Symbols are the key to telepathy. The mind wraps its secrets in symbols; when we discover the symbols that shape our enemy’s thought, we can penetrate the vault of his mind.
— Lady Deirdre Skye, “Our Secret War”
With the advent of Centauri empathy, it follows that there will be specialists focusing on this specific area of inquiry. Modern societies rely on an ever fine grained division of labor, and it is only natural that communing with the ecology in general and Planet in particular becomes another field of expertise. While everyone is affected by technological changes, only those involved with developing or applying it will see the nitty gritty details of the process. The rest will see the results of said process, but will mostly be too preoccupied with their own specialization to pay any further heed than that.
The quote suggests that the new emotional maturity attained through researching the prerequisite technology is weaponized against other factions. By means of semiotics – the study of signs and symbols – the secret of mind reading will finally be unlocked. Backed up by the Secrets of the human brain, this might be more literal than a first glance would suggest. The image of supercharged 20th century media studies scholars running roughshod over the unwitting minds of 23rd century colonists is too good to pass up.
Empathetic readers might detect a slight case of scepticism on my part as to the feasibility of this approach. This is partly due to my background in media studies, where semiotics used to be the big thing but (with apologies to Barthes) has been demoted to the status of a commonly known trope, and is mostly taught as a means to give historical context to the development of the discipline. More importantly, it is due to the dissonance between the implications of the parent technology and the explications of this secret project. It makes sense for it to allow the creation of a guild of especially adept diplomats, able to broker deals and facilitate beneficial developments through strategic application of understanding and empathy (with all the advantages that comes from being a first mover). It does not, however, make sense to posit said guild as a pointed intelligence force masterminding its way into the semiotic secret vaults of one’s enemies. It is an ambition that is too emotionally small for the level of maturity it presupposes.
One might object to this by pointing out that I’ve somehow gotten stuck on the image of warrior media studies scholars. Which would be true. But I maintain – channeling the spirit of Barthes – that the author is wrong. Empathy is not an adversarial unlocking of secrets; it is about placing things in such an explanatory context that the whole notion of secrets becomes orthogonal to the equation. The implications of just what Centauri Empathy entails are not drawn far enough, leaving us with a non-specialist application of a specialist competence. Which, to be fair, is what science fiction is all about (for everyone who is not literally Asimov).
There is a slightly different possible reading of this, and that is that what is connoted is not semiotics, but discourse analysis. Which, for all intents and purposes, is a slightly more evolved supercharged 20th century media studies scholar running roughshod over the unwitting minds of 23th century colonists. This image, too, is also too good to pass up.