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The Internet Is Acid, and America Is Having a Bad Trip
It’s been 25 years since I first turned the manuscript of my first book, Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace, to the publisher. Well, 27 years if you count the first publisher, which canceled the book because they thought the internet would be “over” by the time the book was to be released in 1993.
Cyberia wasn’t really a book about the net so much as a whole conflux of new approaches to navigating the world. It wasn’t just a technological revolution, but a cultural renaissance involving everything from quantum physics and chaos math to fantasy role-playing games and hypertext. Cyberia, as I called this emerging movement, found its expression in comics, video games, the Gaia hypothesis, rave music, and virtual reality; books like The Tao of Physics, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, or Gödel, Escher, Bach; the lectures of Terence McKenna, Ralph Abraham, and Willis Harman.
It seemed as if the world was about to become a whole lot more like a lucid dream, where the future was less a place we arrived at than a thing we created together.
Computers and networks were part of a much larger cultural phenomenon: a realization that reality is a collaboration. We were coming to grips with the fact that we were living in a “consensual hallucination,” as science fiction writer William Gibson put it, where the things we imagine actually come into being. It seemed as if the world was about to become a whole lot more like a lucid dream, where the future was less a place we arrived at than a thing we created together. We were moving into what I called a “designer reality.”
That’s at least partly why the biggest technology firms of Silicon Valley resorted to hiring so many psychedelics users. (In Cyberia, I documented how many firms had to suspend drug testing or inform employees in advance.) They needed acid heads because they were the only people comfortable with hallucinating things into existence.
Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor once known as the high priest of LSD, often told me that digital technologies were essentially psychedelics — only better, because you didn’t need to convince people to take a drug in order to be put into a psychedelic state. But this doesn’t mean digital technology is intrinsically liberating, any more than LSD affects everybody the same way. No, as Leary explained about psychedelics, one’s experience is dependent on “set and setting”: the mindset with which someone approaches the experience, and the setting, or environment, in which one takes the drug.
The original set and setting for digital technology is one thread in a larger cultural tapestry. It was characterized by a higher intention for humanity, the planet, and the fabric of reality itself. Yes, it was occasionally goofy, gullible, and stoned — but it was also progressive, idealistic, and hopeful.
But this was not everyone’s set and setting.
America is unconsciously living in a psychedelic landscape and having a bad trip.
The problem for the multifaceted designer reality movement was that only one of its threads was compatible with the marketplace still driving the majority of human activity in the late 20th century. Unlike fantasy role-playing or the Gaia hypothesis, technology promotes production, consumption, efficiency, and investment. To business, digital technology was a way to save the flagging stock market by creating new surface area on old, limited marketplaces. Business hallucinated a world with infinite potential for growth.
Luckily, or so many of us thought, the dotcom boom was followed by a dotcom crash. We felt as though the net had fought off an infection and would be free to continue on as one facet in this larger cultural shift. Social media seemed to rise to that occasion, connecting people with one another instead of with commercial content. People and ideas seemed to come from almost anywhere, and the formerly marginalized fringes moved to center stage. But then came 9/11, in which another sort of marginalized fringe demonstrated the power of decentralized technologies. Almost overnight, the unprecedented openness of digital culture transformed into the repression of surveillance capitalism.
Only we’re still trying to operate this new, paranoid society on what amounts to a psychedelic substrate — with little or no awareness of how our sets and settings are determining our results. The set and setting of the advertiser yield addictive behavioral design and persuasive technologies. The set and setting of the investor lead to algorithmic trading and winner-takes-all, extractive businesses. The set and setting of the military lead to drone warfare. The set and setting of the politician lead to targeted propaganda and digital fascism.
America is unconsciously living in a psychedelic landscape and having a bad trip. We don’t realize that we are living in a media environment that offers us an unprecedented capacity over reality. The world may have always been a consensual hallucination to some extent, but never before have we built our world so completely.
We’re beginning to see a resurgence of the original strain of cyberculture: those who see in media and technology a way to express rather than repress human creativity.
We are making this thing. That’s why it looks the way it does. It is rendering our fear, paranoia, greed, and panic. We have almost no psychic discipline. We have so little hope. That’s a large part of the appeal of climate denial and Trump’s other fantasies. At least these visions offer more hope and possibility than the fact-based limitations of the reasoned left.
But it’s also why I believe we’re beginning to see a resurgence of the original strain of cyberculture: those who see in media and technology a way to express rather than repress human creativity. They’re back, or maybe they never went away.
If anything, economic and social collapse catalyze this more positive activity as we all look for new paths to sustainability and happiness. So we get filmmaker Bo Burnham’s positive take on social media as a form of personal empowerment for teens. Artist Lauren McCarthy’s performances as a human-powered Alexa. Stacco Troncoso’s tireless efforts to realize peer-to-peer mechanisms everywhere in society. Erin Barnes’ In Our Backyards project, through which people can fund positive changes to their neighborhoods. Bio-hacker Heather Dewey-Hagborg exploring the legacy and ownership of our DNA.
These are the sorts of people who can guide us from this bad trip of helplessness and inevitable doom to one of collective empowerment, economic justice, and universal human flourishing. And they are everywhere.
This piece has been adapted into a monologue on the Team Human podcast.