I Was A Teenage Transhumanist!

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In the 8th grade I became a transhumanist, of sorts. This was the result of a run-in with a book by Timothy Leary called Neuropolitique, which one of my friends from a local BBS let me borrow. It was a catalyst, even if no one in my circle of friends could pronounce the title. This was right at the very end of the Cold War. For the last class of kids to have nightmares about swift and terrible nuclear destruction at the hands of the Soviets, the overall message of the book —  that every shitty thing the human race was then experiencing was leading up to our eventual evolution into some smart, sexy, space-faring species — was exciting and inspiring.

As far as purely text-based, one-way mentorship goes, I could have done worse than ol’ Tim. He taught me the importance of optimism, and what the word teleology meant. Through his example, I saw how an outsider could be more important than an academic or a politician or any other establishment bozo (whichever establishment you might be referring to). He also taught me that the word ecstasy came from the Greek “ex-stasis,” meaning mystical transcendence or freedom from limitations. Of course, it also means feelin’ fine and implies some sort of good-natured bliss-out, which is key if you’re going to avoid a grim, Ayn Rand-inspired ego trip.

I recently reacquainted myself with Leary’s books when I wrote an article for The Kernel. In it, I took a critical look at some of the more ridiculous aspects of transhumanism — the five-figure corporate seminars, the technolibertarian greed, the bizarre belief that Technological Singularity is imminent — as well as some of the cooler, more down-to-earth folks that make up the scene. Or the meme. Or whatever it is.

Leary was preaching the basics of transhumanism before people were calling themselves transhumanists. He had a snappy slogan for what he thought the future of the species would be: SMI(2)LE! Or Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, and Life Extension. In other words, humanity’s goal should be to increase it’s intelligence, travel out into space where presumably the vastness of space would equate with a vastness of resources, then figure out how to live forever. Let the suckers stay on earth, where it’s safe. He figured this out while he was incarcerated, so you can imagine the desire to escape jail, this country, and evem this planet was pretty strong.

As R.U. Sirius and Jay Cornell point out in their book Transcendence: The Disinformation Encyclopedia of Transhumanism and the Singularity, the first of eight points of “The Transhumanist Declaration” of 1998 read: “We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering and our confinement to planet earth.” Which is the same thing as Timothy Leary’s “SMI(2)LE,” although not nearly as fun.

By 1974, Leary had been to prison, escaped, found exile with the Black Panthers in Algeria, recorded an album with the krautrock band Ash Ra Tempel, gone skiing in Switzerland, found Crowley and John Dee in the desert, then ended up back in prison. It was here that he would write his proto-transhumanist texts, beginning with a thin volume called Neurologic. It was also at this time that he would begin planning his next prison escape:

Joanna [Leary]’s plan was to equip [a flying] saucer with bright flashing lights and speakers that blared out ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ by Procol Harum. The saucer would then land in the prison exercise yard and Timothy could jump on board. Inside it he would find Joanna, naked apart from a pair of long white gloves and a shotgun, and together they would fly off into the future.

The UFO would be obtained from “a hippy in the midwest,” according to I Have America Surrounded by John Higgs. Clearly, the 53-year-old Leary was running out of options. Eventually, he would give in to overtures from the FBI to cooperate with them in exchange for an early release. As Ken Kesey explained it after Leary’s death, “Tim knew he had to … rollover when he was in the belly of the beast. He also knew he wasn’t telling the Feds anything they didn’t already know. And he figured it the same way I did: our true allies and comrades would understand.”

The FBI tried to play Leary, and he tried to play the FBI, and both came out worse for the wear, having gained little. After ostensibly working with the feds, Leary remained in jail for an additional two years. Eventually, it was the shifting politics of post-Watergate America that would spring him.

Just like everything that the hardcore conspiracists do, I found it rather odd when Timothy Leary began to emerge as a point of paranoid fixation. As far as I can tell, he came on to the conspiracy theorist’s radar because in the postwar years, psychology and drug research were military fixations (just as they are today, alongside AI and robotics) and his work was therefore tainted by military money at some point. Much the same way that President Obama is supposed to be a Manchurian Candidate because his mother’s anthropology research received funding by USAID. Or something.

The Swiss-born, Canadian blogger Henry Makow apparently has a real problem with Leary. And Leary’s in good company, since Makow also has it in for women, Jews, homosexuals, Catholics, and as far as I can tell, anyone who watches movies or listens to music. Makow’s anger can probably be explained as a case of hero worship turned bad. On his website, the lapsed hippy recounts spending a weekend with Leary in 1990.

“I was disillusioned,” he writes. “By this time Leary was fixated on the benefits of the ‘information superhighway.’ His pantry table was crammed with bottles of alcohol. He told me his ‘vision of God’ was depicted in the last scene in William Gibson’s book ‘Neuromancer.’”

“At the end of the world,” Leary told Makow, “all the information stored in all the computers will rise up into Cyberspace and mingle together. That’s God.”

Even without tweaking the paranoiacs by mentioning God and Neuromancer in the same breath, transhumanism gives the conspiracy creeps a lot of material. David Livingstone, a man who claims to investigate things like the Satanic origins of Santa Claus “with the utmost scholarly rigor,” traces a direct line from Freud to Google’s “participation in what appears to be a totalitarian ambition to create a New World Order” through godlike Artificial Intelligence. As you can imagine, everyone is implicated in this conspiracy, from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to John von Neumann (who apparently had something to do with the 2012 movie theater shooting in Littleton, Colorado), to the “MK-Ultra evangelist,” Timothy Leary.

Leary had his own take on conspiracy theories: they were “low-level soap operas.” The real questions of existence couldn’t be answered by wallowing in terrestrial politics. “How are we gonna move?” He once asked, “how are we gonna change, how are we gonna grow, how are we gonna get off this planet? It’s a prison planet.”

Of course, this was years before Alex Jones decided we were living on a prison planet as well. Tim Leary’s vision of a prison planet was something mundane that we must escape, if only to find thrills and excitement elsewhere. Alex Jones, on the other hand, portrays the prison planet as something terrible that we will never escape — at least, not without a cache of guns and a pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution.

Ultimately, the “prison planet” view (however you take it) is a copout, incapable of generating any real action or change. If you think you’re going to build a flying saucer and escape, that’s fine. But in the meantime, get yourself a good jailhouse lawyer.