Leary, Mondo2000, and TESCREAL

Propaganda poster by Ed Reibsamen with a little help from Midjourney

Article by Aragorn Eloff

There’s been a lot written lately about the so-called TESCREAList ideology that is currently hegemonic in the Silicon Valley tech circles frequented by people like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. TESCREAL stands for transhumanism, extropianism, singularitarianism, cosmism, rationalism, effective altruism and longtermism – terms that are probably at least intuitively familiar. Reading recent critical descriptions of this facile, elitist ideology, which is driving a lot of the hype around machine learning, I’m struck by how familiar it all seems. Listening to a podcast on 60s psychedelia on my run this morning, it suddenly all made sense.

It turns out you can trace a pretty direct line back from TESCREAL ‘philosophers’ like Kurzweil and Bostrom to Wired magazine and the extropians mailing list, and from there to the legendary Mondo2000 magazine – a 90s tech-enthusiast counterculture publication from California put together by old sixties heads enthused by nascent technologies like the web, VR and ‘nootropics’. Indeed, 1992’s Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge, a gorgeous typographic mess of glossy 3d graphics and paeans to the coming techno-singularity, feels almost like a secret peek into the TESCREAL gang’s wildest fantasies, although regulars like Douglas Rushkoff, Mark Dery and Bruce Sterling were admittedly far more interesting than the current dreck. Mondo 2000 was, in turn, the successor to the less glossy High Frontiers and Reality Hackers, 80s publications that mixed cyberpunk and surrealism with phone phreaking and experimental music. And then, of course, there was the psychedelic enthusiasm, particularly the strong echoes of one Timothy Leary.

1980's computer graphic of Timothy Leary and the words Timothy Leary's cyberdelic experience

As a diligent student at the Hofmann and McKenna school for young dropouts in the early 90s, I devoured all the Tim Leary books I could get my hands on. Classics like Psychedelic Prayers, High Priest and The Psychedelic Experience, but also an oddly singular text titled Neuropolitics: The Sociobiology of Human Metamorphosis, published in 1977. The book was written while Leary was languishing in jail for his psychedelics advocacy, and marks a shift in attention away from LSD and towards quintessentially TESCREAList topics like space migration, life extension and so forth. Indeed, Tim essentially argues in the book that by the year 2000 we’ll all be immortals travelling through space and indulging in increasingly exotic pleasures while expanding our intelligence using computers and smart drugs. As a useful heuristic, he coined some acronyms that are particularly revealing: SMI2LE (Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension), HOME (High Orbit Mini-Earths) and HEAD (Hedonic Engineering And Design).

Essentially then, Tim Leary, psychologist and psychedelics guru, synthesised a fairly significant chunk of the philosophy that would become TESCREALism while sitting in his prison cell, undoubtedly fantasizing about the great outdoors and all the experiences he was missing out on. My fellow students and I also spent a fair amount of time in the early 90s learning how to SMI2LE and use our HEADs while gazing up into the stars waiting for our new HOMEs to be ready. In retrospect it was in large part a naive fantasy fueled in no insignificant part by prodigious consumption of 5-HT2A receptor agonists.

There is a grain of intuitive truth to Leary’s dreams, of course -—we could and should try to enrich life in whatever way we can – but when divorced from the messiness of real life in all its social, political and ecological complexities, SMI2LE, like TESCREALism (and, yes, like Fully Automated Luxury Communism) is the kind of indulgent hopium that’s fine, perhaps even vital, when you’re 16, but probably not when you’re a billionaire with immense economic and political power seeking to enact your juvenile fantasies at the expense of the rest of the world. More importantly though, the TESCREALists are far, far more boring than Leary and the Mondo crowd. We could do a lot better.

Aragorn Eloff is an experimental musician and long-time wanderer through the counterculture. He is based in South Africa, where he is currently working on a PhD on the philosophy of psychedelics. He writes on anarchism, embodied cognition and the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari.