A New Mind for an Aging Species

by Réne Daalder

There appears to be an unspoken consensus that the future is forever in an elusive state of becoming and therefore not yet relevant to the larger population. This would explain the lack of respect the world tends to bestow upon even its brightest futurists–a ragtag group of brilliant people who engage with the emerging realities that sooner or later affect our lives. In contrast to the precious preservation of the past, which is left in the respectable hands of tenured professors, most futurists are academic and institutional outsiders, making a living as fiction writers (Neal Stephenson), musicians (Brian Eno), journalists (Steven Johnson) or inventors (Ray Kurzweil). Unlike the majority of people whose lives tend to be rooted in the past, and the more blessed among them who manage to exist in the here and now, these forward thinkers appear to be living on the threshold of the imminent future. This is so not because of their superior intelligence, but because of their intuitive capacities. Where others experience the world in concrete terms, futurists see reality as a scrim revealing the future potential of things.

Although this mindset can be an advantage, it inevitably puts a person at odds with those whose job it is to preserve the status quo rather than promote future potential. Futurists have often survived by resorting to the subterfuge of science fiction which allows them to invent new worlds. However literature and movies tend to impose their own limitations. As a filmmaker and screen writer who has situated many stories in the future, I have often found myself struggling against the conventions of the cautionary tale and mad scientist shenanigans which inevitably bring the world to the brink of disaster. Time and again my optimism about the future was obscured by the narrative prerequisite that things need to go desperately wrong so the hero can restore the world to its natural order at the expense of what might very well be the mad scientist’s genius.

One futurist thinker whose career unfolded very much like that of a ‘mad scientist’/philosopher was Timothy Leary, known for his advocacy of psychedelics and his unwavering struggle against the authorities’ attempts to turn his life into a cautionary tale. Leary was one of the early pioneers of consciousness-expanding technologies, one of the original Neuronauts as they were called back then. In my new ‘sci-fi documentary’ The Terrestrials his unusual story is set against the large scale digitization of his personal archive, which has been sitting for years in a few storage units on the outskirts of Santa Cruz. For the film we enlisted a group of students at the University of California, Santa Cruz to digitize one of the world’s largest collections of files on mind-altering substances, computer technology, life extension and space migration. The students’ activities brought them face to face with a wealth of unpublicized material which will allow the film’s audience to see Leary’s life through the eyes of today’s internet generation. Their appreciation of Leary’s predictive powers was unencumbered by the crushing baggage that has been piled upon his legacy by generations of apologists and slanderers alike.

If ever there was a good example of the dubious status futurists have in our society it is exemplified by Leary, who was called ‘the most dangerous man in America’ by Richard Nixon and who tried to make him the poster boy for his administration’s War on Drugs. While working as a psychologist at Harvard (from which he would later be expelled), Leary became acquainted with the English writer Aldous Huxley best known in some circles for his book The Doors of Perception–a study of the effects of mind-expanding drugs. According to Leary’s biography Flashbacks, Huxley, instructed him on the therapeutic use of LSD: ‘Your role is quite simple, Timothy. Become a cheer leader for evolution’, he said, forewarning him however that, ‘these are evolutionary matters. They cannot be rushed. Initiate artists, writers, poets, jazz musicians, elegant courtesans, painters, rich bohemians and they’ll initiate the intelligent rich. That’s how everything of culture and beauty and philosophic freedom has been passed on.’ Leary would go on to develop a populist view in which, according to Jay Stevens’ book Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, ‘humans could direct their personal evolution and … unplug the old mind of homo sapiens so a new one could take shape.’

Leary’s name will be forever identified with LSD, but a whole socio-historical complex has conspired to discredit this visionary who understood early on that computers and the internet would play key roles in what he called the ‘evolution of intelligence’. As early as 1968, while making a bid for Governor of California, Leary’s message was on target for the internet age:

‘As we move into the era of computers and electronics, intelligence rather than territory is the central concern of government. In the Information Age the function of the state is to facilitate education, communication, innovation, and entertainment to raise the intelligence of the populace.’

Today Leary’s uncanny intuition is evident across many fields. He expressed his enthusiasm for space migration by signing on as a future inhabitant of the space colonies Gerard O’Neill proposed in the 1970s, and his early ideas about using NASA’s Space Shuttle as a Greyhound bus seems closely related to today’s civilian space projects initiated by Virgin Galactic, Google and the X-Prize. Time and again the students were taken aback by the evidence of prescience they stumbled upon in Leary’s archive, particularly the repeated warnings about global warming almost half a century ago.

Even on the subject of LSD, few people have bothered to research the fascinating context that informed Leary’s lifelong campaign, although recently the drug has reached sufficient mainstream status to be tested by the FDA for medical usefulness. In his formative years as a young psychology professor Leary wrote many tests assessing interpersonal behavior that continue to be used today. However he observed that psychology ‘still hadn’t developed a way to significantly and predictably change human behavior’, and found himself practicing ‘a profession that didn’t seem to work.’ Leary was looking for ways out of that impasse and his mission, while initially revolving around LSD, was to accelerate the evolution of our minds by any means possible.

Belonging to a generation that lived through the ravages of World War II and the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, Leary was struck by the potential of consciousness-expanding drugs to reprogram people’s nervous systems, to expand intelligence and, ultimately, to stave off future disaster. In many respects Leary’s optimism resembled the hope today that a connected world might make a difference in our own hazardous times. During the Bay of Pigs invasion, Leary and Allen Ginsberg hatched a plan to save the world from nuclear disaster by administering LSD to both John F. Kennedy and Fidel Castro believing that the ‘rewiring’ of brains by mind-altering drugs was a legitimate strategy to promote the evolution of intelligence.

At the same time in Silicon Valley the notion took hold that computing could change the world by expanding the power of the human mind. Soon many of the best engineers were led through their first psychedelic experiences in order to more effectively conduct innovative research projects, not unlike Francis Crick who had discovered the structure of DNA using small doses of LSD to boost his powers of thought. As it turns out, Douglas Engelbart, an inventor who had been part of the early brain-activation sessions in Palo Alto and would become a pioneer of human-computer interaction, had been intrigued by the fact that the aims of the LSD community paralleled his own quest to augment human intelligence. Engelbart’s inventions, such as the computer mouse, eventually led to Apple’s first personal computer, invented by self-proclaimed ‘acid heads’ Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. It didn’t go unnoticed by the student archivists that many of Leary’s papers refer to the brain as a ‘bio-computer’ and that the entire universe itself could be perceived as a giant computer with everything in it seen as ‘information’.

Along the way Leary was sentenced to a 10-year prison term for the possession of two marijuana joints, an event which marked the beginning of years of harassment. He then decided it was time to generate some good publicity. As documented in Leary’s autobiography, he arranged for a consultation with mass media theoretician Marshall McLuhan who, like Aldous Huxley before him, outlined a remarkably accurate scenario reflecting the next chapter of Leary’s life:

‘You call yourself a philosopher, a reformer. Fine. But the key to your work is advertising. You’re promoting a product. The new and improved accelerated brain. You must use the most current tactics for arousing consumer interest. Associate LSD with all the good things that the brain can produce – beauty, fun, philosophic wonder, religious revelation, increased intelligence, mystical romance. Word of mouth from satisfied consumers will help, but get your rock and roll friends to write jingles about the brain.’

‘To dispel fear you must use your public image. You are the basic product endorser. Whenever you are photographed, smile. Wave reassuringly. Radiate courage. Never complain or appear angry. It’s okay if you come off as flamboyant and eccentric. You’re a professor, after all. But a confident attitude is the best advertisement. You must be known for your smile.’

In that moment Leary the ‘stand-up philosopher’ was born. He took McLuhan’s advice and appeared on hundreds of talk shows. He espoused a possible future in which humans would live on platforms floating in orbit, where science would grant us immortality by reprogramming our DNA and where our downloaded brains would become pure consciousness adrift in virtual reality. Throughout his life Leary remained forever the optimist, for which he was pursued across the globe as a fugitive, maligned by the media and betrayed by his former cohorts. In one of their prophetic conversations McLuhan made the following prediction: ‘You’re going to win the war, Timothy. Eventually. But you’re going to lose some major battles on the way. You’re not going to overthrow the Protestant Ethic in a couple of years. This culture knows how to sell fear and pain. Drugs that accelerate the brain won’t be accepted until the population is geared to computers. You’re ahead of your time. They’ll attempt to destroy your credibility.’ Leary replied with typical Irish blarney: ‘It’s incredibility I’m after’, declaring himself a true futurist once and for all.

Before his death in 1996 Leary became fascinated with virtual reality, which is how we came to exchange cutting-edge demo reels from the few computer graphic studios that existed back then. At the time he was hoping to leave behind a digital archive that would become his ‘permanent home in cyberspace’. As always ahead of the curve, it would take more than a decade before his dream was realized but in the fall of 2008, at the initiative of the Leary Estate, the internet Archive will make the fruits of the students’ labor available to the public on the internet. According to Brewster Kahle, the founder of Archive.org, ‘this will be the first time someone’s personal files and collections will be put online en masse in the hope that others will follow.’






Réne Daalder
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