In his book Crushing It, Gary Vaynerchuk likens the future of social media to floating spheres capturing everything you do, privacy be damned. It sets the tone for a haunting Black Mirror episode and tying this idea to one of Cyberpunk 2077’s eerie gizmos makes matters all the more alarming.
Touted as an experience that lets you explore a virtual reality with all your senses, Cyberpunk 2077’s braindances (BDs) are equal parts chilling and enchanting. They work on the same principle of electroencephalograms (EEGs), that of monitoring minute electrical signals in the brain.
But while most of today’s tech focuses on detecting and understanding electrical impulses, BDs seek to alter them. The result is an artform on steroids, a limitless medium that doesn’t take its sweet time to immerse you. Like a tub of ice, it cuts to the bone. All that’s left is a slave to the rhythm.
Social media carried us through 2020
The premise of reliving one’s real-life moments opens as many doors as the internet did for humanity. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to see that braindances have the potential to not just rewrite the future but the past and present as well. Add to that a dystopia held in a calculated corporate grip and you’ve got yourself a cocktail of nightmare fuel.
We were tethered to our phones and computers in 2020. Social media engagement skyrocketed, pushing businesses of all sizes to get busy online or get busy dying. Digital advertisements experienced sharp spikes in pricing while online platforms wore a smug smile all the way to the bank.
Remote work became the norm with the same applying to everything from education to hanging out with friends. While the webcam was the gadget of 2020, the year 2077 has something far more impressive in store.
While Cyberpunk 2077 does touch on several brainstorm-worthy topics, it seldom goes out of its way to say something meaningful. The social repercussions of BDs surface during a few netrunning sequences (a 3D reinterpretation of the internet) don’t concern most of Night City’s populace. Features like interactive ads were canned during Cyberpunk 2077’s difficult development.
If 2020 was any indication, we’re heading for a connected future that leaves a second-rate reality behind. Here’s how close we are to developing a true brain-computer interface and how that ties into Cyberpunk 2077’s exotic braindances.
How close are we to braindancing?
An electroencephalogram (EEG) measures brain activity. It does this by measuring electrical signals that go through the neurons (nerve cells) in a person’s brain. These signals are recorded by placing tiny non-invasive metal discs with thin wires on the scalp. Think of the nervous system as the body’s highway of information and you can see the potential of monitoring these signals.
Today, EEGs are used to diagnose seizures, sleep disorders, and behavioural changes. These devices could one day bolster domains like cognitive science and neuromarketing. In fact, researchers have already begun using EEGs to track attention spans and productivity levels. (Full disclosure: I have worked on one such system as an intern.) And the next leap for EEGs? Advancements in BCIs (brain-computer interfaces).
Controlling devices with your brain is no longer a utopian dream. Soon, BCIs will allow soldiers to move and carry heavy objects with the help of an exoskeleton. In 2013, the University of Minnesota let a mind-powered helicopter take to the skies. Developments in BCIs will ripple across industries beyond neuroprosthetics and factory lines. A mutual understanding between users and the systems around them could have fascinating applications across domains.
All this while, we’ve been talking about devices that monitor signals. But Cyberpunk 2077’s braindances fiddle with the dials and sliders in our brains. What was initially a criminal “reprogramming” tool soon became an essential part of the world’s blood and chrome. BDs became a hotspot for applications ranging from therapy to employee skill simulators. Eventually, BDs redefined mass-market entertainment.
While mass-produced braindances were regulated in Cyberpunk 2077’s world, black-market ones (XBDs) flouted the law. The latter featured everything from bodily harm to death itself, an experience that could stop the heart if not edited right. But subliminal suggestions that could override one’s personality aren’t just a Cyberpunk 2077 problem. Today’s social media platforms have been accused of posing that very threat to humanity.
It takes two (or more) to braindance
The link between brain-computer interfaces and social media platforms isn’t just hyperbole on my end. Researchers have already attempted to integrate Twitter with BCIs. Elon Musk’s invasive Neuralink tech and gaming company Valve (with OpenBCI) are taking baby steps into brain interactions. Facebook’s growing interest in the area led to its acquisition of BCI startup CTRL-labs in 2019 for upwards of $US500 million. The parent company behind social media mainstays like Instagram and WhatsApp is funding AI-powered research that could make social media frictionless.
Translating thoughts to code would allow the tech giant to access sensitive data buried in the deepest parts of our minds. The psychological News Feed experiment might not be the only controversy Facebook contends with. And while privacy protocols will most certainly be enforced, history has taught us that no wall is infallible: BCIs have the potential to be a bigger breakthrough than the Walkman or the iPhone.
To keep the interests of humanity in mind, the world doesn’t just need several companies competing in the space. It also needs regulatory bodies that keep track of these iterative cycles. Brain signals blow traditional algorithms out of the water in a market where advertising is the major source of revenue and engagement time is a critical metric.
With techniques like hyperscanning to track brain signal changes during social interactions in real-time, algorithms won’t just know who your crush is. They’ll be able to predict who your crush will be. Now that you’re worried, here’s what could happen if these platforms could modify your brain signals. You’re going to love BCIs. After all, you won’t have an alternative.
What braindances would mean for social media
I think twice before hitting like on a Spotify banger, worried that my suggestions could go haywire. This anxiety follows me across most platforms. Surely you’ve held back from liking a tweet because your boss wouldn’t be cool with your anti-capitalist tendencies. But with BDs, you don’t get that choice. Immersive content would evoke reactions of all kinds even before you reach for the like button. While this could make content consumption frictionless, braindances give social media algorithms more variables to work with to deliver relevant content.
Collaborative spaces like Instagram’s Live or Clubhouse could let users experience all sorts of things together. And in an environment that isn’t tightly moderated, there’s no telling what could unfold. Despite Twitch’s commitment to moderation, toxic viewers remain a hazard. For platforms like TikTok and Instagram’s Reels, short-form content would deliver sensory overloads one after the other. It’s an experience that will take a toll on the human body. And that’s before the key revenue stream of social media rears its head: advertisements.
Neuromarketing would grant ads a frightening level of interactivity. Imagine tasting a Monster drink or exploring Cairo in an Airbnb advert. Brands could measure reactions across all five senses without the viewer even choosing to interact with an ad. And that’s before we get into metrics like heart rate and emotional intensity. These involuntary inputs could then be used to reinforce the next volley of targeted ads.
This vicious cycle makes the venture wildly profitable to social media platforms. Shopping sites could tailor their suggestions based on your impulses. The sort of analytic wizardry that would become possible is mind-boggling. Who needs ad breaks between football matches when brands can make your thoughts wander mid-game?
Content creators whip up a brainstorm
Before we head into the dystopian goods, 2021 already has a couple of interesting trends for the content economy. Creators can turn their work into NFTs, letting them sell products to consumers at a price they deem fit. Despite their devastating environmental costs, content creators large and small have taken to NFTs while they’re hot. Braindances would only add to this problem. BDs could empower influencers to monetise everything from art to interactive content where you relive an event from the creator’s perspective sans custom peripherals. Think of a trip, a feast, or something far more exotic.
The (initial) lack of a unified storefront is a goldmine that corporates will rush to address. While platforms could take a closed garden approach to combat unsafe BDs, users might still be able to sideload non-compliant and harmful braindances into their devices. Prolonged exposure to controversial ideas and experiences could affect the very composition of the brain’s neural pathways. As for what is deemed appropriate, one will have to deal with neuroethics. Once a BD changes a person’s brain, are they even the same person? The prospect of overwriting personalities sounds bone-chilling. But not everything is bleak for creators and consumers.
Education could go through some much-needed reform as interactive BDs now assist both the teacher and the student. Braindance tech could activate parts of the brain essential to learning, morphing troublemakers into certified bookworms. Skill-based coaching platforms could tap into a body’s nervous system to form habits and routines.
Imagine a self-care app that is effectively serotonin or a film streaming platform that could tinker with your emotions in real-time. This could turn industries like health and fitness upside down. But this could be used to learn potentially dangerous skills like shooting or martial arts, à la Cyberpunk 2077.
Content moderation? A living nightmare
Mass-market BDs could give creators the means to rewrite events and evoke emotions that they deem necessary. They could shape beliefs and traditions with false memories. As demonstrated in the past, fake news and misinformation could incite anything from hysteria to violence. And don’t get me started on how this could be used politically or while making critical decisions. There’s a reason why the original use of a braindance was to reform criminals with aversion programming.
Content moderation will become a living nightmare, especially if platforms leave it to the brains of ordinary people (akin to Facebook’s chilling moderation). By the same token, algorithms could determine a creator’s intent and stop inappropriate content from being uploaded. But who draws the line? The governmental bodies of today have had little success in that endeavour. And in 2077, who is going to stop them?
A social media outage could lead BD users to illicit means to achieve those consistent emotional surges. Millions of users would have been living virtual lives more fulfilling than their real ones. Forcing them to embrace their old lives riddled with imperfections would lead to irritation and worse signs of withdrawal. Once the onslaught of bidirectional brain-computer interfaces arrives, there’s little anyone can do to stop it.
Social media already has the world’s populace in decorative prisons of their own making. With powerful algorithms, they already control us with math. They don’t just know our innermost desires, they can predict what’s next. But once braindances enter the fray, users won’t be herded into target demographics. Every single individual will have a harrowing target painted on their brains.
People lie, data doesn’t. But this time, no one gets to lie.