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Transmissions from The Timothy Leary Papers: What I Thought I Knew
When I first started the Leary Processing Internship in June, I had what is probably the most common impression of Timothy Leary. I had obviously heard about him before, but honestly, all I knew about him was that he was famous for his line "turn on, tune in, drop out." To me, he was simply the LSD guru of the 1960s. Not having grown up in his heyday, I only knew what was best and most widely known about him.
Fast forward two months, and here I sit at my desk at the New York Public Library contemplating what to write about for this very blog post. In the time I have spent processing different parts of Mr. Leary's collection, I have come to discover that there was so much more to him than simply being the 1960s counterculture icon that we are all familiar with. Having the opportunity to work with materials of his later life, including his subject files containing material annotated with his often colorful personal comments, I was a firsthand witness to Leary's wide variety of interests and hobbies. These collected materials not only revealed his interest in everything from politics (he was a staunch libertarian) to space migration, drug reform policy to sports (Leary loved baseball), but they also informed me of his thoughts and opinions on these topics as well.
Out of all that I had gone through, I was especially drawn to Leary's serious interest in technology, computers, and software programming. He was living in the dawn of a new age of technology and, as with his drug research in the 1960s, was at its forefront. In fact, with a little more research these two phases of his life revealed an interesting parallel to me.
Just as psychedelic drugs had expanded the consciousness of individuals and let them explore their minds, the advent of new technology would assist these same individuals in, according to Leary in his book Chaos & Cyberculture, "questioning authority, independent thinking, [and] individual creativity."
It all came down to what Leary referred to as "Chaos." To him, it was the basic nature of the Universe — magnificent, yet extremely disorderly and complex. In the same vein, technology, computers, and the Internet were all considered chaotic. Technology allowed individuals to "view bits and pieces of chaos" or, in other words, to make sense and order of chaos, of the universe, and of the environment around them without having "the people in charge" do it for them or tell them how they should perceive it. As Leary said, "[i]s it not true that freedom in any country is measured perfectly by the percentage of personal computers in the hands of individuals?"
Leary himself was also heavily involved in the development of technology and of computer software. One example, The Game of Life, was a game that he developed in conjunction with Jeff Scheftel, a UCLA film archivist, and was a form of interactive computer software. Another program, Mind Mirror, was essentially based on Leary's dissertation from Berkeley and, according to Robert Greenfield's Timothy Leary: A Biography, "resurrected The Leary Circle in digital form".
Of course, there was also Neuromancer, which was a computer adventure game created by Interplay Productions and loosely based off of William Gibson's novel of the same name.
The irony of it all? Leary himself was computer illiterate for his entire life, "...and later had to rely on others to perform so simple a task as retrieving his own e-mail". Considering that by this point I had thought him so technologically savvy, this revelation came as quite a shock to me.
Yet what I also found fascinating and, at some points, quite funny, were Leary's predictions for our technologically-driven future. Leary was on-point in his forethought with regards to the amount of time we would spend online now that we have all this new technology (quite a lot of time, that is) and the types of computers that would be available. Even more so, Leary predicted that by the year 2000 we would have computers as small as credit cards that would have access to trillions of pages of information. I may be a few years off with this, but... iPhone, anyone?
Granted, some of these predictions are a bit off. We are not walking around wearing what Leary called "computer clothing" and using virtual reality as our primary means of communication (instead of the standard phone call), but he was not too far from the truth. Technology has really expanded the minds of the populace, and has made information (including this blog post!) available to people around the world.
Overall, my experiences during my time as a Leary intern have unearthed an entirely different side of Timothy Leary. While he was, in fact, "that guy" who took LSD in the 1960s, and continued to take drugs throughout his lifetime, his use of psychedelics was not the only thing to define him. Looking through his papers revealed a multifaceted man, one whose interests ranged the gamut and was way ahead of his time.