Dissolving Boundaries: The Primary Role of Psychedelics and New Technologies

 

Claiming the word psychedelic can complicate perceptions of those unfamiliar with psychedelic substances and their effects. So, it is no surprise that when someone comes along suggesting that merging a hard science, one that typically isn't associated with biological or anthropological concerns, with anything having even a tenuous connection with LSD, Timothy Leary, or any of the very troubled yet intriguing love affair that the Western world has had with the strange realm of psychedelicsthe claims are looked on with a suspicious eye. 

But assuming you have no real conception of psychedelics, or you find little interest in the matter, why should you keep reading? Well, simply put, psychedelic are a lot more than the substances that produce a psychedelic experience. Even the word, which comes from the Greek words psyche (soul) and delos (to manifest). So, psychedelics are, at least etymologically speaking, that which makes the soul manifest. Another term, on that is often presented as an alternative (i.e. less controversial) term for these substances is entheogen. The etymology for that term is just as interesting. Entheogen comes from entheos, meaning inspired, or possessed, and genesthai, which means to come into being. Looking back even further, we find the term consciousness expanding substance. This term, though the most bulky, probably does the best job of describing the results. Each of these terms point to slightly different aspects of psychedelic substances, but what is important is that these terms point towards an internal reaction that these substances promote. 

Terrence McKenna once suggested the primary role of psychedelics was to dissolve boundaries. These boundaries include the likely obvious boundaries or sensory perception. Even in popular media, psychedelic experiences are often presented with visual and auditory distortion or with hallucinations. Movie or television scenes that depict psychedelic experiences capitalize on the visual and auditory aspects simply because they can be conveyed easily over a visual medium with an audio component. Not that I am proposing that Hollywood or other media presents psychedelic experiences accurately, or in a neutral, scientifically-informed light. However, if we reconsider the etymology of our identifying terms and their focus on the internal, it becomes concerning when the primary qualities of the psychedelic experience are totally ignored or at best made into comic material, all the while the secondary sensory effects are fetishized.  

The media's preoccupation with the distortion of the senses is nothing but the latest manifestation of the Western world's taboo of intoxication. From the story of Noah's son discovering their father drunk and naked in his tent, fear of intoxication has run throughout the Abrahamic religions. As an American, this rings through today into our political system. Try explaining the concept of a "wet" or "dry" county to a European and you will see what I mean. It was not too very long ago that a small, but very vocal and determined, religious minority was able to enact a country-wide prohibition on alcohol. They, after all, claimed they were protecting children, women, and society as a whole from the dangers of intoxication. Since then, in America at least, the weird duality of fearing booze and accepting it wholeheartedly has made the United States a curiosity of the Western world. And, sadly, this strange duality has seeped from our relationship with alcohol into our other drug relationships as well: cannibas, psychedelics, and even coffee all face this bi-polar friend the West. 

I could probably delve into more reasons for Western intoxication taboos. I could propose fear of a loss of control, threats to patriarchy, and a whole list of interesting topics. But, rather, I would like to return to what McKenna pointed out; that psychedelics are, first and foremost, boundary-destroying reagents. Psychedelics challenge and disrupt not only our physical perceptions. Which, clearly, the media, governments, and most religious and economic bodies, have vastly negative and uncompromising stances. Psychedelics dissolve social boundaries. They dissolve psychological boundaries. Some may contend they dissolve spiritual boundaries; they most certainly dissolve religious boundaries. They dissolve boundaries of the self, in that the user of the substances to  feel like there is less of a divide between themselves and the rest of the cosmos. They thrust its users, sometimes unwillingly, into an experience with a different set of rules.  

When our perception of reality is usurped by the psychedelic experience, we gain a valuable insight on the nature of perception (e.g. see Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception), and also we gain a respect for the role of the individual observer. Combine this with strong feelings of unity and you create a situation where the individual has many assumptions and perceptions assessed in an altered state unparalleled to any other experience, chemically-induced or otherwise. I contend, and this is the important part, that, like psychedelics, certain new technologies appear to have the same primary effect. Computers, the Internet, the vast array of communication technology all succeed quite well at overcoming boundaries. 

Geographical distance has been mitigated almost entirely as far as information is concerned. You can send messages across the globe instantaneously, as well as books, movies, and live video feed. Anyone can do it, in fact. National borders and other political boundaries have been overcome. Think of the role social media played in Arab Spring, or of the fact that Chinese citizens can overcome the over-reaching government with innovations like Tor. A child raised a Christian in a rural farming community can now access information about every religion known to man. Never before have we lived in such a boundless society, as far as information is concerned. 

Remember the term consciousness expanding? What analogues exist in existing and burgeoning fields of technology that can similarly be classified as consciousness expanding? Well, certainly, as illustrated above, the Internet has done wonders to expand our knowledge and awareness, all the while increasing access to information at an unprecedented and exponential level. But what about cybernetics? When we read the news that a prosthetic device can feel and send sensations to the brain, are we to believe that we have not succeeded into expanding our consciousness beyond the confines of our mind? And what about virtual reality, nanotechnology, or artificial intelligence? Of course, these breakthroughs are very young. But I think it is safe to assume that a few decade's worth of progress will show that we will be able to expand the abilities of the mind even more by integration with machines and computers. 

A question remains: are we prepared for a boundless society? Are we prepared for the day when the separation between the brain and the vast stores of information available on the web are no longer so distant? Will failure to acclimate ourselves to this new information paradigm have catastrophic effects? I think these questions are largely unanswerable. Yet, I do believe that we can prepare our minds to be more adaptive to a boundless world. 

Now, here is the part where I suggest using psychedelic drugs to prepare your mind for the coming technocalypse, right? Well, I don't think psychedelics are for everyone. Furthermore, they should not be approached lightly. I do agree that an individual who has faced a psychedelic ordeal is better suited to boundary-challenged ideas and situations. However, psychedelics are not the only way to challenge our, largely self-maintained, boundaries. The first step to tearing down a wall is to see it for what it is. McKenna mentions that psychedelics and new technologies share another quality, in that they both run counter to the established government and religious order. Furthermore, McKenna points to archaic traditions and the role of the shaman, one who had social permission to deviate from social norms and explore the unknown for the healing and betterment of the group.  

I posit that the Internet, and many other existing and developing technologies, do encourage humanity as a whole to go beyond what they know. In practice, I think this leads to small and large groups of individuals challenging not only their cultural, political and religious views, but also their views about what it means to be human and humanities role in the cosmos. As in archaic times the shamans were granted social permissions to break boundaries, we as individuals make these same permissions when we utilize and further integrate with technology.  

Who are the techno-shamans among us? Are we in control of our own unveiling and unbounding? Or, is the shaman among us a sizeless, omnipresent, open-source collaboration involving all mankind? I think it is. For now, every user can control how they interact with others using technology. We each can be active creators in the digital world. The burden falls heavier on programmers and designers to develop applications and systems that unlock our potential and mitigate the political and cultural boundaries that hold us as a species back. Whose to say what those boundaries are, but we will know them when our dreams and vision press against them. We feel it when the pressure these boundaries induce cause us moral discomfort. Ultimately, we possess the tools to dismantle these boundaries and go beyond. 

Technological Escapism: Conscious Absenteeism and Presence

How many minutes have you looked at your smartphone in the last hour? How many minutes in the last day, week, or year? If one were to track cell phone usage alone, the sheer amount of time spent reading, playing, surfing, communicating, etc. would most certainly amount to a significant portion of one’s time. If you are an individual who abstains from this behavior, you may indeed be an anachronism among your peers and the entirety of the post-industrial parts of the world. Yet, you would not be unique among the larger population of the world.

Just last week, my mother, an individual who is content with a basic flip-phone, questioned me, “How do you spend so much time starring at that thing?” “Well,” I said, preparing my retort. “It is very useful. I read about things.” She was satisfied with my answer, but her inherent distrust and misunderstanding of my behavior is not unique among the older generation when their eyes are fixed upon the younger, techno-distracted hordes. But the concerns of the technologically uninitiated aside, go to any major city in North America, Europe, or North East Asia and see for yourself. How many individuals do you see who are able to go about their day fixated upon their phones for whatever reason and still able to maneuver physically and socially?

Motivations aside, there is no denying that our technological innovations have become great aids in our survival, but are also great distractions in our everyday lives. Furthermore, the uses of these technologies are reshaping our social interactions in new and uncharted ways. That is all fine and dandy, times are changing, yadda yadda. But at what point do these things become a means of avoidance? I think this question is a personal question and highly dependent upon the individual.

That one enjoys video games or surfing Wikipedia articles is, under normal circumstances, no cause for alarm. But what of those who seek these activities out in favor of human interaction. I am of the opinion that most individuals, at least in the United States, self-medicate with a steady stream of stimulus from television and Facebook status updates. These things make it easy and permissible to be less-aware while creating the illusion of awareness. If this is true, however, are we to believe that in the age of the internet that humans, on average, are less aware of the universe around them than their predecessors?

That we, at will and with a little help from technology, can view a live stream of something happening on the other side of the planet, say the oldest webcam still currently operating (broadcasting the quad at San Francisco State). Or, maybe you are a Beatles fan and want to see the Abbey Road crossing in real time. It is easy to see that when used to look our technology is very effective at increasing our awareness. Yet, with all of this ability to look beyond ourselves we still crave something that technology is only able to begin to provide: presence.

Presence is that which new technologies like Oculus Rift seek to provide. "You'll feel like you are really there," claim the makers. Virtual reality has long been held to be the ultimate aim of computer gurus, game developers, and entertainment industries alike. But, is creating the illusion that we are reunited with long-distance friends or relatives as simple as a pair of goggles integrated with Skype? No, I would wager. But what happens when the goggles are unnecessary? What happens when the hardware is self contained within the human body? It may be that until then we can only mimic true presence, and that we will have to be contempt with the tools to overcome these limitations in the meantime. 

Presence, I believe, is something, along the lines of intelligence, that we seek to emulate without fully comprehending. Furthermore, comprehension of these concepts require us to present a definition and delineate with specificity what we are defining, which presents consequences immediately. So, when technologists seek to design frameworks and tools to provide these experiences, we will be best served to make sure their definition of presence is not a cheap reproduction.

So, how can we design a presence-providing implement without first understanding what it means to be fully present? A term used in dealing with presence with regards to virtual reality is immersion. This is the key goal of virtual reality. We ourselves are immersed in reality. We are drowning in it. We are bombarded by stimulus which our brain does an excellent job of filtering and parsing. A technology like Oculus Rift simply puts a entertaining blindfold over that process and tricks the mind into feeling presence. 

As this technology gets better and allows for greater interactivity (like these developers) it will be harder and harder to argue that these technologies are not providing true presence for their users. However, another consequence of these technologies becoming more advanced will be the blurring of these technologies with ourselves. I think the possibilities for good due to this advancement far outweigh the negatives. However, I feel that we all need to take a good hard look at what it means to be present and aware. We need to use these tools to increase our awareness of ourselves as individuals, else we become so distracted with the wonder of information that we are mesmerized into inaction and ignorance. 

Psychedelic Computer Science and the Singularity

A personal introduction and embarkation of an emerging field

Psychedelic Computer Science is a class I have yet to see on my university's course catalogue. Not like there are many courses out there for academically inclined psychonauts, or even open-minded individuals with a free elective. And if that adjective psychedelic is off-putting. Well, this may not be something you want to read. Or, perhaps it will be something you can appreciate and grow from. My money is on the latter. I hope you can take the time to at least read and entertain a few ideas. I welcome all criticism.  

For those of you who perk up at the mention of psychedelic, then don't let the second half, computer science, scare you away. I think there are some common lines of intersecting interest that one can observe in the minds of individuals from that kind of crowd. Words like consciousness, paradigm, perception, and a whole mess of other buzzwords that one would be thought of a little differently if used too liberally around the company water cooler. But beyond the cornucopia of continuously merging disciplines and ideas, there is a constant- an attitude and acceptance of continuing human understanding and how certain substances, techniques and ways of thinking have a role in personal and large-scale betterment. In this regard, computer science may be one of the most crucial fields that will play a role in the changing human landscape. It is for this reason that this science, one whose  focus is innately humanistic, desperately needs an injection of humanity.  

On a Tuesday morning in mid-December I awoke from a strange and unsettling dream. Now that I am writing this, I cannot remember what happened, only that it put me in an odd mood. The rest of the day and the days following I displayed and acted upon a temporary obsession with the proposed technological and cultural event known as the singularity. I will dissect the singularity in depth at a later time. But, I would imagine that many have perhaps heard of this term and also that some of you are very familiar with the ins and outs of this concept. Briefly, the singularity often refers to a time in the future when the creation of knowledge happens at such a rapid pace that humans will lack the ability to keep up with the pace of change unassisted. The assistance at the end of my very simple definition is usually contended to be some form of super artificial intelligence.  

Many thinkers who deal with the singularity imbue the events with varying terms. For some it is an event that means the end of humanity. Some go so far to suggest it will entail the extermination of humans by omniscient computer overlords. Conversely, others point to the singularity as the place in time where humans transcend and become something more than we currently are. This side of the issue brushes shoulders with trans-humanism and is commonplace in the discourse of futurism and is even becoming a mainstay in Hollywood. 

So, why did I, on an ordinary Tuesday in December, become so enthralled with the subject? I must admit, I am not a newcomer to the idea of the singularity. As a literature student in university I encountered the novels of Robert Anton Wilson, a name which will, I suspect, make frequent appearances in this new endeavor of mine. Robert Anton Wilson remarked on the rate at which all human knowledge doubles becoming quicker and quicker, suggesting that eventually knowledge will increase at exponential values. What really stands out about Robert Anton Wilson's observations to me is the simple fact that there are more scientists working towards furthering understanding using integrated technology and common systems of measurements, communication, etc., than at any other time in the existence of humans. He and others influenced my thinking greatly, an immunization of sorts for radical and world-view challenging ideas. 

As I journeyed through adolescence and into adult, I often felt out of place, out of time, and disjointed. I imagine these are common symptoms of hormonal induced madness caused by puberty and the uncertainty brought about by being disenchanted by what modern society has to offer those seeking truth, or something true enough. But I would also hazard a guess that I am not the only person creeping towards 30 that feels they were born rather late or just a tad bit early. However, now as my ideas coalesce in writing this, I feel very grateful to be an observer at this stage of the game. Things are just heating up. The most influential technologies that our future societies will be built upon are here among us. They are escaping their infancy and testing out the water.  

Some may criticize me for personifying these technologies, yet they seem to have their own agency. No one entity or organization of entities can steer their development. Any doubters of this need only to look at the Internet and how it slipped through the grasp of the defense industry. And like the Internet, other kernels of exponential and radical change will fall in our laps within our lifetimes. And whose to say how they will grow? More importantly though, how will we grow? How will you grow? How will I? 

As of this January, I will be a student once again. This time, however, I will be studying computer science. Having absolutely no background in computer science has made this experience rather novel. Many seek a computer science degree in order to get a great job in the programming field. Others simply seek accreditation to accompany their work history. I wanted to study computer science because I am fascinated by communication. The ability to project an abstract thought into the mind of others separated by vast distances or time is a kind of magic, a condition uniquely human. But not for long. 

Currently, computers are programmed to have the ability to communicate with users and other computers. A computer's use is dependent on this ability. If you remove humans from this relationship, then the communicative act exists only as long as the electric grid is functional and the code can still be read. But what about when production of computers is automated? What happens when energy production is more localized and automated, as well? By this time, it may be the case that computers are able to program themselves to communicate. When the automation of production and the self-realization of computers occurs we will have reached a technological singularity. This type of singularity is a technical one, and it is one that can be predicted by charting the course of progressing technology. However, this understanding of singularity has ambiguous implications about the role of humans. As of late, I've seen futurist commentaries on the subject of automation whose focus are on the effects on how we live and work, i.e. when more systems are fully automated, less people will need to work. This evokes economic concerns and interesting concepts such as the universal basic income. 

Ethnobotanist and philosopher, Terence McKenna, yet another name bound to make frequent and lingering appearances here, noted once how in the Internet, something created out of a "Cold War Mentality." Now, he states, the Internet is just one among many "runaway" technologies that are beyond the reach of human management. For McKenna, this is a good thing. "Wherever management is enslaved to ideology, human values are stomped on." What does management look like in an open-source world? This remains to be seen. That we are watching and taking note is not enough. But the file-sharing, collaborative, and red-tape snipping elements that abound on the Web give one hope for a more balanced future. 

These are the thoughts underlining my decision to set forth on this mental journey. I hope this experiment in thought will help any others who may be curious about the continuing role technology will play in our personal lives, as well as the future of humanity. It is my hope that others will join, computer scientists and others alike. We have everything to gain from injecting these lines of thinking into the discourse. These conversation should not be left to the futurists, venture capitalists, and sci-fi enthusiasts. We should be posing these questions to our children. We should be educating ourselves and making ourselves open to the unlimited possibilities that lie just beyond the horizon.