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CHAPTER 2: In which the protagonist realises he is not really the protagonist.


A selection of choice cuts from the world of psychedelic subculture and medicine, accompanied by some personal reflections on the psyche and the path to healing.

  • Written by Nick Stebb
  • Category: Psychedelicacies

Neuromancer and the Myco-Matrix: Part 2

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 upon 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 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 mind-set 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 fungi 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: psychedelics, cyberspace, or our physical day-to-day reality?

Do androids trip on electric mushrooms?

In this fascinating podcast 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 [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, the possibility of higher plant and animal intelligence of that which 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 may predate the artificial, I am left questioning whether this all comes from the same source.

Psychedelics as a technology of consciousnes

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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  • Written by Nick Stebb
  • Category: Psychedelicacies

Neuromancer and the Myco-Matrix: Part 1

The End is Nigh

It doesn't seem such a crazy thing to say any more, does it? During the preceding year the pessimistic end of the spectrum of thought has become a lot more palatable to even the least switched on humans. Being one of them (human, in case you were wondering), the questions I've been mulling over as we approach the end of another year in the post-truth world are: "the end of what?"; and "how soon is nigh?".

It suddenly hit me. No... not suddenly. It was actually kind of slow and grinding, but over the course of just one morning. My bullshit tolerance level is at its lowest for some time, so taking on corporate barista work in the City of London was a way of rapidly becoming unhinged. Enveloped in the microcosm of depressive insanity that is the in-house café at a corporate law firm, I was holding up surprisingly well. That is - until the Christmas music started.

It's not that I don't like celebrating a co-opted pagan/shamanic tradition in the name of consumerism, I'd just rather do it on the actual date, not 3 weeks prior. I don't blame the rest of the staff - they just wanted something to look forward to, and who can blame them... compelled to habitually wake up at an unnatural hour, commute in total darkness to a sterile work environment where they re-enact a humdrum routine of preparing excessive amounts of out of season produce for a clientele who would, at this time of year, rather work from home (or maybe they were just eating somewhere else). 

What could possibly be driving such an insane pattern of behaviour? Money, obviously.

I'd maybe have been down with it, too, if it was the right kind of money. I spent my break time watching the ever fluctuating price of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. I'm sure I was the only one. It's a fun game to play, especially if you have 'skin in the game', or are 'HODL-ing' the electronic currency yourself. The price of these new digital stores of value is up and down like a roller-coaster at the moment, and this immense volatility is one of the biggest obstacles of their adoption as a method of exchange. Why would you spend money when it's going to be worth more tomorrow?

Conversely, why would you earn money in a currency that will be worth less tomorrow? Because it's been the only option. That might be about to change.

Bitcoin: the Origin Story

Let's put any value judgment on the idea of cryptocurrencies aside for a moment, and look at where they came from. Aptly for a currency that allows users to be pseudonymous, Bitcoin was invented by someone going by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. There are many possible identities for Satoshi, but we know he/she authored a paper in a cryptography mailing list called "Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System" in 2009.

From Bitcoin's website: "Bitcoin is a consensus network that enables a new payment system and a completely digital money. It is the first decentralized peer-to-peer payment network that is powered by its users with no central authority or middlemen. From a user perspective, Bitcoin is pretty much like cash for the Internet." 

How does this differ from digital fiat currency that we use in online banking and credit card transactions? It's all in the phrase "decentralized peer-to-peer (P2P) payment network". Before I'd heard of this, the first and only place I had experience of P2P was in file-sharing. Back in the day, when Napster was invented, and later with Bit Torrent, we gained the ability to share data with other users rapidly by bypassing any centralized servers to get the files we wanted. Sure, this lead to huge upheaval in the music industry due to copyright infringement, but P2P technology was alive and in widespread use.

This technology has evolved and now is applicable to monetary transactions. This appeals especially to anarchists - and aptly Bitcoin was primarily used to transact in the black market for most of it's lifespan - but it could have benefit to anyone who realises that centralized manipulation of fiat currencies is disempowering. The critical adjustment comes from the use of triple-entry transactions. From

"Triple entry is a simple idea, albeit revolutionary to accounting. A triple entry transaction is a 3 party one, in which Alice pays Bob and Ivan intermediates. Each holds the transaction, making for triple copies.
To make a transaction, Alice signs over a payment instruction to Bob with her public-key-based signature [3]. Ivan the issuer then packages the payment request into a receipt, and that receipt becomes the transaction
This transaction is digitally signed by multiple parties, including at least one independent party [4]. It then becomes a powerful evidence of the transaction [5]."

The applications of the technology extend far beyond Bitcoin. The blockchain (an un-tamperable ledger of transactions) is set to change the way you transact with others in almost every part of your life. If you have time to go deeper on this I recommend this TedX talk which contextualizes these developments.

The End Is... Crypto?

I'm not suggesting that Bitcoin is going to defy market forces and experience a continuous rise in price. There are no guarantees it will keep rising, and certainly at the current moment it looks to be a crazy bubble that many are comparing to the Tulip mania of the 1630s. Nevertheless it's impossible to deny the upward trend in interest and adoption of this and other new cryptocurrencies (or 'altcoins', of which there are already over a thousand) that has occurred in the last few months. The hyper-deflation that the Bitcoin economy is experiencing seems ludicrous, especially when you look at how little can actually currently be bought with them. We're so used to our fiat currencies and the ever decreasing spending power (inflation) that has come with their use. During my lifetime there has been nothing else. But what would a world look like in which cryptocurrency use was the norm?

As I mentioned in this prelude, cryptocurrencies are entering the zeitgeist in more ways than one. In the techno-thriller TV show "Mr Robot" (spoiler alert), the lead character Elliot Alderson orhestrates a global financial reset, crippling the E-corporation's financial enslavement of the population by destroying all records of their debts in fiat currency. In the chaos following the event, the citizens of this quite conceivable dystopia are forced to barter, or else use cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin is mentioned as a rival to the E-corp's emerging 'E-coin'. The show is gripping not just because of it's great writing, acting and production but for it's conceptualization of a post-fiat, post-debt world.

Hacker culture is explored in Mr Robot in a way that's more true to life than any TV show or book I've experienced before, although in many ways it reminds me of William Gibson's cypherpunk classic 'Neuromancer'. Often cited as the inspiration for the movie 'The Matrix' (there are many parallels) and the origin of the phrase 'cyberspace', the premonitions about cryptography and currency are also striking. One can't help wondering at this point whether we can complete the triangle linking 'Mr Robot'/crypto with 'The Matrix': Mr Alderson/Mr Anderson? If you watch the scene where Elliot is cornered in his office by the FBI you might doubt the coincidence. There is even an altcoin called Neo!

Towards a Tokenized Economy

Fiat currency is government issued and not backed by a real world commodity. Manipulation of the value of the Pound through expansion of the money supply and centralized control of interest rates has been the Conservative party's economic strategy since Thatcher was in power. The other political parties have followed suit.

We have an economy plagued by intermediaries and centralised control. For me, the EU referendum was moot: when asked to choose between which centrally manipulated and corrupt economy I wanted to be a part of, I had no answer as the choices were leading me into the same dead end.

When the dying nature of our current paradigm truly hit me, I was making coffee for corporate lawyers and solicitors (intermediaries), getting paid by an employment agency (an intermediary) in a currency issued by a central bank to a commercial one (who make most of their profit acting as a financial intermediary) in order to pay rent on a property via... you guessed it... another agent.

How long will it be until all of these intermediaries are obsolete? There are already startups developing systems that may revolutionise the distribution of energyevent tickets, personal data to name just a few fields.

Maybe the proximity of my workplace to the Bank of England, the hub of this manipulation of money, was a catalyst to my thought. Maybe it was just time I trusted my gut (I've been insisting on the end of our economic paradigm for some time, but up until recently I convinced myself there would be a huge crash). The absurdity of the situation - making yourself miserable, doing a job that doesn't need doing, to earn a currency you don't believe in - suddenly struck me. I had to get out of there.

The current system as we know it is changing. This is the end that is nigh. But what are we heading towards? Will it be better or worse? Or will it be the same - just another form of economic slavery? I'm going to expand on these development in human economic interaction by linking it to the worlds of psychedelics and the evolution of consciousness. Until then, here's a beautiful cautionary creation by loop pedal extraordinaire Mike Love (not forgetting his percussionist friend).

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