The spread of dystopian neurocultures

Interesting to see this “Map of Neuromarketing Companies” published on the neurorelay website. (

A good point perhaps at which to very briefly introduce some early thoughts on the spread of a dystopian neuroculture and its relation to Deleuze’s control society.

The Dystopia of Noncognitive Control


Mad Men

Like so many other popular journalistic portrayals of neuromarketing an article published in The New York Times in 2008 titled “Is the Ad a Success? The Brain Waves Tell All” is in seemingly incontestable awe of the claims that unconscious consumption can be measured directly at the brain. “Never mind brainstorms. These days, Madison Avenue is all about brain waves.” In all fairness, the article does at first strike a note of caution by recognizing that “some consumer advocates question the role of biometrics in ad research.” It partially acknowledges, as such, concerns over what it calls a “blending” of Weird Science and Mad Men, which “will give marketers an unfair advantage over consumers.” But these concerns are summarily dismissed; not least because the passionate adoption of biometrics and brain imaging technology by marketers is a logical response, they claim, to the slowing of the US economy after the banking collapse in 2008. Since neuromarketers are only really interested in how people feel and react in these difficult financial times there should be little cause for concern. As one marketing representative puts it, neuromarketing does not aim to “meddle with normal, natural response mechanisms.” It is just interested in what consumers are paying attention to. This is after all an attention economy in which the drivers of focused mental engagement are at a premium. Robert E. Knight, the director of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California (a chief science adviser to a Berkeley based neuromarketing company) says “[w]e’re not trying to predict an individual’s thoughts and actions… [or] trying to input messages.” There are no electrodes fed directly into the brain. Participants are willingly rigged up to noninvasive brain imaging technologies, galvanic skin response devices and eye tracking software. These tests are generally carried out in the very early stages of product research and development so that brands can be readily primed for consumption. So in many ways there is nothing new here. The goal of market research has not changed. It has always sought to attract attention by conditioning and anticipating consumer experiences in advance with the intention of seducing and guiding intent by mostly subconscious means. The difference today is, however, that the data captured from these experiences purportedly comes directly from cognitive and noncognitive registers in the brain. As a result, the capture of anticipation becomes a series of correlative cognitive and affective triggering exercises quite often spanning the lifetime of a brand. This is how the Mad Men of neuroculture claim to be able get inside the buying brain and guide it, often unconsciously, toward purchase intent.

As uncritical and overhyped as it maybe, popular media discourse surrounding neuromarketing point to something both familiar and unfamiliar about the kinds of control circuits and technologies of power consumer societies are subjected to in the 21st century. On one hand, neuromarketing is endemic to a recognizable trajectory of marketing power that has, in the past, sought to capture the attention of a population confined to their living rooms via mass media television channels. However, today, the aim is, it seems, to adapt to networked, mobile media so as to expand marketing control. Of course, this kind of control needs to be grasped in contrast to the violence of sovereign control. It is a power that does not need to be physically administered, inherited or possessed, but rather becomes furtively distributed through a population. Similarly, in contrast to the disciplinary architectures of enclosure found in Foucault’s factories, prisons, schools, clinics etc.; control has become an open modulating force, which can change from point to point and from one moment to the next. There has in fact been a deepening of this post WW2 power distribution in terms of marketing. In comparison to the Mad Men of the mid twentieth century, for example, who reached out directly to the masses via the broadcast media; marketing power today is increasingly indirect. On the other hand, what I suggest here is that the neuromarketer endeavours to expand networked power far beyond the usual reach of mediated communication. Via mobile and ubiquitous network technologies marketing has not only been able to connect to the masses at an interpersonal level, but it has also drilled down into infrapersonal communication flows; tapping into cognitive and affective transmissions emitted by what we might call the networked dividual; that is to say, the endlessly divisible body; brain, neuron, neurochemical substances, molecules, atoms, and the infinitely small society of the monad. This is a point where the digital network intersects with the neuronal network. Moreover, neuromarketing is a technology of power intended to control thought noninvasively. This is no Orwellian dystopia. There is certainly no need for Cold War style electrodes to be directly fed into the brain since the soft controls of the dystopian imagination of William Burroughs and Aldous Huxley have been provided with a neuroscientific universe in which to live. Control today is therefore difficult to pin down. There are no wires. Control has become much softer, and, as such, more difficult to escape. Premediated persuasion, anticipatory reward systems, and brain absorption become the watchwords of an all pervasive neuromarketing. It is, as a consequence, imperative that those who enter into this neurocentric world of shadows do so with (a) a sense of how the present appears to be mapped onto these dystopian imaginations, and (b) an escape plan.

(Draft excerpt from forthcoming book: Brain: Rethinking Nomadic Thought in Times of Neuroculture. Illustration by Dorota Piekorz)

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