Every idea comes from somewhere. Just as the apple fell on Newton’s head and he began to create his theories on universal gravitation, the eureka moment does not come from nowhere. Like the film 2001: A Space Odyssey questions, when the first monkey decided to use tools, what was going through its head?
A spark, a moment of genius, it is quite remarkable to imagine how we as a civilization go from something not existing to something existing. Especially when that ‘something’ can change the fabric of society forever. The invention of the computer, the internet and everything that came with that, was an example of one of these ‘somethings’. Nothing had existed like it before, and yet suddenly within around 30-50 years, it was all anyone could talk about. But how did the computer revolution happen and was it really caused by the mind-opening qualities of LSD?
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The Computer Revolution
The invention of the computer began in the 20th century and has continued to evolve and develop ever since. In fact, we are now at the point where almost 85% of the world’s population owns some sort of smartphone and – whether we like it or not – the metaverse is growing. It’s quite difficult defining what the metaverse actually is because, like in the 70s, the computer then is very different to what it is now. The metaverse is a futuristic concept that will one day be much further developed than it is now. In essence, it is a virtual, online space that people can live in – whatever that actually means. In a sense, this already exists. People spend, on average, around 2-3 hours a day on social media, which is an online space. The more developed version of the metaverse would exist even more sensorially, with people being able to see, hear and perhaps even touch the online space, and be there for longer periods of time. Wired writes:
“Broadly speaking, the technologies companies refer to when they talk about “the metaverse” can include virtual reality—characterized by persistent virtual worlds that continue to exist even when you’re not playing—as well as augmented reality that combines aspects of the digital and physical worlds. However, it doesn’t require that those spaces be exclusively accessed via VR or AR. Virtual worlds—such as aspects of Fortnite that can be accessed through PCs, game consoles, and even phones—have started referring to themselves as “the metaverse.”
Nonetheless, where we are now is far from where we were in the 20th century. So let’s take a step back and discover how the computer revolution started. It is hard to decipher when the invention of the computer actually happened because they didn’t look a thing like they do now. In fact, the first computers were thousands of complex wires, requiring just as many separate transmitters. Very few people came into contact with these machines, and even fewer knew how they actually worked. It was usually specialist men in lab coats, and the computers were mainly used for calculations. In a way, they were like large calculators. The major catalyst towards computer improvement was during the second world war, a time where all industrial and electrical inventions have to be improved fast to better the chances of national victory. Europeana writes:
“In 1936, Alan Turing’s paper On Computable Numbers was the first important catalyst driving innovation in computing. That same year, German pioneer of computer science Konrad Zuse started building computers in his parents’ home in Berlin. Zuse continued developing more complex machines and his Z3, finished in 1941 in part with funding from the Nazi regime, was the first freely programmable electromechanical computer ever built.”
As the 70s arrived, computer’s began becoming smaller, domestic and affordable to the average consumer. By the 80s, around 9% of the US had computers in their homes and these were used for minor administrative tasks, playing games and storing data. But then came the internet. A chance for people to communicate and share using their computers.
The Invention of the Internet
The inventor Nikola Tesla actually thought up the idea of a world wireless system in the early 1900s but it wasn’t until 1983 that this became a reality. The ‘network of networks’ was assembled on January 1st of that year. Then, in 1990, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. At this point, the web was simply a series of websites and hyperlinks. In 1992, a group of students at the University of Illinois created Netscape, which allowed users to easily search the web – seeing images and words at the same time – with scroll bars and clickable links. History writes:
“That same year, Congress decided that the Web could be used for commercial purposes. As a result, companies of all kinds hurried to set up websites of their own, and e-commerce entrepreneurs began to use the internet to sell goods directly to customers. More recently, social networking sites like Facebook have become a popular way for people of all ages to stay connected.”
And so the internet was born and the never-ending evolution of it was started. However, what was the apple on Newton’s head in this case? How did the computers go from mathematical machines to social connectors? Where did the vision of a world wide web come from?
LSD and the Computer Revolution
In the 1960s, those involved in the computer revolution decided to think differently about what its use could be. At a similar time, the US was exploring the uses of LSD after Albert Hofman accidentally invented it in 1938. The International Foundation for Advanced Study led around 350 people through acid trips for research. Some of these individuals were key figures in the development of computing. Doug Engelbart, who created the computer mouse, was one of these individuals. The New York Times writes:
“Mr. Engelbart saw much more. His team invented or envisioned “every significant aspect of today’s computing world” — point-and-click screen control, text editing, e-mail and networking”
But he wasn’t the only one with an interest in acid. Bill Gates, the creator of Microsoft, was known to dabble in the substance. Plus, Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, also did. He used it to spark his imagination, coming at problems from a different angle. He went on to call it one of the three most important things he did in his life. If it really is true – that all of these silicone nerds were taking LSD to increase their imagination and creativity – then perhaps the computer revolution really was caused by aicd. Afterall, every idea has to come from somewhere and this one truly was something that no one had ever seen before. But, it’s also important to understand how LSD works. Harthoghson – a Thomas Leary supporter- believed that acid did not create ideas, but expanded them:
“LSD’s action is thus primarily not psychotomimetic, psychotherapeutic, creative, or even spiritual—but just what it is: mind-manifesting… It acts as a mirror and magnifying glass to its user’s state of mind. If the state of that mind is anxious, LSD could easily function as an anxiety-inducing drug. If it is creative, then it could equally serve as a creativity enhancer. Should it be spiritual, then spirituality will be enhanced.”
In other words, LSD creates and enhances what is already there. If a load of intelligent computer scientists were taking acid in the 60s and 70s, then it was inevitable that they would create something special – like the internet. However, this isn’t necessarily solely due to acid – LSD may have just given them the push towards it. It allowed those individuals – who were known to be recluses, stuck in their own heads – to be creative for a moment. To envisage a future with their ideas. In fact, Thomas Leary – a psychologist and acid advocate – himself called the internet the ‘acid’ of the 1990s.
It’s romantic to imagine that LSD was the sole purpose for the creation of the internet. However, the world is far more nuanced than that. The combination of the free-thinking 60s and the electronic advancement – in response to the distress that was existing in Vietnam and at home in the US – brought about a lot of important discoveries. One of these was the beginning of the internet, and one of these was the magic of drugs. In a sense, these went hand in hand.
When society is full of inequality and distress, it is common for exploration and creativity to occur. These were both examples of that. Did LSD create the computer revolution? It is hard to tell. But perhaps they were both created together, symptomatic of an American society that called for serious social change.
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