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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, the Ampex Corporation(inventor of the Video Tape Recorder) studied the effects of LSD on their 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 algorithms for psychedelic experience such as the epigraph above – although essentially ineffable, psychedelic experience was treated as fundamentally and necessarily programmable. This talk will offer an historical, evolutionary and ecological framework for comprehending and evaluating recent claims by innovators such as Mitch Kapor (Lotus, spreadsheets), Mark Pesce(Virtual Reality Markup Language) 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 talk will suggest 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" 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 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 symbiogenesis ( mutualism in evolution) is likely to be even more fruitful for the development, integration and transformation of information technologies.

Professor Richard Doyle - Penn State University

A Talk for Rice University, October 9, 2006, 4 pm.

Computer and Information Technology Institute


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