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Towards digital psychedelia and the radical dilation of time

In the closing minutes of his 2011 lecture ‘No Time’ at The University of Warwick’s Virtual Futures 2.0 conference the late Mark Fisher briefly sketched a compelling alternative vision for a emancipation from our current temporal and technological stasis (quoted above, embedded below). The vision was succinct, but potent, seeding two key concepts; ‘digital psychedelia’ and the ‘dilation of time’.

If Capitalist Realism (Fisher, 2019) went on to become the diagnosis, then might a realisation of digital psychedelia and dilation (opening) of time be part of the cure? I’ve been left compelled by the idea of time dilation achieved through digital psychedelia ever since I first encountered this quote through the Twitter account Mark Fisher’s Haunt a few years ago. And so, after unintentionally designing and experiencing what might be argued to be a digital psychedelic experience I’m going to try to draw onto, and into, Fisher’s sketch through the lens of both my own recent works Circa Solar / Circa Lunar and Aldous Huxley’s seminal text on psychedelic experiences: The Doors of Perception. The argument is knowingly loose, para-academic, based upon a research base of one (myself), and inconclusive. Much like psychedelia itself.

Psychedelia as ‘how’ we see, not ‘what’ we see

The other world to which mescalin admitted me was not the world of visions; it existed out there, in what I could see with my eyes open. The great change was in the realm of objective fact. What had happened to my subjective universe was relatively unimportant.” — A. Huxley, The Doors of Perception

What we commonly think of as ‘psychedelia’ is all too often coupled with ideas of visual hallucinations, fractal patterns, and visions of fantastical other-worldly phenomenon. Such associations do psychedelia a great disservice and often reduce its significance to a mere aesthetic experience, however. As Aldous Huxley is keen to articulate very early on within The Doors of Perception — his own psychedelic experiences had far more to do with how he saw, not what he saw. As such the following arguments and depictions of a ‘digital psychedelia’ involves no chemical nor natural psychoactive or psychotropic compounds. It is instead the exploration of an equivalent to a Non-Pharmaceutical Intervention (NPI) that partly, or entirely, enables the common psychedelic experience of “a profound altered state of consciousness”.

On dropping digital psychedelia

In late 2019 I dropped my first trip of digital psychedelia, and my second in mid 2021. The ‘drops’ in this case regarded both the psychedelic sense of “administering a dose of a hallucinogen”, and in the digital sense of “releasing a new product” into the public sphere.

The first drop was Circa Solar (an alternative app to Coordinated Universal Time clocks and watches), and the second Circa Lunar (an alternative app to the Gregorian calendar). The core premise of both Circa Solar and Circa Lunar is to measure durations of time as observable spectrums of light, rather than abstracted numerical units. Circa Solar renders the highly localised and fluctuating light cycles of twilights, day / night, and sunrises / sunsets, relative to a single daily rotation. And Circa Lunar does the same for monthly lunar light cycles illuminating the Moon as seen from Earth. Each app has a numerical option, but default to the non-numerical.

The primary intention of both alternative timekeeping tools was to allow modern Homo Sapiens to appreciate and measure time in much the same way as nearly all living organisms do — by using light as the universal external entrainment signal and zeitgeber. The unintended bi-product was, arguably, an applied example of the type of “trance like” induction of a digital psychedelia and dilation of time that Mark Fisher might have been envisioning.

This is a type of psychedelia accessed not through the headsets of ‘Virtual Reality’ or screens of ‘Augmented Reality’, but accessed through a Huxleyian like shift in how we ought to see what is already there.

Below I will document five profound “shifts in consciousness” that I have experienced while entrancing myself with time as measured by, and through, light;

1. A visceral experience of cosmological velocity

“The mind was primarily concerned, not with measures and locations, but with being and meaning.” — A. Huxley, The Doors of Perception

I first began to experiment with digital psychedelia tangentially when testing ten prototype alternative timekeeping tools I’d designed for the research and development project Sense of Time. One of those design was entitled Diurnal (later becoming Circa Solar) and reflected the highly localised fluctuating day night cycles of time. I began testing the alternative watch face in early spring 2019, at first noticing how it aligned with cosmological events such as the March Equinox (when the duration of day is roughly equal to the duration of the night). Then as day lengths gradually increased in the approach to the Summer Solstice (the point when when one of Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt toward the Sun and day length is at its absolute peak) I became astutely conscious of the relationship between day lengths expanding and contracting and the Earth’s orbital journey around the Sun. In short I viscerally felt the velocity of the Earth going around the corner of the Solar System. This was a feeling emblematic of what is traditionally associated with psychedelia; the disillusion of a localised self-centered reality that is replaced with a far greater sense of interconnectivity with a greater whole — a replacement of concern for measurement with an appreciation of meaning as Huxley describes it. An additional feature of this experience was the reappraisal of immediacy. Velocity as a lived experience is usually associated within the immediate sensation of movement, for example; going around a sharp corner in a car or going down a steep hill upon a bicycle. Extrapolating the same feeling across a much broader timespan is both entirely logically and sensorially possible. It’s just a case of extending our perspectives and consciousness of times passage. This was my first experience of digital psychedelia, and it lay the foundations for its further exploration.

2. The unbalancing sensation of falling backwards into the Universe

“This is how one ought to see, how things really are.. These are the sorts of things one ought to look at. Things without pretensions, satisfied to be merely themselves, sufficient in their suchness, not acting a part, not trying insanely, to go it alone..” — A. Huxley, The Doors of Perception

Once I’d experienced the relationship between changing light and the Earth’s velocity over the days and weeks before and after a Summer Solstice I began to look for similar experiences that might open doors to the ‘true nature of time’ as an alternative to the common pretence of an absolute numerical time. I found a second realisation on the sea front in Pula, Croatia in early autumn 2019 (while I was there giving a workshop into redesigning the language of time appropriately enough). We often cite the transition from the popular belief that we live on a flat planet to the understanding that the Earth is a sphere as a/the seismic shift in human consciousness. And yet we still refer to the Sun “rising” and “setting” and see these twice daily events as exactly that — the Sun rising into the sky and falling below the horizon. The reality, as we know but can’t seem to see, is that it is the Earth that is rotating and the Sun isn’t moving at all. As I watched the sunset in Pula one evening I tried to convince my mind to perceive what was actually happening rather than what I saw happening. A beautiful thing about Sunset and Sunrise is that we can observe celestial movement in motion. It helps if there’s a tallish structure like a hill, or mountain, or tree, or building, to measure the very gradual movement of the Sun against. Once I began to appreciate that this movement is visible I told myself this is the Earth moving backwards rather than the Sun moving downwards, and sure enough I was overcome with a distinct feeling of falling slowly backwards — similar to the feeling of leaning back on a chair and beginning to loosing your balance. This “loss of balance” extended from my own body to the ground beneath my feet, Pula itself felt as if it was falling backwards into the expanse of the Universe, as was Croatia, and the whole of the Southern European Adriatic. Pretty trippy. And entirely legal.

3. The embodied experience of General Relativity in spacetime

“you aren’t lulled into a sense of false security by some merely human, merely fabricated order. You have to rely on your immediate perception of the ultimate order.” — A. Huxley, The Doors of Perception

Have you ever found it difficult to sleep on a full Moon or new Moon? If so, me too. It turns out that the Moon has a significant gravitational effect on the liquid bodies of the Earth, primarily the oceans but also our own bodies and minds. Our bodies are, after all, around 60% water and our hearts and brains composed of up to 73% water. If the Moon can shift the tides of the oceans twice a day, with the most astute pull coming with the ‘spring tides’ of new Moons and full Moons, then it seems logical it might be able to have some kind of influence upon the water in us. Scientific research into the effects of Lunar cycles upon our bodies and minds is significantly limited in relation to the Solar cycles that influence our circadian systems. Perhaps due to the enduring legacy of ‘lunacy’ as a form of madness and the stigma associated with the unknown unknowns of mental health and erratic behaviour. For myself, however, attuning to these rhythms through Circa Lunar, bound me in space and time, or spacetime as Einstein coupled both dimensions into an interdependent whole. We seem used to appreciating Einstein’s general theory of relativity through images of the Earth stretching a grid of the fabric of time, but what if we placed ourselves in that same position (as pictured above)? If indeed our bodies are effected by the gravitational pull of the Moon then surely our bodies are equally subject to the relative forces of spacetime that planets are? At the very least a (semi)sleepless night upon a full or new Moon drags our experience of time into a duration entirely different to that of a good nights sleep. We each have material bodies, and we each have immaterial minds (the emergent consciousness bit rather than the mushy physical brain bit). Dualism tells us to decouple the immaterial from the material but what if we get rid of the space between material space and immaterial time just like Einstein did? This is the psychedelia realm of spacetime experienced in mindbody, where mind is body and body is mind.

4. An anti-progressive view of progress and productivity

The universal and ever-present urge to self-transcendence is not to be abolished by slamming the currently popular Doors in the Wall. The only reasonable policy is to open other, better doors in the hope of inducing men and women to exchange their old bad habits for new and less harmful ones.” — A. Huxley, The Doors of Perception

A more recent discovery in my journey into digital psychedelia has been a complete reappraisal of my interpretation of “progress” and “productivity”. Traditional interpretations of progress define it as something like a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting in an infinite growth. A precondition of the scientific method is that as new knowledge is discovered yet more new knowledge is built upon that knowledge. The only way is forwards & upwards. This is a narrative that seems to suit modern humans and their self-created systems very well indeed, but is less apparent in nature itself — where progress is subject to distinct rhythms and cycles. A profound articulation of the seemingly counterintuitive idea of ‘anti-progressive progress’ was recently surfaced by the renowned quantum physicist (and psychedelia advocate) Carlo Rovelli in an interview with Real Review where Rovelli states:

I do not think anybody today subscribes anymore to the 19th-century hope of infinite progress.. On an early spring day, I expect flowers to blossom and the temperature to rise. But this does not imply that the temperature will rise forever. It is fact it does not; autumn comes. Taken the other way around, the fact that autumn comes does not rule out a temperature rise in summer, and the potential for flowers to blossom.”

This idea goes far beyond yearly seasonal changes, it influences the progressive foundations of civilisations and epochs, bringing into question what is up and what is down? Was the industrial revolution truly the beginning of an ascent for humanity, or the initiation of our decent? Which way is human evolution currently going, forwards into sustained adaptation and survival or backwards into near or complete extinction? Is the increasing abandonment of subjective realism in favour of objective realism the making of mankind, or the breaking of mankind? One key aspect of Circa Solar and Circa Lunar has been to explore how we might measure time in non-numerical ways, or even abandon relative measurement all together — as is the case with the hour hand disappearing into the darkness of night in Circa Solar’s. Embracing what nature knows as diapause (delayed development in response to environmental conditions) might be one of the most significant decisions we make as a species.

5. A newly awakened sense of ‘Temporal Synaesthesia’

“Mescalin raises all colours to a higher power and makes the percipient aware of innumerable fine shades of difference, to which, at ordinary times, he is completely blind.” — A. Huxley, The Doors of Perception

The final psychedelic experience, and perhaps the most significant, came when I began to abandon all regard for measuring time as numeracy in favour of seeing time as light. This transition was partly enabled by the societal lockdowns of COVID 19 pandemic, which further deteriorated the need for a shared social structure of time. Time as measured through light opened a door to what I’ll call ‘Temporal Synaesthesia’. Like other forms of synaesthesia Temporal Synaesthesia concerns the experience of one sense (the sense of time) as an entirely different sense (the sense of light). Synaesthesia is a common symptom of psychedelia, and as such has a natural place in this narrative.

The significance I refer to relates to the potential for this experience to form a tangible bridge between the human and non-human worlds. In 1974 Thomas Nagel asked the seminal question “What is like to be a bat?”, the answer being we’ll never know as a bats embodied experience is unique to being a bat (we can imagine what it is like to sleep hanging upside down or navigate via a form of echolocation, but that gives us little insight into what kinds of experience feel like for a bat). Yet where as we can never know what it is like to be a bat we can know what it is like to be a circadian organism, because we are circadian organisms. As are nearly all living organisms. And so to appreciate time is light is to share a single and universal commonality with the non-human world, as a bridge to para-human consciousness. Let me elaborate. Sheep are whats known as “short day breeders” and mate in autumn when day lengths begin to significantly reduce in order that they give birth in spring when the environmental conditions are more favourable for new born lambs. Sheep don’t have watches to measure day lengths against, however, there’s no acknowledgement that “it got dark at 6pm last night whereas it was dark at 6:15pm the week before so we better get busy”. Sheep (like numerous other organisms) intuitively sense the time of year through the quantity of light immediately around them, in the same way that I sensed going around the corner of the solar system through expanding and contracting day lengths. In a similar way to experiencing the time of year through quantities of light I also began to experience a vastly enhanced appreciation for qualities of light, specifically in relation to my mood and productivity. Rather than natural sunlight having a handful of values (day, shadow, twilights, night, etc) each value split into sub values. The daylight of early morning in winter took on entirely different properties to mid day or afternoon. This fluency for lights quality grew until I was uniquely heightened to the quality of light governed by clouds in the sky, and to the point that my mood would sink when the sun disappeared behind a could and raise again when the sun surfaced from behind that cloud. It was almost as if I was a string puppet and the clouds and light were controlling my moods. And yet rather than this feeling abstract and psychosomatic, it felt entirely natural and comforting. This heightened attunement to the quality of light also saw me transported into a July summers day in the middle of March when the light and temperature seemed mimic the formers nuances, and vice versa took me back into winter on particular overcast and depressed summer days. A form of relative time travel that we might all become more accustomed to given climate crisis related extreme weather conditions.

All of these experiences are surely what it’s like to be the circadian organisms that we (and all life on Earth) are, and to sense time through light. This is a form of the dilation of time specifically induced by the digital psychedelia of replacing my clock with Circa Solar and my calendar with Circa Lunar.

This is an alternative ontology of time not of ticking and measuring, but of flowing and being.

This is both Huxley’s ultimate order of things and Fisher’s digital psychedelia in the dilation of time. The way we ought to see time.

Ted Hunt is a London based independent speculative and critical designer. His research and development into time and temporality includes the collaboration with King’s College London Sense of Time — which recently has gone on to be realised in the crowdfunded projects Circa Solar and Circa Lunar — along with the fourth-dimensional thinking consultancy x-AXIS. He is a graduate of The Royal College of Art and currently a fellow of the School of Critical Design and advisor to The Billion Second Institute.

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Ted Hunt

Ted Hunt

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