Leary, McLuhan and Electronic Technology


New article for Boing Boing:

 Timothy Leary and Marshall McLuhan, Turned On and Tuned In

Marshall McLuhanBy Michael Horowitz & Lisa Rein

In 1974, when asked by Timothy Leary’s archivist Michael Horowitz for a statement of support for the imprisoned psychologist, Marshall McLuhan sent a letter, now published for the first time, describing Leary as “the Ulysses of the inner trip” and pointing out the correspondences between LSD and television as transformative electronic technologies of the 1960s:

“Electric technology, by virtue of its immediate relation to our nervous system, is itself a sort of inner trip, with drugs playing the role of sub-plot or alternative mode. It may well appear a few years hence that the panic about psychedelic drugs relates less to the chemistry than to the hidden terrors which people feel in the presence of electric technology.”

The article throws light on their relationship as intellectual collaborators. McLuhan’s understanding of psychedelic experience, despite not himself being a LSD user, made a strong impression on Leary.

Out of their collaboration came the theory that psychedelic substances, like electronic media, are also mediums that deepen and transform perception of our existence.

Neurologic and the Language of Electronic Technology

For Timothy Leary, electronic language is born in the accelerated brain on LSD.  Once consciousness had been expanded, the next stage in the evolution of a psychonaut is increasing intelligence.

Beginning in 1973, when he was back in prison after his recapture and escape trial, Leary began writing directly in the language of electronic technology.  In Neurologic and Exo-Psychology, Leary used the term “circuits” to describe the wiring of the human nervous system that triggered the stages of both our individual and species evolution. Twenty years after devising the Interpersonal Diagnostic Circle to measure the data of interaction between different personality types, he described human relationships in the language of atomic structure, and found correspondences in the ancient occult systems of astrology, the I Ching and the Tarot.

“I know many people who have shared the chemical mind experiences of the past may be surprised or even shocked when I suggest that electrons are the next evolutionary step in turning yourself on, booting up your brain, activating new circuits in your mind.  I don’t see how you can use psychedelic drugs and not want to talk in electrons.  Anyone who’s had profound LSD experiences knows that the brain operates in clusters of flash on/offs, the so-called vapor trails.  The clarity of atomic vision you get when you’re very high on LSD  or peyote or psilocybin is a sheer tuning in to the way the brain actually operates [in] holograms of clusters of individual bleeps and on/ offs.  When you try to translate the full-blown LSD experience into printed words, it’s pathetic.  You’re just using the language of the machine, really.  That’s what written words are, the language of the machines to describe something which is post-industrial and post-mechanical . . . electronic information flow.”   (Leary in High Frontiers, no. 3, 1987)

Marshall McLuhan, media theorist and philosopher of electronic technology, had a stronger and more lasting influence on Leary than any other of Tim’s contemporaries.  McLuhan “predicted the World Wide Web–the ‘Global Village’–almost thirty years before it was invented” (Paul Levinson, Digital McLuhan:  A Guide to the Information Millenium).  McLuhan wrote:  “The right-brain hemisphere thinking is the capability of being in many places at the same time. Electricity is acoustic.  It is simultaneously everywhere.”

Leary, for whom “the medium is the message” was the single most potent meme that came out of the ‘60s, fully embraced McLuhan’s concept of the Global Village as the natural evolution of the new media technology.  With the launch of the personal computer revolution, Leary famously said:  “The PC is the LSD of the ‘90s.”   He lived long enough to have one of the earliest personal websites.

     “We Will Create a Language of International Global Brain Linkup”

In 1993,  three years before his death, Leary channeled McLuhan in How To Operate Your Brain, a video produced by RetinaLogic, featuring an electrifying collage of images and special effects backed by a driving techno beat.

Some excerpts from the soundtrack:

“McLuhan said,  ‘The medium is the message.’  The words you use, the modes of communication you use,  determine the realities you inhabit.    Most of us live in realities determined by others, imprinted in our brains by education, by religion, by politics, by the authorities.

“McLuhan said:  If you want to change your mind, change the medium. Change the words you use,  change the mode of communication.  If you change the medium, you change yourself, you change your society.

“In the 1960s, a new mode of communication developed—television. The kids growing up in the 1960’s learned how to tune in, turn on, fine tune, turn off, select.  McLuhan said:  Who controls the media is programming your mind and programming your brain.   Learn how to operate your brain.  The brain is designed to design realities.

“Marshall McLuhan made the prophecy.  He told us that the aim of evolution was to use media to create what we all want:  the global village, the language which can be understood by every human being, by every brain.  The basic language of humanity, the language of the brain. 

“Now we have digital communication.  We can create our fantasies. We can create our rhythms, design on screen.  A new language will develop:  a global language, not based on letters, not based on grammars.   The language which we all understand, based on clusters of waves of light and sound.

 “We will create a language of international global brain linkup.  Anyone in any culture watching this screen will get the general picture.  It’s one global village. It’s one global human spirit, one global human race.  As we link up through screens, linked by electrons and photons, we will create for the first time a global humanity, not separated by words or minds, or nationalities or religious bias.  We’re just now learning to communicate, brain to brain, soul to soul.”