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 psychedelics, the 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.