DAVID SHEFF: As the former so-called LSD guru, what do you think of Nancy Reagan's advice on drugs--"Just say no"?
TIMOTHY LEARY: Our kids should be better mannered than that! We should tell them, "Just say, 'No, thank you.'" Any blanket "Just say no" is a negative approach to life, which is typical of the Reagan administration.
DS: So you disagree with the huge antidrug campaign?
TL: I'm totally opposed to nonadults using any drug. However, the use of drugs by kids should be easily handled in a family in which there is trust and communication. The fact that kids in the ghetto use drugs is viewed the wrong way. The problem is not the drugs; the problem is the ghetto families where there are no models, there is no communication, no education.
DS: So it's okay to tell children to say, "No, thank you." How about the rest of us?
TL: Shall break the news? Adult Americans are supposed to make their own decisions about personal matters. I am constitutional opposed to government prohibitions against my using any drug I want to. Addicts pose a different problem. They are, by definition, sick people. If you love an alcoholic or a druggie or a gun freak, intervene. People who abuse drugs or booze or money or guns should be prevented from acting irresponsibly. But ninety percent of adults can and do use drugs prudently and efficiently.
DS: How do you feel about urine testing?
TL: I have no problems with testing people who operate dangerous machinery or who run nuclear plants. I don't want thepilot of my plane hallucinating. But intelligent individuals are not going to work for companies that would force them to do demeaning things like pee in a bottle. God knows what they would want next.
TL: There is a strong taboo discouraging experimentation with the human brain. Before the Renaissance, there was a strong religious taboo against discovering how the body worked. This held back progress in medicine and biology for centuries. Today a similar challenge faces the human species. We must learn how the brain works. That's what we were doing at Harvard and Millbrook during the 1960s. The psychedelic movement was a mind-exploration movement. None of us really understood what was happening when we took psychedelic drugs, because we had to use the mystical language of the past--Hindu terms like satori and samhadi, occult terms like illumination and transcendental. We didn't have the scientific metaphors to understand what we were discovering.
DS: And we do now?
TL: Yup. We had to have a personal-computer movement to help us understand the brain. You see, we can only understand our inner workings in terms of the external, mechanical or technological models that we build. We never understood the circulation of the blood until we had hydraulic systems moving water around. We didn't understand metabolism until we had mastered thermodynamics with the steam engine and understood how coal and oil produce power and energy. Only then could we figure out how carbohydrates and proteins work. Coming from an industrial, mechanical culture, how could we possibly understand the brain? Until recently we thought the brain was a machine like a big telephone system. This is a completely inadequate metaphor. The psychedelic-drug movement of the Sixties and the personal-computer movement of the Eighties are inner and outer reflections of each other. You simply cannot understand psychedelic drugs, which activate the brain, unless you understand something about computers. It is no accident that many of the people in the computer movement had experimented with LSD.
DS: And what was learned?
TL: Every person who took acid has his or her own story to tell. That's the beautiful things about it. Certainly there is no one who had an experience with LSD who didn't have an unforgettable, overwhelming experience.
DS: How do computers help our inner exploration?
TL: Computers help us understand how our brains process information. For example, as a psychologist, I was taught that the synapse, where two nerve endings exchange information, was a sort of on-off switching device. That is not true at all. At the synapse there are millions of quantum signals, like an enormous television screen. There is probably more complex information exchanged between one synapse and another than in most computer programs. But I have to have an understanding of computers to be able to say that. There is a wonderful paradox here: we can only navigate outside as well as we can navigate within. What happened in the Sixties was that we did a lot of inner tripping, but we lacked the cybernetic-language technology to express and map and chart what we were experiencing.
DS: Do you miss the Sixties?
TL: Not really, thought I must say it was a fantastic age of exploration. We had that old-time 1492 Columbus fever. We sensed that we were brain explorers. We intuitively used metaphors of travel--"tripping," "coming down," "head pilots," "guiding voyagers." The metaphor "turning on" relates to activating the television set and booting up the computer.
DS: These days, the drugs in vogue are not mind exploring. What does that say about the time?
TL: The drugs that are popular today--cocaine, pills, ecstasy, Venus, Eve--tend to alter mood rather than expand consciousness. They can be instructive and fun if handled prudently. But we still have to learn how to communicate what we experience. Let's be frank: there will be new, improved drugs and wave of internal explorations.
DS: With what end?
TL: It is a genetic imperative to explore the brain. Why? Because it's there. If you are carrying around in you head 100 billion mainframe computers, you just have to get in there and learn how to operate them. There is nothing in the outside universe that isn't mirrored and duplicated inside your brain.
DS: Do you feel a kindred spirit with the people who are identified with the drug movement, such as Richard Alpert--a.k.a. Ram Dass--and novelist and Merry Prankster leader Ken Kesey?
TL: Sure, although we all evolved so differently. Richard talks about going back to the source, which means going back to the past. For many good reasons, Richard committed himself to an extremely archaic Hindu orthodoxy. But it's a peaceful philosophy of caring and charity. Richard was the Mother Teresa of the psychedelic movement. You can't knock that. But Ram Dass ain't gonna blow your mind open with new revelations, and he ain't gonna encourage you to storm the gates of the info-space heaven with cybernetic brainware.
DS: What about Ken Kesey?
TL: Ken Kesey and his wife, Faye, are real Western heroes. Mythic ranchers. Frontier people. Oregon Trail folk. Salt of the good earth. Rugged-individualist people you can depend on in a crunch.
DS: How about others associated with that period? Abbie Hoffman?
TL: Abbie Hoffman is a wonderful legend. The most radical, eloquent, rabble-rousing agitator of our time.
DS: Jerry Rubin?
TL: Jerry's your basic YMHA director, a likable young executive. Jerry is a liberal conformist. He could just as well have been a young liberal Republican. He's certainly not your new Aristotle or Plato.
DS: What was his role then?
TL: He had his own Holy Grail quest. He certainly was out there in the front lines. And he has a certain organizational charm, which I admire. If you're looking for a veterans- of-the-Sixties consensus here, I'd guess that ninety percent of the people who were involved in the psychedelic brain-discovery movement would tell you that LSD paved the way for most of the cultural events of the last two decades--ecology, New Age, Shirley MacLaine, the born- again personal-religion stuff, the peace movement, the personal-fitness craze, pop art, personal-computer hacking, MTV, BLADE RUNNER, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and the cybernetic Eighties.
TL: I think each decade in the roaring twentieth century has produced new technologies and art forms for personalizing and popularizing electronic, light-speed quantum energies Since 1900 our society of factory workers and farmers has been transformed into an information-age culture totally committed to flashing realities on screens. Americans spend more time looking at television monitors than they do gazing into the eyes of family and friends. Power, politics and culture are determined by who controls the screens.
DS: How does this affect you?
TL: I follow the trends of evolution. I go with the electron flow. I see myself as a quintessential American, just going along for the ride.
DS: Quintessential? You?
TL: Hey, I'm sixty-seven years old. I have actively experienced seven decades of accelerated change. I've surfed each of the waves of the twentieth century with reasonable success and an amount of fun. In the Forties, I was in the army for five years and in school on the GI bill for five years. What could be more apple pie? In the Fifties, I was a button-down young professor with kids, a suburban house, drinking martinis. In the Sixties, I dutifully, diligently turned on, tuned in and, God knows, dropped out. What was the alternative? Turn off, tune out, blindly conform? The Seventies was the decade of the political prisoner. Nixon threw the dissenters in jail. I was the first one to go into prison: January 1970. Then, after Watergate, it was the Nixon gang's turn. In the next six years, I watched my federal pursurers join me: the attorney general, John Mitchell; Haldeman and Ehrlichman; Gordon Liddy. Now, in the Eighties, how can you avoid the computer revolution?
DS: Can you describe your work in the computer field?
TL: My work involves cybernetic psychology--the personalization amd popularization of quantum mechanics. Packaging and communicating thoughts at light speeds. Putting electronic appliances in the hands of individuals. First we had the telephone, then radio, movies, television. Now we have computers, video players, compact discs, home- editing appliances. It's still just the beginning. In the next five years we're gonna design you an inexpensive electronic facility for you living room. You'll be able to move information and images around your screen in whatever way you want. Now, that's revolutionary.
DS: In what ways?
TL: In the twenty-first century, whoever controls the screen controls consciousness, information and thought. The screen is a mirror of your mind, get it? If you are passively watching screens, you are getting programed. If you are editing you own screen, you are in control of you mind. George Orwell had it wrong. He was too optimistic. He wrote in 1984 that Big Brother would watch us from screens on the walls of our living rooms or bedrooms. But that is nothing. You could always duck out of sight. The current horror is that Americans voluntarily stick their amoeboid faces toward the screen six or seven hours a day and suck up information that Big Brother is putting there. Here is the key to our future: We can and will control our own screens. We are designing software that will empower you to produce and direct your own mind movies, your own prime-time shows.
DS: And how will it affect us?
TL: This will create a new model of human being, the cybernetic person. A new movement is emerging. It's something like the beatniks of the Fifties of the hippies of the Sixties. It's called cyberpunk. The concept comes from William Gibson's book NEUROMANCER. Cyberpunks are individuals who have the intelligence and the courage to access and use high-quantum technology for their own purposes and their own modes of communication.
DS: For example?
TL: In the movie WARGAMES the kid is a video hotshot. At school, the authoritarian, smug teacher gives him a hard time. He goes to the principal's office, gets the computer code and goes home and changes his grade. He ends up using his cyber skills to match wits with the Pentagon computers. Another example of cyberpunk was the young man from Hamburg, Mathias Rust, who piloted a small Cessna through the electronic nets and defense systems of the Russians and landed in Red Square. Why? Not for the CIA, nor for the German army, but for his own fucking pleasure. He is a classic cyberpunk. Charles Lindburg, the Lone Eagle, was another. Stanley Kubrick. Jann Weaver. Steve Jobs. I could go on.
DS: And they symbolize what?
TL: Taking control of the future ourselves. Ignoring the old- time institutions and archaic politics. You don't organize in old-time political groups to get involved in campaigns for political office. You don't get involved in the old struggle for or against Big Brother. You pilot out to the frontier and navigate a new life. "Cyber" comes from the Greek word for "pilot." Once you declare you independence in your mind, you're home free. As more and more people become free agents, or cyber pilots, it's gonna make an enormous difference. When we get just ten percent of the people operating this way, it will change the system, because they are the smartest ten percent. Star Wars, for example, cannot operate if ten percent of the computer techies think for themselves. To run a modern society you depend upon skilled, innovative quantum intelligence. These are exactly the people who are not going to become vassals to an economic or political organization. In his book NEUROMANCER, Gibson spells out a sociology for the twenty-first century that makes a lot of sense. The world is controlled by international global combines based in Japan, Germany, Switzerland. Nationalism is down. The multinationals won't allow war to break out; they can't let the Russians bomb America, because they own most of America. And it's an amazingly free world. The international combines don't care about your lifestyle. They just want us all to be consumers with individual options. They're not like the Islamic fundamentalists or the Reagan right-wingers or the communist moralists. They don't care what your sex life is. They don't care what drugs you take, as long as you consume. So there are going to be enormous free markets operating according to the laws of supply and demand--the basic form of democracy.
DS: Who is most threatened by this idea?
TL: The nationalists and the religious people. Their power will be greatly diminished.
DS: And what will happen in the political arena?
TL: Politics are going to change in the next two or six years, when the baby-boom generation comes of age. The baby boomers, born 1946 to 1964, are now between the ages of forty-one and twenty-three. The 1988 election is the first in which every baby boomer will be over twenty-one. The older ones are going to be running for office. That means in 1988, and certainly in 1992, the baby boomers, the Summer of Love kids, will take over. This generation is 76 million strong. They'll be in the position of the shark in the swimming pool, the polar bear in the small igloo. They can do whatever they fuckin' want.
DS: Yet young people today seem more conservative than ever.
TL: I don't think the old terms like "liberal" or "conservative" make much sense. They are individualists--skeptical, even cynical, about partisan politics. They've seen their ideals dashed with Vietnam, Watergate, Iranscam. These veterans of the Sixties are tough cookies.
DS: But how long will it take to get this technology into the hands of more people?
TL: Good point. I can only repeat that the personalization and popularization of high technology is the key. Popularization means cybernetic appliances in the hands of the people. It is not just the personal computer. It's any electronic technology that allows you to change your screen. With the new tape-editing appliances, you can become the director and producer of what you and your family see. You can combine educational programs with entertainment, create collages with your own X-rated home movies and bits you taped off CNN news.
DS: So we won't be dependent on outside programmers for all our entertainment and information.
TL: Exactly. Don't forget these media programmers want absolute control over our minds. When it's on my screen, I'll decide how it plays. The first time I got turned on to the new cyber-pilot idea was in a video arcade. I watched my grandchildren moving rockets around on the screens. Well, if you can do what with blips, you can do it with ideas.
DS: People like Jerry Falwell and Ed Meese probably wouldn't be too happy with your cyber-pilot concept. Are you concerned about the regressive trends represented by Falwell and the Meese commission?
TL: They must be scorned and ridiculed. Still, when you think about it, the Meese commission doesn't really hurt self-directed Americans very much. It stirs up a lot of excitement. If 7-Eleven won't sell me Playboy, I'll just go to another store down the block. The poverty thing is what hurts: people in the underclass deprived of information, discouraged from learning cybernetic skills.
DS: How do you propose we combat that?
TL: My company, Futique--that's the opposite of "antique"--has joined up with Activision to produce software programs that are so inexpensive and attractive that ghetto kids can quickly pick up the new language of screens and icons. More and more of the cybernetic equipment will become available. It will filter into all homes eventually, just like television.
DS: You speak to many college audiences. What do you find out there?
TL: We are dealing with the best-educated generation in history. They are a hundred times better educated than their grandparents, and ten times more sophisticated. There has never been such an open-mined group. The problem is that no one is giving them anything fresh. They've got a brain dressed up with nowhere to go.
DS: What do they expect when they come to see Tim Leary?
TL: The average college student doesn't know who I am. They weren't even born in l'ete d'amour. But word gets around. The rumor is that I'm someone vaguely counterculture and highly controversial.
DS: What are you trying to communicate to them?
TL: This is the golden age of intelligence. Instead of E=MC^2, it's I=MC^2, where "I" is information. According to this formula, the aim is to activate your mind, awaken new ideas, improve your communication skills. Pilot your life. Smarten up.
DS: And are the college kids responding?
TL: I sense that a lot of college kids envy the Sixties. They feel they have missed something. Today there's not the excitement and the feeling of change, the feeling of engagement, that existed then. So they tend to respond with enthusiasm to common-sense proposals for personal change.
DS: It's ironic that the Sixties are viewed so fondly when many emerged from that period completely disillusioned.
TL: It depends on your viewpoint. The so-called Sixties actually started in 1967, when the oldest baby boomer became twenty-one. The Summer of Love was a coming-of-age party. It was triggered symbolically by the Beatles' SGT. PEPPER album, which changed rock & roll into a new and powerful cultural form. There had been preparations for it in jazz, in the beatniks, in Elvis Presley, in the rhythm & blues stuff, people like Ray Charles. And the early elitist drug stuff, Ken Kensey and our group at Harvard. But the signal went global with SGT. PEPPER. Every year after 1967 produced another public eruption: the 1968 Chicago riots; Woodstock in 1969; Kent State in 1970. I think the Sixties peaked in 1976 when we elected a hippie- dippy, Howdy Doody guy named Jimmy Carter as president. Carter was quoting Bob Dylan and talking about peace and love and civil rights and human rights. How strange that seems today! The spirit of the Summer of Love in America ended with a thud in 1980 when we elected Nancy Reagan as commander in chief. But it rippled out globally. It surfaces whenever young people get rid of the old World War II generals. Spain after Franco started its summer of freedom. Portugal. Brazil when the colonels got the boot. Argentina. The Phillippines. What's happening in South Korea right now looks familiar, doesn't it? College kids and civilians in shirt sleeves standing up to the helmeted national guard? Shades of Kent State? And now, exactly twenty years later, the Summer of Love is hitting Russia. Glasnost! Openess! Punk-rock clubs in Moscow! Gorby singing "Give Peace a Chance"! Mrs. Gorby quoting Lennon--John, not Vladimir Ilyich--to Yoko Ono!
DS: Isn't the Reagan administration out of step with all this?
TL: It doesn't matter. It cannot stop the evolutionary wave. When it is time for the human species to activate their new brain circuits, it's gonna happen. Nothing is going to stop it! There is no way you can pass laws against the relentless increase in human intelligence. The evolution of precise technology is so seductive. There's no way you can stop individuals from exploring their brains and using the new cybernetic-knowledge appliances.
DS: In the meantime?
TL: The old game goes on. It is the genetic duty of the power holders to in every way discourage change in the gene pool. This means that those of us who are wired to change have to be really smart and really tough. If we can't prevail over turkeys like Meese and Falwell, then fuck it, we don't deserve to get into the future. If we can't outmaneuver vacuous four-letter robots like Bush and Bork and Kemp and Dole, then we better go back to school and smarten up. We are dealing with moral-mental pygmies here. We can navigate around Ollie North's 600-ship navy [smiles broadly]. They don't have a chance.
Interview by David Sheff, Rolling Stone Magazine