Rhetorics of Consciousness
A Professor of English at Penn State University, Richard Doyle explains the claims of psychedelics including the idea that psychedelia is a technology. He argues that LSD culture created the intellectual atmosphere from which computing and nanotechnology arose. In the following inter view, he discusses the rhetoric of mind expansion, collective intelligence and transhumanism, ultimately calling for a renewed ethical focus on our own innerminds.
Yukiko Bowman: How did your background as a rhetorician lead to your interest in psychedelics and 1960s counterculture?
Richard Doyle: The psychedelic experience is extraordinarily conditioned by its rhetorical context, as Leary understood in his idea of ‘set and setting’. There is no single action of psychedelics, other than people recognizing and experiencing the interconnection of all things. Psychedelics are a non-specific amplifier of human consciousness. For example, when the propaganda war against LSD began, people were told they would freak out on LSD, and some people who took it did. In order to sell LSD, people started calling it mescaline, and ethnobotanist Jonathan Ott claims that emergency room visits went down as a result. The rhetoric and even the name of these things are powerful.
YB: How do the psychedelic rhetorics of individual experience and shared consciousness relate to one another? Early on, LSD was said to enhance one’s sense of individuality, which was attractive to those reacting against the conformity of a post-WWII society. How did the idea of pursuing greater understanding of oneself reconcile with the narrative of heightening connections between people?
RD: In order to break out of the hive mind of the 1950s, there had to be a radical individuation and psychedelia was mind manifesting – you had to have a psyche in order to expand it. Understanding this, we can be more forgiving of the b eats and their individualistic penchant. If you read Kerouac's Desolation Angels, you want him to get out of his head! But that was the work they needed to do.
The next degree of individuation was the assertion that we’re all collectively individuated. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's 'Omega Point' was indispensa ble to propose a paradoxical state of total self-enhancement and similarity. Transhumanism has come to incorrectly mean the enhancement of individuality; when Julian Huxley first coined the term, it meant living up to our individual collective responsibility as evolutionary beings.1
Julianne Gola: How does this 'individual collective responsibility' manifest, and how does that relate to your use of the term ‘ecodelic’?
RD: Over time, we've become increasingly aware that the expansion of consciousness concerns more than the enhancement of the human psyche. I coined the term 'ecodelic' because I realized: if psychedelics are highly sensitive to their initial rhetorical conditions, we ought to give them a different name to potentiate something else. When and if people use these substances, they can tune their awareness towards their ecosystemic interdependence with all things, which will feedback into their actions in the environment and so on. Hallelujah!
YB: Given the overlap between psychedelic culture and technological development in the 1960s, do you think there’s a renewed relevance for it today as we begin to explore nanotechnology?
RD: Yes. One of my arguments for the past five or six years has been that the experience of psychedelics was society’s first encounter with transhuman technology. Psychedelics were a technology that disrupted our very sense of being, and couldn’t be easily controlled. Understandably, this caused a freak-out, which you see again as nano- and biotechnologies emerge. Our capacity to manipulate matter and life provokes questions about what it means to be human, and our response has been fundamentally reactive.
But we’re not going into this transhuman transformation without some experience, and looking to counterculture’s relationship with emerging technology is helpful for many reasons. We know that the state can’t handle it and that only the corporate sector eventually can. These ontologically disruptive technologies have to be culturally absorbed in a grassroots, rhizomatic way because they inherently threaten what are otherwise hierarchical systems of control. When Stewart Brand claimed that ‘information wants to be free’, he meant that it wants to be unfettered. Nano will similarly 'want to be free’ because once we start widely accessing it, it won’t want to be caught up in a sluggish university-military-industrial complex that drags its feet.
We can also look to the counterculture's confrontation with the scalar shift related to LSD. In this sense, Albert Hoffman (the scientist who first synthesized LSD) was an unwitting, early nanotechnologist. He was working with chemical compounds whose activation dosage was three or four orders of magnitude lower than the typical mescaline threshold dose. The scalar shift – between the 300 mg of mescaline and the .075 mg of LSD necessary to create transpersonal awareness – offers a worthy comparison for understanding the implications of nanotechnology’s territorial and epistemic shifts.
We're discovering that there's a whole galaxy, a cosmic space in every molecule. Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychonaut, gave a lecture in 1959 called ‘There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom’ by which he meant it’s plenty big down there at the subatomic level. Nanotechnology displaces too many paradigms at once to imagine yourself as an instantiation of a nano-world, so we focus instead on its applications. But we might need another counterculture to make sense of the ontological changes we’re about to encounter.
YB: Do you think that psychedelics are important for techno-scientific innovation?
RD: They’re neither necessary nor sufficient. But you can trace a techno-psychedelic genealogy from Hoffman to Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, who ten years later at the Cavendish Lab in England, takes LSD and has the scientific breakthrough of envisioning for the first time the double helical aspect of DNA. Discovering that living systems have a structure at the molecular level was an important step in nanotechnology's evolution. Crick's conception of the genetic code as a tool kit, an alphabet for proteins that fold to form the human body, is a bridge to Eric Drexler's nanotechnological vision.
JG: Are you suggesting that the origins of nanotechnology stem from knowledge gained through psychedelic experiences?
RD: No, but there are connections. Kary Mullis, another Nobel Prize-winning psychonaut, is arguably another unwitting nanotechnologist insofar as he discovered a way for strands of DNA to self-replicate – and he did so, he said, out of an experience of taking LSD. There’s an interesting feedback loop between scientists' experience of psychedelics and their ability to apprehend this hidden molecular structure of reality.
YB: Have you observed the rhetoric of nanotechnology to be unique or an appropriation of some preceding scientific rhetoric?
RD: In ‘Uploading Anticipation’ [Wetwares: Experiments in Postvital Living, 2003], I argue that nanotechnology's first manifestation is the rhetoric of technological anticipation. Even the name of the first nanotechnology think tank, Foresight Institute , makes it so, pulling us into the future. There is a messianic, salvational language that casts a powerful spell in western eschatological history. Nano- and biotechnology are the literalization of the word made flesh.
But there's another rhetoric of awareness that I wholeheartedly affirm, that the Foresight Institute is also up to, saying that something is coming and we should greet that something with awareness. And that’s where we have a leg up on the 60s – nobody saw what was coming with LSD. From 66 to 68, there was a perhaps a too-rapid transformation of society that created reactionary inflammations. But it might be possible to make a softer landing with nanotech, so it’s not so disruptive to the horizon of who we are.
JG: You've addressed the relationship between psychedelics and physicists and chemists, but what about LSD’s relationship to computing? It seems there was a shared language of ‘mind expansion’ and ‘connectivity’.
RD: Absolutely. You have Doug Engelbart’s ‘Mother of All Demos’ in 68, and ALTAIR in the mid-70s, from Bill Gates, Paul Allen (a big Philip K. Dick fan) and Bob Wallace. Wallace goes on to start the Pro-mind Foundation, devoted to providing safe and accurate information about psychedelics.
When IBM came out with the PC in 81, the earliest enthusiasm came from the hobbyist market and from businesses that started producing and selling clones. At that point, the PC was a mini brain, not a mini network; they weren't connected to anything else. So what do you do with the damn thing? They ended up in peoples’ basements and closets. Then word processing took off, and the emergence of the early web began to deliver on the psychedelic promise of computers, which is the creation of a collective intelligence.
Have you heard Linus Torvald's line, 'with a thousand pairs of eyes all bugs are shallow'? If you’re writing a bunch of code, you’re never going to find all the mistakes unless you share it with a thousand people. So there’s a practical impetus for the shared intelligence of connected computing.
YB: The internet allows us to tap into a collective intelligence, but now that we're all plugged in, there is nothing psychedelic about it. We have all the information we need, but are we any wiser for it? What’s missing?
RD: The missing piece is between your ears. Back when Microsoft had these ‘where do you want to go today?’ commercials, I gave a talk on what I called the 'nanotechnological impasse': you open the refrigerator, you see all these delicious foods, you're hungry, but you don’t know what you want. Who decides? You seek salvation in the external world, but that world is yours to make. When are you going to learn to control, manipulate and investigate your own internal technology, that 13 billion-cell supercomputer in your noggin?
In their book, The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master, Andrew Hunt and David Thomas include a chapter on meditation. Why? Because all the errors and all the wisdom are in the great untapped frontier of our own inner-net. All the computers in the world talking to each other really won't do anything if we’re not engaged in introspection. Otherwise, the very technology that enables collective wisdom is also tugging on our attention, distracting us with the next thing to come. In Pathways Through to Space, Franklin Merrell Wolff introduces the term 'introception' to refer to a perceptual awareness of 'inner experience'. When groups of people are using Wikipedia and Linux while engaging in introception, then you really have collective intelligence.
A UC Berkeley study called ‘How Much Information?’ claims that from 2000 to 2001.5, we doubled the amount of information we had previously created, and half of it was spam. Imagine if we were living in an aquarium and all of a sudden one of the inputs was raised to this degree, like suddenly there was that much algae, or that much fish shit. We would say, 'Hmm … I wonder if the aquarium is a little different now?’ Meditation developed in the sixth century BC in a literate culture: when we start writing things down, we start needing to erase. We have a profound need to erase in the present, and we need to come up with capabilities for doing so. I predict a huge boom in meditation-style practice to help us deal with this 'infoquake'. We can’t possibly keep up with all of it.
Human mindedness and embodiment are incredible gifts that can guide us. Our culture and infrastructure have atrophied these attributes, but we can still activate them through what Terrence McKenna calls the 'Archaic Revival'. The point is that both the rhetoric that 'nanotechnology’s going save us' and that ‘nanotechnology’s going to doom us' are limiting, so let's throw them out and write the script.
JG: As you suggest, the rhetoric supporting nanotechnology is charged with the sci-fi promise of superhuman longevity. In contrast to that, what would it mean for us to ‘write the script’?
RD: We need to instigate an open source discourse about nanotechnology’s implications. For example, why are we spending so much time trying to annihilate death? Do we even want to annihilate death? Nietzsche calls this ‘anything but death!’ fear the triumph of the weak. Death will only become ever more horrific as it becomes more rare. But if we see that we're not all separate, we can stop our big hang-up with our own personal death – not that it’s not singular and tragic but isn't that part of the ride? We need to ask, ‘which nanotechnology do we want?’ Do we want the nanotechnology that’s going to enable Raymond Kurzweil's immortality – are we going to throw all our resources into that? I mean, I love Raymond Kurzweil but I also love the 5 billion other people on the planet.
So now I have a question for you. You said you’ve been researching Leary. What do you think of him?
YB: Complicated. If there’s a figure that epitomizes the tension between an underground idealism and how that gets translated into something much broader, I think his life story is that story. He’s faulted for speculating beyond his technical expertise but at the same time it's courageous for one to try to articulate something through the language and media one knows, even if they are knowingly beyond one’s understanding and control.
RD: I agree. Somebody has to do that because the techno-imagination is the thing that’s steering the starship. If we don’t participate because we don't think we have it all nailed down, we’re stuck. It’s best to err on the side of the ethics of participation.
YB: With nanotechnology, there’s little ground for people to know what the scientific capabilities actually are and discuss what the social and cultural possibilities of that technology might be once it’s deployed. How do you engage in this conversation if you’re not an expert?
RD: None of us are. Nobody in the world is an expert in nanotechnology. There are too many strands of knowledge. Once there is no expertise we can get over this turf mentality, especially since who a scientist is, and what science is, are transforming.
JG: In an age of accessible information there is a paradoxical anxiety toward speculation. Perhaps we assume that we have to research so much more and absorb all that’s out there before we can start to imagine?
RD: You want to talk about a non sequitur – that’s a non sequitur! Do more research before you imagine! It doesn’t parse.
We need to see how insignificant we are in order to not feel as if we have to get it all right. Anybody who has pretensions of being an expert in a moment of rapid technological evolution needs to take a big dose of insignificance and realize that you can be on the right page and not have a clue about how it’s going to resolve. We should all get more comfortable with the fact that yes, we’re all wonderfully interconnected, and yes, every one of us is a total gift of individuation, but come on, you’re not steering the thing! Nobody’s in charge. We need to get over the idea that one of us is the Captain Ahab of Transhumanism. What’s happening is we don’t know what’s happening. Let’s get good with that.