Consensual Hallucinations (or The Birth of the Computational Sublime)

By Hari Kunzru, 10 March 1996

The Birth of the Computational Sublime

'LSD and peyote are potent psycho-chemicals that alter and expand the human consciousness. Even the briefest summation of the psychological effects of these drugs would have to include the following: Changes in visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory and kinesthetic perception; changes in experiencing time and space; changes in the rate and content of thought; body image changes; hallucinations; vivid images - eidetic images - seen with the eyes closed; greatly heightened awareness of colour; abrupt and frequent mood and affect changesÉ and in general, apprehension of a world that has slipped the chains of normal categorical ordering'[Masters and Houston, The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience, 1966]

'I don't need to trip. My computer does it for me.'[William Latham. Genetic Algorithm artist, Interview 1995]

I recently agreed to show a friend the Internet for the first time. As we sat at my desk waiting for a dial tone on the Demon London POP, I noticed how tense and excited he was. I couldn't be certain, but it seemed as if he was actually holding his breath. I was going to say something, but decided against it. Eventually we got a connection, and did the usual things - read postings on Usenet, sent an email, brought up some Web pages. Afterwards he was bitterly disappointed. 'I don't know,' he said. 'It seems like a con. I was expecting - well, more of a trip.'

The digital revolution, or whatever other name you'd give to the seachange in our attitude towards computing, has been an elaborate and complex process of seduction. It has been sold less on a reasoned assessment of the potential of networking, than on the strength of a powerful and attractive complex of images. It is hard to think of any other technical phenomenon in recent times (except perhaps the mathematics of chaos) which has impacted so forcefully on the general consciousness. In 1991 networked computation was the preserve of a small number of technicians and hobbyists. By 1995 awareness of the Internet had grown to a point where a woolly and slightly ludicrous vision of its possibilities formed the central plank of Tony Blair's keynote speech at the Labour Party conference. Blair spoke of 'virtual reality tourism that allows you anywhere in the world. Computers that learn about a child as they teach them, shaping courses to their personal need.' In a weird echo of Foucault he intoned to his audience that 'Knowledge is power. Information is opportunity. And technology can make it happen.'

The Labour leader's familiar-sounding hype wasn't the result of an analysis of the benefits of networking, or even necessarily of a coherent understanding of the technology lying behind the internet. Ask Tony about packet switching or IP numbers and chances are he wouldn't have much to say. However he, along with much of the rest of the world, is possessed of a gut sense that an important cultural shift is taking place. The rhetoric of revolution is everywhere, and with it a set of ideas about cyberspace as a new world, and as an altered state of consciousness. Seen in these terms, my friend's disappointment with the Internet isn't an insignificant phenomenon. It points to the depth to which this meme - of the perceived link between computers and hallucinogens - has penetrated our culture.

When you think about it, it's extraordinary that the two things are connected at all. As categories they have traditionally been rigidly separated, almost antithetical. The computer is the sign of rationality, linearity, logic and science, the ultimate icon of technocapital. This opposes it in almost every respect to the nonlinear, mystic, associative realm of hallucination. Add to this the hostility to science and technology of the postwar counterculture - the social, intellectual and ethical framework in which hallucinogens are inevitably experienced in modern Western society - and it would seem that there is no way tripping and typing could ever get tangled up together. Yet in 1996 Acid guru Timothy Leary has built a second career on internet boosterism, declaring to anyone who'll listen that 'PCs are the new LSD'. Meanwhile London clubs like Megatripolis, Back to the Source and the Parallel Youniversity, all strongly influenced by the narcoculture, provide Net access to their punters next to the brain machines and smart drugs. The link has come to seem self-evident. But how did it arise? What are its effects?

An obvious ur-moment can be found in what is fast becoming the most influential book of the fin-de-millennium, William Gibson's Neuromancer. One quote has been wheeled out repeatedly to illustrate the giddy potential of networking:

'Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical conceptsÉ A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...'It's perhaps peculiar that this paragraph has taken on such importance. As a working model, or even a definition, it leaves a lot to be desired. The broken phrases with their telegraphic poetry ('the nonspace of the mind') seem insubstantial, hard to grasp. Yet they leave a powerful narcotic residue, an impression of speed and space and a sense of infinite potential; the stuff on which the seduction of the digital revolution is based. After the details have faded, this potential remains, a kind of blind rhetorical force which can be harnessed to any one of a range of technological projects.

If we look at the phrases 'unthinkable complexity' and 'city lights receding' , the substance of Gibson's 'consensual hallucination' becomes clearer. He presents us with nothing less than an image of a computational Sublime, a phenomenon so vast it overpowers sense and cognition - an intimation of immortality, of an infinity instantiated by information technology. In this case, the infinite recedes to the horizon, an incomprehensible quantity of data embodied as structures of light ranged in the huge 'nonspace' of the matrix.

The Sublime has a long and distinguished pedigree in Western culture. For John Locke it was a problem, eating at the empirical foundations of cognition, threatening to undermine the very basis by which the mind comprehended the world. Conversely, for just about everyone associated with the Romantic movement, it provided a privileged moment of access to the infinite - what Coleridge excitedly termed the 'En kai Pan' - the One and All. Gibson's 'nonspace', this dimensionless space brought into being ex nihilo by the graphical representation of information, has obvious roots in Romantic theories of Sublimity. Apprehension, not just of vastness, but of a vastness imbued with meaning, was vital to Romantic notions of truth, beauty and value, notions which, in spite of the best efforts of Post-Modernism, form the basis for our 'intuitive' feelings about aesthetics today. Cyberspace's version of the Sublime is potent; in the information age what could be more resonant with meaning than the vastness of information itself?

Via this connection, information technology has become linked with at least one major visionary tradition. Gibsonian cyberspace has equally strong connections with others - with medieval mysticism and its world of 'signs and wonders', with the metonymic jouissance of poststructuralist systems of signification (if you balk at calling that hallucinatory, think of the Baudrillardian spin on simulacra and seduction), and with the vast SF literature concerning technological simulations. Common to all these is a concern with the relationship between appearance and reality, and the description of what might be called visionary technologies, whether based on silicon or prayer, reliant on semiconductors, theology or a mixture of laudanum and post-Kantian philosophy. Certainly, for their believers, computers have become a visionary technology, providing, like drugs or poetry, a means to attempt contact with the En Kai Pan.

This computational sublime has covertly been the main engine for the obsession with networking which has swept our culture since Neuromancer's publication in 1984. On a deep level, people want to believe that logging on will produce and altered state of consciousness. Another factor in this extraordinarily successful seduction has been the role of computers in creating fractal graphics. The Mandelbrot and Julia sets, along with the other phenomena studied by chaos mathematics, were only 'discovered' with the assistance of computers, which enabled mathematicians to perform millions of iterative operations, revealing the complex, recursive patterns formed by plotting the solutions to simple nonlinear equations on a Cartesian grid. With their suggestive relationship to natural forms, and their extraordinary beauty, fractals were immediately taken up by the rave culture of the late eighties and early nineties, a culture which also gave great ideological weight to the implications of chaos for traditional linear mathematics. The possibility that many common natural phenomena were not susceptible to the control of a scientific establishment which had heavily invested in linear modelling seemed to point to the bankruptcy of that establishment, and indeed to the end of the entire scientific project of control over nature.

So computers, quintessential products of the military-industrial complex, became seen as agents of social change, even of subversion. Ironically, this movement was probably given its greatest assistance by the boom in home computing, epitomised by Bill Gates' vow to 'put a PC on every desk' in the Western world. Rapid advances in commercial computer graphics, which in under twenty years have brought us from Pong to today's 32-bit videogame consoles, have reinforced the image of the computer as 'tripping machine', a role which is now firmly entrenched with the proliferation of computer-based vision mixing and photo-manipulation technologies, not to mention the explicitly hallucinatory high-end graphics of Hollywood films like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. Via the production and consumption of images, computers have become imbued with an ill-defined countercultural aura, the tools being credited for the use to which they have been put.

The re-invention of computers as a visionary technology has one important further dimension. Central to the cyberspace dream, especially in such culturally important formulations as the cybersex fantasy and the identity-escape fantasy ( or fuck who you wanna fuck and be who you wanna be, all through the wonders of technology) is the idea of the out-of-body experience. This represents possibly the highest revolutionary potential of information technology, and the point where it connects most explicitly with the hallucinogenic tradition.

The argument (and it is a powerful one) goes like this. Embodiment defines lived reality. Put simply, the limits of my body are the limits of my world. A basic challenge to my bodily limits is posed by any form of networked communication. Say I phone Japan. The range of my voice, of my body, is extended half-way across the world. Am I still 'in' the same place as I was before I picked up the phone?

As the technology becomes more sophisticated, what seems like an academic question becomes more urgent. I interact with someone over the Net, and can have significant effects at a distance. For example I can send data which can be used to control and manipulate physical objects. Australian artist Stelarc hammers home the implications of this in performances where parts of his body are controlled over the Net by a remote agent. Who is acting? Where is the actor?

Increasingly, while still notionally embodied as users sitting at our desks or hunched over consoles in arcades, we project ourselves elsewhere. Our bodies and consciousnesses are losing their definition, distributing themselves across some version of Gibson's matrix. For many people, this appears continuous with the experience of the shaman or the curandero projecting into the spirit world. Access to the digital dreamtime is solely dependent on the quality of the interface, and the hardware driving it. The shift from phonecalls to full body meltdown becomes a question of improvements in processor speed and interface design. This is not a specious point. It is here that the relationship between computers and drugs ceases to be metaphorical. Both are prosthetics. The only difference is that one technology is based on semiconductors, the other on chemistry.

If computers can potentially be agents or facilitators of a 'distributed consciousness', or platforms to project us into some cyberspatial spiritworld, then there is real substance to the insistent cultural connection between networking and hallucination. Whether you accept this or not - and it is the question onto which much of the current hype about cyberspace covertly devolves - it is true to say that computers have supplanted hallucinogenic drugs at the centre of countercultural debate about social change and the construction of identity. PC's have truly become the new LSD. It remains to be seen whether the promised digital revolution in consciousness will fizzle out in the same way as the acid dream.

Hari Kunzru <hari AT>