A long time ago—almost a quarter of a century—I worked in a research lab, designing measurement and data acquisition electronics for high energy physics experiments. In the interest of providing motivation for what follows, I will say a few words about the job. It was interesting work, and it gave me a chance to rub shoulders (and drink beer) with some of the most intelligent people on the planet (though far too fixated on subatomic particles).
The work itself was interesting too: it required a great deal of creativity because the cutting edge in electronics was nowhere near sharp enough for our purposes, and we spent our time coming up with strange new ways of combining commercially available components that made them perform better than one had the right to expect. But most of my time went into the care and feeding of an arcane and temperamental Computer Aided Design system that had been donated to the university, and, for all I know, is probably still there, bedeviling generations of graduate students. With grad students just about our only visitors, the atmosphere of the lab was rather monastic, with the days spent twiddling knobs, pushing buttons and scribbling in lab notebooks.
And so I was quite pleased when one day an unexpected visitor showed up. I was busy doing something quite tedious: looking up integrated circuit pin-outs in semiconductor manufacturer's databooks and manually keying them into the CAD system—a task that no longer exists, thanks to the internet. The visitor was a young man, earnest, well-spoken and nervous. He was carrying something wrapped in a black trash bag, which turned out to be a boombox. These portable stereos that incorporated an AM/FM radio and a cassette tape player were all the rage in those days. He proceeded to tell me that he strongly suspected that the CIA was eavesdropping on his conversations by means of a bug placed inside this unit, and he wanted me to see if it was broadcasting on any frequency and to take it apart and inspect it for any suspicious-looking hardware.
He also told me that he was regularly picking up transmissions from what could only be visiting flying saucers, which showed up in the static between AM stations, and he was wondering if it would be possible to modify his unit so that he could transmit messages back to them, because, you see, he wanted to hitch a ride.
I told him that this is all quite possible; putting a radio transmitter “bug” inside his boombox is something that could have been done, and while I wasn't aware of anything in peer-reviewed scientific journals concerning visiting flying saucers, absence of evidence should never be accepted as evidence of absence. As far as converting a receiver into a transciever—we'd have to think about it. But in order to get any work authorized, he'd have to talk to my boss, who was sitting right over there, doing something equally tedious, and could probably use a distraction and some amusing company right about then.
The young man thanked me, walked over and sat down next to my boss. I went back to looking up and keying in pin-outs, but looked over at them periodically, and after a while I noticed that their conversation was really dragging on. My boss, somewhat exasperatedly, was trying to explain to him that building an AM transmitter into his boombox for the purpose of communicating with flying saucers is not something our lab could do for him because we worked on government research grants and he didn't have one. Eventually the young man left, rather frustrated, and my boss came over to me, looking uncharacteristically furious, and said: “You owe me, buddy!”
All of this happened around the time when Ronald Reagan's administration decided to improve the country's finances by closing mental hospitals and sending the inmates out into the world to stumble about the streets and stand ranting and raving on street-corners. Our young man was perhaps one such administrative casualty. Back then, such “crazy people” (pardon the non-PC term, but that's what we all called them then) were easy to spot. They were disorganized, defocused, addled by some drug, and, in all, behaving strangely. Often they could be overheard talking to themselves, or ranting at no-one in particular, or be seen looking intently at objects that were not there.
These days, of course, such behavior is considered perfectly normal, and the streets are full of people who appear to be talking to themselves (they might be talking on their cell phone, or not; it is hard to tell). A lot of them look defocused or addled by some drug, and that's probably because they are on some psychoactive medication—legal or illegal—this being one of the most highly medicated countries on earth, and also the one with the largest, best-developed illegal drug market. Although the prevalence of public ranting doesn't seem to have gone up appreciably, perhaps it only appears so due to a shift of venue: plenty of internet forums and social media sites are full of mad rants on any number of subjects.
One may surmise that, beyond providing the mentally ill with a safe and supportive environment, mental hospitals previously served an important additional function: they helped define what's normal. When, thanks to Ronald Reagan's cost-cutting initiative, it became normal for the mentally ill to walk the streets and mingle with the rest of the people, this eroded the entire concept of normality.
If our encounter were to happen today, the young man probably wouldn't have been able to penetrate the lab, which is now behind doors that only open for those with a key fob and under the gaze of security cameras. You see, if your streets are awash with “crazy people,” you need to take security much more seriously. But let's suppose that he did somehow manage to breach the perimeter. To be sure, he would be bringing us something other than an old-fashioned boombox. Most likely, it would be the gadget du jour: a smartphone, with a 50% chance of it running Google's Android and a 40% chance of it running Apple's iOS.
The young man would voice his suspicion that the CIA is using his phone to eavesdrop on his conversations. I would patiently explain to him that the organization in question is the NSA (National Security Agency), not the CIA and that, yes, the NSA is recording the metadata from every single phone call he makes (source number, destination number, time and duration). They can also record his actual conversations, and if they did there wouldn't be any telltale clicks, buzzes, echos or static on the line, because it would all be done digitally.
Also, I would helpfully point out that the NSA can use his phone to record his location and track his movements. “But I keep GPS turned off!” the young man would protest, and I would respond that if he has a SIM card in his phone, then the phone emits roaming signals which allow its position to be determined with surprisingly good accuracy by using multilateralization—measuring its relative signal strength at several of the surrounding cell phone towers. To hide his position, he would have to turn the phone off.
As far as communicating with visiting flying saucers, I would simply tell him that “There's probably an app for that.”
Do you see the curious role reversal that has occurred in the intervening years? Whereas previously it was “crazy people” who wondered if the CIA was spying on their conversations using their boomboxes, now it is the rest of the country that is crazy: the NSA is indeed spying on all of them, but they consider this to be perfectly normal, and continue to walk into voting booths and, like well-trained lab animals, repeatedly pull the lever for the same people who had instituted this insane, purposeless, yet very expensive surveillance regime. Whereas before such people were locked up in mental hospitals while the rest of us walked around freely, now it is the few remaining relatively sane people who are locked up inside security perimeters and behind locked doors, with entry granted only to the select few and always under the ever-watchful all-seeing eye of the security camera, while the “crazy people”—the population at large, that is—is kept outside.
Uncontrolled ranting—previously suppressed through confinement in mental institutions and medication—is now encouraged via social media, with an ever-expanding menu of rantworthy topics just a click away:
• 9/11 inside job
• global warming a government conspiracy
• peak oil
• MMR vaccine causing autism
• rising ocean levels
• Obama being a space lizard
• the Federal Reserve undermining the country's financial system
• the plastics plague
• Putin taking over the USSR
• near-term human extinction due to Arctic methane release
Pick and choose, mix and match—it doesn't matter which of these have a basis in consensual reality, and which don't, because, you see, you are all “crazy people” now, and everything you say (on social media, because unmediated face-to-face access to other humans is now a rarity) is automatically a mad rant.
Taken to its logical conclusion, this progression ends in the gadgetization of the human brain itself—through neural implants. Then the choice of rantworthy topics, such as the ones listed above, would be controllable through a centralized administrative interface. So, for instance, if it turned out that Obama were indeed a space lizard (how embarrassing!) the administrator would simply click on “conspiracy theories,” click on the checkbox next to “Obama is a space lizard,” and click “uninstall.” Suddenly, Obama would no longer be a space lizard, or so the “crazy people” (the population at large) would be forced to immediately admit.
One problem is that “crazy people” tend to be rather unpredictable, but here too we should expect technological improvements. They would be transported in driverless cars which would tell them where they want to go rather than allow them to make potentially incorrect decisions, and, pièce de résistance, when traveling on foot, there would be a way of putting your entire body in “slave mode”: instead of your brain potentially disobeying commands from your integral GPS unit's voice inside your head (“at the next corner turn right, etc.”) it would be your legs that would be doing the obeying. Your brain could be otherwise engaged: watching porn, listening to hip-hop or simply vegetating in a state of chemically induced rapture. This feature would be particularly useful on election day: voters would automatically march to poling stations and always be sure to pull the correct lever, improving voter turn-out and making the country more democratic than ever.
And if a young man were to breach the security perimeter and sneak into the lab to tell me that his cat is feeding him coded messages in Swahili, I'd just connect wirelessly to his neural implant, bring up his page in the admin interface, say something like “Wow, that's a weird bug!” and a few clicks later the faulty app would be uninstalled, and he would no longer have a cat, or even remember that he ever had one.
And that, my crazy friends, is how better living through technology will be achieved in our country-sized open-air insane asylum.