Still from The Conversation (1974)
Upon hearing the phrase, we may not know exactly what a “cephalic sniffer” is, nor whether it is a real piece of technology. However, as to what such a nefarious device might be able to do, we could surely begin to imagine from the name alone. And as for whether it is technological reality (it is not, being invented by Philip K. Dick in his story Clans of the Alphane Moon), from its “sci-fi” sounding alliteration we might guess correctly that it is purely fantasy.
At least it was fantasy when PKD invented it in 1964. Today, advances in biometric identification mean that while a device that can search out an individual by his or her brainwaves is not yet on the market (at least publicly), searching out a person by face or speech pattern is decidedly real. Furthermore, brain-computer interface devices (BCI) have been commercially available since at least 1999. So how far are we from the technological reality of a biometric tracking system hacking BCIs and tracking individuals? If we change the name to “brainwave keylogger”, it suddenly is less fantastic, and frighteningly plausible.
Submitted for your consideration: an entire list of surveillance concepts, proposed by science-fiction stories. Note the technologically real items: Augmented Reality, ubiquitous surveillance, drones, eavesdropping rays, and tracking systems. These are all things that we might call “cutting edge tech”, but indeed, certainly real tech. Surprise, shock, uncanniness, paranoia— yes, it is repeated enough to be cliche--the future is here.
But what is truly uncanny about our present “not-so-distant future”, is that we continue to refer to it as the future. There is no need to speculate. We have a fully evolved culture of surveillance technology in the United States. Here is another list: this time of non-fictional surveillance concepts. They range from the slightly-troubling to the fully-horrifying, but they all are now employed by the government of the United States for the purposes of so-called “National Security”:
Palantir, No-Fly List, Full Body Scanners, “If you see something, say something”, Border Searches are Exempt from the 4th Amendment, Stop and Frisk, NYPD spying on Muslims,TSA harassment of children, the elderly, DHS spying on activists, That DHS exists, FBI terrorism entrapment, Domestic Drone Surveillance, Private Prisons, Over 1% of US Citizens in Jail, National Security Letters, FISC Courts, Immigration Policy, Abu-Ghraib Prison Abuse, Guantanamo Prison Camp, Extraordinary Rendition, Torture, Codifying Indefinite Detention, FBI seeking backdoors in electronic communications, ICE raids on websites, Iris scans of civil disobedience protesters, Warrantless Wiretaps, Recorded Future, The Domestic Communications Assistance Center
Nevertheless, the primary means by which we engage with surveillance culture outside of the news media is still speculative art and fiction. Speculation allows us, as both creators and readers, to play design-fiction with reality. It is rapid prototyping in emerging psychological patterns. But these thought experiments do not exist in a vacuum.