Sunday, September 19, 2010

12 Psychedelic Videos to Blow your Mind

A few months ago I started a new project called the Daily Psychedelic Video, a site which explores psychedelic aesthetics and features a psychedelic video each day. Since then I have be joined with 5 other visually literate psychonauts who now contribute to the site with the aim of creating a bank of high quality psychedelic videos available to anyone with an internet access. In fact the site has turned into a kind of modular psychedelic movie show, a kind of one stop-shop for other states of consciousness.

So here are a few of my favorite clips of the last months with links to the original posts made by the contributors which contain more information about the clips:

1. The ultimate trail clip (Link)

2. Pyschedelic Takashi Murakami (Link)

3. Chemical Brothers – Let Forever Be (link)

4. The most psychedelic buildings ever (Link)

‘YEKPARE’ (monolithic) from nerdworking on Vimeo.

5. Birdy Nam Nam (Link)

6. Ecstatic Computer Game Psychedelia (Link)

7. Everything is alive (Link)

8. Muslim Psychedelia (Link)

9. Organic Feedback meditation (Link)

10. Flying Lotus - MmmHmm Music (Link)

11. Psychedelic soap bubbles (Link)

12. An really beautiful movie about 60’s psychedelic animator Ryan Larkin (Link)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Technomysticism, Chapter 3 - We are all Cyborgs

This is the continuation of my last posts which featured the first and second chapters of my book "Technomysticism". The next few chapters will arrive in the next few weeks.

Stanely Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey, begins with a sequence called “The Dawn of Man”. It is a somewhat peculiar segment of the film, which tells the story of two rival ape groups competing over control of some water puddle in the middle of prehistoric wilderness. Our story reaches its peak when sometime during the primate skirmish, one of the fighting apes grabs a bone and thrashes the leader of the second group of apes using it. The external organ gives the tool-using ape a insurmountable advantage and he drives away the rival apes. This, according to Kubrick, is the Dawn of Man.

But not only according to Kubrick. Different thinkers from Benjamin Franklin to Karl Marx, have defined Man as a Homo Faber, the one who uses tools. The study of evolution also refers to Homo Habilis, a name which literally means “Handy Man” as the first type of hominid. This, after all, is what separates human beings from animals, according to many. As Kubrick showed us, the ape becomes a human being only after he takes an object in his hand and starts using it. The appearance of Man is thus identical to the appearance of technology, non-biological technology. The vision of man, as presented here, is of man as a cyborg.

When Man became Machine

The world cyborg is an abbreviation of the words “cybernetic organism”, or simply put, a combination of organic living being and technology. The term was first coined in 1960 by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline as they tried to imagine humanity’s future in space as an integrated composition of man and machine.

The image of cyborg has become widely known in today’s popular culture, owing first and foremost to its popularity in science fiction. For example, Steve Austin, star of the 1970’s TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man”, was an astronaut who had been badly hit in an aerial accident and whose body had to be technologically rebuilt. Austin is given new artificial limbs which enable him to run at 60 Mph and bionic eyes which allow him to see him the world using infra-red vision and to magnify objects by a factor of 20.

Ten years after Steve Austin, we met Robocop, a cop who was badly hurt during his work, and was re-engineered by scientists who wired his body with computers and pieces of metal. As a cyborg, he becomes the ultimate policing machine and the nightmare of Detroit’s criminal underground. Popular culture is filled with other images of cyborgs: From Geordy la Forge, the blind helmsman of the USS Enterprise in the “Star-Trek – The New Generation” series, to Motoko Kusanagi from the Japenese manga and animation classic “Ghost in the Shell” to Darth Vedar of “Star Wars”. Being a cyborg, however, is not something wholly confined to science fiction. Today’s world encompasses a wide variety of people with artificial limbs, eyes or ears. These are clear exemplars of the collision of body and technology, but they are not the only cyborgs in existence.

Marshall McLuhan was the first thinker who claimed that machines are extensions of our bodily organs. Machines, according to McLuhan, extend our organs: and so the wheel is an extension of our legs, the hammer an extension of the hand, clothing or housing, an extension of our skin and the world of electronic media is, according to McLuhan, an extension of our the nervous system. In fact, any person using a cell phone, a car or shoes is a cyborg, since these are technological organs which enable us to move beyond the limits of the human organism. At this stage of our discussion, however, many will undoubtedly raise an opposition against my line of argument. It is not intuitive to grasp how deep and far reaching our relation to the technological world is. “My mobile is not an organ, it is external to me and my body” one often says. “I can turn it off, or just not carry it with me. Hence it can’t be an organ.”

I Cyborg

In order to understand how a mobile phone can be an organ, one must first realize what an organ is, and here we must get back to our definition of technology as multiplicity, and as unity’s way of coping with it’s becoming many.

Let us first begin by noting that our felt experience of living in the world is that of being a single entity: Someone who is a whole. However, despite being whole, it is evident that we are also complex. It is difficult, essentially impossible, to isolate the source of the unity which is in us and to find the basis of our experience of a self. For example, when I visit the lavatory and eject pieces of myself, or when I go to the hair salon and segments of my hair fall down, I do not, even for one moment, question the fact that I am still myself, although portions which were an integral part of my body a moment ago have now been made external and no longer belong to me. If you take away my legs or hands I will probably still insist that I am still me. I would persist in claiming my identity even if you would take my sense of seeing. But what happens if motor ability were to be impaired? And if my speech center would stop functioning? Or if my emotional centers would go out of order? When would I stop being myself? Where does that self exist? Where is the place where the self is focused? It seems quite evident that in a situation in which my motor, intellectual, emotional and spiritual capacities were all taken away from me, I would not really be myself. But where does one draw the line? Where do “I” start where do “I” end?

One possible answer is that this self is everywhere and nowhere. The inside and the outside are an illusion, since everything is both internal and external. All is unity and all is multiplicity. Many philosophical and spiritual traditions have pointed to the fact that our consciousness is composed from a flowing and ever changing stream of fragmental content. When I look at a tree, the image of that tree fills my experience of the world and in a certain way I am then that tree. Masters of meditation can dissociate themselves from certain organs in their body. Some of these masters describe the process of meditation as a process of moving your consciousness through different parts of your body or the world, being everywhere and being nowhere. This is also the process which we go through when we feel immersed in a movie, learn something new or forget some detail from our past.

The self has no beginning and no end. You exist as a network of impressions, which is part of a system of networks. You are a net composed of countless components, some of which add up with the time, while others fall off. There is no place where being begins and there is no place where it ends; there is no place to point at and say: “this is who I am”, and there is no place to point at and say “here I do not exist”.

If we are having difficulty realizing that the mobile phone is a part of our identity, we should remind ourselves that our leg is also not part of our identity, and even not the neurons and synapses shooting in our brains. All these indeed make us into who we are, but at the same time, they are not who we are. They assemble our identity, but our existence also transcends them.

You are a unity, but you are also composed of a wide variety of multiplicities. This pertains to the technologies around you and to the people which surround you. They are part of your conscious life, and hence they automatically become part of who you are. And yet, they are not a precondition to your existence. You will continue to be you (though somewhat different) even when they will cease to be part of you. Some call this model “Complexity”. Complexity creates consciousness: the sheer multitude of things creates relationships between them, and out of the complexity of these relationships emerges consciousness, constituted by a myriad of impressions received by countless organs.

So I am not my sense of sight, and if you took it away from me, I will still be me. And yet, I am my sense of sight and if you take it away from me, I might still be me, but I would also be somewhat different, in about the same way that my mobile phone is not a part of who I am, and yet it is also a part of me.

The aim of this thought exercise is that we, as a culture, stop repressing technology as the “other”. We tend to see ourselves as a distinct being, facing a technological world, but what we must grasp that technology is not external to who we are. We must accept technology as part of the self, and understand that the cyborg is not a different entity, opposed to man.

Cyborg existence, an amalgam of the human experience of being unite with the realities of machine multiplicity, is the essence of our being. This is what Kurzweil means when he says that man is to be defined as that who constantly strives to be what he is not, to transcend what he is, to become something new. A cyborg is a being in a continued state of evolution. A being constantly becoming more complex through interaction with the world. The ultimate cyborg is God.

The will to evolve from a unified being into new forms, to merge with the future, create and become something new, is the divine will. It is the will to become one with the other, to allow the unity of God to surprise itself again and again through becoming one with multiplicity.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Chapter 2 - What is Technology

This is the continuation of my last post which featured the first chapter of my book "Technomysticism". The next few chapters will arrive in the next weeks.


To understand the meaning of the vehement flux of technological developments which characterizes our time, we must first understand the meaning of technology and its implications. Technology is of course one of the most popular concepts in the modern vocabulary of our technophile society, however beyond the conventional meaning of the word “technology” lies a hidden and much deeper world of signification. The word technology, beside its modern connotation with shining gadgetry, also implies the manifestation of a cosmic power and a creational principle which stands at the basis of all things. Having this wider meaning of the term technology in mind, we can speak of technology with a lower case t and of Technology with a capital T. technology, is the technology to which we usually refer when speaking about technology: engines, computers, hardware, software etc. Technology, with a capital T refers to any new organ fulfilling a function, any way to manipulate reality, everything which disassembles unity into a multitude of higher degree.

technology is the continuation of Technology through directed and non-biological means. While early Technological systems created by the universe, such as the eye and the ear[1] evolved in a slow and long process of natural selection, the technology developed by mankind evolves in a deliberate way. Thus, it makes the Technological character of the universe more noticeable and furthers its development within the framework of a new paradigm.

When referring to Technology, that is, technology in its widest sense and meaning, as a cosmological force which has been with us since the dawn of creation, one can identify a few contours which characterize all Technologies:

A. Technology is a system fulfilling a function – Technology is a system fulfilling a function. This is true both in regard to an Artificial Intelligence system aiding a robot in navigating a three dimensional space, or to an organ of our body – in the same way in which an eye is a technology for seeing, digestion is a technology for the creation of energy and the brain is a technology for the processing of information and different tasks such as motor control, communication and memory. Technology is any tool which enables us to manipulate reality. A technique which allows us to make a decision regarding the right course of action which has to be taken is a thinking technology, the ability to perform it in the world might involve a physical Technology, and so we can talk about intellectual Technology (such as a highly developed nervous system or an excel table), an emotional technology (emotional intelligence which enables human beings to handle complex social situations and use them in a beneficial way) and even a spiritual technology. Technology is the way in which the one, from which everything was created copes with becoming many. Technology is the way life navigates itself in a world turning increasingly complex and challenging.

B. Technology is an objectifying force – Technologies are objectifying forces. The technological worldview sees the world as made of malleable objects continually subjected to manipulation, for the achievement of different goals. The Technological being searches for ways to fulfill itself along the spectrum of possibilities (The thing which technology adds to our perception of divinity is actually the dimension of time or evolution: the development of divinity), it operates in a world of complex beings – the technological being is a fission of reality. The objectifying force is the force of manipulation, of separating the one from the other, the self from the universe, body from spirit, ego from shadow. Technology is a general name to the ultimate object, the power of multiplicity. It can be identified with that force which is called in Kabbalah, the force of Judgement – the divine aspect which is responsible for setting the limits and for separating things from one another.

C. Technology disassembles unity into multiplicity – Technology is multiplicity, speciation, specialization. The beginning of this trend can be seen already in the Cambrian explosion, about 570 million years ago, in which the myriad forms of life evolved, which held the basic physical adumbrations to all future forms of life.

Before the Cambrian explosion, the world was inhabited by relatively simple life forms. Technological development disassembles the relative unity of the first life forms into different biological species and divides the bodies of these different species into different organs and senses which break down the unitary perception of reality into more and more separate impressions.

The nature of Technology is that is breaks reality into more and more complex patterns and parts. The eye, the ear and the nose break down reality into different impressions. The hand gives the body more information to process, ways to act, and things to notice. Print enabled humanity to be exposed to a greater variety of ideas, the car to a greater variety of places, the truck to a greater variety of products, the internet of a greater variety of everything. The addition of each technology expands the net of possibilities and fragments our attention into more pieces.

D. Technology creates consciousness - Evolution researcher Teilhard De Chardin was among the first to recognize that evolution is not just about skeletons and the development of bone structures but first and foremost about the evolution of consciousness. The history of technology is also the history of consciousness, an observation which is easy to understand once we see technological evolution as a direct continuation of biological evolution.

Each stage in the evolution of life is accompanied by a new stage in the evolution of the brain and consciousness. The evolution of the reptilian brain stem around 300 million years ago led to the development of habits, of territoriality and of the feelings of rage. The development of the mammalian limbic system led to the creation of new consciousness states such as love, playfulness or fear. The appearance of the new cortex in Man, led to logical thinking, abstract thinking, linguistic abilities and so on.

Technological developments, even those which have nothing to do with the brain, inevitably change and reshape our consciousness. Robotics expert Hans Moravec observes a relation between movement and intelligence, in his book Mind Children. According to Moravec, mobile creatures tend to develop the mental characters which we identify with intelligence, more than sedentary creatures.

Similarly, the evolution of technologies such as writing, cars, radio or the computer change the structure of human consciousness. Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media was dedicated to demonstrating this thesis. In this media-theory classic, McLuhan examines 25 different technologies – from the spoken word to clothes, money, clocks, printing, cars, games or cinema – and shows how each of these changed human consciousness and the perception of reality in the societies exposed to them.

technological systems determine the way in which we perceive the world. The invention of money changed and catalyzed economic development throughout the world. Newspapers have aided in establishing the idea of nationality. The first photograph of planet earth in its entirety, taken from space in 1968, is considered today to be one of the main catalysts to the evolution of the global consciousness of humanity.

The history of Technology is the history of consciousness: we think in a manner consistent with our technologies. We understand the world and ourselves through the metaphors and symbols supplied to us by our technologies. In the mechanical age human beings were seen as a mechanical system not unlike a clock, in the age of steam philosophers tended to explain the human body as an energetic system similar to that of a steam engine, during the age of information we tend to compare it to a computer and in recent years to a computer network like the internet.

Technology is not external to us. It is part of the primordial web of the cosmos, and part of the internal web which shapes our bodies and thoughts. We move in technology, think in technology, love in technology, and breathe in technology. Technology is part of who we are. Therefore, if we want to know ourselves well, we have too know technology intimately, as part of ourselves.

[1] The eye and the ear are Technologies. In fact, they are prime examples of Technologies which are currently being transformed to technologies by the multi-billion High-Tech industry.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Technomystica: Consciousness in the Age of Technology - Chapter 1

During the next months I plan to publish here the first 5 chapters of my book: "Technomystica: Consciousness in the Age of Technology" which was published in Hebrew last year. You can read more about the book here and here (Hebrew).

Chapter 1 – Age of Speed

We live in a world rapidly accelerated by technology. This message has already turned into a kind of cliché, but the surprising thing about it is that acceleration has been occurring not only since the invention of the internet, television, radio or print. The technological acceleration of the world has actually been occurring ever since the big bang.

If we look back 14 billion years, we will find the beginnings of a constantly accelerated process which has been going on since the dawn of the universe. Whereas earlier on in the evolution of our universe, billions of years would pass until the creation of the first living cell, and hundreds of millions of years would slowly linger, until multi-cellular animals evolved, the evolution of mammals occurred in time frames measured in dozens of millions of years and the evolution of the hominids species which have led to Homo-Sapiens proceeded much faster, during the last few million years.

The first technologies used by early man, developed excruciatingly slow in comparison to modern technology, advancing not much faster in fact than biological evolution. The stone tools characteristic of paleolithic technology took hundreds of thousands of years to evolve, almost as long as it would take for a new biological organ to evolve. The evolution of human language occurred, according to most experts, around 50 thousand years ago, the agricultural revolution occurred around 10,000 years ago and the development of writing and the first cities all occurred during the last thousands of years.

The time frames in which we measure development become shorter as we move closer and closer to the present. We usually think of the last thousand dividing them by centuries and examine the 20th century by decades. Contemporary trends are taking place within the time frames of years and sometimes even months. Thus more novel occurrences are taking place during the course of one year today, than did during a million years, a billion years ago. Development is so rapid that the attempt to forecast the far future has been all but abandoned. Science fiction writers don’t even try to write about how humanity’s future might look 500 years from now. Who would even presume to know what might happen a few years from now?

As evolution accelerates, it also becomes more goal oriented. While evolution proceeds as a slow process based on the accumulation of random mutations, technological developments are based on well-directed action constantly striving for improvement. New technologies such as writing, the computer, or communication technologies are used to make the process of technological development even more efficient, constantly aiding in the further acceleration of the loop. Thus, while four million years have passed since the appearance of the first hominid to the appearance of homo-sapiens, a hundred thousand years passed from the appearance of homo-sapiens to the agricultural revolution, ten thousand years since the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution, and only a hundred years from the industrial revolution to the information revolution, in the midst of which we currently find ourselves.

The most pronounced symbol of the acceleration which stands at the basis of today’s information revolution is Moore’s Law, named after Gordon Moore, one of the co-founders of computer manufacturer Intel who claimed in 1965 that the processing power of computer chips (or alternatively put, the processing power which can be bought for a certain sum of money) will double itself every 18 months. The predictions of Moore’s Law have been verified by the computer industry for the past 45 years. According to it, calculation abilities will double themselves by a thousand ever 15 years, by a million every 30 years, and by a billion ever 45 years.[1]

A growing number of scientists and technology experts claim that the process of acceleration is one of the basic principles overlying the cosmos.[2] According to them the process of technological acceleration is about to reach a zenith point which they term a “Technological Singularity”: a moment in which the speed of technological development approaches infinite proportions, a moment in which we will be the threshold leading to a new and fantastic technological age which will change most of what we know about life, the universe and ourselves.

Even if one choose not to buy into this far reaching scenario, it is difficult to ignore the actual phenomenon of acceleration. Whereas a few thousand years ago, one would be born, grow up and perish in the world, without the later being substantially changed, today tremendous alterations are happening in the world during the course of an individual’s life. Everything is turning more fragmented and accelerated: the rapid cuts on TV commercials, the number of stimulations appearing while driving on the road, the number of windows simultaneously working on our desktop, etc.

What does this mean? Does this process even mean anything? If you’d ask a hard necked materialist he will probably frown and tell you that the process of evolution is an absolutely random process in which man is nothing more then a meaningless iota. According to this kind of fundamentalist atheists the evolution of culture, religion and technology is an almost incidental event and the world is nothing but a random collision of electrons (physicists), chemicals moving in our brains (chemists, brain researchers and psychiatrists) or selfish genes continuously spreading themselves using organisms unaware of their higher goal (biologists). It’s not that they are all wrong. These stories are important because the world certainly is also electrons, chemical and genes. But each of these narratives is also a part of a wider pattern which, when apprehended, divulges a more complicated view of reality.

A group of scientists and thinkers which have been working during the past dozens of years offer an alternative and more holistic approach to the process of evolution. This view attempts to explain the universe with more holistic terms, putting what is generally seen by fundamentalist materialism as “coincidence”, within a wider cosmological scope.

These scientists and thinkers point to an unmistakable tendency in the evolution of the universe: The universe started as formless particles (physics) turning into complex molecules (chemistry) which developed into life processes (biology) which eventually create technological forms of life (technology). All this is occurring on a planet which is composed, as biologist Teilhard de Chardin observed, like an onion, layer upon layer. A geological layer (the geosphere), upon which a biological layer is created (the biosphere) and upon which an electronic layer of communication, thought and ideas are created (the noosphere).

The captivating thing about this process, is that it seems almost irrevocable. Once evolution reaches a new level, it never recedes. Once a new form of biological or technological organization like the DNA, the brain or language, appears, it does not disappear, but becomes the basis for more developed forms which develop right off it. Even in the event of an immense catastrophe, such as the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, life recovers quickly and continue in the journey towards more developed biological forms, as if nothing had happened.

This ceaselessly advancing journey of the universe, which is seen by mainstream science as a coincidental and meaningless process receives a more meaningful interpretation within the context of the scientific groups mentioned above. Scientists like chemist Illya Prigogine and astrophysicist Erich Jantsch have claimed that a principle of self-organization is underlying our universe. In other words, our universe is undergoing a process of self-organization in which it self-assembles itself like a puzzle, to higher and higher levels of order and complexity.

The idea of the universe being a bit like a puzzle also explains its accelerating nature according to inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil: Not unlike the way that the assembling process of a puzzle becomes more and more simple as it nears its end and fewer pieces are missing, so as the universe advances and each step becomes the basis for the one following it (the development of molecules, the development of life, the development of the brain, technological developments), the completion of the process becomes hastier. In other words, the evolution of biological life upon the earth is a direct continuation of chemical developments which occurred earlier in the universe and the technological development which we are experiencing today is a direct continuation of biological processes.

We might fantasize about going back to a purely natural existence, about shedding the technological shells which we have assimilated during the past thousands of years, but that would be ignoring the big mission which we are facing, and one might also wonder if that would even be possible. When we understand that the universe has been undergoing a continuous process of evolutionary development occurring through biological and technological means during the past 14 billion of years, and that this process is accelerating and approaching a zenith in our times, the idea of turning our backs to it seems overly fantastic.

The Technomystical Challenge

In Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, integral thinker Ken Wilber divides the whole of religious thought throughout history to two distinctive schools. The transcendent school is identified with masculinity and emphasizes the existence of God in the “heaven”, in a world above and beyond, a world whole and in a state of unity. Middle age thinkers such as Thomas von Aquin and Maimoindes serve as exemplars for such forms of thinking. The immanent school of thought is identified with femininity and emphasizes the existence of God in its myriad of forms on the earth. This school is closely related to nature religions and paganism.

According to Wilber, however, the most evolved spiritual vision belongs to the school which he call the non-dual school. Non-dual philosophers are thinkers which integrate transcendent and immanent perceptions of the divine. Among them, Wilber finds ancient Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, Greek philosopher Plato, German Idealist Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling and 20th century Indian thinker Sri Aurobindo.

For these thinkers divinity exists not only above or below, on the earth or in the heaven, but everywhere along the full spectrum: from the transcendent world in which all things are united and are not divided in any sense, to the world of immanent fecundity, the world in which we live, which is composed of the opposites between life and death, true and false and a numberless network of relations between things animate and inanimate, human, technological and beyond.

The great challenge, non dual thinkers tell us, is not in shooting to higher realms, but in succeeding to stay at both ends of the spectrum at the same time: above and below. To unite the opposites, to be able to connect with celestial dimensions and yet find God in the myriad forms in which it appears in the world (From Facebook to the line at your local bank); to be together with the creative and ever evolving multitude and yet to keep you relation to the world above at all times. To go to worlds above and beyond, and come back with a renewed understanding of the world of multitude.

This is the technomystical challenge. It begins with the realization that mysticism is technological. That in a world turning increasingly technological, we have an unprecedented opportunity to rein the opposed forces of multitude and unity to one action; that a world which is turning increasingly fragmentary offers us an unprecedented chance to commute with God in more channels and create a richer concept of God than ever.

The evolution of mankind has almost ceased to advance biologically. It proceeds outside our bodies, in the electronic gadgets which surround us. Man’s attempt to enter this hyper-technological and extremely confounding world and to try to stay devout within it is the great spiritual quest of our times.

[1] According to conservative calculations. According to inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil a doubling of processing power occurs every year, and processing power is thus multiplied by a thousand every 10 years.

[2] In Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity Is Near one can view multiple graphs presenting the exponential acceleration in various domains such as the number of patents annually submitted for approval, the turnover of scientific paradigms, the number of servers on the internet, brain-scan resolution, data storage abilities etc.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Days as an Intergalactic Agent

A report on my early days as an undercover agent of the covert organization known as the intergalactic underground. Please read it here on Reality Sanwich.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Avatar and the new wave of 3D psychedelic cinema

For years, the psychedelic community has been anticipating the arrival of a new psychedelic medium which will be ushered in by the appearance of a new technology. The idea that technology and media can enhance psychedelics and even have psychedelic qualities has, after all, been an integral part of the psychedelic movement since the electronic trips festival of the sixties, Timothy Leary's enthusiasm for personal computer technology in the eighties, and Terrence McKenna's advocacy of virtual reality technologies and the internet in the nineties. Bets have been placed on 3D, HDTV, virtual reality, and other technologies, however, for a long time none of these seemed to take off in a massive way or fulfill its psychedelic potential in a way widely appreciated by the public.

Relations between psychedelics and popular culture continued, however, to be prosperous and fruitful. As noted by psychedelic thinkers such as McKenna and Eric Davis, psychedelic aesthetics have been continuously assimilated into mainstream media, as for example in the visual language of contemporary commercials and mainstream films.

The 2000's have been highly psychedelic in media. Ever-increasing film and screen resolution, the use of bright, colorful imagery in commercials and music videos, the imaginary landscapes created by computer generated animation, and the use of extravagant and highly associative visual language have all contributed to a psychedelic tendency in media in the first decade of the 21st century. Today, the advent of computer generated 3D cinema brings on a hope for a major psychedelic turn in electronic media.

Psychedelics and the 3D Experience

Psychedelics have always been about pushing the boundaries of perception, and adding new dimensions to our perception of reality. Similarly, media has continuously sought to add ever more dimensions in its efforts to technologically capture and represent reality -- from still photography to the moving image, from silent films to "talking pictures," and from B&W to color, where the evolution of film seemingly stops. For the past 60 years, motion pictures have had more or less the same appearance in terms of the basic characteristics determined by screening technologies. Now, a new generation of 3D films aims to bring a whole new dimension to entertainment media.

What could be more psychedelic than a medium that requires the viewer to wear strange- looking, outlandish glasses that distort one's view of the world? What better metaphor is there for the psychedelic experience, and the idea that we are continuously experiencing the world through different valves and filters, than the use of lenses that expose a whole new dimension of perception?

The 3D experience and the psychedelic experience make us appreciate the visual richness of the world and become enchanted by the multi-dimensionality of reality. 3D is a highly psychedelic experience not only in the fact that it adds a new dimension to media perception and renews our sense of wonderment at the visual world, but also in shaking our perceptions of the world by giving a third dimension to a picture screened in two dimensions. In one of cinema's earliest and most famous screenings, the crowd ran away from the theatre after an approaching train appeared on the screen; when watching a 3D movie for the first time, many people gasp, clutch their hands, get a dry throat, and after leaving the theatre, some people report a distressing sense of dizziness.

Thus, 3D dissolves the boundary between drugs and technologies. If you take off the glasses during a 3D screening and look around the theatre, you will notice that the people around you don't see you, since the 3D glasses block and darken the majority of their field of view. The uninhibited, almost primal expression one can see on their faces is not unlike that of trippers under the influence of some drug.

3D is the new and the most immersive media drug to have emerged out of our high-tech media complex, the most successful attempt to emulate the effects of the psychedelic state.

Psychedelic Storytelling

Hollywood cinema has been flirting with our culture's subconscious for some time now. Blockbuster fantasy and sci-fi films, ever-more popular in recent years, have acted as a Jungian shadow to our culture's proclaimed rational and materialist view of reality. Films such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Golden Compass have presented us with a re-enchanted world. The last four of the above list of movies also posit an unseen and outlandish reality existing alongside the "normal" world, and this serves to support a growing sense of paranoia about the deceptive qualities of consensus reality and the existence of hidden and enchanted dimensions to our world. Cinema has thus functioned as our culture's collective dream, bringing to view its most repressed archaic realms.

James Cameron's Avatar, as well as adding a new level of psychedelic visual richness to the 3D film, also features a good deal of these subversive messages and ideas. It is as anti-civilizational and anti-technological as a John Zerzan book, psychedelic like a Terrence McKenna talk, and glorifies the indigenous and shamanic world view. The fact that some people have failed to appreciate these highly explicit traits in Avatar, and call it clichéd or hackneyed is, to my mind, largely based on blindness to Avatar's role as a mythic specimen of our culture.

Some people who didn't like Avatar's story told me that its main shortcoming is that it is told in a too conventional way. It tells a story we all already know. I could certainly see what they mean, but then again it made me think of Joseph Campbell's Monomythconcept which claims that there is one basic story that returns in most of the world's ancient myths. This story, which features the hero with a thousand faces, is a story in three parts (departure-initiation-return) which Campbell describes as follows:

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man"[1]

There is only one story that really matters. This story has been with us ever since the invention of myth and it is the same as the classic story of the heavy psychedelic trip, which is about departure from your everyday world and conception of yourself (taking the drug, and going on an inner journey), death/initiation (facing your demons, which sometimes leads to a feeling of death), and return (the spiritual rebirth which is the catharsis well known to many users of psychedelics). This story, hard-wired into the structure of the far-reaching psychedelic experience, is the primal story, the one that entheogens have conveyed to humans over thousands of years in shamanic cultures around the world. The psychedelic story, told to us by a plant, might even be the origin of the monomyth.

Even though I adore movies unconventional plots structures such as Pulp Fiction, Memento and Shortcuts, I also keep my heart wide open for our primal story. I believe that the primal story about the hero who overcomes his challenges and goes on to triumph, a story which stands at the basis of many religions and myths, is of utmost importance to our culture. It is the psychedelic story that defies logic but gives us hope. So please, do tell us this story again and again, because it makes us believe, because it gives us hope, and that is what we need, and without it we are lost; it is the only story really worth telling. Avatar tells that story.

Avatar and the World of Shamanism

Avatar tells the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine arriving at the alien planet of Pandora to replace his recently murdered brother as the operator of an avatar, an hybrid entity identical in physical structure to that of the alien natives of Pandora, but controllable by a pilot with matching DNA.

Jake now has two twin brothers. One dead, the other, an alien incarnation of himself. In order to penetrate this alien being, Jake must empty his mind, go into dream-state, and connect with him in a special pod from which his consciousness is technologically projected to the Avatar. The life of one is the dream of the other. Where one reality ends, another reality begins.

Transmigrating between two parallel realities is a highly psychedelic idea. This is, after all one of the central tenets of the shamanic view of the world. As extensively described by Michael Harner and others, many shamanic cultures see the reality exposed by psychedelics as the one true reality.

Zhuangzi told us that he once dreamt he was a butterfly, and when he woke up he didn't know if he was Zuhangzi dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zuhangzi. What is reality and what is a dream? Some claim that our whole waking life is just a dream; others propose that we live to dream, and that waking life is just a secondary phenomenon to support dreaming.

Jake falls asleep and connects to an ancient and enchanted land of the cultural subconscious, where he will confront the indigenous shadow of civilization. After establishing contact with the Na'vi tribe, Jake will undergo an inner transformation. He will learn to perceive nature's sacredness, like a Na'vi tribesman, and even begin to see nature as his mother.

Psychedelics invoke a kind of dream experience. They are about traveling between dimensions, leaving the commonplace dimension of reality for an enchanted world. But for a citizen of the west living in a modern society ignorant of the shamanic (and psychedelic) view of reality, penetrating the enchanted realm of the psychedelic experience is a wholly different experience than it is for an indigenous person who was raised within a shamanic context. Following the concept of the re-enchantment of the world in contemporary spiritual thought and culture, as used by Christopher Partridge and Wouter Hanegraaff, one should say that the western user of psychedelics does not enter an enchanted world but a re-enchanted world. He re-enters his world, perceiving a world formerly devoid of spiritual or non-materialistic meaning with new eyes, the supernaturally inclined eyes of psychedelics.[2] This re-enchanted world which Jake enters in Avatar, by becoming a Na’vi tribesman, is the psychedelic world of shamanism.

Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is a botanist trying to establish relations with the Na'vi, a quest not unlike that of ethnobotanists and anthropologists such as Richard Evans Schultes, Michael Harner, and Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, researching the role of psychedelic substances in shamanic cultures.

The Na'vi, an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe of Pandorian hominid aliens, is spiritually led by the Tsahik, (C. C. H. Pounder) a female shaman who interprets the will of Eywa, the great mother, whose name and essence seem to resemble both that of Eve, the mother of all life, as well as Gaia, the planet mother of all life. The Na'vi culture, similarly to other shamanic cultures, believes in the "flow of energy," a "network of energy that flows through all living things." It pays great respect to the "spirits of animals" and when a Na'vi tribesman kills an animal, he performs a ceremony to consecrate its soul, as is done in many archaic cultures. The individual's rite of passage includes learning to ride the Ikran, a giant carnivorous bird, which resembles the giant mythic bird that appear in various shamanic cultures such as those of the northwest coast of America, and is closely related to the figure of the Shaman, who is often associated with large birds such as the eagle. If all that wasn't psychedelic or shamanic enough for you, the Na'vi people also worship a "tree of souls," through which, while dancing and singing, they connect to the planet's soul, and become a part of the collective consciousness. The meaning of the wordayahuasca in the Quechuan language, it is worth mentioning, is "vine of the souls."

The singing ritual held by the Na'vi around the tree of souls, in which all members of the tribe become one with it, might remind one of contemporary ayahuasca ceremonies. One of ayahuasca's active chemical constituents, harmaline, was originally known in the west as telepathine, and indeed many indigenous cultures claim to join their minds under the influence of ayahuasca and reach unanimous group decisions in states of collective consciousness, a claim corroborated by McKenna who has also claimed to have witnessed telepathy during ayahuasca ceremonies.[3]

McKenna described the shaman as the one who, when you come to a village in the Amazon where foreigners appear maybe once a year, is distinguished from all others by the fact that he is not at all interested in your fancy boat or watch. The shaman transcends cultural boundaries; he looks at you to see what kind of person you are.

Seeing is important. "I see you," one of the sacred greetings of the Na'vi, refers to seeing into a person, seeing his essence and actual being. When Jake arrives to the Na'vi tribe and is about to be killed by the angry crowd, it is the Tsahik, the shaman, who examines him with her wide-open eyes to recognize his essence, and then decides to let him stay. Later in the film, when all have turned against him, after his apparent betrayal of the tribe has been exposed, she will also be the one to set him free. She has seen something.

Jake is allowed to stay, and then something interesting happens. Borges, in his "Story of the warrior and the captive" tells us of Droctulft, a barbarian warrior who fell in love with the Roman city Ravenna and with the concept of civilization. He deserted the barbarian armies and joined the Romans in defending the Roman empire. In a diametrically opposed way, Avatar is about a warrior coming from a hyper-technological society to destroy nature falling in love with the forest, and defecting in order to defend it.

"One life ends, another begins." The Avatar story is as anti-civilizational and neo-primitivist as it gets. When Jake is accepted to join the tribe for a period of apprenticeship, the tribe's Tsahik says, "We'll see if we can cure the madness." The madness referred to by the Tsashik is of course the madness of civilization, the madness of the materialist technological world from which Jake comes. From the shamanic point of view, civilization is madness (and vice versa). This madness must be cured; one reality tunnel must be given up and exchanged with another one. "Hallucination" and "reality" must change places, in a process remarkably similar to that of the psychedelic experience.

As Terrence McKenna never grew tired of reminding us, the psychedelic experience dissolves boundaries. It dissolves the boundaries between "reality" and "hallucination," between "madness" and "saneness." After all, the common thing to the psychedelic movement and the anti-psychedelic movement is that they both proclaim each other insane. While under the influence of psychedelics, and to a significant extent also during periods of psychedelic use, one experiences the world as magical. The everyday world of yesterday suddenly seems to be the bleak, colorless one, the deadly illusion of an unaware mind. Two opposites, hallucination and reality, dream and waking life, suddenly exchange places. Could the dream life be the true life?

This is what is happening to Jake. He wakes up in his pod and suddenly real life is not in the cold technological world of his unit, but in the forest, running on giant tree branches, riding his giant carnivore bird, the Ikran, and being with his love, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the daughter of Tsahik and her husband Eytucan the clan leader. Jake must choose between cultures and world views, between the technological world with its materialistic worldview and the forest with its shamanic perception of reality. Like Droctulft, he changes sides. By the end of the movie he will be calling the humans "aliens," and in the closing scene of the movie he will kill his human incarnation and transform himself completely into the avatar.

Avatar is not only psychedelic in form but also in message.

Reality Pods

In 1954, John Lilly, a neuro-physician on his way to becoming one of the pioneers of research into the nature of consciousness, invents the isolation tank -- a pod which isolates the person inside it from external stimulation and triggers an alteration of consciousness. Lilly, who kept close relations with the Californian counterculture of the sixties, also combined his isolation tank experiments with psychedelics, going into long trips inside his tank, a practice memorably presented in the filmAltered States (1980), which was loosely based on Lilly's work.

40 years later, the pod is back, and not for the first time. A decade before Avatar, The Matrix featured a person lying in a pod, isolated from reality, and communicating with another reality. What does it mean for us that the two most influential mythic films that our culture has produced since Star Wars both feature a person lying in a pod communicating with a different reality, a being split into two parts, one of them artificial. Could this mean something? Could they mean that we are the ones inside the pod, disconnected from our true body?

Taking off one's 3D glasses and inspecting the movie viewers, identical looking with their 3D glasses on, staring at the screen, immersed in a 3D world, unable to see their physical surroundings and completely unaware of them, one might think that the 3D experience is the pod. But more generally, the pod might represent all our technological shells, from clothing to our cars and our houses -- the technological shells that keep us away from direct contact with the world.

Avatar, it is worth noting, is a highly ambivalent and even paradoxical film. It uses the most advance technology to go on a long harangue against technology. But it has the maybe naïve hope that our pod experience, like Jake's, will make us want to leave our pods and reconnect with our bodies.

This too, is quite similar to the psychedelic experience. Psychedelics return us to our native bodies, to a more primal experience of the body, one which precedes the numbing effects of civilization on our relation with the body. When Jake is projected into his Avatar body for the first time, he spends the first moment examining his hands and feet, moving his fingers and toes playfully and calling “this is great!”. This part actually reminds one of watching a person in the beginning of a psychedelic trip, examining his hands as many trippers often do, amazed about being inside this avatar, the avatar of the body. Realizing that your being is immersed inside a body and being surprised by that fact, feeling amazed by one’s body, is also a well known reaction to the psychedelic experience.

A New Wave of Psychedelic Cinema

In his inspiring book Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken tell the story of one of the first giant Sequoia trees to be discovered by the American settlers, in Calaveras County, California. More than 300 feet in height and thirty feet in diameter, the tree was unlike anything the western world had ever seen. An entrepreneur by the name of George Gale saw a great business opportunity. He and his associates decided to cut down the Sequoia and take it to be exhibited around the world. The 2,500-year-old tree was so big that its felling took several weeks to accomplish, even with a big group of workers. Hawken tells us that when the tree finally fell, the noise woke people in mining camps fifteen miles away. The huge tree held so much water that it remained green for several years after being cut. When parts of the tree were presented in New York and London, the exhibitions caused a public outcry against the utter cruelty of its destruction, and this was one of the triggers of the environmental movement.

The story of that great Sequoia is mirrored in the story of the giant hometree of the Na'vi people which is destroyed by the bulldozers and explosives of the "Sky People" (Earth people). When Jake, praying at the Tree of Souls, asks Eywa (Mother Nature) for help, he says, "See the world we come from. There is no green there. They killed their mother." And indeed the myth of the matricide, the killing of Mother Nature that stands at the base of Avatar, is not fictional at all. Indigenous tribes have been going extinct for the past few hundred years, and are today facing major calamities brought on by oil companies and ruthless international corporations, the mercenaries of civilization who invade the jungle to supply our ever-increasing appetite for energy and products.

One of the most engaging sequences in Avatar is the one in which the Na'vi tribe are fleeing the violence and destruction brought upon the forest by the machines of technology. When I watched it for the second time, it seemed to me that these Na'vi people escaping the machines were actually us, humanity, trying to flee the consequences created by our technologies in the beginning of the 21st century.

Avatar relates a violent and realistic story that is taking place as you read this, which is why its message is so important. But it is also a story of a conversion, of Jake's conversion from the way of technology, from the promethean culture of the "sky people," as the humans are called by the Na'vi, to the way of the forest. Avatar is a story about transformation, one which humanity direly needs these days, when a radical transformation of our relation with nature has become a necessity.

With its psychedelic qualities and ideas, shamanic values, and indigenous politics, Avatar challenges the reigning values of our culture on the most fundamental level. That this film, which challenges all that is sacred to western materialistic thought and champions shamanic ideas and values deemed to be ludicrous by the dominator culture, has already earned more than a billion dollars and is quite probably on its way to becoming the highest grossing film of all time, is for me no less than amazing. Avatarbrings psychedelic visuals and ideas as well as shamanic values to millions of mainstream moviegoers. Could that have anything to do with the fact that it is in the new digital 3D? Considering that the next big 3D event is Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, a story jammed with weird acting mushrooms and even weirder realities, it seems that we might be facing a kind of psychedelic renaissance brought on by 3D cinema.

Could Avatar and Alice in Wonderland be the first messengers of a new psychedelic wave ushered in by a new medium with psychedelic tendencies? Could they be the ones to bring psychedelic values and ideas into mainstream thinking? I'm not sure that would be enough; however it seems that one of the techniques traditionally used to create the 3D effect in cinema might be helpful as a metaphor in understanding the place these films might play in today's culture. The Pulfrich Effect, used to create stereoscopic images, relies on the principle that the human eye processes information slower in darker conditions to cause one eye to see reality in delay, thus creating a 3D illusion when watching moving objects. It is as if your two eyes were watching the screen from two different points in time, or from two different points in space. Similarly, the new 3D wave allows us to view culture from two distinct points of perspective in space and time: one of a culture completely immersed in consumerist mania, the other of a culture which keeps a strong relation to its mythic roots in nature. This multi-dimensional effect, which allows us to view ourselves from two different perspectives at the same time, might hint at the transformations ahead.

[1] Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 30 / Novato, California: New World Library, 2008, p. 23.

[2] By this I do not mean to claim that psychedelics are supernatural, at least not here, but only that they encourage the formation of a supernatural view of reality.

[3] Again it is worth noting that I am not claiming that telepathy actually occurs during ayahuasca ceremonies, although something resembling it is definitely at play in some cases, but only that ayahuasca is considered to be telepathic and conducive to collective states of consciousness in many shamanic cultures

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Global Brain Fragmenting – About Google’s New Search Personalization

Google has changed. Until a few weeks ago, whenever you would search Google, you would get a series of results constructed by an algorithm which aims to represent the structure of humanity’s knowledge and interests and in some mystical way, maybe even the objective order of things in our world.

Google was thus seen as the global brain, an artifact which informs us about what is more important and what is less important – an electronic brain which connects us all to a global consciousness, by supplying us with a common electro-neural field of associations. A network which integrates humanity by creating a common basis of ideas so that when I think (SEARCH) “Love” I think (FIND) the same ideas (RESULTS) that you think. When I think (SEARCH) Karl Jung I think (FIND) the same ideas (Results) that you think.

Now all that has changed. Starting Dec 4. 2009, Google began to personalize search results, so that the result pages viewed by each user are actually tailor made to fit his particular taste, based on his search history.

What does this mean? It means that each of us is seeing a different web, or perhaps better put, each of us sees the web from a different perspective. The objective order of the early Google days is shattered, and now one does not have any way of knowing what other people are finding when they are looking for something (one could take the effort and turn off customization in the setting menus, but most users won’t, and since most users will use the default personalized search option, the meaning of an ‘objective’ search, which represents the ‘objective’ Google ranking actually loses its significance). Models of search results thus no longer obey a Kantian “thing-in-itself” logic; instead there is only the very subjective the web-as-experienced-by-me.

What does this mean for the global brain? Well, to begin with, it means that our consciousnesses becomes less synchronized, each of us drifts a bit more into a world of his own. But is this good or bad for the global brain? On further consideration, increasing the individuality of search results might actually be beneficial for the global brain. Jesuit priest and evolution scholar Teilahard de Chardin, spoke of an omega point, a futuristic event in which the totality of human consciousnesses would fuse and create one collective super-consciousness of which we will all be part, an idea which many today believe to be manifested in the web, where each computer or user is like a single neuron, and part of a greater consciousness. However, De Chardin had one important condition regarding the omega point. He spoke about the elements composing the Omega Point becoming assimilated in a collectivity but also retaining their individuality. In the same way, the new Google search results page, which combines both personalized results as well as some of the old ‘objective’ results viewed by all users tries to balance between collectivity and individuality. Perhaps this is only the latest step on the techno-evolutionary race to rewire the neural paths of the global brain.