Did you know that there’s such a thing as psychedelic transhumanism? Or that Timothy Leary’s SMI2LE (Space Migration, Increased Intelligence, Life Extension) is likely the second “explicitly, broadly transhumanist message to go into circulation?” Well, as you venture deeper into the terrain of transhumanism, this jumbled Rorschach of psychedelia, D.I.Y. culture, personal computers, Silicon Valley and A.I. actually starts to make sense.
I interviewed R.U. Sirius and Jay Cornell by email about their new book, Transcendence: The Disinformation Encyclopedia of Transhumanism and the Singularity, recently published by Disinformation Books. R.U. is the founder and original editor-in-chief of Mondo 2000, all-around cyberpunk legend. Jay is the former managing editor of H+ magazine.
We explored the shared trippy history between psychedelic counterculture and the technological dreams of transhumanism that every futurist ought to know.
JJ: Do you look forward to one day uploading your consciousness onto a computer? Why do some people find this prospect so enticing?
R.U.: No, no, no. I don’t want to upload into a virtual world. I’m too afraid that there will be a glitch and I’ll be stuck, fully conscious, in a blank space with no way to communicate to anyone to let me out. I could be stuck there until the heat death of the universe. It’s a vision of hell I had once on dextromethorphan. I would consider uploading into something embodied in the actual world, provided that it could be guaranteed that I could die with it if I chose to.
Jay: That’s one of the topics in our book that I am most skeptical about. I think it’ll be far, far more difficult than many people imagine, and perhaps impossible to do at all. Consciousness is a complex and delicate thing. Think of how easily it can be influenced by slight changes in brain chemistry and the external environment. If your new silicon brain is operating 10 million times faster, how are you going to communicate with someone who seems (from your point of view) to take a year to speak three or four words? Even assuming your consciousness could be transferred from your dying body to a computer, your new digital copy might say “It worked!” and have all your memories, but is that copy really “you”? Or does the subjective “you” die along with your body?
I’m more excited about other possibilities: longevity, curing disease, increased power for the body and brain. Virtual and augmented reality are both cool: I’d love to be able to search the web by thinking about it. But I’d like to do that with an improved meat brain and body, not a replacement silicon one.
Transhumanists seem to have extraordinary faith in the ability of people to invent and develop transcendent technologies. But can any human-spawned tech ever rival the sophistication and complexity of the human body?
R.U.: Our bodies are a bit sloppy. It’s not easy to love your liver and small intestines, if you’re reeling them out for public viewing, and there are organs that don’t do anything for us at all. In theory, a sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence could design a much more sophisticated posthuman body, probably more complex in some ways, although also more optimized. It would be nice to have some extra limbs or the equivalent of same.
By the way, we approach these sorts of things, in the book, as agnostics. As to whether these things that could occur in theory will actually occur… who knows?
Jay: I think we’ll see specific enhancements that will be improvements over nature. An improved bionic ear is easy to imagine. The entire human body, though, would be hard to replace with something better in every way, in part because I think we are inherently attached to its oddities and imperfections. Nipples on men are pretty useless, but I think we’d look funny without them.
R.U.: Our nipples could be made to be more fun.
Jay: True. I know mine could. They have a boring “just leave me alone” personality right now.
JJ: What makes some people so hot over the idea of computer sex?
Jay: I think it’s some sort of corollary of Rule 34.
R.U.: Presumably you mean two or more actual people being able to share some kind of direct link up of a sort that isn’t available yet, as opposed to the equivalent of phone sex that’s currently available, which I don’t think is hot… but to each their own. (Terence McKenna wrote a tribute to phone sex as a glorious form of virtual reality for Mondo 2000 back in 1990, but withdrew it on the advice of his agent!)
The idea of virtual sex, I think, is that the mind is an erotic funhouse, but the stuff that happens in our heads during a sexual experience is mainly locked in there. Virtuality might be a way in which that almost ineffable thing that happens in our erotic minds can intermingle.
There are also things that you can do in virtuality that would be too dangerous or harmful in physical reality. By the way, I don’t think most people would want it to replace actual contact. I think, for healthy and attractive people, it would be more something fun and intense to do once in a while to add some variety.
Jay: The best thing computers have done for sex is to make it easier to meet compatible humans for the old-fashioned kinds of sex.
J: Did psychedelics inspire transhumanism? Would you call Timothy Leary the first transhumanist?
R.U. You have to, first of all, view transhumanism, like science fiction, as the imagination responding to actual events, actual developments. Radio, television, automobiles, planes, gender surgery, birth control drugs, microscopes, telescopes, computers, psychedelics, stimulants… they’re all tools that allow us to do things we can’t do as purely biological beings. We can’t throw our voices that far; we can’t send images across the world; we can’t message somebody with our minds (at least not reliably and with explicit instructions). We can’t fly at 500 mph ad infinitum. So even before the 20th century, you’re getting those technologies that are indistinguishable from magic, as Arthur C. Clarke put it.
Popular psychedelic culture emerges in the ‘60s and collides with the spread of television and the observations of Marshall McLuhan. He sees that the medias we use are going to emphasize or privilege different aspects of our minds. He sees a slide from a linear text-based culture to a nonlinear multimedia culture. It’s the beginning of what some digital era technoids call continuous partial attention. Psychedelics come along and, for some adepts, they have the quality of taking this fast and fragmenting input and allowing us to see this as a type of naturally emergent order — chaos moving towards a higher coherence and complexity.
Within psychedelic culture itself, people start to identify as agents of evolution — “freaks” or “freeks” or “mutants.” Loudly electrified music becomes a sort of neotribal totem around which people gather. There’s also a backwash. People find the fast track competitive mainstream culture assaultive and they try to head to the woods and the farms. That’s a whole other strategic response to the psychedelic experience that we won’t go much into here, except to say that it gives birth to the Whole Earth Catalog which is dedicated to technology in terms of “access to tools.” So a turn away from harsh industrial technology actually births this other thing that implies the Do It Yourself principle that will become central to large swaths of the technoculture and hacker culture that emerges later in the century. And it gives birth to the spirit of open source — collaborative sharing of data and work that deprioritizes and sometimes eliminates ownership. And it specifically carries its publisher and main editor Stewart Brand into the realm of the early hackers and the creation of the personal computer and he leads the first really vital settlement of cyberspace with The WELL BBS, which was peopled at first mainly by Deadheads.
Also, Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak are influenced by Whole Earth Catalog and come up with the personal computer.
Meanwhile, Timothy Leary goes through a fairly widely known series of difficulties that convinces him that there’s no escape on earth from what he called “mammalian politics” and that the only way to “drop out” of “involuntary or unconscious commitments” was to upgrade humans by making them smarter, longer-lived and spacefaring. This would, according to Leary, open up untapped potentials (or circuits) in the human brain. This early 1970s speculative advocacy, best expressed in his book Exo-Psychology, was probably the second explicitly, broadly transhumanist message to go into circulation. F.M. Esfandiary (later F.M. 2030) actually taught a course in transhumanism at the New School in New York in 1968! His first transhumanist book was Upwingers, published in 1973, beating Leary to the punch by a few years.
Max More, who, with his partner Natasha Vita-More, really started the contemporary transhumanist movement in the 1980s with his concept of extropy and their group, the Extropians, was influenced by both Esfandiary and Leary. There were other people writing about immortality before Esfandiary and Leary and there were no doubt speculations about a transhuman-like future from science fiction writers and futurists before them — but they were the first ones to present a transhumanist-like memeplex — a collection of memes that gather together to form a paradigm or reality tunnel.
Jay: Transhumanism has roots that go way back. Hugo Gernsback wrote about a lot of these topics before World War I, as did scientists like J.B.S. Haldane and J. D. Bernal, plus Olaf Stapledon and many other science fiction writers, in the 1920s and 1930s.
JJ: TV shows like Battlestar Galactica – which you mention in the book – explore robot apocalypses, and superheroes in comics and movies transfix audiences with super-powered evolutionary mutations. Would you say these are, essentially, expressions of transhumanism?
R.U.: I’ve spoken about the influence of science fiction already but I’ll just say, yes, science fiction and superhero sorts of movies seem to prefigure transhuman powers. Of course, to make things dramatic, it’s better if only a few people have these powers and then they can stomp around urban areas upending cars, buildings and bridges while fighting to save or destroy humanity. We hope this doesn’t happen, but there is already the HAL Suit that increases human strength by a factor of ten. If someone incorporates graphene (read all about it in our book!) into this sort of exoskeleton, we might be able to become an even stronger monster in a much sleeker and less intrusive suit. Given the staying power of macho real-life gaming, things could get ugly.
JJ: Do you think that techno-optimism is at odds with eco-activism and the sustainability movement? Do we need big industry to achieve goals like A.I., life extension and transcendence, or are there more eco-utopian transhumanist strands?
R.U.: There’s a wonderful bit in our book by Hank Pellissier about the development of in-vitro meat — actual meat grown in a test-tube unattached to anything that actually experiences pain, eats food, or farts methane, that teases out the barbarity and environmental horror of the massive factory farming of animals for consumption.
Across the board, sufficiently advanced technologies have the potential to replace environmentally damaging technologies. Paper thin nanotechnology based solar collectors are one possibility. There are ways in which developments in artificial life might lead to energy generation. Smart technologies can allow us to use stuff efficiently — all these things are leading towards technologies with greater capacities to get power from the sun, the ocean waves, the wind… hell, maybe we’ll even get to fusion power some day.
There are downsides to some of this. Nanotech particles in the environment are a concern. And the idea that there’s a tech fix to everything could prevent us from taking conservation measures or from even pursuing the idea of renewability. But the trend in technology is a trend towards convertability. There is already a breakthrough in nanotechnology wherein some molecular tweaking can alter the behavior of materials. It’s a step along the way towards, possibly, turning your bike into a folding chair and then making it into a cot when you get home… or at least something sort of like that. There would be less environmental stress from manufacturing and transportation of products if everything was everything, so to speak, not to mention printable at home.
Jay: I think there are many areas where the two views fit together quite well. Lockheed Martin is not what people think of as an eco-utopian organization, but they are working on a graphene-based water filter that could drastically reduce the cost of water desalinization, which would be a huge boon. But there is already a strong decentralized aspect to transhumanism. There are citizen scientists who are doing biological research in their kitchens. There are “grinders” using kitchen knives to embed homemade electronic implants under their own skin. It’s entirely possible that some transhumanist breakthroughs will come from individuals or small groups.
JJ: Is there a real difference between a techno-shaman – or cyber-spirituality – and what you call “Psychedelic Transhumanism” in your book? What does it mean to be a Psychedelic Transhumanist?
R.U.: I thought techno-shamanism was something we made up at Mondo 2000 because it sounded cool.
Seriously though, I see psychedelics and other forms of post-rational or a-rational mind states and the cultural effluvia that it seems to evoke as being a potential lubricant for a future idea that seems very brittle and excessively quantified.
Something Michael Garfield wrote that we quote in our book hits the nail on the head, when he says that psychedelic transhumanism is as interested in qualia as quanta. I would go even further. Let’s push the quanta into the background as quickly as possible.
Singularitarian culture obsesses over increases in information processing and speed. Sure, most will talk about how great people’s lives can be if pressed, but fundamentally, it’s about exponentiality and logic. And if you follow the culture, you’ll find that a lot of the people involved talk about optimizing themselves — a lot of desires, pleasures, sympathies, relationships and so on are seen to be suboptimal.
Transhumanist culture focuses on longevity and immortality. Again, by their natures, these are quantities. Now, longevity treatments should result in improved health… possibly even sublimely enhanced conditions of bodies and minds. But having been around the culture a bit now, I’d say quantity of years forms the essence of a project that people can throw themselves at. People seek beliefs or projects that they can throw themselves at.
There’s even that horrific linguistic construct – the quantified life.
Now, I certainly can’t be opposed to all that self-tracking as a way of maintaining health and optimizing (that word again) for things you like to or want to or have to do. And I’d like to see it become intuitive and offloaded so that you have a mechanism that is keeping track of your vitals and gathering your essential activities without you having to focus too much on it. But the language that we use goes a really long way towards defining what we are and I don’t want to be quantifiable.
So psychedelic substances and psychedelic consciousness along with other techniques for attaining altered types of mind states are vital in allowing or helping people to experience something other that is also rapturous and even, in some cases, enhances discovery, insight and performance in a way that can, in fact, be quantifiable, probably after you come down.
By the way, I’ve suggested a Big Dada movement as a kind of dialectical reaction to Big Data. Big Dada wants to introduce the qualified life. You don’t qualify as being alive unless you spend less than 90 minutes a day quantifying yourself and unless you do unquantifiable things every chance you get. The purpose of technological revolution should be to liberate us into greater spontaneity. Right now, people seem to want to eliminate it.
JJ: How did your book Transcendence get started, and why did you decide on an encyclopedia format?
R.U.: I did this before, with Rudy Rucker, when we created Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge in 1993. Then, we were right on the cusp of the development of the World Wide Web and what we used to call the cyberculture becoming, simply, the culture. I think we’re in a similar situation now where robotics, AI, nanomedicine, 3D printing and replaceable body parts, genomics, brain enhancement and other things covered in the book— all these things are coming into practice or at least into an intensified level of discussion and debate during the next few years.
So basically, I decided to do it again. And Jay had been Managing Editor when I was editing h+ magazine. I knew he would think and write in interesting ways about many of these topics, so that was a natural fit.
JJ: How will we know when the Singularity has arrived?
Jay: My first thought is: “Like pornography, you’ll know it when you see it,” but like a lot of historical and technological developments, there will be early and ambiguous indications, and then later a lot of arguments about when it “really” began. Just in the last 20 years, computers have begun to remake the world. They’ve wiped out typesetters, travel agents, and countless bookstores and record stores. Robots have been replacing assembly line workers for decades, and now it’s even happening in China. Amazon has robots scurrying around warehouses retrieving goods. You could argue that the Singularity has already begun.
RU: I kind of proceed from an acceptance of the Vernor Vinge definition of the singularity. The AIs have to be noticeably and substantially smarter than us in almost ever way. Vinge was the contemporary person who first described the idea of a technological singularity not as a science fiction idea, but as something likely, or in Vinge’s view, inevitable if we don’t destroy ourselves first.
I’m a bit skeptical as to whether there will be a singularity. Even if we get superintelligent AIs, is it a singularity? Does it conflate with a gravitational singularity? Is it that apocalyptic or different from a human standpoint?
I’m inclined to think that smart AIs will still be configured as tools and not as our evolutionary mind children – the next step in evolution. But I could be wrong.
Teaser image by Len Komanac, courtesy of Creative Commons license.