Consciousness Hacking—Happens

by Jean Richardson on March 27, 2017

So, this is how the story goes, and I’ve told it a number of times now, so perhaps writing it here will result in telling it one time less.

A couple of years ago I was meeting an editor for an online journal for technologists which I had written for some months ago.  We were meeting in my hotel over breakfast as I was just leaving a conference that had been convened for three days before in Phoenix and he was just arriving—from New Zealand—for a conference that was being convened for the following four days.  Given the commute from Wellington, New Zealand to Portland, Oregon, USA, it seemed prudent to make use of this bit of serendipity.

During breakfast the fire alarm went off.  We did what we do when things like that happen and looked at each other wondering whether this was “the real thing.”  It was, and so we grabbed our briefcases and headed for the door along with the other befuddled guests and diners.  Once out on the sidewalk, we had, as it turned out, a couple of hours to kill while the firemen determined that, yes, indeed, there was a fire, and we would not be able return to the hotel.

So, I amused my editor by telling him what I had noticed about software teams that adopted dialogic practices as part of building and strengthening their team dynamic—especially certain technical practices, such as pairing, that blended the work with a dialogic state of mind and approach to interpersonal communication.  At one point I said, “technical practices are a hack on consciousness,” and he said, “If you write it, I’ll publish it.”

A year later and the article was published, after working out the content with another person who I enlisted to provide specific examples from a programmer’s point of view.  This, just as Mikey Siegel was linking up what had become groups of consciousness hackers at three different sites across the world in dialogue with Ken Wilber. Wilber was exhorting them in much the same way as that article exhorted them to realize their power to create good or ill in the world—pervasively—and to understand the influence that their state and level of consciousness brings to their work.  And, most important of all, that they need to wake up and grow up in the awareness that they have individual and collective control over their state of consciousness.

This is Vital

When Wheal and Kotler published their beautiful and well-crafted book Stealing Fire they provided a waiting audience with a thorough and highly readable description of the sources and state of the current consciousness hacking movement.  Well underway around the world now, this growing collective of bright minds, and among them what would have previously been thought of as mad scientists, is creating a range of open source hardware and software projects and experimenting with every possible mind-altering method from meditation, to sex, to drugs, to electrical stimulation of the brain in pursuit of a higher consciousness.  The elysian high previously available only to extreme sports enthusiasts is being crafted and productized for every reason from personal growth and pleasure to creating a new human operating system for the planet.

But the possibility that we could use many consciousness hacking methods to distract and delight ourselves to addiction rather than build that new human operating system is very real.  We, as a species, have a fine habit of voting ourselves bread and circuses if given half a chance.

Bread and circuses will not ever really wake us up let alone grow us up.  In fact, it likely anesthetizes us to true wakefulness.  And, it certainly doesn’t grow us up.  There is something about encountering difficulty that seems be a necessary transformative for the human psyche.  Character building experiences, after all, build character.  And character is the measure of the person, that they are themselves inside and outside rather than a mere illusion of what they believe others would have them be.  And, that, as such whole persons, they are also functioning members of the collective, the broader society, with an awareness of how they affect others, a sense of responsibility for their “emotional wake,” as some have called it, not to mention of how their use of resources limits or enhances others’ ability to have a sufficiency of what is needful.

It is clear that consciousness can be hacked, that we can propel ourselves into persistent non-symbolic experiences (PNSE’s), that we can achieve an awareness of our one-ness with all beings through the use of psychedelics, specific sexual practices, or any other means of raising our dopamine and oxytocin levels.  But, as when we hack software, with consciousness hacking, the fix tends to be nondurable for purpose.  As Jeffery Martin noted in his lecture at a consciousness hacking meetup in San Francisco in 2014, two things tend to push people out of PNSE:  illness and stress.  Triumphing over these two human experiences, ironically, has been exactly the kind of thing that have resulted in consciousness raising among humans historically.  So, in hacking consciousness, we achieve a non-durable level of consciousness, valuable for what it is, but not durable when we need it.

The software teams of which I spoke to the editor on that sidewalk beside the smoking hotel to which I referred above were, as most software teams are, in great need of a heightened consciousness.  The bonding they achieve by entering into the necessary practices and conversations to get them there is extremely valuable in protecting them from the organizational distractors and impediments that harm their focus on their goal.

In “Why Grow Up?  Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age” Susan Neiman refers to the importance of growing up as a revolutionary process that frees us from self-incurred immaturity which would otherwise make us willing subjects of the authorities in power while we are preoccupied with our pleasure rather than functioning as engaged citizens.  Grownups can be even more troublesome to authorities than infantilized consumers preoccupied with toys because, while grownups keep one eye on how things ought to be, they very much deal with how things are and work to change the world for the better.

Wilber might agree, because he strongly encouraged the developers at that consciousness hacking meetup to both “wake up” and “grow up.”  It is perfectly possible to be an enlightened jerk, a person with tremendous information processing capability (awareness and noticing skills) as well as great knowledge of Self and Other but to have no interest in, for instance, their place as one among many or the effect of their words and actions on others.

Consciousness hacking happens.  We as a species have spent millennia studying our own consciousness and experimenting with it.  We now have a compendium of means to hack ourselves to higher states of consciousness.  The question that remains is that, if those who have the means do not distract themselves to a consistent, self-pleasuring delirium and thereby fail to complete the evolutionary task at all, what sort of new planetary human operating system might we evolve?

This, as so much else, is in homo technologicus’s hands.  It is in your hands.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: