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The Occulted Origins of Computers and Psychedelics

Note: This is a fun polemic rather than anything too serious… Computers and psychedelics are double-edged swords, but their origins are quite dark. This essay focuses on that troubling genesis and some possible cultural continuities. The history of computers here is quite standard, but much of the information about psychedelics and the CIA comes from Stephen Kinzer’s excellent book “Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control”.

The computer and LSD were designed to break human beings: one physically, the other mentally. The Army first used the computer to calculate ballistic trajectory tables for new weapons and simulate hydrogen bomb explosions, while the CIA manufactured and experimented with LSD for mind control. An internal CIA memo from 1954 reads: “Can we get control of an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self-preservation?” However, in the 1970s institutional mainframes gave way to personal computers, and LSD became a method to induce a spiritual experience. American weapons became American culture, or in other words, bottom-up control was first created top-down.

Decentralized control works via the manipulation of networks. Once people are stitched together via communication networks, questions of control move away from physical coercion and towards information warfare.

In fact, the CIA performed extensive mind control experiments on Americans during the 1950s. The CIA director, Allen Dulles, was terrified that communists had found techniques to control the human mind. In response, the CIA set out to discover possible methods and chemicals for mind control under the title “MK-Ultra”. In 1953 after stumbling upon the compound LSD, the CIA purchased the entire extant world supply and contracted an American pharmaceutical company for domestic manufacture.

Armed with massive quantities of LSD and cash, the CIA got started in earnest. Using fake shell companies, they began sponsoring research on hallucinogenic drugs at universities, hospitals, and other institutions across America. Most researchers contracted by these phony companies had no idea they were paid by, and doing research for, the CIA, until the clandestine program was uncovered by the Rockefeller commission in 1975.

Unfortunately, by 1975 most of the documentation had already been destroyed, but what remained revealed a horrific story of unethical experimentation on American citizens. The goal of MK-Ultra was mind control and the search for a “Manchurian candidate”. So while the CIA worked to control minds with drugs, the Army worked to destroy bodies with the aid of digital computers. Both projects viewed the world as information systems that can be modeled, simulated, and exploited. Physical processes, like explosions and brains, were seen as black boxes that given particular inputs produced particular outputs.

The first American use of digital computers was to calculate ballistic tables for the Army at the end of WWII. Later, John von Neumann’s EDVAC simulated hydrogen bomb explosions. In these early days, computers were enormous mainframes that took up entire rooms and had to be transported by forklift and truck. The only ones who could afford them were institutions: universities, governments, or large companies. This institutional heart was on the East Coast, embodied by IBM and Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies.

However, the revolutionary movement that would make computers small, personal, and ubiquitous, came from the West Coast. Around Palo Alto there were numerous computer research institutions funded by the Department of Defense’s Defense Advance Research Project Association (DARPA). One of the most famous research institutions was Xerox PARC, where the mouse, graphic interface, and the holistic idea of a personal computer were first combined. When Xerox executives didn’t see the value in such innovations, they let nerdy hobbyists in the Bay Area examine it for free—one of whom was Steve Jobs. After Jobs, the history of popular computing truly begins but even before Apple, computers were being aligned with the counterculture.

As one of the leaders of the West Coast counterculture, Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog featured advertisements for back-to-the-land farming equipment beside microcomputers. Brand represented one of the most important binding factors of the counterculture, where computers, psychedelics, and the idea of “freedom” were woven into a seamless whole. Brand was elated that the Defense Department was sponsoring computer research, starting a 1972 Rolling Stone article with “Ready or not, computers are coming to the people. That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics,” showing gratitude for the “firm disestablishmentarianism of the freaks who design computer science” and the “astonishingly enlightened research program from the very top of the Defense Department.”

At this point in time, America’s intelligence agencies were walking hand-in-hand with the psychedelic culture they had spawned, while dreaming of a different utopia. As Robert Hunter, the lyricist for the Grateful Dead and an MK-Ultra test subject noted, the government ended up creating the “‘acid tests’ and the Grateful Dead, and thereby the whole psychedelic counterculture”. Or as John Lennon bluntly stated, “We must always remember to thank the CIA and the Army for LSD… They invented [it] to control people, and what they did was give us freedom”.

Ken Kesey, who would drive across America giving his famous “Acid Tests”, was an MK-Ultra test subject, alongside the beat poet Allen Ginsberg. They had no idea that they were being experimented on by the CIA. Kesey thought he was part of medical research conducted by his hospital, while Ginsberg was given LSD by “academic researchers” at Stanford. One of the most famous popularizers of LSD, Timothy Leary, was indirectly led to psychedelics via the CIA-funded research of Gordon Wasson. Wasson’s participation in a Mexican “mushroom ceremony” was featured in an influential article for Life magazine which inspired the young Leary to begin experimenting with psychedelics.

Culture got weird because the government took us there. Psychedelics and computers were the result of expensive government research that trickled down to the general populace. Although John Lennon and Stewart Brand were both grateful for these technologies, they were also unaware of the full scope of government research: at McGill University, the CIA sponsored research into electroshock therapy at 10x the conventional dosage. While in prison, the gangster Whitey Bulger was given LSD every day for one year against his wishes. The Army scientist Frank Olson was given LSD and died under mysterious circumstances shortly thereafter. During “Operation Midnight Climax” CIA researchers rented a brothel in San Francisco where prostitutes would give unwitting customers LSD while researchers viewed their reactions behind one-way glass.

The countercultural embrace of these government innovations is no surprise. Society with all of its rules, laws, and orders felt like an imposition upon the unbounded human spirit. Both pscychedelics and computers were a way of tuning out the body while extending the powers of the mind. The physical world was less important than the inner world experienced via psychedelics or created via computer program. These technologies were also deeply individualistic, perfect for lonely autistic men. In fact, Brand recounts research introducing autistic children to computers before human beings since “many of these children think of themselves as machines.” American intelligence agencies had the same view.

Although the products of such wartime research are still ubiquitous, much of the history is obscured. Many believe that computers and psychedelics have always been tools of freedom without knowing that they were created for and by the American war machine. That is not to say that the intelligence community intended to alter popular culture. But they did, changing how humans understood themselves and the world by emphasizing the virtual over and against the physical.

Nevertheless, good things can emerge from the worst intentions. For instance, psychedelics are currently being investigated for various medicinal purposes, and perhaps no DARPA project has been more hopefully received than the internet. Stewart Brand was a vocal spokesman for the internet as well, claiming that it would help bring people together, aiding the spontaneous order that emerges among human beings. But there has always been a pessimistic fear that every extension of technology is an extension of control, or at least an extension of catastrophe: if you invent the car, you invent the car crash. In his 2012 book Cypherpunks, Julian Assange took a wary yet hopeful tone when he wrote:

The new world of the internet, abstracted from the old world of brute atoms, longed for independence. But states and their friends moved to control our new world – by controlling its physical underpinnings… But we discovered something. Our one hope against total domination… The universe believes in encryption. It is easier to encrypt information than it is to decrypt it. We saw we could use this strange property to create the laws of a new world. To abstract away our new platonic realm from its base underpinnings of satellites, undersea cables and their controllers. To fortify our space behind a cryptographic veil. To create new lands barred to those who control physical reality…

And yet Assange’s vision looks to be failing, not due to lack of technology, but because people don’t care to implement it. And neither do our institutions. We gladly sacrifice security for convenience and are subsequently bought and sold by social networks. Similarly, Edward Snowden’s leaks were a wake-up call: unfortunately, most people jumped out of bed, slammed the snooze button, and went back to sleep. It is startling how few people cared only a couple years later.

One of the most disturbing aspects of these technologies is the disappearance of the real world, how they substitute facsimiles for the original. Psychedelics distort our perceptions and alter appearances while computers replace experimentation with simulation. As the digital world takes more and more resources, the physical world becomes impoverished, and the siren call of unreality becomes ever more appealing. But that is exactly where institutions hope we will go, ever deeper into the maze they created and designed. Assange might have had it backwards, the secure platonic realm might end up being a Gnostic prison where we are all watched over by machines of malicious hate.

But it certainly doesn’t have to be this way.

Psychedelics and computers don’t have to be substitutes for physical reality. Maladaptive daydreaming occurs when the world loses its lustre and opportunities for action vanish. If we investigate the world, perhaps we can find the reasons why we’re so ready to leave it behind.