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‘This is just a test’

Apologies for the delay in writing. I’ve been in California for the last three weeks, immersed in preparing for Burning Man, then going to Burning Man, then recovering from Burning Man. I have so many impressions from this month I can’t yet structure them into a neat essay, so consider this a postcard instead.

If I was going to sum up San Francisco, it would be the fact that in 24 hours, I met two separate people who firmly believed they were going to live forever, thanks to technological breakthroughs in the near future. Also within 24 hours, I saw two homeless people shooting up in the street. There’s a combination of evangelical optimism in the power of tech to save the world, and an anxious sense that everything could fall apart any moment – every day, an eery earthquake siren rings out over the city, followed by the words ‘this is just a test’.

I wanted to visit the Bay Area, and maybe even move here, because it’s a visionary place, a place of bold spiritual experiments. In the UK, talking about ecstatic experiences feels a bit weird. Here, halfway through a talk on ecstasy at Burning Man, I looked out over my small, stoned audience and realized they’d probably had more ecstatic experiences that morning than I’d had in the last five years.

Bay Area experimentalism goes back at least as far as the 1950s, when Alan Watts helped to kickstart the San Francisco Renaissance, infusing Zen and Daoism into American culture. Down the highway in Big Sur, Michael Murphy launched Esalen, an educational institution devoted to the ‘religion of no religion’ – I met him two weeks ago, friendly and still excited, and spoke to him for four hours about his memories of Watts, Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard.

Esalen was a hot-tub of new ideas – it helped to develop transpersonal psychology (a psychology open to the spiritual experiences and spiritual potential of human beings) as well as gestalt therapy, holotropic breathwork, somatic therapy, shamanic healing, encounter sessions, ecstatic dance, deep ecology, and many of the other approaches which are now mainstream in the ‘spiritual but not religious’ global culture.

Murphy struck me as, firstly, a great researcher and fine mind; and secondly, an amazing spiritual entrepreneur. At 31, he’d set up an institute that is still going, persuaded luminaries like Huxley and Abraham Maslow to help, worked out a working business model, and attracted grants for research projects with universities and organisations. Five separate research institutes have been spun out of Esalen, helping to influence everything from legislation on alternative health to new approaches to diplomacy.

The Bay Area has also long been a site for experimentation in new forms of living – Stewart Brand helped to inspire the back-to-earth commune movement with his Whole Earth Catalogue, Watts lived in his houseboat with other artists, where he ran a centre for comparative religion, and thousands flocked here in the summer of love to shack up in houses or sleep in the parks. You still meet many people living in intentional communities – I gave a talk at one, Kaleidoscope, visited another – a marvellously kooky house called Embassy, and met a designer living at an ‘intergenerational commune’ called Magic in Palo Alto. It made me sad to move back to my single-dweller existence back in London.

It’s a place where people devote themselves to lifelong learning and new forms of higher education mushroom up, like Esalen, like the California Institute of Integral Studies (which Alan Watts helped set up), or online learning platforms like Masterclass and Udemy. The San Francisco Free College provides free classes to everyone in the city.

It has been, and still is, a place of experimentalism in sex and drugs. It was down the road, at the Golden Gate Park in 1968, that Timothy Leary announced the world should ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’. It was also in the Bay Area that Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters organized their acid tests in the mid-60s. And psychedelics are still a BIG part of Bay Area culture – everyone seems to take them, from the AI engineers and venture capitalists down to the hippies on Haight Street. The California Institute of Integral Studies is the only educational institution in the world which has a masters in psychedelic therapy. At one commune dinner earlier this week, my fellow guests traded stories of their experiences on esoteric chemicals, like Londoners casually swapping suggestions for the next box-set.

Free love is also explored with the same earnest, slightly techno-engineering approach. I was told of a recent workshop in ‘relationship anarchy’ where people wore badges showing different shapes indicating the type of structures they were open to (dyads, triangles, dodecahedrons and so on). Michael Murphy also told me of a chart at Esalen, one year, called the ‘Fuck-O-Rama’, indicating all the participants in a retreat, with lines showing who fancied who and who had fucked who. A flow-chat for polyamory – how very Bay Area.

All of this utopian experimentalism flowed into Burning Man, a situationist happening in the desert that has morphed into an experiment in urban planning and communitarian living. For one week, Black Rock City rises out of the dust, with a population of 70,000, making it the third-biggest city in Nevada, with its own airport, ranger force, psychedelic harm reduction tent, orgy camp, vast desert art gallery, and everything else one could possibly dream of (except a library, natch). And then, after a week, it dissolves back into dust.

And the area is home to some of the young companies that have changed the world and defined all of our virtual lives – Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Uber, Twitter, Netflix, Tinder and so on. It’s exciting to be close to where reality is being re-made. It’s also alluring – there’s so much money sloshing around, surely some of it will find its way to me!

But any place with so much utopian optimism is also going to have a pretty massive shadow. Silicon Valley is going through a period of soul-searching. Bay Area residents always thought of themselves as the plucky outsiders, the rebels, the Burners. But from another perspective, they’re the 1%, the new global elite, dancing at the top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs while the rest of society struggles to adapt.

Suddenly, the rebels have the power, and they’re not used to it. Steve Jobs urged entrepreneurs to ‘make a dent in the universe’ – but what if the dent is in something important, like democracy, or civility, or job security, or our capacity to pay attention? It reminds me of the Mitchell and Webb sketch where they play two SS Nazis and Mitchell says: ‘Have you noticed our caps have got little skulls on them? Hans…are we the baddies?’

Alan Watts preached the ‘wisdom of insecurity’ when he moved here, and the Bay Area has, in fact, been exporting insecurity around the world, through disruptive algorithms that take away people’s livelihoods. I asked one venture capitalist how worried we should be about automation and AI replacing jobs. ‘Extremely’, he replied. He, like several other tech entrepreneurs, thinks the necessary response is some sort of universal basic income, to support people while their jobs are taken away.

The mash-up of spirituality and extreme wealth can leave a weird taste – you’re always networking, even at an orgy. Your latest incredible epiphany becomes a way to impress people and secure funding. You emerge from your 5meo-DMT trip convinced the universe wants you to launch your new app. You’re a superhero, a divine god– why shouldn’t you be a billionaire? I’ve met shamans who run ayahuasca ceremonies to consult the spirits about new business ventures, or retreats offering ‘sacred upgrades’. I can see a scene at the Pearly Gates, when Jesus asks ‘what did you do for the starving and the marginalized’ and they (or rather, we) say ‘well…I did go on this amazing ayahuasca retreat and really connected to my highest self’.

Gurus flutter around the millionaires like hummingbirds. They remind me of the court priests of Versailles, or Mr Collins, the oleaginous vicar in Pride and Prejudice. The gurus cater to the spiritual needs of their fabulously wealthy clients and assure them of their cosmic mandate. To be honest, it’s partly why I came here – I thought I could perhaps get rich selling philosophy to Silicon Valley. But I’m not sure I want to be Mr Collins.

Meanwhile, the rents are so high in San Francisco, I met one person who pays $1300 for a bunk-bed in a communal room; a trip to the doctor to check out an ear-infection reportedly costs you $10,000; gun crime is out of control – one of my uber drivers lost her cousin to a random shooting the week before;  and there are so many drugged-out or mentally ill homeless on the streets, it’s like walking into the zombie apocalypse.

Some entrepreneurs are already dreaming of the next escape, to new cities built at sea, or to New Zealand, or to Mars. They plan, after all, to live forever. ‘What do you want to do with forever?’ I asked one of the transhumanists I met. ‘Oh, solve human suffering, have fun, explore space.’ There can be a lack of humility in the spiritual culture here (we are gods), which stems partly from a disconnection to the earth – humus – and a gnostic desire to escape matter, Earth, death, to escape shit (there’s concern about the amount of human feces in the streets here, but luckily someone has invented an app to help navigate around it).

Meanwhile, the Bay Area itself is threatened by climate change, by rising sea levels, forest fires, and the drying up of arable land. But maybe, if humans do come up with an amazing idea to deal with climate change, it will emerge from here.

Yesterday I met another Brit who’d moved here 20 years ago, and who works in a network dedicated to ‘restorative economics’, trying to find a better model for humanity to live in harmony with the planet. That sort of deep ecology also emerged here, in the work of Bay Area thinkers like Joanna Macy. The Brit told me he was inspired to move here partly by Alan Watts, and his insistence that humans are just one part of the natural ecosystem and shouldn’t think of ourselves as separate.

I asked him what he thought would happen to the Earth this century. ‘Well, the arctic is releasing methane, which is not good news. The IPCC’s predictions seem overly optimistic, so I expect sea levels to rise over the next few decades. That will lead to serious geo-political instability in response to mass migration, and potentially nuclear wars.’ I imagined seeing a mushroom cloud in the distance, as I kayaked down Piccadilly Circus. ‘And what about the longer-term?’ I asked hopefully. ‘Hopefully some humans will survive.’ And the strange thing was, I still enjoyed the rest of the day.

On machines faking being human

There’s a brilliant cover story in this month’s Atlantic by Brian Christian, on the annual Loebner Prize, where teams of computer scientists compete with humans to try and convince a panel of judges that they’re human.


The prize is based on an idea of Alan Turing’s, one of the geniuses behind the invention of the computer – he invented the computing machine which eventually cracked the Nazis’ Enigma code, helping to turn the tide of the war.

Turing was fascinated by the idea of artificial intelligence, and the question of whether computers could really ‘think’. He suggested one way of finding out was by getting humans to speak to several different conversation partners, some of them humans, some computers, to see if they could tell the humans apart from the machines. Turing predicted that by the year 2000, computers would be able to fool 30% of human judges after five minutes of conversation.


In 2009, Christian volunteered to be one of the participants in the Prize – he’d be one of the humans trying to convince the judges that they were actually speaking to a human, rather than a machine. How to appear human? You can try being funny, after all, humans have a sense of humour while computers don’t. But computers can be programmed to produce wacky humour. This is one conversation from the first Loebner Prize:

Judge: It has been a long day! Now I think I’m ready for some fun. The weather isn’t very pleasant today. Do you have any jokes that could lift the clouds?
Computer: Everybody talks about the weather but nobody seems to do much about it. Why do you need to tell me now you think you’re ready for some fun? Grooooaaan….
Judge: What is the definition of whimsical conversation?
Computer: Didn’t you say well anyway I would imagine whimsical conversation is like a series of knight’s moves in chess – sort of zig-zag rather than following any nparticular line.? [The computer was programmed to make spelling errors.] Why do you ask? Was that a clever comment, or what? Are such questions much on your mind?
Judge: I like the image of knights moving haphazardly across the chess board, does that mean there is no thought to whimsical conversation?
Computer: I could swear you just said how do you define whimsical? How do yku define whimsical? were you always so sick sick sick? Why do you need to tell me you like the image of knights moving haphazardly across the chessboard?

The judge later said: “I really thought the computer was human, because it…was weird and funny, in a normal sort of way.” How about being empathetic? Computers can’t feel empathy can they? Perhaps not – but they can certainly fake it. This is a conversation between a human and Eliza, a programme written by Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT, which was modeled to imitate a Rogerian therapist:
Human: Men are all alike.
Eliza: In what way?
Human:They’re always bugging us about something or other.
Eliza: Can you think of a specific example?
Human: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.
Eliza: Your boyfriend made you come here.
Human: He says I’m depressed much of the time.
Eliza: I’m sorry to hear you are depressed.
Human: It’s true. I am unhappy.
Eliza: Do you think coming here will help you not be unhappy?
Human: I need some help, that much seems certain.
Eliza: What would it mean to you if you got some help?
Human: Perhaps I could learn to get along with my mother.
Eliza: Tell me more about your family.

The medical community decided Weizenbaum had hit upon something both brilliant and useful. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, for example, said of Eliza in 1966: “
Several hundred patients an hour could be handled by a computer system designed for this purpose. The human therapist, involved in the design and operation of this system, would not be replaced, but would become a much more efficient man.” The astronomer Carl Sagan concurred: “I can imagine the development of a network of computer psychotherapeutic terminals, something like arrays of large telephone booths, in which, for a few dollars a session, we would be able to talk with an attentive, tested, and largely non-directive psychotherapist.”
That didn’t come to pass…or did it? If you go to your GP and complain of depression or anxiety, the first thing they will do is point you to computerized CBT websites like Beating The Blues and Fear Fighter, which offer not just non-directive advice, but directive advice, telling you how you might be looking at the world wrong. There are also apps now, like the Intel-designed Mood Mapper, which allow users to track their moods, and which suggest alternative ways of seeing a situation if a user is feeling particularly depressed. And there’s a new form of therapy, called Cognitive Bias Modification, which works entirely through computers, without the need for any contact with a therapist. How long before the annoying Office Assistant on our word processors is joined by an Emotion Assistant, who pops up when it detects we’re sad, and asks us if we’d like to talk about it?

The fact that computer programmes are increasingly able to pass themselves off as humans reminds me, of course, of
Blade Runner, and of Philip K. Dick’s original story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Dick imagined a world in which androids had been designed so well that they could pass themselves off as humans – which they tried to do. Rogue androids had to be chased down by assassins, known as Blade Runners, who detected androids by subjecting them to something called the Voight-Kampff Empathy Test, which tests people’s emotional reactions to see if they’re really human – or just faking being human.

The idea is interesting, partly because Philip K. Dick was on the schizophrenia spectrum, which is to say, he exhibited some symptoms of schizophrenia, and one of the symptoms of schizophrenia is a ‘flattening of affect and empathy’ – just like an android. Another symptom is paranoid psychosis – for example, wondering if the people around you are who they appear to be, or if they’re just actors following some sort of elaborate script…or androids following an elaborate algorithm. It makes me think….aren’t we all, in some ways, trying to fake being human? We’re all trying to successfully follow the accepted scripts and language patterns of our culture, to pass ourselves off as a ‘normal human being’, and stop people detecting our inner weirdness.

I suppose the real test of a machine being a ‘person’ is if it were self-aware. A machine may be able to assimilate and copy patterns of human thought, language and behaviour, but could it have a sense of self…or a fear of death? And how would we know it wasn’t just faking it? How do you know I’m not faking it? How do you know I really exist, and am not just a programme designed to imitate a blogger? Well, enough of these paranoid speculations. Have a go yourself – try chatting to the Turing programme
Jabberwocky.

That Microsoft Office Assistant pic comes from this site, by the way.