This entry is part 5 in the series Examining Psionics

Last time, I continued examining the concept of The Internet as an analogy or metaphor for Psionics, especially telepathy. The examination of web phenomena is now in the home stretch – here are the final seven, and a few closing thoughts.

15. Cookies

A cookie is a small file placed on a computer by a website which facilitates a more interactive experience with that website. That’s pretty much part of Internet 101. Sometimes, these do nothing more than record the last time you were at that particular website, or even just that you’ve been there before; sometimes, they are the key to unlocking a far more immersive internet experience.

The psionic equivalent of the simple cookie seems fairly obvious – some sort of implanted subconscious memory that simply tells the telepath that he’s been here before. Perhaps the thought could include the date of the previous visit.

But go beyond that simple concept and we start running into more interesting – and difficult – possibilities. What if the psionic left behind a catalogue – the equivalent of a saved Google search – of everything in the mind, neatly tabbed into some sort of organisational system? When he returned, he could easily discover what’s changed since the last time he had probed that particular mind, enabling him to quickly keep tabs on key individuals.

The central questions that this raises are three-fold: How much information can be “implanted” in this way? What will the side-effects be on the target? and How much effort is involved?

Before permitting anything on this scale, the GM should carefully consider his answers to those three questions.

There will be more to be said on this subject in the next section.

16. Fisching

Fisching is an internet nasty that is (unfortunately) on the rise. It’s essentially a scam in which an email or website misrepresents themselves in order to gain access to secure information, like bank account passwords. Everyone should know about Fisching and how to spot it – know their bank’s policies on what they will and won’t include in an email, know how to check the destination of a hyperlink before they click on it, and so on. Not enough people do, unfortunately.

The telepathic equivalent brings us to a new concept: Psi-bots.

A Psi-bot is a programmed set of thoughts and reactions, essentially a ‘virtual machine’ constructed within a target mind entirely out of thought. A poorly constructed Psi-bot would manifest as an obviously rogue thought that leaves the subject wondering “Where did THAT come from?” after the fact. A well-constructed Psi-bot would seem to be a natural thought to the owner of the mind in question, leaving them completely unaware that anything out of the ordinary has taken place.

I’ve commented before on some of the unwritten assumptions that have been in place within my campaign’s treatment of Psionics, and this brings us to another one: the more sensitive a piece of information is, the more aware of it the target is. So a telepathic probe to determine what the target had for breakfast is a lot easier than a telepathic probe to determine the target’s bank account number and password. Especially in a world where Psionics are known to be real, anyone who – completely out of the blue – thought about the latter would become immediately suspicious.

To access that information, there are really only three choices: (1) risk detection; (2) wait until the subject accesses the information for their own use – which might take a very long time – or (3) try and probe for the information while they sleep. This is only marginally better, as it would probably mean interrupting whatever the target was dreaming about for a visit to the bank – the sort of weird dream that people tend to remember. Only by creating a far more plausible and seamless dream transition can the telepath hope to avoid detection – and that takes time and extra effort. You might be able to construct a nightmare about not being able to remember your PIN, but most people rarely think about their bank account numbers – and that’s the big tip-off.

If Psi-bots are permitted to exist by the referee, it opens the door to the telepathic equivalent of Fisching as a fourth solution to the problem. Instead of the telepath having to spend hours, days, weeks, or even months, keeping close watch on the target until the secret is revealed, he just launches the Psi-bot and lets it do the waiting for him. The next time the target accesses his PIN number, the machine momentarily blocks the recall and shunts the memory of the number into a “file” where it is stalled, then suggests to the target that he has pulled out an old card by mistake – better double-check it – which gives the Psi-bot access to the account number and name. Or any one of a dozen similar scams, depending on what the ‘secure’ information that the telepath wants to obtain happens to be.

17. Viruses

Of course, if a Psi-bot can ‘derail’ someone’s thinking, then it can be designed to do other things as well. It might be designed to act as a ‘suicide pill’, killing the target when a particular thought or memory gets accessed. It could be linked to brainwashing or other mental controls – people will do things in their sleep, or in a video game, that they would never do in real life; so if the target thinks they are dreaming, or playing a game, when they aren’t, normal behaviour can be completely overridden, turning ordinary people into assassins or fifth columns. (More good ideas for scenarios!)

And perhaps the nastiest trick of the lot is to leave a doomsday weapon in someone’s mind designed to go off if it’s ever accessed by another telepath.

Depending on how the referee wanted to restrict this concept, the side-effects on the host’s mind might be anything from a headache to a catastrophic failure, total collapse. The more devastating the side effects, the more this capability becomes reserved for the bad guys – at least in a superhero campaign, YMMV!

Which leads in rather nicely to another subject for contemplation, a stroke of genius from Babylon 5:

Traitor To The Living

Traitor To The Living

The Experience Of Death

What happens when you’re in someone’s mind as they die? It wasn’t something that occurred to me until I came across a novel by Phillip Jose Farmer – “Traitor To The Living” – but while that raised unsettling questions about mortality that were somewhat inspirational at the time, it fell short of giving me enough inspiration to answer this particular question, just enough to inspire me to ask it. Lacking a satisfactory resolution, I set the issue aside and let it gather mental cobwebs for a couple of decades.

“Flatliners” raised the question again, and raised the prospect of an answer, but it was Babylon-5 that really brought the subject into prominence for me, as part of the fifth-season episode, “The Paragon Of Animals”.

Telepathy offers a means to manifest theological experiences as subjective reality. The ability to be present in someone’s mind at death, or prior to birth, means that the theological foundations of your campaign can be directly scrutinised – so you had better have your answers ready, or – at the very least – some prepared obfuscation.

This seems a really good point at which to point you at another article on the subject here at Campaign Mastery, A Quality Of Spirit: Big Questions In RPGs, and move on before the discussion gets sidetracked.

18. Social Networking

Social Networking sites are an evolutionary outgrowth of the internet dating site. The concept is to enable the site’s members to find and communicate with people of similar interests, forming a distributed community of friends who (by definition) are more likely to be interested in what an individual is doing and thinking.

The psionic analogue is a variation on the “Cookies” discussed at the beginning of this post. If a telepath left the equivalent of a telepathic “signature” in the mind of ‘interesting people’, it would facilitate the recruiting of new members into a psionic community. This is a slightly darker application of the cookies concept; it still revolves around using people for your own purposes, presumably without permission, but the usage in question is relatively innocuous. Call it morally gray; some telepaths might consider the development of such a community to be worth the price paid. I can’t help thinking of Anne McCaffrey’s “To Ride Pegasus” when I consider this possibility, and contrasting the impact of precognition to that of this telepathic approach to the same basic problem.

19. Twitter

Twitter’s psionic analogue harkens back to the old “broadcast” metaphor. Essentially, it’s broadcasting a thought describing in a short burst something that you are doing or thinking, that is worth telling anyone who’s interested, about.

I have always ruled that “Telepathic broadcasting” necessarily opens the mind, leaving one telepath exposed to another; the more limited the broadcast, the smaller the window of vulnerability. In effect, I was forecasting this analogy before there even was a Twitter!

20. Website Hacking

Now we’re getting into the really nasty stuff. If a non-telepathic mind is the equivalent of a third-party website, a clear implication of the “world wide web” analogy from part 4 of this series, then hacking a website so that it says what you want it to say instead of what it should, is a form of psychic mutilation. And, unless the owner has his mind conveniently backed up somewhere – something that’s actually possible in my campaign, though the technology is not trusted by the players – the “defacement” will be permanent.

Psychic Surgery might be able to remove the damage, but could never completely restore what was there before; there would be noticeable psychic scarring, which is to say that there would be emotional and psychological impacts. The cure could well be worse than the disease!

What’s more, it has recently been shown that neurological connections continue to be formed throughout our lives in response to learning new things and acquiring new skills and habits. That would imply that the physical infrastructure of the brain would alter as a consequence of the “hacking” – effects that not even a “full restore” from a “backup” would undo. The target – assuming he was unaware of what had happened to him – would find himself occasionally thinking and doing things instinctively that he might not want to do. This would be not all that dissimilar to Gulf War Syndrome or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or even Shell Shock. Recent studies have even shown a similar effect in soldiers following the US Civil War (refer to the Gulf War Syndrome page cited above).

Given all of the above, the justification would need to be compelling before any such “website hacking” or Psychic Surgery could be perceived as anything other than a villainous act.

21. Spyware / Hijack exploits

That brings us to a rather Matrix-like concept, that of using the minds of ordinary people as nodes in a distributed-processing system – something that makes vastly more sense than the “power generation” concept of the Matrix films. Where the analogue of Website Hacking affected the conscious mind of the target, this sort of malicious activity usurps the subconscious mind. In fact, I remember once reading a short story in which all of perceived reality was a side-effect of software running in a computer system of super-biological complexity, i.e. the dreams of the computer. Sorry, I can’t provide any specific references, I no longer remember the name of this story (I’m not even sure of the details).

Hijacking people’s minds and putting them to work for you as elements of a gigantic supercomputer is the psionic equivalent of spyware. Like the computer virus analogy discussed earlier, this is dependant on the creation of Psi-Bots. It would also require a ‘bank’ of telepaths to act as servers, connecting the distributed computing ‘nodes’ with the central processor, where the results are compiled.

One extremely high-level telepath might be able to do it, but it is more likely that a psionic community is responsible – which ties in with the telepathic equivalent of “social networking” as a means of recruiting members into the community.

The whole thing sounds like yet another telepathy-oriented scenario to me…

The Internet as a metaphor for Psionics

I’m sure there are internet phenomena that I haven’t thought of. But by this time, it should be clear that the Internet makes a very useful tool for thinking about Psionics and the way that such abilities could be employed.

This is a framework that takes the ideas on the subject that I’ve had kicking around for many years and reframes them for a modern age. The rewards are an enhanced accessibility to the concepts of Psionics and its limitations on the part of both GM and players; and that can only be a good thing, making psionic characters easier to play.

The value of analogy

On a larger scale, this example also illustrates the value of using analogy as a vehicle for examining a concept. Some of the ideas – the scenarios, for example – that have been described in the course of this article simply didn’t exist in my mind prior to writing this series. That’s both an immediate payoff for the time and effort involved and a demonstration of that greater understanding that I referred to a moment ago.

The same approach can be used to simplify any other complex phenomena in your games. Pick an analogy and see where it takes you. If it illuminates some new aspect of the concept, or helps to define and refine the concept in any way, then it is a useful metaphor for the phenomenon.

Einstein was once said to be able to think in purely mathematical terms; but his writings suggest that he did so by means of analogy. If it’s good enough for a genius, then it’s good enough for me!

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