THR Web Features   /   March 6, 2015

The Prestige

Le Mesmerisme Confondu by A. Schuller, from Die Karikatur und satire in der Medizin by Eugen Hollander; Wellcome Library, London, via Wikimedia Commons.

Under dim lights and soft music, he eased the nervous maladies of well-bred psychosomatics across Europe—until Enlightenment rationality brought him down. Although the German physician Franz Anton Mesmer, who died two hundred years ago yesterday, and his theory of animal magnetism have given way before modern medicine, we still have the concept of mesmerism, or what we know of today as hypnotherapy.

Looking for something gentler than bleeding and purgatives, Mesmer turned theories about gravity, bodily fluids, and the earth’s magnetic fields into a new approach that centered on the power of suggestion and hypnosis. The good doctor took his show on the road, gaining so many clients in Paris that he began holding séances with groups of patients gathered around a bacquet, an oak vessel filled with iron fillings and broken glass from which rods protruded that sprayed “magnetized water.” Eventually, Louis XIV, irked by complaints from the medical establishment, appointed a commission to investigate Mesmer (whose patients included Marie Antoinette). The committee, composed of the chemist Antoine Lavoisier, Paris mayor Jean Bailly, Dr. Joseph Guillotin, and Benjamin Franklin, determined that Mesmer’s methods were unscientific and his cures dubious. Discredited, Mesmer left France and died a few years later in Switzerland. (Lavoisier and Bailly would later perish under the blade of the beheading machine invented by Guillotin.)

Mesmerism had a curious resurgence in Victorian England—Charles Dickens was said to be an adept—and figures like Rasputin and Hitler were both said to have used mesmerism, or, more accurately, hypnosis, to exercise control over their subjects. But in today’s discussion of Big Data and algorithms, we see another application of mesmerism. Legal expert Frank Pasquale, in his essay “The Algorithmic Self” from our spring issue, suggests that in our engagement with technology, we have become susceptible to advertisers and social-media developers who “deploy opaque algorithms to monitor and manipulate behavior.” Spellbound by ever more access to information, convenience, and connectivity, we have become mesmerized by technology itself.

As we interact with these technologies, we supply engineers, analysts, and computer banks with new data about who we are. On learning how these data samples are used, we, in turn, evolve into more savvy consumers of technology. The result, says Pasquale, is that we begin to adopt algorithmic identities calculated to present the face that we want the world to see rather than the one that truly reflects who we are. We pass ourselves off as one sort of person to our friends on Facebook, for example, and another altogether to potential headhunters on LinkedIn. This is not, strictly speaking, duplicity, but rather a Pavlovian response. As Pasquale says: "The new technologies of connection are not merely instrumental to, but constitutive of, our ends. They change how we think and reinforce certain character traits.”

The moral implications of this new “modulated selfhood” are significant. As a physician,  Dr. Mesmer was know for his kindness and devotion to his patients. He soothed them with soft lighting and overlooked their hysterical antics around the bacquet. But these patients were not coerced into treatments by Mesmer. They freely allowed him to operate on their psyches, willingly entering into a potentially dangerous situation, one that alienated them from their natural personalities and moral states. In addition, by submitting to his domination, Mesmer’s patients relinquished their liberty, running the risk of, at least, embarrassing themselves or of, at most, throwing their entire cerebral mechanism out of gear.

Mesmer's opportunism illustrates the morally detestable aspect of hypnotism. Susceptible subjects abdicating their rights is something that Frank Pasquale sees happening today as we wittingly and unwittingly contribute to the construction of our algorithmic selves. Paraphrasing the golden rule, Pasquale observes “As we are treated algorithmically, we are conditioned to treat others similarly.” The result is a shift in ethical perspective where the technology has first priority rather than our moral obligations to those around us.

I am reminded of the three parts of a magician’s illusion: the Pledge, where the audience is presented with an ordinary object; the Turn, where the object is turned into something extraordinary; and the Prestige, where the object is brought back. We might see Mesmer and his charlatanism as mere warm-up act for the grand technological illusion now being presented for our delectation. We are presented with a time-saving tool and, through the mysterious forces of HTML coding, magnets, and electrical impulses, we discover in the object the means to transform us into something else—who wouldn't want a transcendent self? Then comes the Prestige, when our modulated, algorithmic self is revealed as valueless and unrecognizable.

Anybody know where I can buy some magnetized water?

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.