Programming People

In this industrial, technologically advancing world we live in, we’ve grown rather accustomed to the notion that we control machines: Machines do stuff, we tell the machines what to do. Being transported somewhere? It’s one of us humans controlling that car or bus or plane. And even were we to be transported in an unpiloted vehicle, that vehicle itself is following a program created by humans. The link between control and machine is inherent, clear and unquestionable in our minds.

At the same time, our technological world is yielding advances in our understanding of dna, genetics and biology daily. Advances which show cause and effect, such as genetic markers for disease, ultimately strengthening the notion that this biological stuff we’re made of is deterministic. We might not have mapped all of the ways our biology works yet, but due to the┬áresemblance┬áthere’s a strong, natural temptation to classify that biology as, effectively, a machine.

And machines can be controlled, right?

I happen to control machines for a living. It’s the end result of programming, after all. There’s a buzz to be had from seeing a robotic limb react the way you’ve instructed it to, or a computer take a vast amount of distributed data and present some short and actionable summary to a user. And even more so when it’s done elegantly. I’d guess it’s related to my interests in music and writing: there’s as much satisfaction in getting the reaction you desire from an audience as there is beauty in the thing itself.

So it seems to follow: just as we can program or control a machine, we can, at some level, program or control a person. Ever been watching a movie and been happy, or sad, on behalf of the characters? Ever felt your spirit soar in a concert? Same process surely, right?

Nevertheless, I was introduced to something a few months ago which didn’t compute at all.

Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) was touched on in a class and, after later looking it up on Wikipedia I found I couldn’t take it seriously. It seemed to require confusing the other person into a suggestible state, and on first glance just seemed like crackpot pseudo-science.

So I forgot about it.

Shame on my lack curiosity.

A few months later and I just happen to crash on the couch as local TV plays Derren Brown’s Apocalypse.

Holy cow, can I say Compelling Television? The premise: Through an elaborate set-up, a self centred young chap is convinced that the world as he knows it has ended, been replaced by a zombie apocalypse, and he has to rise to the challenge not only to survive himself, but to help a complete stranger. If you’ve not seen Derren Brown before, and if you think reality TV has lost its flavour, see this. You can’t help feeling empathy for this guy as he goes through this horror story (And yes, I’m recommending this despite being totally over the zombie phenomenon).

Fascinated, I researched more of Derren’s work and came across this:


Derren Brown and Simon Pegg

And suddenly here was a something which made sense of the NLP concept (sort of – to my understanding, Derren’s not exactly practicing NLP here). Confusion, suggestion, timing… but equally, there is a whole lot more going on between Derren and Simon. So much so that I still wonder how effective just using language to ‘program’ someone is going to be:

  • Simon is already somewhat in awe of Derren due to Derren’s reputation, and he’s expecting to be a little bewildered.
  • Derren establishes early contact by touch so that Simon will accept it as the process continues.
  • Derren uses a form of handshake induction with Simon to snap him into a highly suggestable, confused state. He keeps his left hand on Simon’s right to maintain it.
  • Simon is kept off-kilter while Derren recites his programming script, which is both deliberately confusing but also consciously suggesting that Derren can change people’s minds.
  • The details Derren wants Simon to subconsciously choose are hidden (mostly) from conscious processing of Derren’s script.
  • To signify the subconscious keywords, Derren taps Simon on the arm whenever they occur in the script.

Okay, so the syntax you might use to program a person may include more than just words, and we may well be being programmed all the time by media and advertising, but it does raise some scary questions. Just where does it end? How easily can we be programmed against our own moral identity? If you or I could do this to affect a conversation, or a transaction, would we? I know I’m uncomfortable with the idea.

Music and literature seem safer forms of mind control. At least the audience has opted in, you know?

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