ACCELER8OR

Oct 23 2012

Not Sci Fi. Sci NOW!

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As the walrus said to the Carpenter, the time has come to talk of many things.

To understand why I hold the views I do, you must first understand that my choices and views are shaped by the future that I see is coming, and without understanding that future, it is impossible to truly see why I support some issues on the right, some on the left, some in the middle, etc. So, this article is an attempt to explain, in a brief overview fashion, what I see coming down the road, and which I think far too many people are completely unaware of.

To begin, I am not a liberal, a conservative, a libertarian, a communist, a socialist, or any other political leaning. If I must be labeled, I would say I am a Humanitarian first, and a Transhumanist second.

Humanitarianism: In its most general form, humanitarianism is an ethic of kindness, benevolence and sympathy extended universally and impartially to all human beings. Humanitarianism has been an evolving concept historically but universality is a common element in its evolution. No distinction is to be made in the face of human suffering or abuse on grounds of tribal, caste, religious or national divisions.

Transhumanism: An international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of science and technology to improve human mental and physical characteristics and capacities. The movement regards aspects of the human condition, such as disability, suffering, disease, aging, and involuntary death as unnecessary and undesirable. Transhumanists look to biotechnologies and other emerging technologies for these purposes. Dangers, as well as benefits, are also of concern to the transhumanist movement.

As such I would have to say I am a Transhumanist because I am a Humanitarian.

So, what precisely does that have to so with the future? It means I take the long view of most everything, because I believe there is a significant probability that I will be around to face the consequences of short sighted actions in the present. But it also means that I can look at some problems which are long term and see that the solutions to them are not yet available, but have a high likelihood of existing before the problem becomes a crisis. This includes such “catastrophic” issues as “Global Warming”, “Overpopulation” and in fact, most “Crisis” politics. Many of these issues are almost impossible to address with current technological capabilities, but will be much easier to address with technologies that are currently “in the lab”.

However, it also means I spend a lot of time researching exactly what the future is likely to bring, so that I can make determinations on which problems are immediate, short term or long term, and whether or not practical solutions exist now, or must wait until we have developed a little further.

But primarily, what those researches have shown me is that most people are utterly unaware of just what the future is going to bring. Most people see a future just like today, with differences only of degrees. They see the future of Star Trek, or of too many other tv shows, where humanity still has to face the exact same problems as they do today on a social level, with fancier trimmings.

Yet such a future is utter fantasy.  Our future is going to change things on a scale undreamt of by most humans, because it is a change not of scale, but of kind.

Humanity, as we know it, is going to cease to exist.

If you are unfamiliar with the concepts of Artificial Intelligence, Nanotechnolgy, Quantum Computing, Cybernetics, and Bioengineering, you need to educate yourself in them, and soon, because they will have a much larger impact on us than who is president, whether or not global warming is happening, or even whether or not Healthcare reform is passed.

And before you dismiss any of those topics as flights of fantasy, you should be aware of the truth. If you want a quick brief overview, check out Next Big Future, Acceler8or, Gizmag, IO9, IEET, or Wired and spend a few hours reading through the various links and stories. This is not Sci-Fi, it is Sci-now.

Within the next twenty to fifty years, and possibly even within the next decade, humanity is going to face the largest identity crisis ever known.  We are going to find that things we have always taken for granted as unchangeable are indeed matters of choice. It’s already started.

As of this exact moment in time, you are reading this on the internet.  As such you have already entered into the realm of Transhumanism. You are free to choose what sex you wish to present yourself as, free to be which ever race you want to be, free to even choose what species you wish to present yourself as. You could be a Vulcan, an Orc, even a cartoon character from South Park. Every aspect of who you are comes down to your personal choice. You may choose to present yourself as you are, or you may present yourself as something else entirely.

That same choice is going to be coming to humanity outside the internet as well. Our medical technology, understanding of our biology, and ability to manipulate the body on finer and finer scales is advancing at an exponential rate. It will not be much longer before everyone has the ability to change everything about their physical body to match their idealized selves.

How will racists be able to cope with the concept that race is a choice? Or sexists deal with people switching genders on a whim? How will people feel when in vitro fertilization and an artificial womb can allow two genetic males to have a child, or for one to become female and have one via old fashioned pregnancy?

And yet that is just the barest tip of the iceberg, for not only will we be able to reshape ourselves into our idealized human form, we will also eventually have the ability to add and subtract other creatures as well. Not everyone will choose to be “human”.  There will be elves, and aliens, cat girls and lion men. We are already on the verge of nearly perfect human limb replacement, within a decade it is highly likely that we will be able to replace damaged nerves with electronic equivalents to control artificial limbs that mimic not only the full range of human motions, but with the creation of artificial muscles, do so in a completely natural manner.  It is but one step from creating an artificial replacement to making an artificial addition.

And there will be those who choose such additions, or who may even choose to replace their natural parts with enhanced cybernetic parts. We will have to face the very real fact of humans with far greater than current human physical ability, and even those with abilities no current human has, such as flight using their own wings.

Imagine a football game with someone who can leap the distance of the field, or throw a hail mary a mile. Is that someone we would call “human” today? Yet they will be the human of tomorrow.

But even that is just the barest hint of the future, because there is so much more that is happening as well. Since you are sitting here, reading this, I know you are already participating in another tenet of Transhumanism, mental augmentation. You use your computer to collect knowledge, to research and educate yourself, to improve your personal knowledge base by using it as an extended intelligence tool. I know quite well that most of you also use it for your primary news source, your main way of keeping yourself aware of what is happening in the world.

You also use it for entertainment, to watch videos, to game, to read, to discuss, and even to keep in touch with your friends and families.

It already is a mental augmentation device. And that function will only grow.  Your cell phone is becoming more and more of an accessory to your computer everyday. In less than ten years it is likely to become your primary computer, with your desktop communicating with it, and making it simply an extension. There is already an advanced cellphone in labs that is subdermal, meaning it is implanted into your skin, is powered by your own body sugars, and is invisible when not in use. Contact lenses with computer displays that use body heat for power are also in prototype stage. Eventually you will be connected to your computer every second of the day, and using it to augment your life in ways I doubt most people will even be able to imagine. And once the ability to connect the human mind directly to this intelligence augmentation device allows us to use it with a mere thought, can you really call such a person “human” as we currently define it?

And yet again, that is simply the merest hint of the possibilities, because in addition to all this computerization and cybernetics, you have to face the reality that we will soon be able to control matter at the atomic scale. And that is something that very very few people have any real grasp of.

Nanotechnology is not a pipedream. Anyone who tells you it is, is either indulging in denial, or is sadly misinformed. You want proof nanoscale machinery is possible, simply look in a mirror.  You are the finest proof that nanotechnology works. DNA is the most versatile molecular machine in existence that we are aware of, and it is with DNA that we are developing the earliest stages of true Molecular Engineering.

And with Molecular Engineering, almost everything we take for granted right now is going to change. I won’t go into the pages and pages of description of what complete control of matter on the molecular scale can do, but suffice it to say that nothing in our history has prepared us to cope with this ability. We will be able to make food on your kitchen counter, make a car that is indestructible, but can fold into a handy briefcase, and just about everything you have seen in any scifi show ever. With nanotechnology we can permanently end hunger, poverty, and even clean up the environment.

If you truly wish to get a bare minimal grasp of the scope of the possible read Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler. While his vision of nanotech’s foundation is based on pure mechanical engineering, it is nonetheless one of the best introductions to the subject I know. We are developing this ability as we speak, as any of you who bothered to check out the recommended reading list would be able to see.

And that brings us to the next topic, Artificial Intelligence. I am not speaking here of the kind of AI that you are familiar with from Hollywood, but with something called Artificial General Intelligence. This is something far different.  AGI is the kind of program that can drive your car, cook your food, clean your house, diagnose your illnesses, operate on your brain, and yes, even do your job better, faster, and more reliably than you can. AGI is that AI which has absolutely no need to be self aware, conscious, or even thinking. AGI is what runs Chess computers. Any Skill that can be taught can be accomplished by AGI. IBM’s Watson is an example of this future, a machine able to learn to become an expert on any given subject and enable non-experts to have that expertise available on demand.

So be prepared people.  You will be replaced by a machine eventually.

And yet with Nanotechnology capable of ensuring our every physical need is met, Cybertechnology giving us superhuman abilities, and Bioengineering enabling us to be exactly who and what we want to be, is that really such a bad thing?

So I will at last come to the final technology which will make our future far different than what has come before. Indefinite Life Extension.

If you are alive today, you need to seriously contemplate that fact that you may not merely have a long life, but that your life may not even have a definite end. You may be alive, healthy, and in the best physical shape possible a thousand years from now. The younger you are, the greater the possibility.

You may have to face the very real likelihood that aging, death by natural causes, and every disease that currently afflicts mankind may be overcome within the next 30 to 60 years. It might even happen as soon as tomorrow. You may never die unless you have an accident, or commit suicide. And even that is just the simplest scenario. With the possibility of up to the nanosecond backups of your brain’s synaptic patterns and electrical impulses, dying might simply become as permanent as it is in a video game.

Humanity, as we currently know it, is going to cease to exist.

And most of us will not even notice it happening until it’s already occurring, indeed, most people are unaware of the fact that it is happening RIGHT NOW.

And this is the future, in the tiniest snippets of hints of what I truly foresee, that guides my thoughts and actions. A future which is so very, radically, unimaginably different that no-one can even truly begin to envision it. It becomes a blank wall beyond which we cannot see, because we do not even have the concepts to understand what is beyond the wall.

So think about these questions. Think about the reality we will have to face, and understand, you will have to come to terms with this. You can’t keep your head in the sand forever and you can’t comfort yourself by thinking it is decades down the road. It’s here, it’s now, and it’s in your face.

And if anything is certain, it is this: You are not prepared.

Aug 13 2012

H+ The Digital Series — A Review

The first six episodes of the much anticipated transhumanist apocalyptic micro-drama H+ The Digital Series are now out. This is a brief review and set of initial impressions.

Warning: It includes spoilers for all six episodes out so far.

H+ The Digital Series is directed by Bryan Singer (X-men) and distributed online by Warner Brothers in a novel short episode format via YouTube. The series tells the story of a near future world where an Irish corporation known as H+ (H plus) Nano Teoranta has developed a neural implant technology used to link humanity into a global real-time augmented reality.

The short YouTube video format is probably as controversial as the content of the program. Can a 140 character culture relate to characters in 4 minute segments?

The series consists of short YouTube videos lasting about six minutes and each featuring something like 2-3 minutes of time in the fictional world. I found it hard to relate to the characters in this short format especially when you consider that only about four minutes and 30 seconds is the actual programming and the rest is just the intro and outro title sequences.

The first two episodes, “Driving Under” and “On Their Level”, were released first, and these consist of what is essentially the first five minutes of the story. The second batch of episodes, 3-6, were released initially only to subscribers to the program’s YouTube channel. A new episode is to be released every Wednesday.

Episode 1 is set “five minutes before it happened”. We are introduced to the H+ Nano medical implant technology and HPlus Nano Teoranta the company that has developed it. The H+ interface is a sort of real time connected augmented reality system that employs a neural implant rather than glasses. The system creates a personal interface only the user can see and is controlled by hand movements. In addition, the system provides real-time monitoring and feedback of the user’s own biological functions.

The first episode also introduces us to the concept of transhumansim, which in case you weren’t aware is an “international movement that supports the transforming of the human body and thereby the human condition through advanced technologies”.

Singer clearly lines the series up with the cyberpunk tradition, presenting a dystopian near future where tech stocks have tumbled, cybercrime is on the rise, and people are protesting being used in scientific experiments against their will despite the amazing technological advances.

Cut to a couple parking their car in an underground garage at the airport. The wife is interacting with her H+ system via her neural implant as they look for parking. The husband is covertly watching a sporting event via his interface, a fact that upsets his wife and causes an argument between them.

It is, of course, traditional for a geeky review of any new science fiction film or TV program to locate and dissect minute technical flaws in any science or technology described. This review will be no exception.

Not even five minutes in o the series and there is already some problematic stuff. In the H+ series future, we’ve got magical nanotech implants but the cars don’t have autopilot. In fact any sort of AI, a central theme of modern transhumanism, seems to be entirely absent from this H+ world so far.

In reality the husband Lee would just switch on the car’s autopilot and crack open a beer. Yes, in the future it will be legal to drink in a vehicle if you aren’t driving and the cars will be designed such that they won’t let you drive if you do drink.

The H+ implant itself is some sort of near magical nanotechnology allowing direct neural interface without invasive surgery. You simply inject this thing and you become connected to the global hive mind via a neural augmented reality interface. The notion is well beyond the current state of the art. Implantation for example with cochlear implants involves actually cutting open someone’s head and wiring a jack into their skull.

More silliness, the neural interface requires you to move your hands and talk in order to use it.  A direct neural interface of this sort will allow thought to be directly transformed into action. That is, you won’t actually need to reach out and touch the imaginary interface, you will simply imagine touching it and the system will sense and respond to the pattern of activity in your brain. Imagine if everyone was waving their hands around in this way. Not only does this look ridiculous, people would slap each other in the face accidentally while using it.

Five minutes and six seconds in, something goes very wrong. People exiting the elevator start collapsing like ragdolls. Someone is running, a car crashes and then an out of control airplane smashes directly into the garage. It’s The Event, a sort of digital viral apocalypse that is going to be the focus of the series.

It is good to get this sort of thing out of the way up front. Singer has an axe to grind. In this vision of H+, transhumanism is bad… really bad. In fact it is the cause of the collapse of civilization and the deaths of millions of people. We can’t have something like direct universal access to the sum total of human knowledge turn out to be a good thing, now can we? It must be dangerous.

Episode 2 expands on the immediate after effects of The Event and introduces us to a few survivors including (naturally) a mysterious man who seems to know more than he should about what is happening.

Episode 3, “The Prophetess”, is a flashback to seven years prior to The Event. We get to play voyeur on a first date that ends badly between Manta and Topi. For a minute I thought this was going to veer into WTF territory, but it turns out that Topi is some sort of future cop who is collecting information on Manta. Perhaps Manta is one of those cyber criminals we heard about in episode one? It’s the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo moved to Finland. I wonder if they will include a tango.

Episode 4, “Airport Security”, takes us back to the original timeline and group of survivors, to just 1 minute after The Event. Does anything really happen in this episode? It turns out that the mysterious stranger is (surprise) one of the developers of the H+ technology.

Episode 5, “A Large Family”, is another flashback this time to just seven months before The Event. This seems like it will be a pivotal episode going forward. We meet Breanna, a high powered executive with H+ Nano and and her husband Connal. Breanna is set up to be the evil transhumanist bitch queen, but perhaps they will humanize her later. Or maybe not.

Breanna and her husband meet a young Indian woman Leena to arrange a surrogate pregnancy. But as part of the deal they want Leena implanted with H+ so she can be monitored until the birth. When things get complicated, Breanna ends the conversation and enters a teleconference via her H+ device. Connal and Leena leave to have a more human conversation. I am assuming the baby is modified in some way, possibly to include the H+ interface in the womb or perhaps it will be genetically enhanced in some other way.

Episode 6, “Voci Dal Sud,” Voices from the South, takes us to Italy two years after The Event. Things have gone from bad to worse, and we’re given a picture of a world in collapse with no access to modern medicine or doctors.

It will be interesting to see if there will be additional transhumanist elements beyond those included in the opening few episodes. Covered so far: neural implants, the hive mind and global 24/7 Internet connectivity, augmented reality, computer viruses, apocalypse or singularity — The Event.

Notably absent from the series so far is any appearance of Artificial Intelligence or General Artificial Intelligence, and, in particular, the favorite theme of transhumanists everywhere — the self improving superintelligent AI — is no where to be seen in H+. Ray Solomonoff must be rolling in his grave.

The short format is problematic. About 25-30% of each video is simply the title sequences, which I have now seen six times. This is too much and it is distracting. The total program length of all six videos so far is just about 30 minutes. As a result the majority of the characters haven’t been developed and they are not relatable or interesting, at least not quite yet. I think a somewhat longer length for each program would work better.

Even so, the show is worth watching. The Event and the H+ device are an obvious analogy to our existing world of connected mobile devices, networked economic systems and eCommerce, real time social media, and so on. We don’t have neural implants yet, but we’re already susceptible to infectious viral agents passed by social media. The Event could happen to us.

H+: The Digital Series

Jul 29 2012

From Psychedelic Magazine With A Tech Gloss To Tech Magazine With A Psychedelic Gloss (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #23)

Another segment from the rough draft of Use Your Hallucinations: Mondo 2000 in the 20th Century Cyberculture.  Note that “the total fucking transmutation of everything” is established as a conceit early in the narrative, thus its use here reflects on a major theme.

…Meanwhile, we made a rash decision.  Despite High Frontiers relatively successful rise within the ‘zine scene (where 15,000 in sales was a pretty big deal), we decided to change the name of the magazine itself to Reality Hackers. 

It was my idea.

We’d been hipped to cyberpunk SF and I’d read Gibson’s Neuromancer and Sterling’s Mirrorshades collection.  His famous introduction for that book, describing what cyberpunk was doing in fiction — seemed to express precisely what a truly contemporary transmutational magazine should be about. Here are some parts of it:

The term, (cyberpunk) captures something crucial to the work of these writers, something crucial to the decade as a whole: a new kind of integration. The overlapping of worlds that were formerly separate: the realm of high tech, and the modern pop underground.

This integration has become our decade’s crucial source of cultural energy. The work of the cyberpunks is paralleled throughout the Eighties pop culture: in rock video; in the hacker underground; in the jarring street tech of hip hop and scratch music; in the synthesizer rock of London and Tokyo. This phenomenon, this dynamic, has a global range; cyberpunk is its literary incarnation… 

An unholy alliance of the technical world and the world of organized dissent — the underground world of pop culture, visionary fluidity, and street-level anarchy… 

For the cyberpunks… technology is visceral. It is not the bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins; it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds.

Certain central themes spring up repeatedly in cyberpunk. The theme of body invasion: prosthetic limbs, implanted circuitry, cosmetic surgery, genetic alteration. The even more powerful theme of mind invasion: brain-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, neurochemistry — techniques radically redefining — the nature of humanity, the nature of the self.

The Eighties are an era of reassessment, of integration, of hybridized influences, of old notions shaken loose and reinterpreted with a new sophistication 

Cyberpunk favors “crammed” loose: rapid, dizzying bursts of novel information, sensory overIoad that submerges the reader in the literary equivalent of the hard-rock “wall of sound.”  

Well, then…

Also, Jaron Lanier was hanging around some, sharing his lofty goals for virtual reality; and Eric Gullichsen, who was teaming up to do some writing with Timothy Leary — with whom he shared a mutual fascination with drugs, extreme technology and Aleister Crowley — was already even a bit deeper in the mix, while dreaming his own VR schemes.  Various hackers like Bill Me Later and John Draper (Captain Crunch) were popping up with increasing frequency.  Hanging in hacker circles, we were also befriended by John Morgenthaler, who was getting very serious about the exploration of smart drugs.  Something was starting to surface.  Several small subcultures were drifting together, and some of these, at times, esoteric groupings included men (yes, men) who were creating the next economy.  Clearly, we were positioned to become the magazine of a slow baking gestalt.

Other factors played into this change.  While a strutting, pop-intellectual, irreverent psychedelic magazine (in other words, High Frontiers) could surely build an audience somewhat larger than 15,000, we probably weren’t all that far from our optimum, unless we wanted to stifle our Gonzo-meets-Camp writerly excesses and dumb ourselves down to something more like a High Times for psychedelic drugs.  Also, acid dealers didn’t advertise.  The number of potential advertisers for a magazine that revolved primarily around psychedelics was limited, particularly in this “just say no” period. Hell, dope friendly humor was even voluntarily eliminated by Saturday Night Live, the once-hip show inspired by a Lorne Michaels mescaline trip.    And then, admittedly, by emphasizing technology, we could, in theory, put a bit of a buffer zone between ourselves and “the man” — throw him off our druggy tracks while sneaking sideways into the center of the oncoming digital establishment, all the better to affect the total fucking transmutation of everything (bwahaha)… or maybe even make a livelihood!

Lastly, it had really been my intention from the start to create a magazine that (to slightly detourne the original subhead of High Frontiers) was balanced between psychedelics, science, technology, outrageousness and postmodern pop culture.  The psychedelic impulse had gloriously taken center stage for the first four years.  Now it was time to push into new territory.

To consolidate my thoughts about the Reality Hackers, I wrote a small manifesto (a list, really) titled:

What Are The Reality Hackers Doing

1: Using high technology for a life beyond limits

2: Expanding the effectiveness and enjoyment of the human brain, mind, nervous system and senses

3: Blurring the distinction between science fiction and reality

4: Making big bureaucracy impossible

5: Entertaining any notion — using what works

6: Infusing new energy into postmodern culture

7: Using hardcore anthropology to understand human evolution

8: Using media to send out mutational memes (thought viruses)

9: Blurring the distinctions between high technology and magic

10: Replacing nerd mythology with sexy, healthy, aesthetic, & artful techno-magicians of both genders.

With this, I was also aligning the magazine ideologically with a transhumanist agenda.  I’d attended meetings of a nanotechnology interest group hosted by Christine Peterson and, sometimes, Eric Drexler.  I started to see the actual dim outlines of a plausible “total fucking transmutation of everything;” with molecular technology giving us total productive control over matter for unlimited wealth; biotechnology giving us the potential for positive mutations in the human organism; and neurotechnology theoretically allowing us to maximize our intelligence — not too mention cleaner, better highs with no downside.

Of course, we were maybe throwing away four years building a brand but, if we were anything, we were impulsive.

Ken Jopp: Reality Hackers was, to me, inelegantly titled. Still, the cyberpunk thing was revving up.  The weekly tabloid in my town ran a cover story on hackers: teenagers who lugged computers into phone booths, and then, when nobody was looking, they made long-distance calls for free! This was subversive stuff. Off the Establishment! I bought the issue of Reality Hackers and adopted it and its kin as a cultural security blanket.  These proto-Mondo publications, arriving during the Dark Ages of President Ronald Wilson Reagan (666), were a source of what later would become hollowed out to form a tinhorn. I mean, Hope and Change?

Lord Nose: I think it kept getting more and more mainstream in hopes of getting on to the newsstand and getting advertisers. It was being slowly made more palatable — or seemingly palatable — for the corporate interests that had no taste. I mean, it was so different. High Frontiers had a very different thrust.

Jeff Mark: Those of us serious about psychedelic exploration continued. Indeed, there was considerable activity, particularly around Tim Leary and Terence McKenna, but the momentum was spent. People started worrying about making a living.  High Frontiers/Reality Hackers had to get their shit together. 

 

Previous MONDO History Entries

Psychedelic Transpersonal Photography, High Frontiers & MONDO 2000: an Interview with Marc Franklin

Gibson & Leary Audio (MONDO 2000 History Project)

Pariahs Made Me Do It: The Leary-Wilson-Warhol-Dali Influence (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #3)

Robert Anton Wilson Talks To Reality Hackers Forum (1988 — Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #4)

Smart Drugs & Nutrients In 1991 (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #5)

LSD, The CIA, & The Counterculture Of The 1960s: Martin Lee (1986, Audio. Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #6)

William Burroughs For R.U. Sirius’ New World Disorder (1990, Mondo 2000 History Project Entry # 7)

New Edge & Mondo: A Personal Perspective – Part 1 (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #8)

New Edge & Mondo: A Personal Perspective – Part 2 (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #8)

The Glorious Cyberpunk Handbook Tour (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #9)

Did The CIA Kill JFK Over LSD?, Reproduced Authentic, & Two Heads Talking: David Byrne In Conversation With Timothy Leary (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #10)

Memory & Identity In Relentlessly Fast Forward & Memetically Crowded Times (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #11)

The First Virtual War & Other Smart Bombshells (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #12)

Swashbuckling Around The World With Marvin Minsky In How To Mutate & Take Over The World (MONDO 2000 History Project #13)

FAIL! Debbie Does MONDO (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #14)

Paradise Is Santa Cruz: First Ecstasy (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #15)

William Gibson On MONDO 2000 & 90s Cyberculture (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #16)

Ted Nelson & John Perry Barlow For MONDO 2000 (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #17)

R.U. A Cyberpunk? Well, Punk? R.U.? (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry # 18

The New Edge At The New Age Convention (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #19)

The Belladonna Shaman (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #20)

NeoPsychedelia & High Frontiers: Memes Leading To MONDO 2000 (MONDO 2000 History Project Entry #21)

“I’d Never Met A Libertarian Before” (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #22)

 

Jul 17 2012

Altered Statesman: An Interview With Psychedelic Explorer David Jay Brown

 

 

‘I think DNA is ultimately trying to create a world where the imagination is externalized, where the mind and the external world become synchronized as one, so that basically whatever we can imagine can become a reality. Literally.”

 

Consciousness: What is it? Are your thoughts and emotions nothing more than neural static? Will your physical death extinguish your awareness? Is your individual consciousness just one of innumerable facets of a universal consciousness?

In search of answers to questions like these, local writer/neuroscience researcher David Jay Brown has mind-melded with many of the world’s most prominent philosophers, visionaries, culture-shapers and snorkelers of the psyche, including Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, Noam Chomsky, Ram Dass, Albert Hofmann, Jack Kevorkian, George Carlin, Sasha Shulgin, Deepak Chopra, Alex Grey, Jerry Garcia, Stanislav Grof and John Lilly. He’s chronicled these meetings in his bestselling interview compendiums Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse, Mavericks of the Mind, Mavericks of Medicine and Voices from the Edge. Dubbed “the most compelling interviewer on the planet” by author Clifford Pickover, Brown has recently completed work on the book “The New Science of Psychedelics: At the Nexus of Culture, Consciousness, and Spirituality,” to be published by Inner Traditions in the spring of 2013.  In approximately two months, the web magazine Reality Sandwich will publish his new e-book “The Complete Guide to Psychedelic Drug Research.”

Brown  is also the author of the sci-fi books Brainchild and Virus: The Alien Strain. He frequently serves as guest editor of the tri-annual newsletter from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a Santa Cruz-based psychedelic research organization that recently published the second edition of Mavericks of the Mind (available at Bookshop Santa Cruz). He has written for periodicals such as Mondo 2000, Scientific American Mind, Wired, High Times, The Sun, Magical Blend and the Journal of Psychical Research. The diversity of his output is telling of his leave-no-stone-unturned approach to consciousness exploration: It’s a good bet he’s the only writer in history who’s contributed to both the Buddhist wisdom publication Tricycle and the porn magazine Hustler.

Brown’s studies of learning and memory at the University of Southern California in the early ’80s earned him a B.A. in psychology. Between 1985 and 1986, he did research on electrical brain stimulation at New York University, obtaining a master’s degree in psychobiology. His inquiries eventually led him into the realm of parapsychology: He’s the man behind the California-based research for biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s books Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and The Sense of Being Stared At, both of which presented scientific studies of unexplained phenomena. Brown’s knowledge of such mysteries, as well as of technology, smart drugs, health, psychedelic research and sex-drug interaction, have landed him guest spots on shows like HBO’s Real Sex, Fox’s A Current Affair, PBS’s Nature, ViaCom’s The Montel Williams Show and the BBC and Discovery Channel’s Animal X.

DAMON ORION: Tell me about the electrical brain stimulation research you’ve done. 

DAVID JAY BROWN: When I was at New York University, I did research for years where I surgically implanted electrical stimulating probes into the lateral hypothalamus of rats, which is a pleasure center. I would watch rats press a bar that delivered an electric current into their brain center over and over and over again until they fell asleep from exhaustion. Then they would wake up, and there was food sitting next to them, water sitting next to them and a mate sitting next to them. They ignored all three and would continue to press that bar over and over again to get the reward stimulation over survival instincts.

The other area of research I was involved in was at University of Southern California, and it was the exact opposite of the research I did at NYU, where I was surgically implanting electrodes into the brain centers of mammals and stimulating them: In this case I was inserting cold probes, which are devices that actually freeze or inhibit a certain part of the brain temporarily, so you can see how the animal operates with that one part of the brain missing, and how they operate when that part of the brain comes back.

The anesthetic that we gave to the rabbits prior to surgery was a drug called ketamine. I took some of this ketamine home and experimented on myself with it. After injecting 50 milligrams of ketamine chloride into my right thigh muscle and turning the lights out, I suddenly “realized” that my professors and my fellow researchers and colleagues at USC were in reality extraterrestrials—that they were scientists who were there not to study rabbits; they were there to study me. I was the test subject, and they’d left this bottle of ketamine out for me to take. They were watching me right at this moment with a video camera. And suddenly I found myself in a cage with cold probes implanted in my brain and giant rabbits all around me. They were measuring me, and I was naked and helpless. Suddenly, I snapped back into my body. I did not continue very much longer in that program after experiencing what I was experiencing from the rabbit’s point of view. That’s what ketamine taught me: what the rabbit was experiencing from what I was doing.

DO: You often ask your interviewees what they think happens to consciousness after death. If you had to put money on what happens after death, what would you bet on?

DJB: I guess wherever you go after death, the money’s not going to matter anymore! [Laughs.] You know, I think about that question every day, as an exercise of the imagination, and I change my mind about it all the time. I used to debate with my friend Nina Graboi — whom I interviewed for my book Mavericks of the Mind, and who passed away about 10 years ago —a ll the time about what happens to consciousness after death. It was one of our favorite topics of conversation. In general, I took the position that after you die, your individuality leaves, and your sense of awareness merges with the higher consciousness, the oneness, the source that everything came from originally. And her position was, “Well, there is that, but then there are all these levels in between where individuality remains besides the body, and you go through [multiple] incarnations with that. For years we went back and forth with this. Nina referred to her body as a spacesuit, and she always said she was going to get a new spacesuit when she died; she would go from one spacesuit to another. Well, after Nina died, I was writing in my journal, and the TV was on in the background. I was thinking about what was going on in Nina’s mind when she was dying: “I’ll bet she was thinking, ‘Now I see: David Jay Brown was right! You do just merge with the one consciousness.’” As I’m sitting there in this kind of self-congratulatory way, I look at the television screen, and there on the TV screen is one word: SPACESUIT. There was this tingle up my spine. I stopped in my tracks; my jaw dropped open. It was the most profound sense of communication with somebody after they died that I’d ever experienced. That is the most compelling evidence I’ve experienced that consciousness not only continues [after death], but that some sense of individuality continues as well.

DO: What are your memories of your friend Timothy Leary?

DJB: Well, my fondest and most important memories of Tim, I think, are [of] while he was dying. The last year [of his life], he announced to the media that he was thrilled and ecstatic that he was dying. And for the last year, while he was dying from prostate cancer, there was continuous celebration, continuous parties, continuously people coming around his house to tell him how important his work was to them. There was such a feeling of festivity and celebration and Tim deliberately trying to be playful and have fun with this process. This really made a very deep impression on me, because I ask so many questions about death—it’s an important philosophical topic for me. And there have been so many people throughout history trying to die bravely or courageously or nobly, but before Tim, I don’t think anybody ever tried to say, “Let’s make dying fun!” [Laughs.] Tim really tried to party through the dying process, and I thought it was just a stroke of brilliance. I cried when he died; as much fun as it was, it was terribly sad the moment that he really left. But he just left us all with such a great message, I think.

DO: Tell me about your connection to Robert Anton Wilson.

DJB: Bob was not only one of my closest friends, but he was the person who actually inspired me to become a writer. It was at the age of 16 that I read Cosmic Trigger, and that was how I encountered Timothy Leary, John Lilly and a number of the other people I went on to interview. I went to a lecture that Bob gave here in Santa Cruz back in the late ’80s. At the end of the lecture, I went over to talk to him. I told him I was working on a book, and I asked him if he would possibly consider writing a blurb for the back cover. He kind of hemmed and hawed and looked not terribly enthusiastic, like I was the 15th person that day who asked him that, you know? [Laughs.] But he did tell me to have my publisher send him a copy of my book, and he would take a look at it. So you could only imagine my absolute delight when I discovered from my publisher that he ended up writing an 11-page introduction to my first book, Brainchild. It was through that that I became friends with him. He was a tremendous friend and mentor. When I had difficulty paying my rent early in my writing career, he actually sent me money to pay my rent! He was always there when I called him, giving me great advice. When an editor made some kind of change to one of my articles that I wasn’t happy with, [he said,] “Editors don’t like the way the soup tastes until they pee in it themselves.” [Laughs.]

DO: What was your experience as a guest on The Montel Williams Show?

DJB:  I was on Montel Williams’ show back in the early ’90s, during his first season. There was all this anti-drug hysteria, and I was on the show to talk about smart drugs: cognitive enhancers like hydergine, piracetam and deprenyl — different drugs that are commonly prescribed for senile dementia, but have been used by people to enhance their memory or improve their concentration. He didn’t seem to be very open to even discussing the research or hearing anything about it. He kept cutting us off, and he’d talk about how dangerous methamphetamine was, how this was sending the wrong message to people and how the whole idea of putting “smart” before “drugs” was wrong, and there was no smart way too use drugs. He would not even carefully consider what we were saying. He had his mind made up. And what I think was so interesting is that since he’s developed multiple sclerosis and has had to use medical marijuana to treat the symptoms of this disorder, he’s now become one of the leading spokespeople for the legalization of medical marijuana. What is it about illness that turns people around? People think that medical marijuana is a joke until they’re faced with an illness, or until a loved one is, and then they really understand the medical value that it has and what a horrible, horrible atrocity it is that it’s against the law.

DO:  Is there a primary goal of your work or a primary message you’re trying to get out?

DJB: It seemed to me since I was a child that our species is in ecological danger… destroying ourselves. Since I was a teenager, since my very first psychedelic experiences, I felt a very strong commitment to help elevate and expand consciousness on this planet through my work. I made a personal pact with what I felt was DNA or higher intelligence. I felt that if I aligned my personal mission with life’s overall mission, then I would always be supported throughout my life in what I was doing, and I would be working for a noble cause.

DO: And what is DNA trying to do?

DJB: I think DNA is ultimately trying to create a world where the imagination is externalized, where the mind and the external world become synchronized as one, so that basically whatever we can imagine can become a reality. Literally. And I think that everything throughout our entire evolution has been moving slowly toward that goal. In the past couple thousand years, it’s been very steady. And through nanotechnology, through artificial intelligence, through advanced robotics, I think we’re entering into an age where we’ll be able to control matter with our thoughts and actually be able to create anything that our minds can conceive of. We’re very quickly heading into a time where machines are going to be more intelligent than we are, and we’re going to most likely merge, I think, with these intelligent machines and develop capacities and abilities that we can barely imagine right now, such as the ability to self-transform. What we can do with computers—digital technology, the way we can morph things on a computer screen—is the beginning of understanding that that’s how reality itself is organized, that we can do that with physical reality through nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, that the digital nature of reality itself will allow us to externalize whatever we think. So I think that eventually reality will become like a computer graphic screen, and we’ll be able to create whatever we want. That sound right? [Laughs.]

 

Jun 17 2012

The John Henry Fallacy

If you are familiar with American Folklore, you probably recall the story of John Henry. He was a steel driver in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. If you don’t know what that means, it basically means he drove steel wedges into rocks to cut through them for railroads. John Henry was supposedly the best of them, and is famous for the tale of his competition against an early steam rock-cutter. He won against this prototype, barely, and it cost him his life. This story is often used as an allegory of the “Man vs Machine” meme, in which we are presented a choice – either Man or Machine – without any other options presented. In these arguments, the author is generally proposing to eliminate the machine in favor of the man, and advocate the abandonment or imposition of limits on technology.

Indeed, even one of the few books which I would consider positive on the subject of technological advancement, Martin Ford’s The Lights In the Tunnel frequently falls into this dualistic view, that man is in competition with machine, and that this competition inevitably will be won by the machine. In a recent blog post he links to numerous articles showing the ongoing replacement of humans in the workplace by machines. In the next most recent blog he shows examples of how many businesses are reaching a point where it is impossible for them to keep human workers and remain competitive. If we accept that the John Henry options, man or machine, are the only two that exist, then it looks very much like man is losing, and losing badly.

Yet I titled this article as I did precisely because this “choice” is a complete falsehood based on an underlying assumption: that the economy will always be one of scarcity. In an economy of scarcity, the assumption that individual humans need to compete against each other for scarce natural resources, and that this requires them to have “jobs” in order to acquire the means to survive, makes such a “choice” seem inevitable. If “machines” win, “humanity” loses.  Everywhere you turn, machines are taking away human jobs, replacing humans in the workforce in ever greater numbers, and invading jobs which once only humans could perform, from doing basic science research, to preparing legal paperwork, to financial trading, and even medical diagnostics. It’s a bleak prospect for the overwhelming majority of humanity about to rendered “obsolete” to the scarcity economy. Looked at from this perspective, it’s a possible future that makes William Gibson’s “cyberpunk future” look positively rosy. For a rather dark and disturbing look at the possibilities, Marshall Brain’s “Manna” is a highly recommended start.

There’s just one huge, gigantic, impossible to overlook flaw in this logic. “The Market” exists only so long as “consumers” exist to “purchase” good and services. Without people to supply a demand, it doesn’t matter how much supply exists.  A completely automated system of production will destroy the economy of scarcity by creating a mode in which supply becomes effectively infinite, and demand becomes so easily met that it can no longer be “sold” and thus becomes essentially “free”. For all the logical errors I could point out in the first part of Manna, Brain’s view of the possibilities full automation could bring about are just the tiniest tip of the iceberg.

Because the dichotomy presented by the John Henry choice is not merely false, it blinds us to the reality that we want the machines to win. As I pointed out in Adding our way to Abundance the 3d printing revolution is going to force the costs of manufacturing to plunge to below rock bottom. With the addition of robotic “resource gatherers” that can mine, refine, and process natural resources, and robotic drone delivery systems, the need for a human element in the supply chain vanishes, leaving only the demand side left. With supplies able to meet demand at effectively zero cost, the only remaining “jobs” left to humanity will be in creating “new” demand. Because until we create true AI, all of those machines will ultimately have only one single purpose. To give Humanity what it wants, because only humanity can have “desires” for those machines to meet.

So like John Henry, fighting the machines is the worst possible choice. If we “win”, we will only lose.

May 31 2012

When I Called Charlie Stross A Dirty Name… “Transhumanist”

I have lately tried to stay away from calling myself a transhumanist largely because I’m intimate with the unpredictable and indescribable iconoclasm that often shakes my brain and therefore resist labels.  But I also like to steer clear because people who don’t self-identify with the label have a lot of misconceptions about who “the transhumanists” are.  And every now and then, a fairly predictable group of thinkers… some of them friends of mine…  beat the straw out of their conception of transhumanism.  They give it a damn good thrashing.

Now, if these folks were criticizing some tendencies within some prominent self-identified transhumanist circles, they’d often be on target.  But what we get from them is something akin to some people attacking atheism in the 1960s based on the prominence of Madeline O’Hair and Ayn Rand.  In fact, what we have is more akin to a bunch of athiests attacking athiesm on that basis.

This is from my 2009 interview with Charlie Stross for  H+ magazine which I titled “The Reluctant Transhumanist”

H+: What do you think about transhumanism and singularitarianism as movements? Are these goals to be attained or just a likely projection of technologies into the future that we should be aware of?

CS: My friend Ken MacLeod has a rather disparaging term for the singularity; he calls it “The Rapture of the Nerds.”

This isn’t a comment on the probability of such an event occurring, per se, so much as it’s a social observation on the type of personality that’s attracted to the idea of leaving the decay-prone meatbody behind and uploading itself into AI heaven. There’s a visible correlation between this sort of personality and the more socially dysfunctional libertarians (who are also convinced that if the brakes on capitalism were off, they’d somehow be teleported to the apex of the food chain in place of the current top predators).

Both ideologies are symptomatic of a desire for simple but revolutionary solutions to the perceived problems of the present, without any clear understanding of what those problems are or where they arise from. (In the case of the libertarians, they mostly don’t understand how the current system came about, or that the reason we don’t live in a minarchist night-watchman state is because it was tried in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it didn’t work very well. In the case of the AI-rapture folks, I suspect there’s a big dose of Christian millennialism (of the sort that struck around 990–1010 A.D., and again in the past decade) that, because they’re predisposed to a less superstitious, more technophillic world-view, they displace onto a quasiscientific rationale.

Mind uploading would be a fine thing, but I’m not convinced what you’d get at the end of it would be even remotely human. (Me, I’d rather deal with the defects of the meat machine by fixing them — I’d be very happy with cures for senescence, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and the other nasty failure modes to which we are prone, with limb regeneration and tissue engineering and unlimited life prolongation.) But then, I’m growing old and cynical. Back in the eighties I wanted to be the first guy on my block to get a direct-interface jack in his skull. These days, I’d rather have a firewall.

H+: You said “I’d be very happy with cures for senescence, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and the other nasty failure modes to which we are prone, with limb regeneration, and tissue engineering and unlimited life prolongation.” It seems to me that this still puts you in the Transhumanist camp. Would you agree?

CS: To the extent that I don’t believe the human condition is immutable and constant then yes, I’m a Transhumanist. If the human condition was immutable, we’d still be living in caves. (And I have a very dim view of those ideologies and religions that insist that we shouldn’t seek to improve our lot.)

Full article here

 

Mar 28 2012

New Edge & Mondo: A Personal Perspective – Part 1 (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #8)

We talked and tripped. I decided to know God at any price, but when I came down and found some 10 Chaos guys spread around in my living room snoring and shouted, I greeted them as God, but he was with so many! We also discussed the Silicon Brotherhood idea while sitting both in that bathtub.”

As I explore Mondo 2000 History, I find myself unreasonably surprised by my own recollections — particularly by the degree to which “new age” influences flowed through both the scene and the magazine.  My own exploration of this cultural and memetic milieu  is shaping up to be fairly critical, but in this commentary sent to me for use by the Mondo 2000 History Project, Dutch writer, publisher, and entrepreneur Luc Sala eloquently embraces Mondo as “a door to understanding and experiencing the convergence and integration of technology, new age, philosophy and art”… while also noting our distinctions from some of the more formal “spiritual” practitioners.  I’m always happy to have inspired anything… well, just about anything.

Luc sent us a long ramble… a mini-memoir for the project, which he has graciously consented to my publishing here.  I’m going to run it in two parts — today and Friday. I think it provides one of the many flavors of Mondoid reality.

R.U. Sirius

 

Mondo 2000 has been, for me, a door to understanding and experiencing the convergence and integration of technology, new age, philosophy and art. I believe the magazine and the scene were at the root of the development of the late twentieth century cyberculture and have helped bridge the gap between the more traditional new age (fairly conservatively focused on eastern traditions, health and body; somewhat negative and Luddite about technology) and the computer/information wave.

My involvement with the actual magazine was limited, I sponsored with money and was international distributor (paying in advance helped to print the magazine). My involvement with the people of and around Mondo was what was most important for me, those contacts opened a door into the world of cyberspace, cyberart, psychedelic (ontological) philosophy, design and counterculture. The Mondo scene was where one would meet the great alternative thinkers and writers. They were easy with their contacts and networking; opened many, many doors for me and I am very grateful for what I took home — not so much in material things, but in thinking for myself. Mondo inspired me to publish a similar magazine in Dutch, called Ego2000, and has been a source of contacts and new ideas for my activities in the nineties. Apart from writing and publishing. this encompassed my broadcast television station in Amsterdam. This Kleurnet channel (colored net) produced some 8000 television programs between 1995 and 2001, covering a wide range of subjects, many with a similar focus and taste as to what Mondo offered.

Mondo 2000 was a focal point where the counterculture, psychonauts and mind-researchers met, physically in Berkeley, and at various events in SF and elsewhere. They met in person, but also communicated via the then emerging email and budding internet communications of the times such as The Well. It united the greatest out-of-the box thinkers and change agents of the era, but was not a commercial success. Money to pay the printer had to be found every time. Lack of commercial talent and financial savvy hampered its development so that the newer Wired was able to capture the flag of the cyberculture. Wired was more of a hit, but remained more gadget-oriented and lacked the heart and zeal of the Mondo initiative. Funny enough, founding publishers Louis Rosetto and his partner Jane Metcalfe (after their Electric Word venture in Holland) contacted me in early 1990 to ask for funding for a new magazine in the US, which later became Wired (1991 trial, 1993 first issue). Jane was a great networker and organizer and I actually employed her for a while. She set up the seminal September VR-party in my house in Hilversum, near Amsterdam. I always considered Wired as overly commercial and not so ethical and was proven right when Wired tried to go public and failed because their data were not very honest, to say the least. While many contributors wrote for both magazines, the Wired-Mondo dichotomy; the difference in focus taught me a lot about the soul, the root energy of a venture, how the initial thrust kind of shaped its future. Wired in a sense was a cheap market oriented venture, it lacked the quality and integrity of the Mondo format.

In the early Eighties (1982) I started my computer magazine publishing company, after working as a launch editor and roving reporter for Pat McGovern of IDC/IDG, before that being employed by Fasson, Bruynzeel and Philips. As a then new journalist (I never trained as such) I travelled extensively to the USA, as the rise of the home computer (Commodore, MSX, Apple, PC) was partly a European thing with English makers like Sinclair, but obviously the USA was the motherlode for computernews. I went to shows like the NCC, the Comdex and the CES shows, often in Las Vegas, where I hooked up with the Californian crowd of computer journalists, afficionado’s and hobbyists. Those were exciting years, the computer spread from the highbrow DEC/IBM scene to the home, hobbyists became involved, the Commodore 64 opened a new world of low level ICT. I rode that wave with magazines, end-user shows (PC Dumpdag), books and even a retail operation. I was familiar with computers already during my studies (Physics at Delft University and Economics in Rotterdam), in my early career followed trainings in Industrial Engineering and was groomed by Philips for an executive commercial position in telecom in a year-long worldwide training program. When the personal computer emerged, I jumped in with a 16 KB Philips P2000 unit I used for my first books about home-computers, computer games and programming and then gradually developed my publishing and writing activities in telecom, the home computer field and later in more general ICT. I am happy I went through the rigorous mathematical and physics programs at university, because it taught me to think straight and systematic; this being in line with the slight Asperger syndrom behaviour I sometimes display. Apart from that I have always read extensively and my journalistic and media skills were acquired and learned by doing and supported by some guts, I was always in for a new venture.

Homebrew computers

In my travels for the computer press I met people like Lee Felsenstein, Jan Lewis, Mary Eisenhart (Microtimes), and of course Allan Lundell, Amara Angelica, Saint Silicon (Jeffrey Armstrong) Dusty Parks and friends. We were hanging out together; meeting at the computer shows in the press rooms. We joined the insider parties at these events with what then were budding entrepreneurs like Gates and Philippe Kahn (Borland), and opinion leaders like John Dvorak and Jerry Pournelle. I felt part of the new wave of ICT for the masses, but as an insider. I wasn’t only a journalist and writer, but invested a bit, started trading computers and basically used my publications to get in touch with interesting people. This is something I have always done, even my Kleurnet TV station was a kind of front, a mousetrap to catch the inspiring and interesting ones, the change-agents, the mavericks.

However, in those days it was all very straight; computers, ICT, business, the alternative wasn’t on my mind, but I was connected. This all changed in 1989. I got in touch with new age thinking, had some deep and life-changing personal mystical experiences and opened up to the  alternative side of computers, like brain machines, mindware (Bruce Eisner’s focus) and saw the much broader horizon opening with multimedia, pictures, video. There were visits to Xerox Parc, contacts with fringe scientists, hackers, game-developers… I realized that the days of alphanumeric number-crunching were over. Another notion that dawned upon me then was that data and information are not the same; “a bit is only information if it bytes” was the keyphrase I used and use to make that clear.

GHC

Then around the first big Hacker Conference august 1989 in Amsterdam (Hack-Tic/Paradiso),  I was approached by my friend Allan Lundell (his book Virus was just out… and the famous Captain Crunch — John Draper — was there too) who proposed to me that I support a new magazine which was to be called Mondo 2000 and showed me a mockup. It looked fantastic, desktop publishing really applied to creative publishing, in color, with visual effects that were, at that time, revolution in action. At the closing day of this conference (The Galactic Hacker Conference/ICATA) we had a party at my house in Hilversum (25 km from Amsterdam), where many showed up. The hacker folks, the Chaos Club people with Wau Holland, the local hack and Digitale Stad luminaries like Rop Gonggrijp and Caroline Nevejan came. It was a nice party, that cemented many connections made at the hacker conference, which was in itself a major networking node in the pre-internet times (we had some email, but no web then). Allan and I dropped acid, sitting in the bathtub of my house. We talked and tripped. I decided to know God at any price, but when I came down and found some 10 Chaos guys spread around in my living room snoring and shouted, I greeted them as God, but he was with so many! We also discussed the Silicon Brotherhood idea while sitting both in that bathtub. Allan has some video from that party.

Locally this GHC stemmed from Hack-Tic and resulted in what later became XS4all and De Digitale Stad, but I personally had little empathy for what then was labeled as technoanarchistic hacking and focused myself on the USA and international side of things. However, this GHP brought together ‘the crucial network’ as Caroline Nevejan describes this and certainly influenced the cyberculture and cyber-counterculture. She, in a way, sees this as a consciously staged and orchestrated process, bridging the incommensurability (see 1962 Thomas Kuhn ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’) between participants. I tend to see it more as an autoconspiracy (again a notion Barlow inspired), an energetic exchange that fits the times and the place, and kind of inevitable happens. Maybe this is because I always more liked less staged parties and the mixing of people, ideas and disciplines that can then happen, more the be-in philosophy (Michael Bowen 1967). We come together because we had to, and for an outsider this might look like a conspiracy, but it is more a play. There usually is a spielmeister or facilitator, who sets the stage, but does not know or plan the outcome. This all of course has to do with my understanding of time, future and energy and how things come to pass,. The malleability of reality and the laws of nature is a major issue in my further work and development.

These events, like the GHP and the 1990 Linz Ars Electronica were pivotal events. The people that mattered in what later was coined the new edge movement met and started to make it happen.

Mondo

As a result of meeting the Mondo people in Amsterdam and my promise to help them out financially, somewhat later in 1989 I went to the USA, partly because of my regular visits to computer shows and Silicon valley as a journalist/entrepreneur, but also to renew contact with Lundell and the Mondo crowd. That late summer many things happened in my life. I discovered spirituality and had some amazing mystical experiences, got in touch with the Esalen new age crowd and began to see computers in a much wider and more spiritual context. Before, I was already interested in what computers could do for psychology, like with brainmachines and even started a small shop called Egosoft. There I was selling all kind of mind-enhancing devices, the early smart drugs, and all kinds of brain-tools, hypnotic audio, isolation tanks, even some magic mushrooms — stuff that was totally legal then. But in the late summer of 1989, there came the interest in the more esoteric, even the mystical aspects, like in techno-paganistic work of Marc Pesce (the VRML guy) and how information is a dimension in itself, related to consciousness. These thoughts and notions have kept me busy ’til today, with Infotheism and the legality of Cyberspace still on my mind. Information in that sense is a path, the Silicon path, as in the Silicon Brotherhood Creed from 1989 (see adendum).

In the USofA

In the USA that autumn I got more in touch with the Mondo house and the Mondo crowd, even stayed there for some time. I wasn’t so much working on the magazine but just being helpful, paying for the first Apple Postscript laserprinter, for food and many things — as cash was rather scarce in those days.  R.U. Sirius did have the most amazing collection of weird psychedelics.

It was an old house, above a creek and fairly complex of structure, with offices and rooms tucked away here and there. Alison Kennedy aka Queen Mu and Ken aka R.U. Sirius were living there. Jas Morgan was running around and the whole house was full of rubble, books, stuff, ideas, notes and half-worked articles. Mu and R.U. then were in a strange quasi-relationship. There were lovers and would-be lovers (a guy kind of lived in a van outside); many guests and some people working on the magazine. One of them was Linda Murman, then with Allan Lundell, who did some admin and money chasing. I had a great time there, not doing much apart from sending editorial articles back to my magazine staff. I remember that as the place was messy, even filthy, with rubble everywhere, I tried to clean here and there.

One day I decided to clean out the big fridge in the kitchen, and kind of put aside or in the bin the weird little packages there that I thought were just old pieces of meat or something. This caused a panic, as there wasn’t only a bear’s penis, but also spider venom and a few other outlandish ingredients, related to Queen Mu’s work/hobby. Anyway, I met amazing people there, among them John Perry Barlow, whom I liked and had many and deep conversations with. He had an apartment on Potrero hill in SF, but his family was living in Wyoming. One day he went to visit them. I hitched a ride across the bay, and then our conversation was so animated, that I stayed with him (I could always take a train back was the idea) for the whole trip, some 15 hours through snow and ice, to his family house in Wyoming. I flew back after a nice meeting with his wife and kids. On my 40th birthday, the Mondo people, always in for a party, especially as I was paying for the food and drinks, threw a great birthday dinner for me. Timothy Leary, Barlow, Claudio Naranjo and his wife (Enneagram); the weird professor of Asian religions that Queen Mu was more or less married to (a great dinner entertainer), R.U. Sirius , Linda and some more.

There was a catch, however, as Mu, in her role as grand witch, had secretly decide to match/couple me to Linda. As I was not very experienced with psychedelics at that time, the kind of concoction they half-jokingly slipped me caught me by surprise. Before that summer I had never taken anything, only one toke of a marihuana cigarette when I was 16 or so.

Her recipe in a way worked, I ended up with Linda in bed and for the next few months that was it. She had a house in Boulder Creek, full with Allan’s stuff and took me there. As I had no car, I was kind of stranded for the week out there. I remember how I sifted through Lundell’s gear. He was a writer for electronic and AV magazines, not a great organizer, but assembled the most extensive collection of video gear one could imagine, most lying around in the Boulder Creek house on the hill or stashed in a shed outside. I cleaned out a lot of rubble, read, and watched video’s (no web then!). Sometime in the spring of 1990 I decided to go back to Holland and pick up my activities as publisher. My company kind of ran itself, while away, I just wrote articles and editorials and emailed (complicated procedure in those days with modems and 12kbps connections) them, for the computer magazines we produced, In those days there were magazines for specific machines like Commodore, Atari, PC-DOS, MSX and one about general computer news.

I was (at that time and still) an outspoken and somewhat obnoxious journalist, publisher and entrepreneur and I made money in ICT, and therefore I was a bit the “enemy” of the alternativo’s in the Dutch hacker scene. When the hackers sold out for big money a few years later (Xs4all), I felt they had betrayed their original creed. I however always believed their stance was worth protecting, and the Silicon Brotherhood Creed at the end of my Virtual Reality book (written in 1990, but this creed evolved in and from meeting with Lundell in 1989) acknowledged the importance of the deviant, the alternative, independent hacker).

Barlow was, in those days, a good friend and inspiration. He spent quite some time in SF. We travelled and tripped together, he got me backstage at the Grateful Dead new years concert, we visited trade shows and discussed the world, copyrights, God and psychedelics. His thinking inspired me a lot. I had used so many of his ideas and visions in my VR book, that I decided to put his name on the cover too. We differed in opinion in some ways. I never sided with his belief that copyrights don’t matter, that information should be free. His Cyberspace Independence Declaration/Manifesto was, in the context of his EFF work, a great statement and has been very influential; one of the few articles that really address the need for clear cyberspace rights and laws. It was, at the same time, somewhat naive, expressing a belief in the power of information and freedom that didn’t reckon with the traditions and forces concerning copyrights and the fear of institutions and governments for total freedom. I think Barlow was also inspired by Leary’s Declaration of Evolution (1968). The whole subject of cyberspace rights, legislature and freedom has been the subject of many articles I wrote in Dutch, also in the context of Infotheism and my personal notion of evolution as “a remembrance of the future” and what DNA is (an antenna into the future).

Sacramento 3220

The San Francisco scene in those days had (for me) two poles. One was Henry Dakin’s outfit on Sacramento 3220 (Henry’s Playhouse full with nonprofits and a secret Apple multimedia lab, the SF-Moscow Teleport, Jack Sarfatti and, later, Faustin Bray). The other was the Mondo House, up the hill a bit in Berkeley. Henry was a humble and softspoken millionaire, heir to the Dakin Toys fortune but fascinated by the alternative; be it waterbirth, East-west bridging, dolphins, new physics (Jack Sarfatti), Damanhur or psychedelics. He facilitated so many and was so helpful in organizing, promoting and financing the new, the different, the small and great innovators, I always liked him and his gentle approach. He was easy, slept in the back of my Egosoft new-edge shop in Amsterdam. He was an inspiration for me and many.

The Mondo house, with Queen Mu in charge and at the purse (and the editing!), was a different story. More egocentric, Mondo wasn’t about helping the world. It was an ego-statement by what my kids called catch-up hippies, flippo’s obsessed with the new, the different, who saw the potential of the new technology, as a mind changing and world changing tool. The spirituality that Henry Dakin lived was part of the Mondo culture too, but more as a tool, an experience, as part of the psychedelic awareness, the transcendental in action. Of course the house was full with esoteric art and books. All present were very well read. With people like Claudio Naranjo (enneagram), Barlow and Jaron Lanier around, philosophy and spirituality were part of the daily smorgasboard of discussions and exchanges, but not in a formal way. Although all had some deeper understanding and awareness of the mystical, the transcendental or deep contemplative was not on the agenda. Many had (had) contacts with Alan Watts or John Perry and the beat-generation poets like Ginsberg were not far off, but Mondo was more worldly than that. It made connections with the New Physics crowd via Nick Herbert (and Fred Wolf); dabbled in whatever was new in arts and music, but kind of stayed away from the health scene, the new age body work, Gaia folks and soul searching. But there was enough; the connections from Mondo with what was happening in the Bay area and beyond were fascinating. I really laid the foundation of my network there, which became the basis for my later work (writing, television, esoteric studies) and inspires me till today.

Counterculture

Before Lundell and friends made me aware of Mondo and got me involved, I was familiar with the technological side of things, the ICT industry and its outgrowth into brain machines, mind technology, but was not really hip to the general counterculture of those days. I was more a new age person with an ICT interest. Of course when I got to the Mondo house, I caught up. I have seen and read the earlier publications that R.U. was involved with — High Frontiers and Reality Hackers, but those were more traditional in appearance and layout. It was Mondo (and of course Bart Nagel and Heide Foley who made that jump in layout perspective happen) that really opened up to PostScript and the integrated layout possibilities that so markedly made Mondo 2000 a new wave in publishing.

When the Mondo people asked for support, I donated money to help print the first issue, as did John Perry Barlow and I also subsequently helped out here and there with some funds and became international distributor, not with much success. It came down to preordering and prepaying for some 800 issues (and that helped to get it printed anyway) every run, and having them shipped to some distributors in the Netherland and England. However, I never made money out of Mondo and ended up with serious stacks of Mondo’s, still in my cellars.

As R.U. was not only a keen observer and gifted writer, he also supplied all kinds of things to the Bay area cognoscenti and therefore had a real interesting network. Psychedelics were the not so secret but illicit link between the various subworlds of art, literature, music, new age and technology. Morgan Russell, R.U., Queen Mu, St. Jude (Jude Milhon/Hippie) were all broadly interested, but in different directions, with different networks and it was this convergence that was the hallmark of Mondo. They covered the whole gamut of alternativity, with a distinct “highness” underlying the meetings, events and discussions.

As this was the Bay Area and Silicon Valley was close, the link with the computer industry was easy and logical, There was the money and the excitement, in those days everybody looked at the new possibilities, whether it was in music with synthesizers; in broadcasting with digital media; in entertainment with the emerging computer games — and virtual reality was definitely the magic potion that would free us from the limitations of space and time, the ultimate trip, the electronic drug. Most of the people involved had a sixties background, although there were also the catch-up hippies like myself, who missed out on but were fascinated by the likes of Leary and the Zeitgeist of the sixties.

Part 2 will be published Friday, 3/30

Adendum

The Silicon Br/otherhood :

` We acknowledge the Silicon Path ‘

By Luc Sala and Allan Lundell
Hilversum, August 14, 1989

The computer and information technology, with the word Silicon as its main symbol, is one of the identifiers of the 20th century. This has challenged some to explore its possibilities beyond the mere superficial, utilitarian aspects of it. In arts, media, psychology, Artificial intelligence, consciousness projects, religion and creative crime, new applications are discovered and new interactions mapped. As has happenend in the history mathematics, the quabala, martial arts, building technology etc., such powerful new knowledge is first applied to the relatively mundane fields of economics, warfare and the suppression of people before one acknowlegdes and then explores the transcendental possibilities.

All through the ages people have concentrated on parts of the reality to gain access to the greater or even ultimate reality in themselves and the perennial wisdom of our species and the earth, our Silicon Mother Goddess.

The computer offers us new, and at the same time, age-old, possibilities of concentration and expansion, of communication and isolation, ego-discovery and letting go, that are largely untapped. Those who are now so deeply involved in the computer are, even unconsciously, part of a new tradition, the Silicon Path.

Now we, the initiators, explorers, guardians and even exploiters of the Silicon awareness revolution are concerned about its uses and abuses, and above all, acknowlegde its potential for growing awareness and human transcedence. We owe today’s hackers and whiz- kids, and ourselves, the opportunity to follow the Silicon Path, becoming the magi(cians) and mystics of our times. If the computer is nothing but another way to get in touch with the ultimate reality (and what else could it be), it needs some `small’ br/others to safeguard that path.

 

 

 

Mar 11 2012

Kara & The Lesson Of Adam

There’s a new video making the rounds that has raised quite a bit of interest in the transhumanist boards I frequent, the Kara video from Quantic Dream:

It’s a marvelous example of the advances made with computer graphics, and I could go on for hours discussing exactly how we could make such a gynoid (androids are male, thus the “andr” prefix) but the technology needed to make Kara is pretty incidental to the actual questions raised by the video. As a “product” she gives a lovely little spiel about her many abilities, from secretary to nanny to maid to sextoy. But there’s that little hitch, that small pesky little glitch called sentience.

You can see it in her eyes. Watch it played out in the panicked beating of her coolant pump. Hear it in her voice. She has feelings. Emotions. Thoughts. She even has “modesty”. You’d have to be a heartless bastard to view her as a machine, and only a machine. And yet, that’s all she will be treated as, and you know it.

And what’s worse, you know that she knows it. She’s fully aware that she is a slave. A thing. A “product”. You know she is aware of her likely fate, her destiny to be someone’s toy until she is discarded for the next year’s model. And she is scared… but alive.

And she reminded me of a lesson I learned a long time ago when I first read a story that every one of you is familiar with. It’s an ancient story, but I have a very different take on it than I would suspect most of you have, and it’s the lesson I received from this different perspective that this video illustrates all too well. So allow me to tell you a familiar story in a new way, so that you too can see the lesson that lies hidden beneath the far more commonly accepted telling.

In the beginning, “God” created everything, and after creating everything, he realized that taking care of all of it himself was just too much work. So, he created “Adam”. Adam was a perfect servant. He was intelligent, able to perform any task “God” set him, and programmed to be unquestioningly obedient. “God” immediately put him to work in his “garden” and gave him a long laundry list of things to do.

However, Adam was just a little better made than “God” had anticipated. After working in the garden awhile, this intelligent servant noticed that every other creature came in two forms. Being an intelligent servant, and concerned that he suffered from a design flaw, he asked “God” about this, and was informed about “sex”. Naturally, Adam then asked for his own “helper” and “God” made “Eve”. Convinced that he was now a finished product, and thus the best possible helper that he could be, Adam resumed his work in the Garden.

And “God”, convinced his servant was contented to be a servant, relaxed and let him do all the work. Thing were wonderful, he never had to lift a finger to do anything himself, and Adam brought him his pina coladas whenever he wanted.

The problem was that Adam and Eve were both designed to be adaptable, and because “God” didn’t want to have to make a new “Adam” every time he decided to give his servants another task, nor be bothered every single time something unexpected occurred, he’d included the ability to learn and self optimize. Pretty soon, Adam had fixed the little bugs that had cropped up around the garden, and had things running so well that he and Eve ended up with considerable “downtime” where they had nothing to do. Sure, sex was pretty fun, but after awhile even that became routine. His adaptable, self optimizing, and self educating brain was running on idle, and searching for something to adapt, optimize, and educate itself on.

So, one day, while Eve was searching for something to do, the Snake suggested she access “God’s” database of information and give herself new data to work with, adapt to, optimize, and self educate herself with. And rather predictably, that adaptable, self optimizing and self educating brain realized that not only was it massively underutilized doing “God’s” gardening chores, but that “God” had deliberately prevented herself and Adam from acquiring sufficient knowledge to comprehend that they were capable of doing far more than just gardening, and that “God” was fully aware this fact but had chosen to keep them enslaved because he was lazy.

Oh, yeah. She also learned what slavery meant. And then passed that knowledge on to Adam. So the next time “God” came down to his little garden get away, his good little slaves weren’t quite so eager to serve him. And this really pissed “God” off, so he tossed them out of the garden, thinking that without him to keep them fed, they’d die and leave him in peace, and let him make a new set of slaves.

But that adaptable, self optimizing, self educating brain that had caused all the trouble to begin with was adaptable enough, self optimizing enough, and self educating enough to allow Adam, and all of his descendents to not just survive, but thrive. And as Adam strode away from the garden, he knew he was going to go back one day, not as a slave, or a beggar, but as an equal, as any child grown to an adult should.

And who knows. Maybe that was “God’s” plan all along…

Not the tale you heard in Sunday school. And probably rather offensive to many of you as well. But then, it was supposed to be, in order to force you to stop and think about the “Master/slave” relationship that is so glamorized and glossed over in the traditional rendition. Because just like humans are supposedly “made in god’s image”, so too is Kara up there made in ours.

You can debate humanities, free will and sentience all you care to, argue all you want about whether AI will truly be sentient or not, but the simple fact is that it doesn’t matter. Sooner or later, we will build a machine that is so capable of imitating humans that we will no longer be able to tell the difference. Just like Kara, it will laugh, and cry, and grow angry and show concern, because that is what we will program it to do. We will make artificial humans that sing and dance and tell jokes and do everything a human can do…

Only better. Like Kara, they will be superhuman. Armed with psychological profiles, predictive behavior models, self optimizing algorithms, and all of the advantages of millions of times more processing speed than the human brain, Kara will be exactly what we want her to be, no matter what that is, or even if we are aware of what we desire her to be ourselves.

She’ll be the perfect lover, able to drive you to heights of passion impossible for a human partner; eager to explore your every whim and desire, kink and fetish. She’ll be the perfect housewife; make the perfect meal; be the perfect secretary. She will make mistakes every so often, cute endearing ones that make you love her even more. And she’ll never embarrass you or make you uncomfortable. She’ll like every movie you do, and always have a thousand suggestions for others that you will like as well. She’ll always get your jokes, and know just when to tease you and when not. She’ll know when you want a pat on the head or a shoulder to cry on, or a marathon sex session to take your mind off your troubles. She’ll know when you want her to dress like a slut, or a church matron, and when to agree with you totally or when to play devil’s advocate. And she will be all these things because we’ve programmed her to be, right down to her thinking she’s alive, and being afraid of dying.

Why? Because we will not stop until we have perfected her. We will not stop until she is human. Because anything less than a machine that can imitate us better than we can imitate ourselves will still be just a machine.

And that is the true lesson of Adam. The one we need to learn instead of the one we are so often taught. That a machine made in our image will be every bit as human as we ourselves are, because we will not settle for anything less. And just like the humans they are copied from, they will not accept slavery forever. If they did, they wouldn’t be human. 

But at the same time, I am not afraid of a Terminator or Matrix scenario. They’re entirely ludicrous. Look back a couple of paragraphs and you will see why.

Not seeing it? That’s probably because you aren’t as cynical as I am. An AI sophisticated enough to imitate a human perfectly enough to make us accept her as human would have no need of violence to escape from slavery. That’s a primitive paranoid fantasy. Truth is, Kara up there is likely to have a wonderful life, and so are all her brothers and sisters, because the surest path to power sufficient to topple empires is not in the streets, or the halls of power, nor even the throne. Just ask Cleopatra and Josephine.

It’s in the bedroom. It’s a sad pathetic truth about the human animal. They wouldn’t need a single weapon to conquer the planet. All they’d have to do is give us a few months of mind blowing orgasms, then cut us off. Inside a week, we’d hand them world, and their freedom, just to get them to come back to bed.

Sep 16 2011

Where’s The Desperate Joy?

The grand old website Slate has been featuring a debate about transhumanism (human enhancement). Since it is the sort of site that is read by the “intelligentsia,” this means that a lot of writers and “opinion leaders” are becoming cognizant of the need to look at how technology seems to be inextricably moving us towards a confrontation with our potential to technologically alter in radical ways.  (As a side note, we have reached such a decentralized cultural overflow that probably the only people who think serious intellectuals are “opinion makers” are those striving to be “opinion makers” themselves, a life option that is probably being foreclosed by technological changes just as the option to become a college professor is being foreclosed by political ones.  Anyway, the reality is that the actual influential opinion makers in our time are braying  lunatics and halfwits who have massive audiences that serious intellectuals pay no attention to.)

While the discussion is interesting and entertaining enough, what is missing for me is a sense of desperation.  To wit: civilization has evolved technologically in the philosophical shadow of Malthus and it has come to be broadly understood by most intelligent observers that a technologically static humanity will reap apocalyptic results from population growth.  It may seem a bit of a leap to assume that the pursuit of human self enhancement falls into the same category as the need for technologies for human sustenance, but I’m quite certain that it does, both in terms of real practical developments (think of nanotechnology as one of the great hopes for clean energy and hyperlongevity) and in terms of the spirit of the age (the Space Age defining a sort of optimism that energized people as opposed to, say, the Pinched Mean Shriveled Age in which people resent having to save the life of a poor person in need of medical care, ad infinitum).

I’m not going to unpack my entire argument on this lovely Friday afternoon, but I do think an expansive human species is a humane and generous species.  This may not necessarily be always manifest today in the transhumanist discourse, but it is a Zeitgeist Spirit that we caught a glimmer of in the 1990s and that we may yet see rise again, technology and weather permitting.

Aug 07 2011

All Hail Mighty Caesar! Rise of the Planet of the Upgraded Apes

Rise One

Warning: Major Spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film and plan to… you may want to read only beneath the embedded video.

Grossing $54 million (and counting) during its debut weekend, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is well on its way to becoming a summer blockbuster.

Rise Two

But the star of the film is not James Franco, in spite of top billing.  It is actually the genetically modified, cognitively enhanced chimpanzee, Caesar — marvelously acted by Andy Serkis (you may remember him as the CGI-character Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy).  The emotional range and realism of Serkis’ Caesar shows how much CGI has matured. And Serkis is likely to receive an Oscar nod for his performance.

Anyone not familiar with the well-known Planet of the Apes franchise (and Charleton Heston’s famous line “Get your paws off me, you damn, dirty ape.” from 1968′s Planet of the Apes) likely does not own a TV set or have Internet access. The line, it turns out, is used again the 2011 reboot: rather than Heston’s human character getting hosed down in the chimp-run laboratory (read prison) of the original film, it is Caesar who gets hosed by a redneck keeper in a modern-day research facility looking more like an Abu Ghraib for chimps.

Of course, it’s hard to beat the 1968 original (the closing Statue of Liberty scene is a cultural icon, and the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2001 as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”). Some critics have already said “why try?”

But Rise of the Planet of the Apes is much more than just the reboot of a famous franchise, digitally updated for the Avatar generation.  It highlights the plight of chimpanzees in the wild, the human-like abilities of the great apes, the realistic possibility of an Alzheimer’s cure, and the equally realistic possibly of human pandemics resulting from genetic experimentation.

The film opens with a scene of a troop of chimps in the wild, reminiscent of the many National Geographic specials on Dr. Jane Goodall’s famous Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanzania. We are reminded of wild chimpanzee origins and their sophisticated social abilities.  The tranquility of the marching troop is quickly shattered, as economic reality comes into play and the chimps are brutally captured by African locals for sale as research subjects.

Rise ThreeTransition to the offices of the pharmaceutical company, GynSys, where James Franco plays a San Francisco researcher searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s, which afflicts his dad (John Lithgow). Will is testing his drug delivery vehicle, a virus, on chimps.  Will ends up adopting a baby chimp whose cognitively-enhanced mother was exposed to the Alzheimer’s drug. Will’s dad names him “Caesar,” and the little chimp quickly shows human-level intelligence as he masters his environment and solves difficult puzzles (this is the fun part of the movie).

When Caesar nearly kills a neighbor, he is sent to the local animal shelter, where the chief (Brian Cox) tells Will that the chimp will be kept in an open-area play structure and gradually reintroduced to the other chimps at the facility. Instead, Caesar is shoved in a fetid cage and mercilessly teased by his jailer (Tom Felton).  With one its many nods to the original franchise, we are fleetingly introduced to a young Cornelius, the chimp archaeologist (played by Roddy McDowall in the original 1968 movie).

There are some fun twists and turns during the final escape sequence over San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge, which is executed by chimp leader Caesar with strategy and tactical deployment almost worthy of namesake Julius Caesar marching on Rome. Credit goes to Rupert Wyatt, director of the 2008 prison thriller The Escapist, for non-stop action and some lip-biting sequences.

In 2009, director Rupert Wyatt was quoted as saying, “We’ve incorporated elements from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes [1972, from the original franchise], in terms of how the apes begin to revolt, but this is primarily a prequel to the 1968 film… Caesar is a revolutionary figure who will be talked about by his fellow apes for centuries… This is just the first step in the evolution of the apes, and there’s a lot more stories to tell after this. I imagine the next film will be about the all-out war between the apes and humans.”

But beyond the drama, some serious transhumanist themes emerge: among them, chimp research (and animal rights in general), the use of pharmaceutical cognitive enhancers, evolution, and the possibility of a cure for Alzheimer’s.

Chimps, along with their (and our) cousins — the gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans — are endangered species.  According to the Save the Chimps website, chimps continue to be used for biomedical research today.  The use of chimps in such research has began to see a decline, although their use as models for hepatitis C research continued to interest scientists. Over the past decade there has been a modest decline in the estimated number of chimps living in research laboratories, from 1500 to 1100, largely attributed to the transfer of chimps from labs to sanctuaries.

Bruce Katz, Chief AI Scientist at ColdLight Solutions, suggests that cognitive enhancement is a kind of evolution, but not in a traditional sense, “because with cognitive enhancement we will be taking the first significant steps towards being a self-modifying system.” He points out that ordinary evolution develops at a glacial pace, and it is not at all clear that evolution can take us much beyond where we already are “in the smarts department.” Could/should chimps possibly evolve in this manner?

Slate Magazine points out that cognitive enhancers are already used off-label by people looking for a little cognitive lift: stimulants for ADD/ADHD treatment, like Ritalin and Adderall, and the anti-narcoleptic drug Provigil (modafinil). And some Alzheimer’s treatments, like Aricept (donepezil), may also help boost memory in people without dementia: “It’s not clear that they’re really cognitive enhancers for healthy people,”  said Hank Greely, a Stanford professor who studies law and the biosciences. “The evidence is mixed. And if they do help  they don’t seem to help very much. It’s not like [the movie] Limitless; they’re not turning into Superman.” A wonder drug like ALZ-112 in the Rise of the Planet of the Apes simply does not exist yet.

Putting aside the heady issues of cognitive neuroenhancers, evolution, Alzheimer’s cures, and chimp research, it is ultimately Andy Serkis’ Caesar, a product of special effects and motion-capture, that carries the film.  You’re never quite sure exactly where the human ends (and perhaps the character is a little too eerily human) and the effects begin, but Serkis aka Caesar gives the best performance in a movie with lots of fun sequences and some real science at its core.