Thursday, March 5, 2009

Terence McKenna's Last Trip

Some excerpts from this 5 page article:
"Within 36 hours of his seizure, 1,400 messages poured into McKenna's email in-box. The flood is testament to his underground stature."

"The psychedelic experience is not the equivalent of a dust bunny under your psychic bed," says McKenna. "It's a product of the fractal laws that govern the world at an informational level. There is no deeper truth."

The Net, says McKenna, is "an oracle," fostering an unprecedented dialog between human beings and the sum total of human knowledge.

"The Internet is an oracle for anyone in trouble," McKenna explains, using his illness as an example. "Within 10 minutes I can be poring through reams of control studies, medical data, and personal reports. If anything, my cancer has made me even more enthusiastic about the idea that through information, people can take control of and guide their own lives."

The most prominent feature of the room are the 14 large bookcases that line the walls, stuffed with more than 3,000 volumes: alchemy, natural history, Beat poetry, science fiction, Mayan codexes, symbolist art, hashish memoirs, systems theory, Indian erotica, computer manuals. Deeply attuned to the future of consciousness, McKenna remains a devoted Gutenberg man. "The majority of my fans could not conceive of this room," he says. "They would have no idea that a printhead could push so hard against electronic culture."

McKenna derives great pleasure from pushing the envelope of the human mind, but he is equally turned on by technology. On the one hand, the house, which was only finished last year, is completely off the grid, irrigated with rainwater collected in a large cistern up the hill, and powered by solar panels and a gas generator. There are no phone lines. At the same time, Ethernet connections are built in everywhere, even out on the deck. The computers in his office - a 7100 Power Mac, a dual-processor NT, a G3 PowerBook, and Silness' PC laptop - jack into cyberspace at 2 Mbps through the 1,500-pound high-gain dish on his roof. Using spread-spectrum radio technology, McKenna's dish swaps packets with a similar rig on the roof of CTI, his ISP, 30 miles north. The $20,000 system carries voice traffic as well. His plan was to eventually stream lectures over the Net, thus eliminating the need to travel in order to "appear" at conferences and symposia.

McKenna normally spends four or five hours a day online, devouring sites, weeding through lists, exploring virtual worlds, corresponding with strangers, tracking down stray facts. Sometimes he treats the Net like a crystal ball, entering strange phrases into Google's search field just to see what comes up. "Without sounding too cliché, the Internet really is the birth of some kind of global mind," says McKenna. "That's what a god is. Somebody who knows more than you do about whatever you're dealing with."

In McKenna's mind we are not just conjuring a new virtual language. We are also, in good old shamanic style, conjuring the ineffable Other. McKenna argues that the imagery of aliens and flying saucers - which spring up in numerous tripping reports as well as in pop technoculture - are symbols of the transcendental technologies we are on the verge of creating. In other words, we are producing the alien ourselves, from the virtual world of networked information.

"Part of the myth of the alien," says McKenna, "is that you have to have a landing site. Well, I can imagine a landing site that's a Web site. If you build a Web site and then say to the world, 'Put your strangest stuff here, your best animation, your craziest graphics, your most impressive AI software,' very quickly something would arise that would be autonomous enough to probably stand your hair on end. You won't be able to tell whether you've got code, machine intelligence, or the real thing." McKenna thinks this is coming soon, within the next 10 or 20 years.
Which means that McKenna is as prepared as anyone can be for the final journey into the dark. As he points out, "Taking shamanic drugs and spending your life studying esoteric philosophy is basically a meditation on death." McKenna calls death the black hole of biology. "Once you go over that event horizon, no messages can be passed back. It represents a limit case in the thermodynamics of information. So what is it?"

McKenna chuckles. "The best answer I've gotten yet is out of Don DeLillo's Underworld, where the nun discovers that when you die you become your Web site."

Like many people staring unblinkingly into the black hole, McKenna has opened up a great deal in the months since his diagnosis. "I'm much more in tune with the Buddhist demand for compassion," he says. "The real dilemma is how to build a compassionate human civilization. If we betray our humanness in the pursuit of civilization, then the dialog has become mad."

In his heart, though, McKenna remains an optimist. "When I think about dying, the thing that surprises me is how much of the future I regard as history, but I don't want to miss it. I want to know how it all comes out. I would like to know how the universe came to be, if extraterrestrials exist, where biotech is going, where the Internet is going. Because this is it. We are on the brink of a posthuman existence. So what's it gonna look like? What's it gonna feel like?"

Facing his end, McKenna admits that he doesn't "have a lot riding on my vision of things." But the visions are precisely what make him such an inspiration to so many. Every day another talking head auditions for the role of visionary, trying to convince us that their speculations about the future are true. But real visionaries are more than just futurists. Their power lies less in prophecy than in giving us new perspectives on a constantly mutating world, perspectives that manage to be simultaneously timeless and new. Real visionaries are always dodgy characters, because they embrace strange, heretical, even dangerous ideas. Terence McKenna is a real visionary.

Read it all at Wired's: Terence McKenna's Last Trip (5 pages!).

No comments: