The Sun, November, 1991:
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         Travis Charbeneau  3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221
      Phone: 804 358 0417
                     The Seduction of Consciousness
                          Travis Charbeneau
                              3794 words
                            slug "criscon"
     Advances in technology not only have the power to render old
assumptions obsolete but can actually force new and more appropriate
modes of thinking. We saw this happen with the advent of nuclear
weaponry. Only when the atomic genie was out of its bottle and
rattling human consciousness did altruism, compassion and common sense
get a real shot at reducing the likelihood of total war. We are now
reaching yet another such watershed. Operating at the deepest levels
of perception, new consciousness-altering technologies herald both
unprecedented crises as well as remarkable opportunities.
     Until recently, of course, the big crisis with
"consciousness-altering technologies" has involved pharmacology, where
our experience has not been auspicious. Even as we fail to get a
handle on such "low-tech" consciousness-altering agents as cocaine,
heroin, PCP, we are now encountering the high-tech world of "designer
drugs." In _World Monitor_, Mathea Falco, former Assistant Secretary of
State for International Narcotics Matters wrote, "Present trends, all
but unnoticed now, suggest ... a massive switch away from imported
drugs to homegrown and domestically-manufactured ones ...." These
would include such recent synthetics as the extremely potent "ice," a
form of smokable methamphetamine; synthetic heroins; "Ecstasy";
"U4EUH"; and others.
     Falco sensibly predicts that all our current emphasis on
interdiction at the borders -- indeed, any "supply-side solution" to
the drug problem -- will move from the merely irrational to the
altogether irrelevant within five years, thanks to technological
advances in pharmacology.
     Within ten years, however, the ability to alter consciousness via
technological advances in electronics could make any current or future
"drug problem" look like a weekend bender. These simulations will be
several orders of magnitude beyond what today is rather
over-ambitiously termed "virtual reality."
     Still embryonic, often little more than an advanced method for
viewing computer graphics, virtual reality nonetheless promises to
realize one of humanity's most ancient dreams and one of science
fiction's favorite conceits: a human/computer "cyberspace" that
allows the user to create a simulated experience so convincing as to
be "virtually" indistinguishable from "real" reality.
     We are probably describing _the_ communications medium of the
future, an inevitable and geometric leap beyond television. Like TV,
no home will be without "VR."  In fact, because it will provide
powerful experiences -- not just pictures or talk _about_ experience
-- mature virtual reality will be an essential technology for all
societies. As a learning tool alone, it will be indispensable. 
Naturally, though, despite its many benefits and the best intentions
of today's VR innovators, this wonderful new tool will have two
distinct and very sharp edges.
     The _Wall Street Journal_ already has virtual reality looming as
"electronic LSD," tarring VR with the brush of drug hysteria and
panicking researchers across the country. In fact, of course, virtual
reality will be whatever we make it, from the mundane to the sublime
to the diabolical.
     A recent _Smithsonian_ article described such here-and-now
applications as VR "surgery" occurring within a digitized model of the
actual patient's body, or architectural "walk-throughs" that allow
designers and their clients to meander around a simulated building
prior to construction. Specialists hope to create VR simulations of
hazardous environments like nuclear accidents, toxic waste dumps, or
space stations, so that one day workers will be able to remotely and
accurately guide robots working on the actual site. Related
simulation technologies are already advanced and on line for training
pilots, tank commanders, and space-shuttle crews. We can have little
doubt that there are highly developed, highly classified VR
technologies simmering on back burners in the military-industrial
     A number of vital VR components have recently come within reach:
sight, through computer-generated displays; sound, through
computer-synchronized audio; gravity, through computer-controlled
motion of simulator modules. We already have the famous Jaron Lanier
"data glove," which allows you to manipulate and even "feel" three
dimensional objects in computer space. Researchers are working to
miniaturize already-existing "eye phones" (the 3-D video equivalent of
stereo headphones), "data helmets," and even "data suits."
     Various simulator booths, the next step beyond the video arcade,
are already doing big business in England and should be showing up
soon at your local mall with commercially adapted versions of this
technology that make "Pac-Man" look positively antique. There is no
reason to doubt that virtual reality, like TV, will be a terrific
entertainment medium. Following well-established trends in this area,
every home will eventually be equipped with an electronic "recreation
pod," complete with a "Nintendo Virtual Reality" console. The $39.95
"Virtual Reality Walkman" will presumably follow.
     The genuinely intriguing question concerns the sort of software
this marvelous new hardware will run. Gussied-up "Pac-Man" or "Super
Mario Brothers" would be a waste of resources. Any simulator
technology as utterly convincing as true VR is going to have only so
much time for mere games. British VR developer Jonathan Waldern put
it bluntly on ABC's "Prime Time Live": "The goal of VR is simple:
it's total submersion; complete detachment from reality ... total
escapism." Along with the obvious appeal, this is a beguiling
invitation to mischief.
     It is entirely conceivable that advanced VR could one day give us
the ability to plug in, boot up a program called "20,000 Volt Cocaine
High" and experience all the pleasant distractions with none of the
unhappy physiological or criminal side effects.
     If so, what happens to the "drug problem"?
     Just like underground video and audio cassettes in politically
repressed societies today, even early VR systems could proliferate
quickly. For the determined escapist, even the first, expensive
models would be quite cheap compared to a drug habit. (Current prices
for VR prototypes run from $50,000 to $200,000. That may sound
prohibitive, but remember that the first, crude personal computers
were expensive, too.) And, just like underground video and audio
today, this new information technology will be impossible to control.
     Many of today's VR researchers don't want to hear _anything_ about
"electronic LSD." Phone calls, letters and electronic mail raked me
over the coals during the preparation of this article. The hue and
cry came mainly from experts and scientists understandably worried
that even a qualified acknowledgement of any negative potential in
their work would put them squarely in the cross hairs of anti-drug
fanatics, leading to loss of funding, derailed careers, and hate mail
from Mom.
     But the head-in-the-sand approach didn't work for Oppenheimer in
1945, and it won't work for these pioneers. The only realistic
course, for science _and_ society, leads to confront the _real_ roots of
our _real_ crisis. Happily, this is something VR's mere potential
strongly prompts us to do.
     These roots reach deep into industrial-era culture. In _Brave New
World_, Aldous Huxley anticipated more than fifty years ago the melding
of the human sensory apparatus with entertainment technologies. In
1973's _Sleeper_, Woody Allen had the "orgasmatron." "Star Trek: The
Next Generation" has the "holodeck." Writers and futurists have long
envisioned a wide variety of cybernetic scenarios involving powerful
simulations used for good or ill. Like so many once-fanciful
technologies, from submarines to satellites, this one will probably
pass from the realm of science fiction sooner than we're prepared for. 
Accordingly, now is the time to prepare.
     Fortunately, VR not only poses serious questions for a problematic
tomorrow, but suggests practical solutions for coping with the
peculiarities of today's consciousness-altering, headline-making
manias. As did nuclear weapons, VR may force us to confront, and
perhaps solve, an enduring, seemingly intractable human problem.
     It's instructive to note how new information technologies drive
appetites at once ancient and modern. The national appetite for
television (switched on about seven hours a day in the average
household) would have been hard to imagine just a short time ago.
American culture has cultivated a voracious appetite for diversion. 
To get it, we've abused the arts, drugs, sports and gambling. We've
abused TV and we'll abuse VR. -- Particularly if it's accompanied by a
single, major breakthrough.
     Neuroscientists have hypothesized for years that intense
experiences of pleasure and euphoria, even specific memories, odors,
and tactile sensations, might be induced electrically by a direct
route to the relevant brain areas, completely bypassing not only the
autonomous nervous system but also the chemical middleman of any
naturally occurring substance or artificially ingested drug.
     The various drugs we've come to love and hate elicit
electrochemical responses in the brain; we take the drugs to elicit
the responses. Everything else is just a side effect, from driving
the car up a tree to cardiac arrest, physical addiction, gang warfare,
and imprisonment. In simple laboratories, without any assistance from
computers, white rats with electrode brain implants have for many
years been happily stimulating themselves into exhaustion and even
death by foregoing sleep and food in their quest for a good jolt. 
Brain surgery on wide-awake human subjects has demonstrated far more
intriguing capabilities in humans as the surgeon delves here and there
with a simple, low-voltage electric probe.
     Currently, direct brain access requires physically removing the
top of the skull. Humans do not yet come from the factory "cable
ready," though we soon may. There is speculation that everyone will
one day receive at birth a direct brain interface implant, programmed,
for example, with a lifetime telephone, medical information,
auto-locator. There are lots of options in the meantime, however. In
the nearer future, various areas of the brain -- dedicated to specific
conscious experience or, more powerfully, to the wide-open frontiers
of dream experience -- could be addressed by exquisitely tuned audio
frequencies, high-energy nuclei radiation, or proton beams, making
targeted areas of cerebral activity as accessible as TV channels.
     People don't take drugs to stimulate their fingertips. The brain
is where the action is. Direct access to the brain, coupled with
truly advanced VR technology, would provide direct access to all past
and potential human experience. All you'd need then is the "right"
     Again, this is where the matter becomes sticky. The early
designers of TV had no control over the "software" future users would
select. Perhaps they envisaged more _Hamlet_ and less "Wheel of
Fortune." Today's VR researchers are in the same boat, whether they
like it or not, and so is society at large.
     Just pick your program. You are the new plant manager for the
American subsidiary of Sony Virtual Reality Systems, Inc., learning
the ins and outs of your new, automated factory outside of Akron,
program authored by Sony Personnel Training Department. You are the
Duke of Anjou sacking Antwerp in 1583, program authored by Cambridge
University Historic Simulations. You are Albert Einstein working
through the theory of relativity, program authored by Princeton
University VR Physics. You are a Viet Cong guerrilla fighting the
First Air Cavalry in 1969, program authored by the Vietnamese
Department of Information. You are your Soviet counterpart in arms
negotiations, program authored by the KGB's Department for Better
International Understanding. Your Soviet counterpart is _you_, program
authored by the CIA's Department for _Even Better_ International
Understanding. You are making love to Marilyn Monroe, program
authored by Studs 'n Chains Reproductions of Los Angeles. You are so
high on cocaine you never want to come down, program authored by
Medellin Simulations, Inc.
     Of course, none of this would be "real" in any literal sense. As
in today's docudramas, for instance, the Duke of Anjou would of
necessity be a "composite character." Any virtual reality worth the
name, however, aspires to be "real" enough that you come away with a
very powerful experience etched in your consciousness. Perhaps one
you would like to repeat. Often.
     Further, if we already feel that the line between fact and fiction
is blurred thanks to a medium as crude (both literally and
figuratively) as television, we imply an already extraordinary
gullibility; not merely a "willing" but an _eager_ "suspension of
disbelief." More sophisticated simulator technology could erase that
line altogether, particularly if it could manipulate dreams. Who,
while dreaming, is not utterly convinced of the reality of the dream?
     If you think "sinful" software would be amenable to prohibition,
think some more. Information, even here at the rough beginnings of
the information era, is all but out of control. Ask the Butchers of
Beijing about fax or the Israeli Defense Forces about surreptitious
PLO videos. "Illicit" programs, reduced to little bursts of digital
code, will be transmittable by fiber-optic cable, by direct satellite
dish, by U.S. Mail, or if necessary, hand-to-hand by floppy disk down
on the street corner, complete with raging gun battles.
     VR researchers, very defensive about the "electronic LSD" smear,
at the same time admit to worrying about "wire heads," mavericks
already in quest of massive releases of endorphins, a form of
naturally occurring morphine, through electronic stimulation of the
temporal lobes. Such "cyberpunk" hijinks may derail some valuable
research, which would be tragic. But they should also teach us
     Looked at from any future context -- whether that of the
persistence of traditional drugs, the emergence of designer drugs, or
the rapid evolution and potential abuse of new electronic simulation
technologies -- our "drug problem" emerges in its true proportions. 
We don't _have_ a "drug" problem. We have never _had_ a "drug" problem.
We _will_ not have a "virtual reality" problem. Past, present and
future, we have a _consciousness_ problem -- today compounded by the
fact that it happens to be occurring in a Neanderthal political
     People take drugs to change their consciousness. So do insects,
birds, and mammals. Ronald Siegel, a psychopharmacologist at UCLA,
argues in his book, _Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial
Paradise,_ that the urge for intoxication is as basic and
species-comprehensive a desire as that for food, shelter and sex. He
writes about _Lasius flavus_, a yellow ant hooked on select _Lomechusa_
beetle juice. Robins migrating to Southern California deliberately
get raging and often fatally drunk on ripening, naturally fermented
firethorn and toyon berries. Sheep and goats will go to extraordinary
lengths to eat wild narcotic lichen or hallucinogenic mescal beans. 
Elephants break into jungle distilleries and drink themselves into
nasty tantrums. Baboons on a bender were observed by no less an
authority than Charles Darwin. "The entire animal kingdom is driven
by the same pursuit," says Siegel. "It is part of our nature."
     "Substance abuse" by humans is certainly as old as recorded
history, whether the substance involved is drugs, food, sex, gambling,
or the popular consumer fetish of the week. Our appetite for escape
has an ancient and complex nature. Its modern peculiarities stem from
the fact that industrial era humans have more ways and means of
escape, more time to indulge it, more excuses to let our appetites run
amuck. Contemporary social dysfunction coupled with our ancient lust,
creates ever-increasing hunger (or "market") for escape.
     The animals simply don't have the ability to distill spirits or
cook up a batch of crack. We do. The animals are very busy surviving
in the wild. We aren't. The animals aren't suffering from
forty-eight flavors of effete urban neurosis. We are.
     If watching too much TV can be considered escape, we are already a
culture which functions _solely_ to escape. Eight hours work, eight
hours sleep, eight hours TV. How would _you_ describe it?  Some methods
of escape are simply more dangerous than others. _Any_ method of mere
escape, however, can destroy a civilization. Siegel's yellow ant will
sometimes defend the larvae of the Lomechusa beetle during attacks by
predators, solely to "save the stash," leaving its own offspring to be
devoured. The parallel with crack mothers and their babies is all too
obvious and sad.
     In the not-so-distant future, we will encounter electronic methods
of escape, whether termed "VR" or something else, which will be far
more versatile and intense than any drug, utterly immune to
prohibition, and possibly devoid of any self-regulating negative side
effects. You may exhaust yourself emotionally making love to
virtual-reality sex objects, but your body should feel nothing but a
bit of electrical activity in the brain, no more damaging, but far
more malleable, than a vivid dream. Properly designed, prolonged
adventures in electronic simulation, whatever their nature, should be
no more wearing on humans than wildly differing programs are on TV
sets. By contrast, current models for chemical dependence suggest
that drugs wreak their addictive havoc by upsetting the natural
chemical interaction of neurotransmitters. As noted above, direct
electrical stimulation bypasses the realm of chemistry altogether.)
Advanced systems may even have a built-in interrupt service to stave
off heart palpitations from one too many VR trysts, or just to remind
you to eat, sleep, and put out the cat.
     Obviously, before designer drugs come fully on line, let alone
some ubiquitous new electronic technology for altering consciousness,
we might think about addressing the primeval problem, the ancient lust
for intoxication and escape, as it appears in a modern and, above all,
a political context.
     If there is a constitutional right to privacy, then we must
probably agree that the extent to which we surrender to that lust is
ultimately as much a matter of personal choice as managing our lust
for sex. Historically, even totalitarian societies have been unable
to totally prohibit intoxication (and certainly not sex). A "free"
society surely can't. To the extent we try to make personal choice
(as opposed to public behavior) a crime, we merely set ourselves up
for various displays of private tragedy and community folly, a truth
to which the current "war on drugs" bears ample witness.
     This civic impotence will only be magnified by new technologies,
be they pharmaceutical or electronic. Intoxication can only be
"regulated" by an as yet unprecedented and uncharacteristic cultural
consensus. In the last analysis, that means effective persuasion via
attractive alternatives, _not_ more police and prison cells.
     Clearly, we must be deliberately, carefully, and honestly taught
from an early age to make wise choices; just as clearly, that rarely
occurs in society as structured today. Poverty obviously makes one
vulnerable, but The Betty Ford Center is not filled with poor people. 
Both impoverishment and plenty provide impetus for escape. The
resulting syndrome of vice and degradation prompts many social critics
to sing familiar, irritating laments about our "loss of traditional
     Traditional values _are_ a very big part of the problem -- not their
loss, but their stubborn, destructive _persistence_ in the face of a
changing, distinctly non-traditional world. During the Industrial
Revolution, as the late Lewis Mumford asserted in his _Transformations
of Man_" ... all but one of the [seven deadly] sins, sloth, was
transformed into a positive virtue. Greed, avarice, envy, gluttony,
luxury, and pride were the driving forces of the new economy."
"Traditional" values as we know them place all emphasis on material
gain, whatever may be preached on Sundays or at election time. The
two wildly disparate worlds of poverty and wealth both orbit the same
sun: material gain, and by extension, the status and power which flow
from it. Material gain has "value."
     Given such a "traditional" value system, it is not inaccurate to
describe intoxication, or more generally, the alteration of
consciousness as a typically self-deceptive quest for more satisfying
psychological and spiritual alternatives than those offered by a
culture which so many have for so long described as a materialistic
     Under such circumstances, we certainly do not have a drug crisis.
We have a crisis in consciousness.
     Whether through religious, esthetic, or intellectual pursuit,
simple diversion, or the ingestion of chemicals, we are all searching
for that primeval button in each of our minds which is forever
screaming "push me!" From Cro-Magnon initiation rites in the caves at
Altamira, to Native American peyote rituals, to the sermons of
Jonathan Edwards, to television and crack cocaine, the alteration of
consciousness is an eternal quest for inner fulfillment, forever
teetering on a fine line between "right" and "wrong." In the last
analysis, and however awry the quest has gone in the advanced
industrial era, being "high" remains primarily a spiritual commodity.
     How to acquire this commodity safely in a society where God
apparently did not survive World War II?  Some have tried various TV
evangelists, swamis, pop psychologies and new age gew-gaws. Some have
tried drugs. Another "opiate of the masses" is hardly required. Nor
do we need to hear the cynic's "'twas ever thus." War, another
perennial pastime, "'twas ever thus" until our war-making technologies
finally scared us sane. Woe unto the president who today takes us to
a war which is not "quick and clean." Consciousness-making
technologies, from cave painting to VR, likewise have the power to
remake, or un-make our species. They, too, may scare us into a new
mode of living. Or not.
     The question hangs on our ability to establish a new cultural
model built around something a bit more profound than material
self-aggrandizement. The "greed is good" capitalist paradigm doesn't
even solve economic problems, let alone spiritual dilemmas, and
communism fares even worse.
     Now surely, the attainment of spiritual ends must remain The
Eternal Riddle. The means for reaching those ends must, as the
Founding Fathers recognized, remain private. Public policy is
impotent here. But where these means _overlap_ politics, perhaps in the
form of drive-by shootings over the latest "Meet God" VR software,
public policy can and must make the difference.
     Professor Ethan Nadelmann of Princeton cites an established axiom
among drug-treatment experts regarding the three most effective
"cures" to dependency problems: finding God, falling in love, and
getting a good job. While policy makers can do little in categories
one and two, category three is obviously wide open. It's also in the
news almost every day. Specifically, we have an increasingly unmet
obligation to cultivate stronger, healthier appetites for "right
activity" through better health care, education, and job
opportunities. Right activity is invariably more satisfying than the
"right" neighborhood, car, wardrobe, social connections, medicine
chest -- or VR software.
     After all, it's not as though we don't have plenty to do, from
saving the environment to putting the Third World in order (at home
and abroad)to exploring the universe. Cultivation of appetite and
opportunity for such work, though, requires some sense of vision and
mission that keeps us awake between commercials.
     Where will such a vision come from?  How can it be implemented?
Some will smugly dismiss such questions as naively utopian. On the
contrary, I suggest that, as with weapons of mass destruction,
technological advance leaves us no choice. Our current, futile,
cops-and-robbers approach to such a massive and fundamental challenge
as the growing crisis in consciousness hasn't worked in the past,
isn't working today, and thanks to technological innovation on a
variety of fronts, cannot possibly work tomorrow.
     For survival's sake, we need to begin thinking about the true
nature of "getting stoned" long before the $39.95 Virtual Reality
Walkman arrives. It would be tragically ironic if we outmaneuvered
external technological threats from nuclear war to environmental
catastrophe, only to succumb to an internal dysfunction: the
electronic seduction of consciousness.