'Big brother' on a microchip

Commercialized thought control was given a 20th-century fillip a couple of decades ago when techniques of subliminal suggestion came to the fore. Now this is being carried to a new level of sophistication.

Clever circuitry on a microchip can synthesize human speech. Under computer control, such speech synthesizers can then introduce messages subtly hidden in background sound, such as music, just below the level of conscious hearing. The sound voluem of the message would be continuously matched to that of the music. Although a listener would be conscious only of the music, the message would be taken in as well.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has banned subliminal techniques on television -- such as flashing brief messages on the screen. But there is no legal barrier to this new technique of thought control, which looks to be a long step beyond the old notion of injecting recorded whispered messages into background music.

It's a trend that should be curtailed before it gains momentum.

In reporting this, the information industry magazine Outlook calls attention to the theory behind subliminal suggestion. "There are three basic principles . . .," it explains in summarizing its report:

* "Your brain can receive aural and visual stimuli of which you are not conscious, even though you are not asleep nor in a hypnotic trance.

* "Such stimuli can affect your behavior without your being aware of what's going on.

* "The stimuli can be transmitted over public-address systems or by television, so that the subliminal communication indiscriminately reaches many people at a time."

As the magazine notes, there is no conclusive proof yet that such stimuli "can significantly affect the behavior of people in a normal state of full consciousness." While that may be mildly encouraging, it is also beside the point. The real threat in a free society is that such attempts at thought-control -- or "behavior modification," as its promoters call it -- would be tolerated at all.

This is often justified as being in the "public interest" or has having therapeutic value, especially in treating psychological problems and in reinforcing such positive qualities as self-confidence in employee training programs. Dr. Hal C. Becker of Behavorial Engineering Inc., who has pioneered the subliminal techniques, notes that it is a complex, sensitive subject. He urges that it be kept in perspective. While it could be abused, he cites cases where people have been substantially helped by responsible use of subliminal techniques.

That may be true. Nevertheless, this technique is an invasion of thinking. It could easily be put to political or oppressive purposes. It should be prohibited.

Meanwhile, there is wisdom in the adage: "Watch your thinking; it is rarely your o wn."

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