The Big Idea: Ramez Naam
A mind is a terrible thing to waste — but might it also be a terrible thing to improve, if those improvements came from an outside source or technology? Or would it in fact be potentially amazing? It’s an interesting question to pose, which is probably why Ramez Naam poses it in his near-future novel Nexus. And as someone who has written non-fiction books on the possibly transhuman future which awaits us, he’s got thoughts on what rights you have to expand your head, and where (and if) government has a role in telling you where and when to stop.
Who decides what you can put in your brain? Who draws the line between human and non-human? How do we choose between liberty and security?
These types of questions come up in ACLU newsletters, in fiction like the X-Men, in the writings of Benjamin Franklin and further back. While they’re not new, they’re as relevant now as ever, and they’re a context for telling stories about both science and adventure.
My novel’s called Nexus. The word ‘nexus’ means a connection between things, often a great many things. In this case, ‘Nexus’ is the name of a drug. No ordinary drug, mind you. Nexus is a collection of nanoparticles that self-assemble in the brain, latching onto neurons and transmitting what’s going on in your brain to others, and vice versa.
The science of Nexus and the ways it can be used are downright life-changing. And, while the book is definitely fiction, the science in it is based on real work happening now. We already have cochlear implants that restore hearing to the completely deaf by sending signals to the brain via the auditory nerve. We have artificial eyes that have restored vision to blind humans via electrodes jacked into the visual cortex in the back of the head, and now retinal implants that are essentially the early version of the ‘bionic eyes’ long imagined by science fiction. We have wireless electrodes implanted in the brain that allow paralyzed men and women to move computer cursors and robot arms – even to move them from thousands of miles away, connected over the internet. We have algorithms that can look at an fMRI scan of your brain and put together a crude image of what you’re seeing. It’s clear that we’re tapping into the brain and learning to decode it. Nexus just happens to be a much more advanced version of this technology.
But technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It affects society, and invariably society affects it back.
In my novel, Nexus is illegal, partly because it’s used as a recreational drug, and partly because it bears too much resemblance to other, earlier, technologies that have been abused. And by abused, I mean tremendously so. A technology that can get information in and out of the brain can, in the wrong hands, be used for mind control – to steal from people, to make slaves of them, to form cults and worse.
Frightened societies clamp down on freedoms. The world I’ve drawn in 2040 has been shaken by past terrorist attacks that have used biotechnology to kill tens of thousands, by apocalyptic cults that have tried to use biotech to build new posthuman ‘master races’, and by the earlier mind control technologies that Nexus somewhat resembles.
So, when a group of young scientists in San Francisco get caught trying to improve on Nexus – to extend its range, to increase the amount you can communicate with it, even to build software that runs on top of the nanobots in the brain – things go very badly for them. Our protagonist, Kade, finds himself in a situation where he has no legal rights, where he’s not guaranteed a lawyer, where an agency created to fight the threats of emerging technologies has complete authority to do whatever they want with him. And the only option they give Kade – aside from a lifetime in an internment camp for him and all his friends – is to become a spy, working his way into the confidence of a famous Chinese scientist who might or might not be militarizing Nexus for the Chinese government, as a tool for political mind control and assassination.
All of this may sound terrifically far-fetched, and it is fiction, after all. But it’s not that far off from reality today. We have ‘extraordinary rendition’ without trial for suspects accused of terrorism, even for US citizens. We have laws that govern what you can and can’t put in your body and your brain. Not that long ago we had a President’s Council on Bio-Ethics which released reports arguing that we should use ‘the power of the state’ to put a clamp on biotechnologies that might make people smarter, stronger, or longer lived.
I’m not totally unsympathetic to the urge to clamp down against threats. Terrorism is a real thing, and we want our government to guard us against danger. Drug abuse and addiction are scourges that have a cost to society. There are real ethical questions about what happens if, at some point in the future, the very wealthy can afford to enhance their minds and bodies and the rest of us can’t. There’s more gray than either black or white here.
I try to present that ambiguity and complexity in Nexus. There are no arch-villains in this book. There are no technologies that are purely good or purely evil. There’s no one out to rule or destroy the world for fun or out of pure self-interest. Instead, there are men and women and organizations each working towards what they each think is best for the world, but coming from very different perspectives on what that means.
Nexus is fundamentally a near future thriller. It’s full of danger and suspense, spycraft and battles, and a protagonist who is in way over his head. But underneath that thriller storyline are these foundational questions: What would happen if we could link our minds together? How would society react to so profound a change? How would we choose between choice and control, between security and liberty?
And I have to tell you – when the rubber hits the road, I come down on the side of individual liberty.