We are as gods – the cycle swings back to techno-optimism and neo-psychedelia


The opening words of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog in 1968 were: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

Indeed, the late 1960s were a time of vast optimism for many, based not just on the belief that ancient social strictures could be thrown off, but also that by use of new technologies we could liberate ourselves. The 1970s and then 1980s disabused people of the notion that revolution had truly arrived, as so little of the potential seen in the full flowering of new ideas seemed to have come to pass.

Then in the 1990s there was a smaller renaissance of techno-optimism, I think best captured in Douglas Rushkoff’s book Cyberia (now fully downloadable), which talked of designer reality and technoshamanism. By then Timothy Leary had reinvented himself as a digital apostle, in Chaos and Cyberculture (the full text is here though it doesn’t do justice to what is a highly visual book) describing how computers and connectivity were now the tools of enlightenment.

Today, after a decade of financial greed and excesses analogous to the 1980s, techno-optimism and neo-psychedelia are coming back with a vengeance. A strong indicator is the forthcoming documentary Turning into Gods by Jason Silva – the trailer is below.

TURNING INTO GODS – ‘Concept Teaser’ from jason silva on Vimeo.

Silva has written about the key ideas in the film in a piece for Vanity Fair titled Why We Could All Use a Heavy Dose of Techno-optimism. Themes include a cure for death, designing human brains, curing all illnesses, and augmented reality contacts lenses, while the trailer also points to collaboration (read: the birth of the global brain) as a key enabler of a transformed world.

Among the obligatory interviews with Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey Silva has also used footage of Timothy Leary with one of his most famous quotes: “In order to use your head, you have to go out of your mind.”

Indeed, today’s lens on technology transforming who we are mirrors almost exactly what psychedelic perspectives promised for us in yesteryear. Techno-optimism is a form of neo-psychedelia.

Silva is not the only one today reusing quoting Stewart Brand on us becoming as gods. The Economist’s recent special report on the human genome also ends with the same words.

Indeed today it is entirely appropriate for us to be thinking in terms of human transformation, and the power we have at our disposal. The cycle has swung back, and once again there is the promise that we have what it takes to change who we are… for the better. Whether human nature will allow those changes to be fully positive we have yet to discover. But that promise is – once again – part of the zeitgeist.