Conspiracy theories and paranoia go hand-in-hand because the former provide an explanation for why one’s imagined enemies aren’t visible. Yet an enemy that does nothing but plot away in the shadows lacks credibility – sooner or later they need to put their dastardly plans in motion, otherwise there’s no point in being afraid of them. Thus in all the best conspiracy theories the attack is already underway – only it’s far too insidious to be readily detected.

In Dr Strangelove, the deranged General Jack D Ripper is convinced that Communist infiltrators are plotting to introduce a foreign substance into our “precious bodily fluids.” Among real-life conspiracy theorists, tin foil hats were supposedly worn as a defence against electro-magnetic mind control techniques. Other paranoid favourites include the addition of psycho-active chemicals to the water supply and the use of sublimal images in TV broadcasts.

What all of these have in common is a fear that our very surroundings are being turned against us –  a particularly horrifying scenario because one cannot escape an all-pervasive danger. In the case of environmental pollution and the adulteration of food supplies, the threat is frequently a real one and has fostered a popular mistrust of technology. Furthermore, the sometimes mendacious attempts of big business and big government to persuade us there’s nothing to worry about creates an association between contamination and mind control.

It therefore probably doesn’t help that certain companies are busy developing new and invisible ways of monitoring and influencing our behavior. Consider the following report from Francie Diep for Popular Science:

“Have you ever noticed the lamps on the ceiling of your local supermarket? Probably not. But, in the future, those lamps may notice you.

“Electronics company Philips is piloting a system in which LED store lamps track shoppers, the company announced. Shoppers have to download the store’s app, first. Once they do, every lamp in the store is able to communicate with the shoppers’ phones using pulses of light the human eye can’t detect. Thus, the lamps know whether someone is in the produce section or the peanut butter aisle… and in response, the app can call up killer deals on bananas or jelly, depending.

“Philips is testing the system in Europe, but hasn’t confirmed which stores will have it…”

The idea that lightbulbs can be used to communicate information does seem fanciful. But LED technology – which many see as the future of lighting due to its efficiency and reliability – can also be precisely controlled: imperceptibly rapid variations in brightness are quite capable of encoding and transmitting signals to any suitable sensor within sight:

“This lamp-based customer-tracking scheme is part of an overall drive among companies to come up with ways to track people’s shopping habits in stores. Companies have also experimented with tracking shoppers using Wi-Fi signals, radio waves, magnets and more. All these signals communicate with people’s phones.”

A plan to “offer shoppers targeted coupons” isn’t exactly the stuff of nightmares – but that’s not the point. The salient fact is that data networks are being spun all around us. The distinction between being online and offline is becoming blurred – because one way or another, and whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re interacting with systems designed to gather information about who are and what we do. Furthermore, this is not a passive process – the express purpose of these systems is to predict, and quite possibly change, our actions.

Now, it may well be that this can be to the mutual advantage of all concerned. But ultimately the decision about whether to participate must remain consciously ours. As the technology gets evermore sophisticated, we must retain our freedom to unplug from the great global network of hidden persuaders.