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Just Say Yes to the Noösphere: Psychedelics and the Evolution of Information Technologies



Instructions emphasized that the experience could be directed as desired. Subjects were told that they would not experience difficulty with such distractions as visions, involvement with personal problems, and so on. “Psychedelic Agents in Creative Problem Solving”, Willis Harman et al., 1966


Before its possession became a criminal offense in the United States, the psychedelic compound LSD-25 was given to engineers and designers to break "creative logjams" and promote innovation in the Cold War United States. In the late 1950's and early 1960's, for example, Stanford engineer Myron Stolaroff of the Ampex Corporation (inventor of the Video Tape Recorder) studied the effects of LSD on engineers, and the result was a growing body of literature and data on psychedelic regimens and their effects on technical innovation.


These regimens included precise and intensive recipes for psychedelic experience such as the epigraph above – although essentially ineffable, psychedelic experience was treated as fundamentally and necessarily programmable through collective human attention. In a forthcoming book, I offer an evolutionary and ecological framework for comprehending and evaluating recent claims by innovators such as Mitch Kapor, Mark Pesce, and Kary Mullis (Polymerase Chain Reaction) that psychedelics played an integral role in the invention of their breakthrough information technologies. Given the importance of programming to psychedelic experience, the book argues that psychedelic adjuncts were useful to engineers and scientists less because they "expanded" consciousness than because they trained subjects in practices of focused attention that enabled perception of larger scale dissipative structures, the "pattern that connects"(Bateson) perhaps measured in the Witken Embedded Figure tests, a perceptual assay on which psychonauts seem to have excelled.


The biological science of attention could be said to be born in Charles Darwin's model of sexual selection, where Darwin studied the "information technologies" (such as a peacock feather, or human speech) through which organisms signal sexual difference and orient attention toward likely reproductive and survival success. This evolutionary search for attention - the original "flower power" - acts through what the biologist V.I. Vernadksy later dubbed the “noösphere”. While the biosphere irreversibly and undeniably altered the lithosphere from which it emerged, the noösphere transforms the biosphere via the gathering and application of attention. While many contemporary designers and engineers seek to "evolve" designs and programs through evolutionary processes, an expanded model of evolution integrating sexual selection and its attention economy, the noosphere - not to mention psychedelics - is likely to be even more fruitful for the development, integration and transformation of information technologies.


Indeed, the famous but oft misunderstood mantra "Turn on, Tune In, Drop Out" suggested that in their own way, psychedelics are information technologies for honing and focusng the attention. As Stolaroff put it many years after the original studies, reflecting on the use of low doses of psychedelics,


. . . it is easier

to focus attention under their influence, which permits developing the

attributes for good meditation practice. As one develops proficiency in

entering the desired state, it is found that the advantage of one compound

over another diminishes. The appropriate dose (found by

experiment--generally equivalent to 25-50 micrograms of LSD) of most any

long-acting psychedelic is helpful.


The ancient discipline of rhetoric - the practice of learning and teaching eloquence, persuasion and information architecture by revealing the choices of expression or interpretation open to any given rhetor, viewer, listener or reader using what Aristotle called "all available means" has also always been a discipline for managing and modulating attention. Mantra - the rhythmic repetition of words, meaningful or not, in order to capture or steer the attention - are perhaps the simplest and yet most powerful techniques in the rhetorical traditions of our planet, so in order to share with you my thoughts on how we might best focus our attention in the midst of this infoquake, I want to begin with a rhetorical analysis of a mantra to see how it might, like the epigraph above, shape psychedelic experience.


TuningIn to "Turn on, Tune In, Drop Out"]














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