Did the use of psychedelics lead to a computer revolution?
Steve Jobs and a host of computer pioneers believed LSD helped their creativity – but coincidence does not imply causality
You might be excused for thinking these are the words of a philosopher or a stoned Grateful Dead fan, but no. It's from an interview in 2000 with Mike Lynch, the CEO of Autonomy and Britain's first software billionaire, currently in the process of selling his company to Hewlett-Packard for $10bn (£6bn). Lynch, who was talking about the power of the pattern recognition that forms the basis of Autonomy's success, went on to talk about the fascination of dreams, near-death experiences and the accounts of those experimenting scientifically with LSD in the 1960s: all forms of altered perception.
Did psychedelic drugs play a substantive role in the development of personal computing? In 2009, Ryan Grim, as part of publicising his book This Is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America wrote a piece for the Huffington Post that made public a letter from LSD inventor Albert Hofmann to Apple CEO Steve Jobs in 2007 asking for funding for research into the use of psychedelics to help relieve the anxiety associated with life-threatening illness.
He picked Jobs because, as New York Times reporter John Markoff told the world in his 2005 book, What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, Jobs believed that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he'd done in his life. That 2001 conversation inspired Markoff to write the book: a history of computing with the drugs kept in.
From 1961 to 1965, the Bay Area-based International Foundation for Advanced Study led more than 350 people through acid trips for research purposes. Some of them were important pioneers in the development of computing, such as Doug Engelbart, the father of the computer mouse, then heading a project to use computers to augment the human mind at nearby SRI. Grim also names the inventors of virtual reality and early Cisco employee Kevin Herbert as examples of experimenters with acid, and calls Burning Man (whose frequent attendees include Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page) the modern equivalent for those seeking mind expansion.
There's a delicious irony in thinking that the same American companies who require their employees to pee in a cup rely on machines that were created by drugged-out hippies. But things aren't so simple. Markoff traces modern computing to two sources. First is the clean-cut, military-style, suit-wearing Big Iron approach of the east coast that, in its IBM incarnation, was so memorably smashed in the 1984 Super Bowl ad for the first Apple Mac.
Second is the eclectic and iconoclastic mix of hackers, hippies, and rebels of the west coast, from whose ranks so many of today's big Silicon Valley names emerged. Markoff, born and bred in the Bay Area and 18 in 1967, argues the idea of the personal computer as a device to empower individuals was a purely west coast idea; the east coast didn't "get" anything but corporate technology.
There's a basic principle to invoke here: coincidence does not imply causality. As early Sun employee John Gilmore, whom Grim calls a "well-known psychonaut", says in that article, it is very difficult to prove that drug use led directly to personal computers. The 1960s were a time of extreme upheaval: the Vietnam war and the draft, the advent of female-controlled contraception, and the campaign for civil rights all contributed to the counterculture. Was it the sex, the drugs or the rock'n'roll – or the science fiction?
In 1998 Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet, said in a discussion of his enjoyment of science fiction: "I think it's also made it easier for me to think about things that weren't quite ready yet but I could imagine might just possibly be feasible."
Annie Gottlieb, in Do You Believe in Magic? Bringing the 60s Back Home, recounts the personal exploratory experiences of a variety of interviewees, and comes to this conclusion: "Any drug experience is determined far less by the drug than by what we bring to it." Many people tried acid. Only one became Steve Jobs.
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