There are many names in the world of futurist thought past and present, but one that is often overlooked despite his influential impact is the High Priest of the psychedelic movement: Dr. Timothy Leary.
Leary lived a varied life filled with scientific research; psychedelic therapy; metaphysical exploration; social commentary and government oppression. During his time spent inside prison, he developed a futurist philosophy summed up in the phrase S.M.I2.L.E. – Space Migration, Increased Intelligence, Life Extension. These ideas developed out of Leary’s life-long interest in the evolution of humanity away from our primal roots, but they also had another influence which Leary termed the ‘Starseed Transmission’.
The Starseed Transmissions were a series of experiments in group telepathy that occurred during Leary’s time in prison. These experiments allegedly culminated in a communication with some kind of extra-terrestrial intelligence; that through a rather cryptic series of messages set forth the futurist programme that Leary would adhere to quite stringently for the latter part of his life. Whatever happened during that time, it certainly had a profound impact on the man and his ideas of future progress.
Now that you understand a little bit of the background behind Dr. Timothy Leary’s futurist philosophy, let’s take a look at the state of affairs for each of these three categories. Leary was quite optimistic whilst alive that many of these things, particularly life extension, would be very well progressed within his own lifetime. Unfortunately, this didn’t come about quite as quickly as he may have imagined; however we’re certainly beginning to approach a period of human history where the SMI2LE formula will be become increasingly relevant. So, let’s have a quick look at where each of the three sectors stand:
Since Leary’s time, the understanding and exploration of space and the structure of the universe has certainly progressed a great deal. However, when it comes to human space migration not too much has really happened. Although that certainly isn’t to say that we’re not progressing in that direction.
We now have a developing space tourism industry which is bringing private corporate money into the arena. Funding levels for NASA are an obvious indicator to watch when it comes to government initiatives, and at the moment the US seems to be a little undecided on exactly which way they want to go with this. Obama wants to increase spending, particularly focusing on getting people to the International Space Station; and also continuing to push for an eventual manned mission to Mars.
Despite all of this though, it still looks like real space migration (and particularly anything beyond the surface of our own Moon) is a long way off into the distant future. Technology for this kind of enterprise requires very long lead-in times, and with current widespread austerity measures being set into place space migration is unfortunately just one of those things that becomes less and less of a priority. The first and most obvious sign to watch for progress in this area is the first manned mission to Mars – which current indications state will begin around 2030 at the earliest.
This one is an interesting category to try and examine, because it can really cover many different things. For Leary, this component was needed in order to properly utilise the revolutionary technology and understanding of our role in the universe. But there are a few different ways of looking at this within a modern context.
To begin with, the advent of the internet and its increasing ubiquity in our knowledge economies could be described as a kind of increase in intelligence. Particularly with emerging technology such as augmented reality we are now increasingly seeing an information overlay onto the world before us (with some very interesting and even life-saving applications). Memorising historical facts, and other such rote-learned information, is also becoming increasingly irrelevant as the speed at which we can access this information increases to almost instantaneous levels.
Of course, this way of looking at things somewhat ignores our ability to really do anything innovative with that information – which is really more in line with what Leary was talking about. In many ways, increased intelligence was seen by Leary as quite a literal outcome of neurological pharmaceuticals which would increase the capabilities of our brains. In other ways, it was seen in a more metaphysical sense – our ability to use our intelligence to understand the ‘reality tunnels’ that we exist within; to develop a meta-intelligence that was able to examine itself and act upon and develop our own personalities accordingly.
In this latter sense, it’s difficult to really know whether or not we are progressing along the lines that Leary envisaged. Certainly, it seems that people today are just as likely to be caught up in their own cultural and emotional paradigms as ever before; although having said that, there is now a vastly increased body of literature that explains this fact and the many and varied processes available to try and overcome it. Whether or not as individuals we are becoming more ‘intelligent’ is difficult to ascertain – but we seem to at least be developing a growing sub-group of thoughtful people who are forging ahead for the rest of us.
The final part of Leary’s S.M.I2.L.E. trilogy is probably the one that we are nearest to seeing some true progress on. This category is really one in two parts, the first is elimination of early death and the second is extension of maximum life span. When it comes to the first part of this life extension equation we are really progressing in leaps and bounds – even when just examining things in the last 30 – 40 years since Leary was first discussing his futurist ideas. Areas such as treatment of cancer are really seeing some remarkable advancements in just the last few years.
In the developed world, the average life expectancy is now roughly 80 years; and has increased by about 10% even just in the last 20 or 30 years. A large factor which will be influencing our ability to extend our maximum life span, as well as eliminate early death, has been the cataloguing of our genetic code. Unsurprisingly, the revelation of the DNA code was central to Leary’s concepts of SMI2LE and was to play an absolutely central role to everything else he discussed that surrounded it.
Longevity research is something that always seems a lot more promising than it delivers on. For decades longevity scientists have been optimistically pushing the ‘only a few more years’ line, but unfortunately the reality seems to be further away than that. However, even by conservative estimates, by the middle of the 21st century (i.e. about 40 – 50 years from now) we should have made a great deal of headway in figuring out just how our DNA impacts the creation of increasingly fragile and damaged cell structures. Once this has been figured out, then we move ever closer to truly extending our maximum life span.
In the meantime, of course, our ability to eliminate early death is increasing by orders of magnitude every 5 – 10 years – and so it is not out of the realms of possibility to say that the vast majority of those currently under the age of 20 in the developed world will live past 100 years of age (apart from any accidental or non-natural deaths).
Overall, what Leary provided was quite an interesting synopsis of three major categories that futurist thought should be focused upon. It was his belief that these three categories were the ones required for the human race to truly inherent its biological and cosmic destiny. To truly say that we have ‘progressed’.
No matter what we feel about Leary’s personal philosophy/theology/science, it is difficult to deny the fact that space migration, increased intelligence, and life extension would play a pivotal role in any kind of utopian futurist scenario that we might be able to come up with.
Just how far away we are from truly achieving these things is very difficult to guess – and the only thing we can really say is that Leary’s thoughts on timeframe were off by quite a large degree (relatively speaking). Maybe the forthcoming information spike (or Singularity) that most data is pointing towards will truly bring about these things at an incredibly rapid pace, possibly even well before we can truly comprehend just how much they will change humanity as a whole.
If we can learn anything from Leary’s work in futurism, it is that we must not be complacent in presuming that we will just miraculously end up in some kind of sci-fi utopia. We must be explicitly aware of where we are going, and most importantly why we are going there, if we ever hope to live up to our potential.