News & Perspectives

Timothy Leary on Immersive Technology, Virtual Sushi and the Future of Traveling Light

Timothy Leary on Immersive Technology, Virtual Sushi and the Future of Traveling Light

A Never Before Published Interview on Virtual Reality.
News// Posted by: Jeff Greenwald / 13 Oct 2017
Timothy Leary on Virtual Reality

Note: In November of 1993, on assignment for EcoTraveler magazine, Enter’s Jeff Greenwald visited Los Angeles to speak with Timothy Leary. This extraordinary interview, never before published, conveys the acid guru’s gleeful and optimistic projections for a technology that, a quarter century later, is at last entering the mainstream. This is one of several articles in a series on Immersive Reality from Enter.  © 2017 by Jeff Greenwald

*  *  *

11/14/93: Someday, you won’t have to worry about what to pack for a trip up Mount Everest. You’ll throw on shorts and an old T-shirt, make yourself a cup of java and bicycle down to the nearest virtual travel arcade. There—for the price of a ticket to a rock concert—you’ll be fitted up with an electronic interface, and plugged into the latest travel program. Glancing at a keyboard superimposed over your field of vision, you’ll blink at the word GO --  and explore the Himalaya in ways that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay never dreamed possible.

Everyone who follows the news has heard the term Virtual Reality, more popularly known as  Immersive Technology (IT). Using powerful computers, stereo video headsets and slip-on ‘datagloves,’ IT programs generate clumsy (but fun) illusions of an alternate reality.  By pointing one’s dataglove or changing the orientation of one’s head, one seems to move—even fly—through an artificial world. IT’s contribution to world tourism is bound to be vast, but its potential for creating a new generation of eco-travelers -- savvy nomads in a real global village -- is even more exciting. The promise of real-time, on-line encounters with Tibetan lamas, Peruvian healers and Senegalese dancers may be less than 10 years away.

Eager to hear the birth cries of this new phenomenon, I traveled to Los Angeles to speak with Timothy Leary. Dr. Leary, internationally famous for his groundbreaking experiments with LSD in the mid-century, is currently investigating ‘trips’ of a different sort. For the past several years he has served as a visionary spokesman for the brave new world of Immersive Technology. We sat down at a glass picnic table in the backyard of Leary’s Beverly Hills home. Tremendously energetic and bogglingly overcommitted, the chain-smoking seer shared some of his ideas about IT travel -- its prospects, its virtues, and its limitations.

*  *  *

Jeff Greenwald - What do we talk about when we talk about “Immersive Technology” travel?”

Timothy Leary - The 20th century has linked the world through electricity; information now travels at the speed of light. The telephone was the first immersive technology device; it made it unneccesary to physically travel from place to place in order to talk with someone. Telescreen -- I won’t use the word ‘television,’ because it’s been coöpted -- will make it possible to have deep international friendships, face to face, on the screen, in real time.

It’s all interpersonal. It’s not about visiting another culture; it’s about visiting individuals from another culture. You’re making friends with a person from a different culture, with a different language. What this means is that a new iconographic language will develop. We’ll have the tremendously rich, human power of face-to-face body language, combined with the explosive richness of the iconographic, multi-media world. You’ll be able to download the 7 O’Clock News, put Mickey Mouse’s face on top of Dan Rather, scan in some of your own home movies and boom, send it to your friends in the jungles of Borneo.

At the present time the American household watches a flat, two-dimensional screen. Now we’re talking about I click into your home, you click into my home. It’s going to tremendously enrich the human experience. You’ll belong to many, many international groups in the future. You’ll be part of a group of people you’d never possibly meet in your life; but through telepresence you’ll become almost daily friends. I’m talking about a group of left-handed, dyslexic, vegetarian lesbians, one of whom is in China, one of whom is in Chicago, and so on.

JG - Are we talking about the death of ‘Point A to Point B’ travel here?

TL - Well, the only reason you’re actually going to have to move your body will be when your physical presence is needed. The only reason to go to Tokyo will be to dance, fuck, or do something that directly requires your physical body.

JG - So for the average sightseer, Immersive Technology travel may replace physical travel.

TL- The words ‘substitute’ or ‘replace’ must be stricken from the vocabulary. As Huxley kept saying, It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. When you travel, that’s a tremendously important choice you’ve made: You’re actually going to lug your body around.

JG - But why would anyone want to actually go someplace at all? I mean, it’s a lot of trouble. Why would anyone want to physically visit the Pushkar Camel Fair in Rajasthan, if they can put on a immersive technology headset and see and the sights and sounds of the fair around them without having to take a 20-hour plane ride to India?

TL - Because there’s something about being there. Do you want to have telephone sex, or telescreen sex? Or would you prefer the here-and-now, immediate, interpersonal richness of a real-time bodily exchange?

JG - At present, our visions of IT travel are limited to the visual and auditory realms. Will there come a time when we can ‘telecruise’ to Tokyo and actually taste the sake?

TL - You could have a virtual meal; but you’d have some sort of oral device, so that you’d pick up a piece of virtual sushi and the device would squirt fishy flavors into your mouth! It might be fun, interesting, a side show. Sometimes I’m very puritanical about it: Don’t use the brain that way! The brain feeds on light and sound, and the body feeds on chemicals and motion.

Sometimes I’m very puritanical about it: Don’t use the brain that way! The brain feeds on light and sound, and the body feeds on chemicals and motion.

I distinguish here, you see, between two very different modes of collecting information. The brain has no sense organs. The brain responds only to light and sound, and you can communicate that stuff brilliantly through electronics. As a matter of fact most Americans, who watch television seven hours a day, truly believe the reality of what they see there—which is an Orwellian nightmare!

The body is loaded with sensitive and delightful sense organs—taste, touch, smell, balance and movement—that cannot be digitized. Oh, you can put on a body suit, and I can press a place on my suit or screen and you’ll feel a tickle or a rub on your suit, and that will be an amusement. But basically you should feed the body what the body wants: touch, graceful movement, smell, dancing, athletic competiton. I’m telling you, the use of goggles and gloves and suits is going to be extremely limited.

JG - Right now, some countries—Bhutan, for example—strictly limit the number of tourists allowed to visit at any one time. I can envision a time when certain places ban physical tourism altogether, and elect to only be visited virtually. No flesh-and-blood travelers at all.

TL - It’s not a bad idea. Take the summit of Mt. Everest, for example. That has been an upper-class adventure destination for years. Now there’s a huge pollution problem there. Wherever enormous groups of people tramp into a sensitive area, there’s a huge impact. We’ve seen it on Everest, and the coral reefs of Australia. But now, we can’t carry over those old aims. The impact’s too high in some places.

I think that the concept of molestation, though, over the past few years, has gained a lot of credibility. Much the same way that we’re now aware that many women and children have suffered from physical molestation. We’ll extend the same awareness to the environment, and anyone who deliberately goes out and harms some environment will be seen as a life-molester.

JG - Maybe so, but I don’t think anyone with the inclination to actually stand on Everest is going to be satisfied with the VR experience.

TL - You’ve got $6,000,000 and want to go stand on Everest? Too bad! There might be lotteries or something; but the people who do get to climb Mt. Everest would be tremendously educated, and sensitive to the implications.

JG - I guess my main misgiving about all this is that the ability to ‘telecruise’ will make people even bigger couch potatoes than they are today.

TL - Look. Television is all about products, and the viewer sits passively. You choose between 500 channels, and you’ve got all these cables. It’s passive, passive, passive, passive, passive.

What I’m talking about is very actively moving around, and changing what’s on the screen. You have the choices of visiting a hundred different environments, with people, around the world. If you want to go there, do it!  

The point of all this is that travel is going to be much less concerned with business, and much more concerned with curiosity, entertainment, and exploration. Even before you go to the Pyramids, you will have ‘been’ in the Pyramids. You’ll have guides showing you through the Pyramids while you’re sitting in your living room. You’ll use a mouse or keyboard, and click around. Let’s go to the top! Let’s go to inside! Let’s go to the Sphinx! Let’s click to the history segment, and see how they were built! So by the time you actually bring your body there, you’re not going to be just another dazed tourist. It’s going to be much more personal -- and interpersonal.

JG - Doing so would definitely have a strong impact on people’s ecological awareness. If you have this kind of ability -- to ‘click’ yourself through the Amazon rainforest and learn about the plants and herbs and animals and tribal groups who live there -- when you actually go take your kayak down the river, you’re going with a tremendous consciousness about the people and flora and fauna you see.

TL - And you’d probably be accompanied by an Amazon person who you’d been in communication with. And that very same Indian has ‘been’ in your house! You’ve shown him or her around Beverly Hills, or Oakland, or wherever you live. And maybe, in the future, the Indian may come up to North America and actually visit you, too.

JG - Thirty years ago you became known for trips of a different sort. Is there some way in which your early work with LSD relates to the work you’re doing now with virtual travel?

TL - It totally relates. We’re now using electronic multi-media iconographics to ‘turn on’ trances. You can design your own hallucinations -- and you can communicate them. There’s no way to communicate he LSD experience. For centuries, the definition of a mystic experience was ‘ineffable.’ Now, it is possible to design your own altered states; to share them, so that they can be mutually designed;  and to store them.  

For centuries, the definition of a mystic experience was ‘ineffable.’ Now, it is possible to design your own altered states; to share them, so that they can be mutually designed;  and to store them.  

JG - So not only can you have a relationship with an Indian in the Peruvian Andes, but the Peruvian could approximate the experience he or she would have on a certain local drug, store it on disk, and send it to you back here in Beverly Hills.

TL - Exactly. The whole point of telepresence is brains to brains. And brains love to be turned on. Brains love to be flooded and changed. Brains adore being used at the speed for which they were designed.

© Jeff Greenwald, Revision for Enter, 2017