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Life imitates art – tech and drugs in Neuromancer

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.

So begins the visionary futuristic novel Neuromancer on which I commented in previous posts, linking it with the topic of cryptocurrency. The book continues to amaze me with further reading. I see disconnection as one of its less obvious themes but one which is prominent in my mind and explains the choice of imagery in Gibson’s opening line. What use is a television when it is only tuned to static, devoid of a signal, of meaningful connection?

The other theme which I have been drawn to is the drug use and psychedelic imagery scattered throughout the story. Many of the characters use chemicals to alter their consciousness: perhaps to escape the void of human connection that seems all-encompassing in this dystopic future world.

The holodeck/cyberspace/the matrix: a network of all the world’s digital information visualised in increasingly complex virtual reality constructs as the story progresses. It has a definitively trippy description throughout. A corporate virus named Kuang Grade Mark Eleven is visualised as

‘filling the grid […] with hypnotically intricate traceries of rainbow, lattices fine as snow crystal on a winter window.’

The quality of Gibson’s writing puts me in the mindset of an acid trip and he has admitted to using LSD during the writing process. The lead character Case loses his ability to jack into the matrix after he’s dosed with some psychedelic mushrooms. One of the by-products of the mushrooms is a mycotoxin which inhibits his ability to visit the life-like visualisations of networked data where he has made his reputation as a “console cowboy”, or hacker. Interestingly, LSD was discovered after studies on a fungus called ergot. Lysergic acid, from which LSD is derived, is a mycotoxic ergot alkaloid.

That infamous scene in the Matrix (which borrows heavily from this book) where Neo is offered the red/blue pill can be seen as an offer to come out of a lower state of consciousness and be introduced to a higher perception of reality in which the field of visualised data experienced until then is seen as it truly is: “What is real? How do you define 'real'? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” The difference here is that Case tries throughout to undo the effects of the mycotoxin and return to his reality, however simulated it may be. This leaves us questioning which the hallucinations are: the effects of the psychedelics, cyberspace, or our physical day-to-day reality?

Do androids trip on electric mushrooms?

In this

mycologist Paul Stamets talks about how the biggest living organism on the planet is a honey fungus spreading under the ground for 3.8km. How did the fungus get so big? Unsurprisingly it is put down to natural selection and Stamets explains brilliantly (from about 7:20 in the show) the process of a fungus adapting over millions (or even billions) of years from exposure to microbes in its ecosystem.

He goes on to say: “We have 5 or 6 skin layers that protect us from an infection. The mycelium only has one cell wall. On the other side of that cell wall are hundreds of millions of microbes per gram [of soil, many of which are trying to consume it], the mycelium is able to upregulate and in constant biomolecular communication with its ecosystem be able to prevent predators from consuming it, thus allowing it to achieve the largest mass of any organism in the world.” Stamets also variously comments on the state of organisation which enables this ‘fungal intelligence’:

'[Fungi] are the architects of our existence';
'They have more neural connections in the mycelial mass, over a thousand acres, than we have in our brain. They are accumulating knowledge-like intelligence';
'I call them earth’s natural internet';
'...massively resilient adaptive organisms that have a network-based design: not dissimilar from that of our neural networks; not dissimilar from the computer internet.'

Does this remind you of anything? I see great parallels between this and the A.I. constructs as they are depicted in the cyberspace of Neuromancer. If you were to ask me a year ago what were my thoughts on non-human intelligence, I would have answered with a few vague mutterings about perhaps there being a possibility of higher plant and animal intelligence than we can presently conceive. Oddly, considering the age of rapidly advancing technology and space exploration that I have grown up in, I would not have spent long pondering artificial or extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Since listening to the conversation mentioned above – and having my mind blown - I have come to accept a much greater role for fungal intelligence in our human evolution. If fungal intelligence predates the human, which predates the artificial, I am left questioning whether this all comes from the same source.

Psychedelics as a technology of consciousness

The examples that Stamets lists for possible symbiosis between fungi and humans (let alone the knock-on effects of their symbioses with the plants and animals) include the discovery of penicillin, the transporting of embers to recreate fire, and the treatment of consumption. Would it be accurate to describe psilocybin mushrooms as a technology, given that they have enabled us realise so many new developments?

The Collins dictionary definition of technology is “methods, systems, and devices which are the result of scientific knowledge being used for practical purposes.” Some of the benefits we have realised through the use of fungi could be described as such, whereas others seem to happen without us realising at all, or by chance. I for one would love to see some studies on micro-dosing - the potential harms and benefits – and whether it could be a legitimate tool for cognitive enhancement in technical fields. I will discuss this further in the final post of this trilogy.

Terrence McKenna's hypothesis (as critiqued here) about the role of psilocybin mushrooms in the development of human language as well as evolutionary advantages in hunting and mating are yet to be further developed scientifically. This is not surprising - to say McKenna was 'out-there' in his field would be a vast understatement. His closest peer in this respect is probably his brother, Dennis McKenna, who focuses his studies on the pharmacological side of psychedelics. He, along with pioneers such as Robert Carhart-Harris (leading the aforementioned LSD brain scans) and Rick Doblin of MAPS (working on clinical MDMA trials for PTSD) being at the vanguard of scientific discovery in their field.

Due in large part to the war on drugs progress in this area was stagnant for decades, although now it seems that it’s only a matter of time until ideas like those of Terrence McKenna can either gain traction or be discounted. The neurogenesis that Stamets attests to in the podcast, as well as potential cancer-fighting properties of culinary Turkey Tail mushrooms and boosting of immunological defence, are other areas of study that could have great potential.

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