Psychedelic Technology Emma Stamm

In this interview, we continue our epic conversation with Emma Stamm, a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech who is studying psychedelics and the philosophy of technology. To read our first conversation with Emma, click here.

Thanks again for speaking with us, Emma. Is technology itself psychedelic? You could say that all technology is a physical manifestation of the mind, and psychedelic of course means “mind manifesting.” There is also a ton of crossover between the psychedelic world and the modern technological world— one could argue that psychedelics have always been present in the digital age with Tim Leary and Terence Mckenna’s obsession with cyberspace, John Perry Barlow of the Grateful Dead and his involvement in EFF and Wired Magazine, Steve Jobs taking LSD, and so on… Google is obsessed with Burning Man, Silicon Valley is obsessed with microdosing. What are your thoughts?

It’s a history that has been coming to light more recently with the psychedelic revival. Even five or six years ago I don’t think it was as well known. There was this entanglement between the psychedelic scene of the 60’s and 70’s and what was going on with computer science around the same time. The more that story can be told, the better it will be for psychedelics. Technology is not really a controversial issue— we all love our Macs and our smartphones or whatever— so to know that so many people behind those things are also endorsing psychedelics is a good thing to share.

Its funny to me because my definition of technology has a lot to do with this principle of linear, rational thinking. Technologies are tools— they are means toward ends, and not ends in themselves. That is one definition I have for the word “technology.” We’re in a society that is obsessed with making tools and accomplishing goals based on the tools we have, and then developing better tools so that we can achieve bigger goals. The fact that psychedelics were at the heart of that story of computer science and technology is difficult for me to reconcile. The story that I tell myself is that what innovation really means is the breaking of patterns.

So it took a lot of visionary qualities, a lot of thinking outside the box to get something like the Unix kernel, which is the codebase that runs the Mac OS and also the Linux OS. I’m not sure that our developments would have been as robust in the 20th century if we hadn’t had psychedelics, or if the culture that came from psychedelic use hadn’t encouraged that kind of thinking. And yet, now these tools are being usurped in a lot of ways to benefit systems that I don’t necessarily agree with. The way that technology is expediting hypercapitalism and a hyper-deregulated economic system is not necessarily a good thing. I think maybe there’s a way that we can continue integrating psychedelics into culture while thinking of how we might use technology in a different way, to help individuals more than corporations.

When you take a psychedelic, it takes something inside of your brain to which you are naturally inclined and expands it. A musician may have psychedelic experiences that really open up creativity in that department, while somebody who loves computers may take LSD and think of an entirely new use for code. To get the most out of psychedelics is to let people know that this is something that can be used to expand your life, not just something to enhance your brain or make you feel better. But this can also hyper-power whatever it is you’re called to do in this world. In the 20th century it really lead toward this computer revolution, and there are lots of reasons for that with the history of industry and technology.

Intention plays such an important role in the psychedelic experience and its effects. I think we could say that psychedelics are certainly a tool or technology because they are also a means to an end, and that end is manifesting the self in vivid detail. These questions about what intentions we set when we take psychedelics are super important, and it’s the same thing with technology in general, because it’s such a double edged sword. You can get into this hall of mirrors where you take a psychedelic with the intention to think outside of the box to find a novel technological solution, but then that technological solution could be better citizen surveillance, or a more efficient way to kill. We need to take this sense of the importance of set, setting and intention and apply it to technology as well.

Yes, I think that is so important. If there is one thing that the psychedelic revival should emphasize, it’s that you have to know in some sense what you want out of the experience, even if it’s not something you can write down in a sentence or two. One thing I look at in my research on psychedelic science and philosophy is the importance of context. So to me, computer technologies— mobile technologies, specifically— are making people forget how important things like setting, intention and mindset are throughout daily life. We pick up our phones habitually, and people work from home or even while driving because they are having a meeting on their Bluetooth phone. Everywhere is becoming the same place. But in order to get the most out of a psychedelic experience, you have to be really mindful about your context: the room, your mindset, who you are with, and what you want for your outcome.

The idea that psychedelics could make us more aware of the impact that the modern world is having on our sense of environment and space is really interesting. They create an intense experience of really being somewhere, an intense sense of presence. Your room, mindset and company will really change the outcome of whatever you are doing in the moment. A restoration of mindfulness and a sense of immediacy and awareness is something that psychedelics are profoundly good at.

Totally. Just out of curiosity, do you have any thoughts on cryptocurrency and the “cryptopsychedelic” movement?

Yes, I have a lot of thoughts on that, actually. A few years ago I was really interested not in cryptocurrency, but in blockchain technology. When I originally heard about Bitcoin in 2008 or 2009, I was like many people— extremely skeptical. I thought it was crazy, so I didn’t pay attention to it. A few years later, around 2014 or 2015, I was researching web decentralization which was my big passion at that moment— like how do we build an internet that is truly peer to peer and doesn’t run through these large monolithic silos like Google and Amazon. That was the way the internet was originally supposed to work. Being a big computer geek, I looked at this more from a code and technical perspective than from a social perspective.

I came to realize that there was a lot of research being done on blockchain technology as a basis for peer to peer web applications, and I was super excited about that. I wound up downloading the codebase for Ethereum before it was even released to the public. Over the years, just from that I became more interested in financial blockchain technologies and cryptocurrency. I bought Bitcoin and Ethereum and was really into it. I was freelance writing for a blockchain technology startup in Germany, so it was a huge part of my life and I almost wound up writing my dissertation on it.

In recent years, I’ve again become skeptical. I don’t know that cryptocurrencies or blockchain technologies used in other sorts of applications are having a good impact on society. I’ve been a little bit hesitant about the way the psychedelic community is embracing cryptocurrency without having a depth of knowledge about it. At the risk of sounding overly critical, I would say that I’m skeptical about seeing it as a potential good funding source without really knowing what the implications are.

I have some friends who are very enthusiastic about it. Having done so much research on blockchain stuff, I almost want to say to them “Be a little bit more careful here.” At the same time, it’s the same issue as having Peter Thiel fund psychedelic research. If we’re going to use cryptocurrency for anything, I’d rather have it go toward something I care about than not. I’m not trying to alienate the cryptopsychedelic people because I don’t think that’s very helpful, but I would like to talk to them a little bit more, and that’s all I’ll say.

Interesting to hear. I haven’t kept close tabs on the cryptopsychedelic movement since speaking with Brian Normand of Psymposia who produced the Cryptopsychedelic event last year. That was back when everyone was so excited and everyone’s portfolios were exploding, and of course today it’s a different story. But it’s interesting— again, you have this technology that’s meant to decentralize and democratize, but it has sort of popularly turned into this tool for financial speculation. Some of the cryptocurrencies people are most excited about are ones that have industrial applications or ways for banks or industries to use crypto to enhance what they are already doing. It’s a fascinating field.

That was one thing that made me very bitter because it was such a big part of my life for such a long time. I don’t know how I’m going to feel in in ten years, but for the last year or two I’ve been in a cynical mindset about technology in general because I’ve just seen too many cases where a technology that I was really excited about wound up falling into the wrong hands and being used with different intentions. It’s part of this larger issue I don’t think I’ve personally reconciled. On the other hand, we can’t go back in time— we’ve got so much technology now, and using blockchain and cryptocurrency as an example, the biggest question would be: is there hope for these things that are often used for negative purposes, and can we recuperate them?

Again, this goes back to intention and the context in which a new technology is applied. No matter which set and setting we create, they sit within a macro set and setting within this capitalist, Western, industrial paradigm. And yet, as we spoke about previously, you still hold that psychedelics can’t really be appropriated in the same way that these other technologies have been. Would you agree that the reason why psychedelics are unlike other technologies and less prone to harmful appropriation is because they are actually not external tools, but tools for revealing what is within? If you look at our culture as the macro set and setting, then on the other end of the spectrum is the individual and the self, psychedelics take us there— and that is inherently pure and revolutionary, in a sense.

Yes absolutely, that’s a great way of putting it. I don’t think that psychedelic compounds can be appropriated in the same way that other technologies have been for exactly that reason. This is not to say that the person who does mushrooms will necessarily be shaken out of any negative intentions that they had beforehand, but there are cases where you hear about people who had what I consider damaging beliefs or damaging behaviors, and they take psychedelics just out of curiosity and come to have a revelation that made them more open.

For example, I just read about a Christian pastor who thought that people of other faiths would go to hell and were lesser than he was. He took acid in the 60’s out of curiosity because it was something a lot of religious people were doing— this was before it was seen as culturally subversive. He had a revelation that other religions are all just a means to the same God. So he didn’t take it for that reason— he took it nominally to become a better Christian minister— and then it wound up shaking him completely out of that belief system. He became a more open, pan-religious guy, the kind of person that he in the past would have thought was a bad Christian. There is no other technology I can think of that does that. Even standard psychopharmaceuticals don’t tend to have that radical effect of self-revealing. There is something really special about psychedelics that I think can’t simply be seized by broader society… It will make whatever is inside of you come out, and sometimes that can lead to radical change, something very different.


We are very grateful to Emma for taking the time to speak with us. To read our first interview with Emma on Psychedelic Science, Ontological Mystery, and Political Ideology, click here.