The Electronic Acid Test

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 July 1997

The mainstream media has found yet another Internet-related threat to our well-being: the preponderance of “pro-drug” dialogue online. A recent front page New York Times piece leads the battle charge of articles decrying open conversations online between marijuana users and advocates. The cautionary journalists feel that, like Web sites with pictures of naked people (the horror!) these controversial words and ideas can be accessed by young people.

Let’s set aside, for a moment, the question of whether mainstream media’s bias against the legalization of cannabis is based in well-founded concern for our brains or merely the now wholly unconscious vestiges of an old alliance with the makers of nylon rope who wanted to put an end to the use of hemp for the same purpose. Pot and most other mind-altering substances are illegal in the U.S., and our media should certainly be expected to lament violations of the law and people who appear to be encouraging others to do so.

Still, the New York Times and the anti-marijuana groups they like to quote could find no evidence of any of the actual drug sales online that their catchy headlines would suggest. They only report “pro-marijuana sites,” forums where people “discuss LSD experiences,” sites listing drug contraindications, and others with instructions for how to grow pot and psychedelic mushrooms. And, for some reason these journalists can’t understand, all this “pro-drug” information seems to travel and spread much faster and wider on the Internet than do anti-drug messages.

The reasons are simple.

First, and at least for right now, the kind of information that spreads most readily on the Internet tends to be counter-cultural and anti-prohibitive. The Internet as an idea, an experience, and a complex of hardware, fights censorship and control. Simply expressing oneself online is to subvert a mediaspace that has traditionally served to support the status quo. Most people feel little need to use the Internet to reiterate the opinions they hear on the evening news. (As a matter of fact, anti-abortion groups lobby quite effectively online, too.) We use the Internet to discuss the issues we don’t see being discussed effectively anywhere else.

Because information crucial to those who have chosen to eat or smoke illegal plants is not provided by the overground press, it’s no wonder that these communities have turned to the new interactive communications infrastructure. Although the information they share is sometimes anecdotal or inaccurate, it is generally more honest and detailed than the “just say no” dogma of their counterparts on television and in newspapers.

Even more significantly, the reason why online culture appears so infused with pro-psychedelic conversations is that today’s Internet was, in many ways, an achievement of psychedelics users.

Yes, the Internet we know and love was brought to us, at least in great part, by California’s LSD community. Lotus was founded on a psychedelic-Zen philosophy. Steve Jobs Apple concept was born bongwater-stained dorm rooms of Reid College. Global Business Network founder Stewart Brand was a member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and received his “Acid Test” diploma in 1966, and Electronic Frontiers Foundation founder John Barlow was a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and outspoken LSD advocate. Timothy Leary himself was one of the first to publicly promote the use of “word processors” as a way for people to communicate with one another.

It is no coincidence that the first shots of the computer revolution were fired from the same Bay Area that brought us Haight-Ashbury in the 1960’s. The very conception of the almost hallucinatory realm we call “cyberspace” required the imaginative capacities of people who were familiar with navigating hallucinatory headspace. This is why so many Silicon Valley firms eschew the employee drug testing of their counterparts in other industries. If hi-tech companies weeded out weed users, they’d have few employees left.

Maybe instead of reviling the Internet’s psychedelic members, we should thank them for what they have brought us. In any case, we can not feign surprise or confusion that a community based in independent thinking and unfettered access to technologies of self expression would tend to spread information about growing or using pot.

If the Internet begs the question of why the technology of cultivating a herb garden or smoking its bounty is illegal in the United States, perhaps there’s a reason. The ideas that really spread on the Internet are ones that we tend to repress in mainstream media. Our only real choice is to relegate such subjects to the potentially hazardous inaccuracies of online culture and then impotently bemoan their existence, or begin intelligent conversations about them in the light of day.