biotech:
“I’m actually planning a near future, very biotech-driven story, focusing more on the unpredictable side effects of all these technologies. … The idea is to look at sort of a ‘dark biotech startup.’ One interesting thing I learned about recently is that the entire tech startup ecosystem has a kind of shadow in real life. So very successful cybercriminals now become, effectively, dark ‘angels’ or dark venture capitalists, who fund the next generation of cybercriminals. And having gone through some of the ups and downs of creating a startup, I want to explore that kind of environment, and how those struggles would translate into a dark biotech world of the near future.”
Hannu Rajaniemi on privacy:
“A lot of my first book, The Quantum Thief, takes place in a city-state on Mars called Oubliette, and one of the most fundamental values there is privacy. There is completely ubiquitous computing and sensing, at a very, very high nanotechnological level, but there is a system called Gevulot, which is essentially privacy settings for reality. The natives of Oubliette actually have a kind of ‘privacy sense’ that allows them to subconsciously decide who they share a particular memory or a particular interaction with. … [That] came about because I wanted to tell a detective story set in the far future, and for old-fashioned detective work to happen, there had to be some restrictions on what the technology was able to do.”
Hannu Rajaniemi on John Murray Spear:
“His ideas were just beautifully crazy. … He and his friend constructed ‘spirit armor,’ this contraption of Iron Man-esque armor, with magnetic coils and electrical wires that were supposed to enhance a medium’s powers. … They were really worried about the telegraph monopoly—Western Union was dominating the telegraph business—and they wanted to come up with a decentralized alternative, so they proposed a network of decentralized ‘telepathy towers,’ where you’d have a medium sitting in each tower, and you’d have spirits passing messages from one medium to another. So you’d have like this peer-to-peer network powered by supernatural forces.”
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