By the 1980s, Timothy Leary, America’s godfather of LSD, made a slight alteration to his motto. “Turn on, tune in, drop out” was the rallying call for his 30,000 patrons of thought in Golden Gate Park. To discover something new by expanding up their minds once in awhile through drugs and observation. He changed it to “turn on, boot up, jack in.” 30 years into his psychedelic crusade, Leary turned his attention to a new expanse: the virtual universe of personal computers.
Timothy Leary was arrested in 1970 for possession of two roaches and then arrested again for, uh, escaping from prison. But his sentence was cut short by then California Governor Jerry Brown, and Leary was freed in 1976. Leary essentially missed out on much of the 70s by being either on the run or in a cell. His life as a free man found its new obsession fairly quickly. It was the Apple II’s release in 1977 that apparently set Leary’s technology passion ablaze. He began referring to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in saintly terms. Jobs, after all, accredits much of his creative thinking to experiments with acid.
The early computer programmers and the 1960s counterculture movement found themselves with an odd kinship. Both thought of themselves as the revolutionary leaders the future needed. Both had libertarian streaks. Both made California their home bases, either for academic institutions like Stanford or Berkeley, or drawn by the extremely nice weather needed for an endless summer. The thought leaders of technology and acid probably shopped from the same bookstores and picked up from the same dealers. These parallels were tied together by Leary and peers like Alan Watts, who mutually with programmers found their goals harmonious.
For Leary, LSD was but the most efficient gateway to a decentralized way of thinking, but not the goal itself. That the mind is too tightly wound and requires being blown open. Computers, a machine built to think and communicate on our behalf, was fascinating. It may sound bizarre to a culture where digital devices are as ubiquitous as hand towels, but in his 1994 book Chaos & Cyber Culture Leary described personal computers as the LSD for a new generation.
“These exercises in translating thoughts to digital codes and screen images have helped me understand how my brain works,” wrote Leary. “My experiences, far from being original or unique, seem to be part of an enormous cultural metamorphosis. Like millions of others, I have come to feel as comfortable over there in Cyberia, Tubeland, on the other side of my electronic-reality window, as I do operating in the closed-in Terrarium of the material world. My brain, like yours, needs to be clothed in cyberwear and to swim, float, navigate through the oceans of electronic data.”
Of course, Leary didn’t only want to be a spectator to the digital revolution, he wanted to participate. When the New York Public Library released Leary’s personal archive to the public in 2013, many were surprised at how much of the collection was composed of floppy disc and home-made software prototypes. Many were attempts to create interactive versions of his teachings or collaborations with artists like Keith Haring. The absolute wildest of which was an unfinished adaptation of William Gibson’s Neuromancer called Neuromancer: Mind Movie. Not much of the text adventure is playable, but there exists enough code to illustrate Leary’s ambition. The game would have been a whos-who of 80s weirdos, with new text by William S. Burroughs, music by Devo and cameos by David Byrne and Grace Jones.
While his attempts were plentiful, Leary had succeeded in publishing one piece of software. In 1985, Timothy Leary’s Mind Mirror was published by Electronic Arts (yes, that Electronic Arts) and sold a modest 65,000 copies. It was a virtual reinterpretation of his Ph.D. dissertation The Social Dimensions of Personality, converting a group therapy exercise into a conversation with your computer. In Mind Mirror you experience a rebirth and reprogramming, chewed through a survey process, not unlike a Buzzfeed quiz. Albeit a Buzzfeed quiz about your own escape from the womb.
“It’s a technique, you take your old stereotypes, your old self,” said Leary about Mind Mirror. “You see it on the screen, and then you massage that thought. You can change it. How would I like to be? How would I be if I was a child? How would I be if I was a woman? You get the picture? Suddenly you’re freed from this heavy concept of the self.”
Leary was right to put his chips on computers, you’re looking at one right now but was perhaps altruistic about technology allowing users to reevaluate the self in a drug-like fashion and instead just stretching out the existing ego into this louder, longer duplication. The decentralized mind is still one of the most interesting things about the virtual landscape, even if it doesn’t always stick to the script. Earlier this year artist David O’Reilly released Everything, a game about taking the shape of, well, everything, as Alan Watts lectures play in the background about deconstructing perception and values. It’s the first video game to ever be eligible for an Academy Award, considered as an animated short film.