Apr 26 • 3M

Speak every language or have telepathy?

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Welcome to Sex and the State, a newsletter about power. I’m a writer working on decriminalizing and destigmatizing all things sex. I synthesize empirical evidence, stories, and personal experience to interrogate existing power structures to propose new, hopefully better, ways of relating. To support my work, buy a subscriptionfollow me on OnlyFans, or just share this post!

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I ran across this question recently: “Would you rather speak every language in the world or be able to communicate telepathically?”

My first instinct is telepathy. It would probably obviate the need for learning any new languages. Plus, language is a limited, imperfect tool for conveying information.

There are obvious drawbacks to having telepathy. I think a world in which everyone had it would be way better than the current world, or one in which only one or a few people had it.

But then I got to thinking about how telepathy as I understand it ("reading" other people's thoughts) would still use language to convey information. The only difference would be it wouldn't need to be spoken or written. Communication with telepathy would still be mediated by language.

Even if every thought from every person could be theoretically accurately relayed to the telepath, they would still misunderstand people sometimes. Things still would be lost. Context. History. The fact that people use words to mean different things.

I think what I would really want is a world in which everyone could not only read everyone else's thoughts, but understand their emotions as well. You'd still miss context and history but you'd still have a far more accurate understanding of them if you could feel what they're feeling as they're thinking.

I think my answer stems from two things. First, I believe people are inherently mostly pro-social. Much, if not most, of our anti-social feelings and behavior stem from bad systems and from imperfect understanding and empathy. If everyone on Earth suddenly fully understood and empathized with everyone else, I think we’d see way more cooperation, less violence, less predation, more sharing, etc.

Second, I think one of the best things in life is to know and be known. To remove the major barriers to knowing and being known seems like such a wonderful thing.

To me, the biggest potential drawback I can think of offhand of such a reality is that there are people who are extremely inherently anti-social. Right now, it’s hard to know who’s truly, violently anti-social and who just keeps finding themselves in bad circumstances and/or just needs therapy and medication. This means that, ideally, we treat everyone as redeemable. We give everyone the benefit of the doubt. We don’t do that in reality, but we could.

In a system of universal telepathy, we’d have a much better idea about who wants to kill us, rob us, etc. We’d positively identify violent psychopaths and sociopaths earlier. Though I’m not sure we’d know from their current thoughts and feelings alone whether they’re beyond reform.

What I want is a world where we don’t treat people who could be rehabilitated like they’re beyond hope or treat people who aren’t able to be rehabilitated very badly. There’s no reason we can’t keep people safe from dangerous people while giving dangerous people a very high quality of life. There’s no reason mental health facilities need to be hellholes.

If universal telepathy could get us closer to that, that would be great. But it seems unlikely, on its own, to get us further away.

There may come a time when technology makes something like universal telepathy possible. Obviously there are access and bad actor problems with any new tech. But if it were built properly and truly universal, I think it would be super cool.