How can your mind be hacked in the 21st century?|Pat To Yan

Published (HKT): 2020.10.04 09:23

A primary school in Hong Kong joins a school-based research about students' mental health. Last week, it sent out a letter to parents to inform that the students will join the scheme according to a random lottery draw. The scheme includes a conversation with the selected student, a questionnaire to be filled out and his/her DNA to be extracted through samples of hair and oral cavity.

Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli writer of the world bestsellers of Sapiens and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, is suspicious about the rapid development of technology. He stated that the crisis is a blend of Bio-tech and Info-Tech. Bio-Tech allows others to hack our brains. In addition to the Info-Tech like Big Data and Algorithm, others can easily control our minds and behaviors. The pandemic has added to the dreadful situation by legitimizing the extraction of DNA in the name of combating the virus. The governments which are the big fans of authoritarianism and global enterprises are keen on adopting these technologies, not to mention the precarious situations like Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

As a child, I was fascinated by the magic of disguise in kung fu movies. The characters can easily morph their identities to escape from the scene or complete a mission. On the contrary, if the data of your DNA is collected, it’s almost impossible for you to disguise when escaping from a nation of totalitarianism. Worst still, as long as the government has got your information, they could even trace and map out a whole family tree of yours that you are unaware of. They might become the hostages in order to hinder your actions and decisions.

I am neither advocating a conspiracy theory, nor I am not accusing the primary school as the accomplice of the government. More importantly, like many people on earth, the school apparently underestimates the threat behind the collection of DNA. The ability to protect privacy is pretty worrying as well. There are too many cases of the careless disclosure of personal information in recent years globally.

I also doubt the effectiveness of the research. The research might aim at proving the relation between DNA and mental illness. The “nature versus nurture” debate is always a controversial topic in Psychology, and not one that has ever led to a definitive answer. Family and social factors play essential roles in shaping a person’s growth. Say, if the research is conducted successfully, it might only show the correlation between DNA (nature) and mental illness. Given that the cost and threat behind extracting one’s biological data, is this worth taking such a great risk?

The school said students have the right to say no if they are selected. I worked in a secondary school for over 10 years. I know first-hand how difficult it is for a student to refuse to join a scheme that the school proactively proposes. The student as well as the parents may be put under high pressure when saying no. Thus, I wonder how free the students are to decline the research, especially when they are only aged 6 to 12. Under the circumstances of Hong Kong’s society, I don’t think it’s a wise choice to join this research at the moment.

(Pat To Yan, Active in Hong Kong and German Theatre. Playwright, Director, Lecturer. Elected Council Member and the Chairman of the committee of Literary Art of Hong Kong Arts Development Council.)

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