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Theme and variations on the Net seen from France

2 -- Variation 1: Strange Days

Lecturer [in a gentle, educational tone]: You shouldn't be afraid of Internet and all that. Let me tell you, the most precise word I can find to describe what is happening to us is "strange". We are moving towards "strange" days, weird days . . .

Student [turns pale, then ejaculates]: I think I would prefer dark days!
From an informal conversation held in early October 1995 (quoted from memory).

Indeed, not very long ago the future used to be reassuring. Even as imagined by George Orwell who, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, his great novel published in 1949, had foretold the worst: a mixture of futuristic technology and everything fascism and communism could produce that was new and efficient. People read his novel with the characteristic delight of children who fear wolves, when they listen to the story of Little Red Riding Hood. It was a comfortable nightmare.

The world was moving towards a radiant future, and had rapidly adopted as the cultural model for that radiance the US of the 50's, with the twin pillars of trust in God and faith in the ability of technology to build a stable order where nuclear weapons, electricity and families would reign supreme.

True, the 60's had then seen the coming of age of a strange generation. Spoiled kids had dared to proclaim that they wanted none of this radiant future, and the ideas of these lost children were disquieting: antiracism, anticolonialism, sexual freedom, feminism, ecology, phony Buddhism and other anti-West and anti-Family stuff. The future had remained blurred until the 70's.

But this generation had had children and had calmed down. The 80's had seen a return to normalcy, and all that was left from the hippies amounted to a couple of strong markets, including that of the Personal Computer, an object brought to the world by two ex-phone phreaks and LSD users, but which was soon to become the productivity tool par excellence, the symbol of the decade. The former protesters had finally played by the rules of the American Dream. It had been a close shave, though.

And as the 90's began the world was back on the track leading to the Radiant Future. End of History, New World Order, Pax Americana—these words, used by countless experts, signified that nothing could happen anymore. Nothing else than disciplined, joyful technical progress.

Few people realise even today that the networking of PCs does not fit in the picture of the Radiant Future, and that this novelty, which is more a cultural breakthrough than a technical one, takes us back in the direction of a strange future. A future in which "electronic drugs" could play the key part held by LSD in the 60's. We are indeed moving rapidly towards the triumph of the drug culture without drugs as such.

Political Dead-end

In France at least, the supporters of the legalisation of drugs, even "soft drugs" only, have no chance of winning acceptance for their point of view. Among them are quality people—well-informed, rational, telegenic—but the arguments they use are not going to help win the day. For they spend their time explaining that forbidden drugs are less dangerous than other, authorised ones and that prohibition causes human tragedies in greater numbers than it prevents them. Which is probably true, but has never been the point. It is a mistake to believe that a product is deemed legal or illegal as a result of a rational evaluation of the risks it entails for its users. Besides, the difference made between "soft" and "hard" drugs is rather specious and is too easy a target for the prohibitionists who never fail to point this out in public debates.

The social logic for the prohibition of drugs is not a public-health logic, but a truly religious logic, a logic of hatred towards the pleasure and experiences they bring or are said to bring. Drugs are really reproached with opening doors leading to artificial paradises. One of the best specialists of the topic, Timothy Leary, a fervent advocate of psychedelic drugs, uses an apt, interesting metaphor (which may be apocryphal—I could not find the exact quote). He is said to have explained, after one of his meetings with Tibetan lamas, that the mystic and psychedelic experiences are essentially one and the same, that LSD users are travellers reaching in a helicopter the very mountaintop that mystics have always climbed as mountaineers. This is a rich metaphor, which can explain the outlawing of chemical hallucinogens when drawn out: The lawmaker, who hates the very idea of trips in mountain regions, who even goes as far as denying the existence of the mountain, as it is situated on a territory which is beyond his control, has used a series of accidents involving helicopters poorly maintained by bad mechanics as a pretext for forbidding this transportation means, in order to keep his citizens in the plain, where he can manage them. Since he denies the existence of the mountain, he cannot forbid mountaineering, but from the plain, he can demonise Icarus, close the heliports, and take control of the market for spare parts, which he has just driven underground, in order to make a personal profit.

Technological Solutions

Of course, but . . . As the helo users occupy the front stage, other means of transportation are being installed on the flanks of the mountain: highways, funicular railways, cableways. So, we are forbidden artificial paradises. Well, this is not as disturbing as it used to be, since we have modernised our vocabulary, you see, and already started to explore virtual worlds without asking permission from anyone.

Role-playing games are the highways. Video games are the funicular railways, Virtual Reality à la Jaron Lanier is one of the cableways. Of course, these equivalences are not to be taken too seriously, but they evidence something which for the moment only a handful of precursors see: chemical drugs are only one part of a much vaster domain. You and I are producers of, and sometimes traffickers in, the most dangerous drug in the world: imagination. Drugs (plural) are the technologies for stimulating that imagination, which remains largely under-exploited—technologies based either on language (literature, RPG, hypnosis, [1] etc.), on chemistry (traditional or synthetic hallucinogens) or on electronics (video games, VR, cybersex, etc.). And indeed the stimulation of imagination is what most annoys the opponents of chemical drugs, as well as those who oppose VR, cybersex, RPGs, or even some literary genres. [2] One should therefore not be surprised at seeing all these people use remarkably similar arguments.

Through Internet, other strange technologies are coming, even more surprising ones, which should, contrary to VR, effectively duplicate the effects of chemical hallucinogens: computer-assisted meditation/hypnosis, computer-assisted lucid dream, computer-assisted action on brainwaves, so as to possibly help the human body itself to produce mind-expanding molecules, etc. Therefore, in the near future, "drug traffic" will not consist in carrying objects (atoms) across borders, but in transmitting documents (bits) over the Net (new hypnosis software, the latest version of a neurohacking tool, etc.) and this "traffic" will take place without custom, police or army interference, thanks to the steganography and cryptography software already being distributed by cypherpunks. [3]

New technologies will therefore make it possible for the defenders of artificial paradises—destined to remain a minority for very long still—to come out of the political dead-end in which they find themselves. They will not feel the need to exert themselves opposing prohibitions if it is impossible to establish or enforce such prohibitions. As for the prohibitionists, they will soon have to be content with shouting very loud, frightening the readers of Le Figaro [4] and pretending to take action. Except for the most radical among them, who could resort to the methods used by religious fundamentalisms worldwide when overtaken by progress: intimidation and murders. Yet, even if this latter possibility must tone down the joy which can be inspired by the foreseeable triumph of the culture of virtuality, or as I wrote above the triumph of the drug culture without drugs, all those who, like me, think that the values and lifestyles linked to the Radiant Future lead our societies straight into the wall can only wish to head for these Strange Days, [5] full of promises of subversion. For a future where, in the way the advocates of mind-expanding drugs have imagined it since Aldous Huxley in Island, the virtual worlds and techniques could have an essential political, human function, well beyond recreative drug use.

Using technical solutions to get rid of political barriers—this is the Internet way of doing things. This is the way of doing things which angers the so-called "responsible" persons who begin to measure up the stakes, which causes ill-informed students to turn pale and which incidentally nourishes my cynicism and generally bad attitude. Of course, it is not limited to the domain of artificial paradises. See you then next month for another dissonant variation of Dischord.

28 October 1995
translated by the author, 30 October 1995

[1] It should be remembered that Aldous Huxley, in Heaven and Hell, equates the effects of hypnosis and those of chemical hallucinogens.

[2] Cf. Ursula Le Guin, "Why are Americans afraid of Dragons?", in The Language of the Night (1979).

[3] All right, nothing here is really new. US Internet veterans, in particular, have probably already surfed through sites detailing the research in mind-expanding technology. But, believe me, all this is going to be a major cause of astonishment to most Europeans—even more so to the French. People around me are not ready for the tenth part of this.

[4] Or your own local equivalent to this paper, which used to be excellent—but that was long before I was born.

[5] By the way, I have not yet seen the film called Strange Days. In France, for the moment, we can only see the trailer, but this film appears to be very promising. Is it, as someone wrote in alt.cyberpunk, "the most cyberpunk movie ever"? I sure am impatient to know.

deoxy > politics