your mind, please
Apparently it will not be long before uniformed Spot operatives are patrolling our airports. Although this sounds like a parody of a parody - one of those weak jokes referencing Austin Powers that a certain kind of middle-aged man still insists on making - Screening Passengers by Observation Technique is already up and running in the US.
Trained by the likes of Paul Ekman, the professor who helped turn face-reading into a science back in the 1980s, Spot operatives are wizard at picking up "micro-facial expressions" that give away what we're really feeling. This means that would-be terrorists who blithely tell check-in staff that they haven't got any sharp objects, radio-controlled devices or hair gel in their hand luggage will give themselves away with a fleeting grimace that lasts barely 1/25th of a second.
While the rest of us wouldn't notice that slightly raised eyelid or stretched lip, a Spot officer will take the twitcher to one side and subject him and his backpack to further scrutiny. To make the process even more efficient, lie detectors designed to pick up on sub-vocal wobbles and bumpy breathing patterns are already being trialled at Moscow airport and could soon be in place at Heathrow and Gatwick.
When this happens we can only hope that the Spot officers operating the lie detectors confine themselves to the subject - "How long are going for ... Who are you staying with ... What is the purpose of your trip?" If they should stray into the areas that really prey on the minds of 99% of passengers, it could start to get fraught indeed. "Are you looking forward to this holiday ma'am ... Do you really intend to do half the driving, as you've promised ... Is your bikini actually a size 10 ... Do you truly believe that this expensive break in the sun, which has maxed out your credit card, will be a fresh start for you and that gentleman in the Hawaiian shirt?"
This prospect is so chilling precisely because, in a world where we have all but ceded our bodies to the public domain, our interior lives are the one piece of ourselves over which we retain sovereignty. The state may have our fingerprints and DNA - and soon our iris patterns - to track us through the corporeal, material world, but as yet it doesn't have access to the invisible bundle of desires and terrors and needs that make us us. While our surfaces are increasingly readable, our depths remain mercifully hidden.
I say "mercifully" because, if we did ever get to the point where it was possible to read another mind accurately, society would surely break down in an instant. For while, in our sophisticated way, we can acknowledge intellectually that our close relationships - with partners, parents, co-workers - are a tight clump of love, hate, desire and loathing, it's quite another matter to put all those messy, complicated feelings on display.
And to be on the receiving end would be even worse. How could you continue in a marriage once you "saw" that your spouse viewed you as a bit of a bore who none the less had great breasts? Why would your sister want to have anything to do you with you once she realised that you were delighted that her children were less clever than yours? How could your colleague consent to share an office with you once he had discovered that you had imaginatively turned him into a zoo animal, in particular one of those priapic, pink-bottomed monkeys that plays with itself all day?
We can only hope that Spot operatives confine themselves to anodyne questions, such as: "Do you intend to make a bomb out of this iPod and pot of Crème de la Mer? And, if so, how on earth did you suddenly get so good at science when we have it on record that you only got a C in O-level chemistry?"
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