Jean Guerrero | Wired | Source URL
I was 11 when my father destroyed the condominium where he was living. Searching for hidden transistors or other devices that might be beaming voices into his skull, he took a hammer to the walls, shoved his fists into the holes, and pulled off chunks of plaster. He shut off the power generator and cut the electrical wires in the walls. He put his ear to the floor. He ripped up the carpet. He called 9-1-1.
A Mexican immigrant who perfected his English by reading books he sneaked into the San Diego shipyard where he helped build oil tankers, Marco Guerrero had always been an uncanny mechanic. He could see through to the machinery of everything as if he had x-ray vision: He could adjust brakes, fix broken pipes, tap telephone lines.
After mass layoffs at the shipyard, he stayed at home, documenting my first words on his camcorder and taking me to coastal tide pools to catch cobitos. But then he fell into a depression. My parents separated. He started smoking crack cocaine. After tearing his place apart, he vanished on a years-long, cross-border quest to escape alleged CIA persecutors.
My mother took me and my sister to assess the damage to the condominium, which she owned but had let our father stay in after they separated. The carpet lay in heaps against the punctured walls. A layer of cigarette ash coated the rooms. It looked apocalyptic. Our mother, a physician specializing in internal medicine, offered a psychiatric diagnosis. Your father, she said, has paranoid schizophrenia.
In college, I minored in neuroscience while majoring in journalism, searching for my absent father in fMRI brain scans and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Though he had returned from his transcontinental odyssey a couple of years earlier and moved in with his mother in San Diego, I rarely saw him; when I visited, we exchanged few words.
But on my 20th birthday, I made a trip to my paternal grandmother’s house, and my father, sober now for several years, dragged a chair next to me and started talking. It was the first lengthy conversation we’d had since I was a child.
The story he told sounded unlikely: that he was one of thousands of “targeted individuals,” who had been covertly spied on and manipulated by the CIA in the early 2000s. (So-called TIs have begun banding together around the country and across the internet.) But he didn’t sound agitated or disturbed the way I had imagined a paranoid schizophrenic might. He was articulate. He cited patents, research, and the central role of something he called MKUltra, a real CIA mind-control program that ran from 1953 to 1973 that targeted drug addicts, prisoners, and other vulnerable people.
I didn’t know anything about the pile of facts he’d just left at my feet—his far-fetched answer to the mystery of his breakdown and disappearance—but I felt it was my duty, as a journalist and as his daughter, to investigate the possibility that what he said was true. I hoped I could do it without falling down a rabbit hole.
One day, after scouring the internet for information about “MKUltra” and “CIA torture,” I was served with an ad for Trintellix, a pharmaceutical drug for depression. The ad was prominent on the page and encouraged me in large blue letters to "Take the first step." For a moment, I wondered: Did I have depression? The idea of a conspiracy targeting my father was making me feel depressed.
Then a more likely hypothesis occurred to me. My online activity—using search terms like “V2K” and “government harassment”—had probably caused computer algorithms to place me in a category of people with paranoia, which is often accompanied by depression, leading advertisers to target me.
The hypothesis started to broaden: In our digital economy, covert players are constantly harvesting our data and churning out exquisitely tuned consumer profiles to tap into our dreams and desires. We are being surveilled. We are being controlled and manipulated. We are perhaps being tortured. But it's not the CIA or aliens perpetrating all this. We are doing it to ourselves.
A thought occurred to me: Could the stories of “targeted individuals” be a warning, a cautionary tale about the real targeting we experience as digital technologies pervade our lives? Perhaps my father’s perception of electronic harassment is the result of his sensitivity to the mechanics of things. He may be seeing through to the nuts and bolts of the web, weaving a story out of its danger and turning it into a terrifying delusion of persecution, suffering, and torment.
Stay with me here; the idea that madness might contain insights about overlooked realities is not new. There is a growing international network of people with hallucinations, Intervoice, whose members have embraced their waking visions and the voices in their heads.
They see them not as undesirable symptoms of mental illness, but as tools that serve the same function as dreams. They explore hallucinations for metaphorical insights to help them process unresolved experiences. They argue that traditional mental health approaches, focused on eradicating symptoms, fail to promote a meaningful, empowering relationship between patients and their hallucinations. On its website, the network urges people with schizophrenia “to listen (to hallucinations) but not to necessarily follow, to engage.” (The approach is gaining traction in the scientific community.)
What if the TI voices exist for the same reason? Maybe my father, and the thousands of people who have bonded over their self-perceived status as targeted individuals, are a kind of indirect warning system experiencing a kind of collective dream—canaries in the digital coal mine. We dismiss them as out of touch with reality. Yet we have all become the objects of monitoring and manipulation eroding the core of what makes us human: our free will.
Perhaps the “targeted individuals” are foretelling the future—one in which we’ve lost control of our minds.
I remember the first time I told my father I wanted to write about him for what became my memoir, Crux. Papi choked on his beer, pounded his fist against his chest and shook his head, eyes watering.
When he could breathe again, he said: “Absolutely not. Maybe if someday you become famous and respected, you can do it. Otherwise, nobody will think twice if —” he lowered his voice, “if the CIA kills you.”
I paused, trying to think of the best response. “Pa, if I write your story, you’ll be immortal,” I said.
He rolled his eyes and squeezed indignation into his forehead, saying he didn’t care about the perpetuity of his insignificant ego, but I could see the grin growing on his face against his will. My father was human, just like me, dying to live among the gods.
Humans are story-making machines. We are the only animal capable of such rich conceptualization, taking the raw material of reality and turning it into something more. Our minds connect objective entities, enfolding them in categories within categories: a man and a woman can be a mother and a father, who may be a couple, who are parents, who may be property owners and Americans.
In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari observes that our species conquered the globe because of our ability to share stories about things that don’t objectively exist, such as “gods, nations, and corporations.” Such fictions allowed us to organize around shared values, goals, and ideas. It was not exactly wisdom—sapiens—that gave us dominion, but creative storytelling. We are Homo fabulator. “The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups,” Harari writes. “This glue has made us masters of creation.”
Unlike the Neanderthals and other early humans who could work together in groups of at most 150 individuals, we learned to cooperate in groups of thousands, tens of thousands, millions—simply by telling stories to forge shared dreams. But now, this gift is in danger. As the speed and efficiency of computer processing increases at predictable rates, our ability to author our own destinies is being consumed by a conjured figment of our imagination: the internet.
We created the internet as a vast landscape where information could be free. That was a delusion, of course, or at least a misapprehension. The advertising model that drives online media and commerce means we pay for the web’s valuable resources by opening up our minds to what virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier calls “siren servers”—cloud computing networks that dominate the internet. Algorithms collect our data and crunch that into maps of our minds, which companies use to manipulate our decisions. Power concentrates where the data are. Lanier argues that we are surrendering our free will “bit by bit” to Amazon, Facebook, Google, and their clients.
In Who Owns The Future, he writes: “When you are wearing sensors on your body all the time, such as the GPS and camera on your smartphone and constantly piping data to a megacomputer owned by a corporation that is paid by ‘advertisers’ to subtly manipulate you ... you gradually become less free.”
This surrender is triggering a breakdown in our ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Instead of moving through the world as autonomous actors with original thoughts and inquiries, we become objects of what is dictated to us via the digital realm, including fake news.
While advertising dates back to papyrus, it gained a broader reach after the Industrial Revolution; the Information Age opened its Pandora’s box. Digital feedback loops allow advertisers to predict our fears and cravings and to influence our purchases and preoccupations. The information economy thrives on the currency of our data—our selves. It is unseating us as masters of our own destinies and distorting the fabric of reality as we know it.
Sound familiar? Many who hear the TI stories of surveillance and manipulation dismiss them as mere delusion. But we have created machines that track our every move, that beam thoughts into our heads. Were the targeted individuals America's prophets all along?
My father told me about the CIA agents who allegedly followed him at the turn of the millennium. The TIs collectively refer to this as “gang stalking,” the perception of groups tracking and harassing them. As my father traveled across continents, he says he was trailed by “gringos” in suits and black SUVs with American plates.
He describes an instance where the stalking became so unbearable that he drove to a Mexican jail and begged the officers to put him behind bars, where he thought he would be safe from the CIA. “I want you to arrest me!” he recalls saying. “All of them were trying to be real nice. ‘Why? Do you have drugs?’ I told them I had been doing drugs.”
A targeted individual in San Diego explained to me that her stalkers often coordinate to mock her and make her feel she’s losing her mind. After she went through a difficult breakup, she noticed persecutors posing as couples, kissing and hugging in front of her to torment her. “You know when someone kisses and it’s natural,” she says, speaking on condition of anonymity because she feared for her life. “This wasn’t natural.”
An early sign of schizophrenia is apophenia, the tendency to perceive connections among unrelated external phenomena. It's the product of our innate storytelling impulse, unmoored from healthy inhibitions. Ironically, the brains of people with schizophrenia are afflicted by disconnectivity—the loss of connections between cortical structures. But while some TIs have schizophrenia diagnoses, their perceptions aren’t necessarily meaningless. They can shine a light on a problem we have yet to fully process.
More than 50 years ago, Carl Jung argued that the dreaming phase of sleep—now known as REM, for the rapid eye movement that characterizes it—serves our mental health by maintaining an equilibrium between the conscious and unconscious parts of our minds. “For the sake of mental stability … the unconscious and the conscious must be integrally connected and thus move on parallel lines,” he writes in Man And His Symbols. “If they are split apart or ‘dissociated,’ psychological disturbance follows.”
Scientific evidence supports Jung’s idea that dreams give our minds a cohesiveness that can be fractured; REM sleep deprivation has been correlated with mental disorders.
Perhaps the TIs’ stories signal a dissociated society. Just as our brains must integrate the conscious and unconscious, our collective imagination must reconcile the drab perceived reality of clicking on Amazon links with the darker facts of a digital system that is taking control of our lives.
I suspect that TIs experience this control consciously, and rather literally to boot: Strangers are sending voices into their heads. Strangers are harassing them.
We can dismiss the targeted individual whose persecutors allegedly tormented her about a breakup. Or we can ask ourselves if her story reveals something we’ve ignored about ourselves: a social media dynamic in which we are actually being watched, in which our most intimate lives are exposed, in which we are sometimes mocked and taunted by remorseless strangers.
There's no mystery that Facebook knows our gender, ages, hometowns, birthdays, friends, likes, political leanings, and internet browsing habits. Facebook can tell, by analyzing our likes and comments, whether we are going through a breakup or a divorce. It can make predictions about our health. It can algorithmically intuit our fantasies and fears and use that information to target us with messaging so personalized it feels like persecution.
Consider this example from my own life: After the Los Angeles Times published allegations of sexual misconduct by a gynecologist at the university I attended, Facebook started bombarding me with pictures of his face in the form of ads, from plaintiff lawyers offering free consultations and injury checks. I'd had an uncomfortable experience with this gynecologist and had been considering sharing my story with journalists after reading the first article. But seeing his face on my news feed every time I opened Facebook felt invasive, almost nightmarish.
My USC classmates and I were being stalked by lawyers who knew we’d attended the university while the gynecologist worked there. It didn’t feel like the platform was presenting an option to speak up; it felt like harassment. The specificity of the ads, their omnipresence and relation to a very personal incident in my life felt like an assault on my process of deliberation—on the integrity of my free will.
Like my father, I was experiencing a form of gang stalking. And it was real.
In the Bible, men who perceive voices and visions nobody else can see or hear are prophets. They are in communication with God. With the sea nowhere in sight, Noah built a ship and herded animals onto it, saving life on Earth from God’s wrathful flood. Moses foresaw plagues of flies, boils, locusts, and the deaths of firstborn sons, convincing the Pharaoh to free the Israelites.
In the ’70s, the American psychologist Julian Jaynes argued that all early humans suffered from hallucinations because their two brain hemispheres, connected by nerve fibers of the corpus callosum, were not fully integrated. The voices of one hemisphere were perceived by the other as external to the self—thoughts were the voices of gods.
“We could say that before the second millennium BC, everyone was schizophrenic,” Jaynes writes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. As the brain hemispheres became integrated, humans began to perceive the gods’ voices as their own internal dialogue. They acquired free will.
The HBO series Westworld depicts a world in which robots gain agency through a similar process. In one scene, a creator speaks to his digital creation and tries to coax her into consciousness: “I gave you a voice, my voice, to guide you along the way. But you never got there … Consciousness isn’t a journey upward, but a journey inward. Not a pyramid, but a maze. Every choice could bring you closer to the center or send you spiraling to the edges, to madness. Do you understand now, Dolores, what the center represents? Whose voice I’ve been wanting you to hear?”
Watching this series, I saw in Dolores’ journey to consciousness the opposite of our present path as we surrender our minds to computer algorithms. What if our own freedom depends on our realizing that the voices of “targeted individuals” are our own collective unconscious?
My father fought the alleged mind-control experiments as if his humanity were at stake, collecting evidence, researching remedies, traveling far from home. Perhaps we can learn something from his resistance.
The prophet Abraham, according to the biblical tale, hears the voice of God telling him to sacrifice his only son. Without a second thought, Abraham takes his boy to Moriah and ties him to an altar. He pulls a knife from his pocket and God calls out to him from heaven, stopping him just in time, praising him for his obedience: “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore.”
This is the promise made by the digital realm: that if we surrender our minds to it, if we prize it above the people we love, we will be rewarded with a kind of immortality. In Silicon Valley, it is considered a certain future: We will soon be able to upload our minds to the internet and live forever in digital Edens. But the idea fails to consider that such an eternity would come at the cost of our free will. Would we still be human then?
My journey into my father’s world led to strange and unexpected places, including the ruins of a Mexican ranch where his great-grandmother, a curandera, was said to have communed with spirits. The townspeople relied on her for plant remedies and prophetic wisdom. People traveled from far away to see La Adivina, the Diviner.
I contemplate the parallels between La Adivina and my father and the differences in the stories our societies weaved: One heard the voices of the dead and was thought to have a gift, while another suffered hallucinations and was considered ill. To what extent had those stories influenced their outcomes?