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The moral pitfalls of invisibility


If you could become invisible at will, would you take advantage of it? Perhaps more importantly, what does your desire to become invisible say about you as a person?

The power of invisibility might seem like the stuff of horror movies and fantasy novels, but the desire to be unseen has been a staple of Western culture for millennia, from Plato’s “Republic” right up to modern science. And while people have always been interested in finding ways to achieve invisibility, the real question has always been what would happen to the moral fabric of society if people were able to act on their impulses without consequence.

In his new book, “Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen,” writer Philip Ball traces the history of these discussions and looks at the various ways invisibility has been used to express the hopes, fears, and anxieties of the people who explored it. And while invisibility rings a la J.R.R. Tolkien won’t be on the market anytime soon, cutting edge technologies are allowing us to explore this ancient idea in some decidedly 21st-century ways.

Ideas reached Ball in London via Skype.


IDEAS: What’s so great about becoming invisible?

BALL: There probably isn’t that much great about becoming invisible. All our stories seem to warn us that it’s a bad idea, that it will end in tears. But nevertheless, it’s true that people have wanted to do this for all kind of reasons. Usually those reasons are ones that we would want to be wary of. As Plato said: Invisibility gives you the freedom to do what you will, walk in anywhere and take anything you want, go into places you shouldn’t go, and do things you shouldn’t do. These are attractive things. I think that’s the temptation that’s always existed, and that’s really why the idea of becoming invisible is a moral challenge as well as a technological one.

IDEAS: Are those who want to become invisible simply voyeurs, or is there something more going on?


BALL: I don’t see anything good from a societal standpoint about the quest for invisibility. It’s almost always something, at least historically, that an individual does for some sort of personal gain. But [trying to achieve invisibility] might have other applications. For example, ways to manipulate light that might be useful in telecommunications that are also connected to attempts to make invisibility shields. There are potential benefits, but on the whole, the invisibility there is being used as a label to sell the technology more than as a really desirable end result in the traditional sense.

IDEAS: Do you think that our fascination with the idea of the invisible has decreased with the progress of technology?

BALL: No, I don’t at all. Invisibility is typical of a whole area of mythical ideas that won’t go away as technology and scientific discovery develops. They just get reinvented in new forms. In fact, just in the last [month] there is a new facet of the story that has come along: People in Sweden have been using virtual reality headsets to give wearers the sensations that their bodies are invisible. They’re exploring it, among other things, for dealing with the anxiety and stress disorders that some people find in public situations. But the principle makes it possible for us to experience what it is really like to be invisible.

IDEAS: Are scientists actually getting close to achieving invisibility? Will I be able to buy an invisibility cloak in Target anytime soon?

BALL: No, you won’t. I think that it is a way of selling the science. And that’s not something I criticize. In order to get people interested and also to help them understand what you’re trying to do, you have to have a hook to hang it on. I think that’s a legitimate thing to do. But it does tend to raise people’s expectations that what you’re talking about is something like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.

IDEAS: How people approach invisibility, from Medieval witchcraft to 19th-century séances, has changed markedly over the years and says a lot about the societies in which those people lived. Has the definition of invisibility changed over time?


BALL: I guess ideas about how to achieve it have certainly changed. At one stage, the only way to do this was to enlist the help of demons, then it became possible to think about doing this using the forces that exist in nature. But interestingly, around the end of the 19th century, people started to think much more about invisibility in psychological terms. And this is something that magicians had always known, going back to the Middle Ages, that it’s about misdirection. We already have invisibility, and magicians use it all the time, simply by sending our attention in different ways. And this opened up the whole question of how we choose to see things or not to see things, or to see people or not to see people. And so it meant that invisibility also became a question of society and social behavior: Who is invisible and who isn’t within society already?

IDEAS: Many well-meaning people over the course of history spent a great deal of time trying to root out those who were seeking invisibility. Should we still be wary of them?

BALL: In some ways, we have reason to believe that we should. One of the ways that I looked at in the book was the whole question of online anonymity. In a sense, this is a kind of invisibility. And it seems very clear what that can do to people’s sense of moral boundaries and appropriate behavior. That they feel that they’re invisible, they’ll say things that wouldn’t cross their mind to say in other social situations where they could be held accountable for what they do. To what extent do our moral values change when we feel, at least, that we can’t be seen and we held accountable for what we say or do?

Noah Guiney can be reached at noah.guiney@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NoahGuiney.


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