Interview taken from the Twentieth Anniversary Issue of Rolling Stone Magazine
(C) 1987 Rolling Stone Magazine
T I M O T H Y L E A R Y
Interview taken from the Twentieth Anniversary Issue of
Rolling Stone Magazine
ROLLING STONE: As the former so-called LSD guru, what do you
think of Nancy Reagan's advice on drugs--"Just say no"?
TIMOTHY LEARY: Our kids should be better mannered than that! We
should tell them, "Just say, 'No, thank you.'" Any blanket
"Just say no" is a negative approach to life, which is
typical of the Reagan administration.
RS: So you disagree with the huge antidrug campaign?
TL: I'm totally opposed to nonadults using any drug. However,
the use of drugs by kids should be easily handled in a
family in which there is trust and communication. The
fact that kids in the ghetto use drugs is viewed the
wrong way. The problem is not the drugs; the problem is
the ghetto families where there are no models, there is no
communication, no education.
RS: So it's okay to tell children to say, "No, thank you." How
about the rest of us?
TL: Shall break the news? Adult Americans are supposed to make
their own decisions about personal matters. I am
constitutional opposed to government prohibitions against
my using any drug I want to. Addicts pose a different
problem. They are, by definition, sick people. If you
love an alcoholic or a druggie or a gun freak, intervene.
People who abuse drugs or booze or money or guns should be
prevented from acting irresponsibly. But ninety percent
of adults can and do use drugs prudently and efficiently.
RS: How do you feel about urine testing?
TL: I have no problems with testing people who operate dangerous
machinery or who run nuclear plants. I don't want the
pilot of my plane hallucinating. But intelligent
individuals are not going to work for companies that would
force them to do demeaning things like pee in a bottle.
God knows what they would want next.
TL: There is a strong taboo discouraging experimentation with the
human brain. Before the Renaissance, there was a strong
religious taboo against discovering how the body worked.
This held back progress in medicine and biology for
centuries. Today a similar challenge faces the human
species. We must learn how the brain works. That's what
we were doing at Harvard and Millbrook during the 1960s.
The psychedelic movement was a mind-exploration movement.
None of us really understood what was happening when we
took psychedelic drugs, because we had to use the mystical
language of the past--Hindu terms like satori and samhadi,
occult terms like illumination and transcendental. We
didn't have the scientific metaphors to understand what we
RS: And we do now?
TL: Yup. We had to have a personal-computer movement to help us
understand the brain. You see, we can only understand our
inner workings in terms of the external, mechanical or
technological models that we build. We never understood
the circulation of the blood until we had hydraulic
systems moving water around. We didn't understand
metabolism until we had mastered thermodynamics with the
steam engine and understood how coal and oil produce power
and energy. Only then could we figure out how
carbohydrates and proteins work. Coming from an
industrial, mechanical culture, how could we possibly
understand the brain? Until recently we thought the brain
was a machine like a big telephone system. This is a
completely inadequate metaphor. The psychedelic-drug
movement of the Sixties and the personal-computer movement
of the Eighties are inner and outer reflections of each
other. You simply cannot understand psychedelic drugs,
which activate the brain, unless you understand something
about computers. It is no accident that many of the
people in the computer movement had experimented with LSD.
RS: And what was learned?
TL: Every person who took acid has his or her own story to tell.
That's the beautiful things about it. Certainly there is
no one who had an experience with LSD who didn't have an
unforgettable, overwhelming experience.
RS: How do computers help our inner exploration?
TL: Computers help us understand how our brains process
information. For example, as a psychologist, I was taught
that the synapse, where two nerve endings exchange
information, was a sort of on-off switching device. That
is not true at all. At the synapse there are millions of
quantum signals, like an enormous television screen.
There is probably more complex information exchanged
between one synapse and another than in most computer
programs. But I have to have an understanding of
computers to be able to say that. There is a wonderful
paradox here: we can only navigate outside as well as we
can navigate within. What happened in the Sixties was
that we did a lot of inner tripping, but we lacked the
cybernetic-language technology to express and map and
chart what we were experiencing.
RS: Do you miss the Sixties?
TL: Not really, thought I must say it was a fantastic age of
exploration. We had that old-time 1492 Columbus fever.
We sensed that we were brain explorers. We intuitively
used metaphors of travel--"tripping," "coming down," "head
pilots," "guiding voyagers." The metaphor "turning on"
relates to activating the television set and booting up
RS: These days, the drugs in vogue are not mind exploring. What
does that say about the time?
TL: The drugs that are popular today--cocaine, pills, ecstasy,
Venus, Eve--tend to alter mood rather than expand
consciousness. They can be instructive and fun if handled
prudently. But we still have to learn how to communicate
what we experience. Let's be frank: there will be new,
improved drugs and wave of internal explorations.
RS: With what end?
TL: It is a genetic imperative to explore the brain. Why?
Because it's there. If you are carrying around in you
head 100 billion mainframe computers, you just have to get
in there and learn how to operate them. There is nothing
in the outside universe that isn't mirrored and duplicated
inside your brain.
RS: Do you feel a kindred spirit with the people who are
identified with the drug movement, such as Richard
Alpert--a.k.a. Ram Dass--and novelist and Merry Prankster
leader Ken Kesey?
TL: Sure, although we all evolved so differently. Richard talks
about going back to the source, which means going back to
the past. For many good reasons, Richard committed
himself to an extremely archaic Hindu orthodoxy. But it's
a peaceful philosophy of caring and charity. Richard was
the Mother Teresa of the psychedelic movement. You can't
knock that. But Ram Dass ain't gonna blow your mind open
with new revelations, and he ain't gonna encourage you to
storm the gates of the info-space heaven with cybernetic
RS: What about Ken Kesey?
TL: Ken Kesey and his wife, Faye, are real Western heroes.
Mythic ranchers. Frontier people. Oregon Trail folk.
Salt of the good earth. Rugged-individualist people you
can depend on in a crunch.
RS: How about others associated with that period? Abbie Hoffman?
TL: Abbie Hoffman is a wonderful legend. The most radical,
eloquent, rabble-rousing agitator of our time.
RS: Jerry Rubin?
TL: Jerry's your basic YMHA director, a likable young executive.
Jerry is a liberal conformist. He could just as well have
been a young liberal Republican. He's certainly not your
new Aristotle or Plato.
RS: What was his role then?
TL: He had his own Holy Grail quest. He certainly was out there
in the front lines. And he has a certain organizational
charm, which I admire. If you're looking for a veterans-
of-the-Sixties consensus here, I'd guess that ninety
percent of the people who were involved in the psychedelic
brain-discovery movement would tell you that LSD paved the
way for most of the cultural events of the last two
decades--ecology, New Age, Shirley MacLaine, the born-
again personal-religion stuff, the peace movement, the
personal-fitness craze, pop art, personal-computer
hacking, MTV, BLADE RUNNER, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and the
TL: I think each decade in the roaring twentieth century has
produced new technologies and art forms for personalizing
and popularizing electronic, light-speed quantum energies
Since 1900 our society of factory workers and farmers has
been transformed into an information-age culture totally
committed to flashing realities on screens. Americans
spend more time looking at television monitors than they
do gazing into the eyes of family and friends. Power,
politics and culture are determined by who controls the
RS: How does this affect you?
TL: I follow the trends of evolution. I go with the electron
flow. I see myself as a quintessential American, just
going along for the ride.
RS: Quintessential? You?
TL: Hey, I'm sixty-seven years old. I have actively experienced
seven decades of accelerated change. I've surfed each of
the waves of the twentieth century with reasonable success
and an amount of fun. In the Forties, I was in the army
for five years and in school on the GI bill for five
years. What could be more apple pie? In the Fifties, I
was a button-down young professor with kids, a suburban
house, drinking martinis. In the Sixties, I dutifully,
diligently turned on, tuned in and, God knows, dropped
out. What was the alternative? Turn off, tune out,
The Seventies was the decade of the political prisoner.
Nixon threw the dissenters in jail. I was the first one
to go into prison: January 1970. Then, after Watergate,
it was the Nixon gang's turn. In the next six years, I
watched my federal pursurers join me: the attorney
general, John Mitchell; Haldeman and Ehrlichman; Gordon
Liddy. Now, in the Eighties, how can you avoid the
RS: Can you describe your work in the computer field?
TL: My work involves cybernetic psychology--the personalization
amd popularization of quantum mechanics. Packaging and
communicating thoughts at light speeds. Putting
electronic appliances in the hands of individuals. First
we had the telephone, then radio, movies, television. Now
we have computers, video players, compact discs, home-
editing appliances. It's still just the beginning. In
the next five years we're gonna design you an inexpensive
electronic facility for you living room. You'll be able
to move information and images around your screen in
whatever way you want. Now, that's revolutionary.
RS: In what ways?
TL: In the twenty-first century, whoever controls the screen
controls consciousness, information and thought. The
screen is a mirror of your mind, get it? If you are
passively watching screens, you are getting programed.
If you are editing you own screen, you are in control of
you mind. George Orwell had it wrong. He was too
optimistic. He wrote in 1984 that Big Brother would watch
us from screens on the walls of our living rooms or
bedrooms. But that is nothing. You could always duck out
of sight. The current horror is that Americans
voluntarily stick their amoeboid faces toward the screen
six or seven hours a day and suck up information that Big
Brother is putting there. Here is the key to our future:
We can and will control our own screens. We are designing
software that will empower you to produce and direct your
own mind movies, your own prime-time shows.
RS: And how will it affect us?
TL: This will create a new model of human being, the cybernetic
person. A new movement is emerging. It's something like
the beatniks of the Fifties of the hippies of the Sixties.
It's called cyberpunk. The concept comes from William
Gibson's book NEUROMANCER. Cyberpunks are individuals who
have the intelligence and the courage to access and use
high-quantum technology for their own purposes and their
own modes of communication.
RS: For example?
TL: In the movie WARGAMES the kid is a video hotshot. At school,
the authoritarian, smug teacher gives him a hard time. He
goes to the principal's office, gets the computer code and
goes home and changes his grade. He ends up using his
cyber skills to match wits with the Pentagon computers.
Another example of cyberpunk was the young man from
Hamburg, Mathias Rust, who piloted a small Cessna through
the electronic nets and defense systems of the Russians
and landed in Red Square. Why? Not for the CIA, nor for
the German army, but for his own fucking pleasure. He is
a classic cyberpunk. Charles Lindburg, the Lone Eagle,
was another. Stanley Kubrick. Jann Weaver. Steve Jobs.
I could go on.
RS: And they symbolize what?
TL: Taking control of the future ourselves. Ignoring the old-
time institutions and archaic politics. You don't
organize in old-time political groups to get involved in
campaigns for political office. You don't get involved in
the old struggle for or against Big Brother. You pilot
out to the frontier and navigate a new life. "Cyber"
comes from the Greek word for "pilot." Once you declare
you independence in your mind, you're home free.
As more and more people become free agents, or cyber pilots,
it's gonna make an enormous difference. When we get just
ten percent of the people operating this way, it will
change the system, because they are the smartest ten
percent. Star Wars, for example, cannot operate if ten
percent of the computer techies think for themselves. To
run a modern society you depend upon skilled, innovative
quantum intelligence. These are exactly the people who
are not going to become vassals to an economic or
In his book NEUROMANCER, Gibson spells out a sociology for
the twenty-first century that makes a lot of sense. The
world is controlled by international global combines based
in Japan, Germany, Switzerland. Nationalism is down. The
multinationals won't allow war to break out; they can't
let the Russians bomb America, because they own most of
America. And it's an amazingly free world. The
international combines don't care about your lifestyle.
They just want us all to be consumers with individual
options. They're not like the Islamic fundamentalists or
the Reagan right-wingers or the communist moralists. They
don't care what your sex life is. They don't care what
drugs you take, as long as you consume. So there are
going to be enormous free markets operating according to
the laws of supply and demand--the basic form of
RS: Who is most threatened by this idea?
TL: The nationalists and the religious people. Their power will
be greatly diminished.
RS: And what will happen in the political arena?
TL: Politics are going to change in the next two or six years,
when the baby-boom generation comes of age. The baby
boomers, born 1946 to 1964, are now between the ages of
forty-one and twenty-three. The 1988 election is the
first in which every baby boomer will be over twenty-one.
The older ones are going to be running for office. That
means in 1988, and certainly in 1992, the baby boomers,
the Summer of Love kids, will take over. This generation
is 76 million strong. They'll be in the position of the
shark in the swimming pool, the polar bear in the small
igloo. They can do whatever they fuckin' want.
RS: Yet young people today seem more conservative than ever.
TL: I don't think the old terms like "liberal" or "conservative"
make much sense. They are individualists--skeptical, even
cynical, about partisan politics. They've seen their
ideals dashed with Vietnam, Watergate, Iranscam. These
veterans of the Sixties are tough cookies.
RS: But how long will it take to get this technology into the
hands of more people?
TL: Good point. I can only repeat that the personalization and
popularization of high technology is the key.
Popularization means cybernetic appliances in the hands of
the people. It is not just the personal computer. It's
any electronic technology that allows you to change your
screen. With the new tape-editing appliances, you can
become the director and producer of what you and your
family see. You can combine educational programs with
entertainment, create collages with your own X-rated home
movies and bits you taped off CNN news.
RS: So we won't be dependant on outside programmers for all our
entertainment and information.
TL: Exactly. Don't forget these media programmers want absolute
control over our minds. When it's on my screen, I'll
decide how it plays. The first time I got turned on to
the new cyber-pilot idea was in a video arcade. I watched
my grandchildren moving rockets around on the screens.
Well, if you can do what with blips, you can do it with
RS: People like Jerry Falwell and Ed Meese probably wouldn't be
too happy with your cyber-pilot concept. Are you
concerned about the regressive trends represented by
Falwell and the Meese commission?
TL: They must be scorned and ridiculed. Still, when you think
about it, the Meese commission doesn't really hurt self-
directed Americans very much. It stirs up a lot of
excitement. If 7-Eleven won't sell me PLAYBOY, I'll just
go to another store down the block. The poverty thing is
what hurts: people in the underclass deprived of
information, discouraged from learning cybernetic skills.
RS: How do you propose we combat that?
TL: My company, Futique--that's the opposite of "antique"--has
joined up with Activision to produce software programs
that are so inexpensive and attractive that ghetto kids
can quickly pick up the new language of screens and icons.
More and more of the cybernetic equipment will become
available. It will filter into all homes eventually, just
RS: You speak to many college audiences. What do you find out
TL: We are dealing with the best-educated generation in history.
They are a hundred times better educated than their
grandparents, and ten times more sophisticated. There has
never been such an open-mined group. The problem is that
no one is giving them anything fresh. They've got a brain
dressed up with nowhere to go.
RS: What do they expect when they come to see Tim Leary?
TL: The average college student doesn't know who I am. They
weren't even born in l'ete d'amour. But word gets around.
The rumor is that I'm someone vaguely counterculture and
RS: What are you trying to communicate to them?
TL: This is the golden age of intelligence. Instead of E=MC^2,
it's I=MC^2, where "I" is information. According to this
formula, the aim is to activate your mind, awaken new
ideas, improve your communication skills. Pilot your
life. Smarten up.
RS: And are the college kids responding?
TL: I sense that a lot of college kids envy the Sixties. They
feel they have missed something. Today there's not the
excitement and the feeling of change, the feeling of
engagement, that existed then. So they tend to respond
with enthusiasm to common-sense proposals for personal
RS: It's ironic that the Sixties are viewed so fondly when many
emerged from that period completely disillusioned.
TL: It depends on your viewpoint. The so-called Sixties actually
started in 1967, when the oldest baby boomer became
twenty-one. The Summer of Love was a coming-of-age party.
It was triggered symbolically by the Beatles' SGT. PEPPER
album, which changed rock & roll into a new and powerful
cultural form. There had been preparations for it in
jazz, in the beatniks, in Elvis Presley, in the rhythm &
blues stuff, people like Ray Charles. And the early
elitist drug stuff, Ken Kensey and our group at Harvard.
But the signal went global with SGT. PEPPER. Every year
after 1967 produced another public eruption: the 1968
Chicago riots; Woodstock in 1969; Kent State in 1970. I
think the Sixties peaked in 1976 when we elected a hippie-
dippy, Howdy Doody guy named Jimmy Carter as president.
Carter was quoting Bob Dylan and talking about peace and
love and civil rights and human rights. How strange that
The spirit of the Summer of Love in America ended with a thud
in 1980 when we elected Nancy Reagan as commander in
chief. But it rippled out globally. It surfaces whenever
young people get rid of the old World War II generals.
Spain after Franco started its summer of freedom.
Portugal. Brazil when the colonels got the boot.
Argentina. The Phillippines. What's happening in South
Korea right now looks familiar, doesn't it? College kids
and civilians in shirt sleeves standing up to the helmeted
national guard? Shades of Kent State? And now, exactly
twenty years later, the Summer of Love is hitting Russia.
Glasnost! Openess! Punk-rock clubs in Moscow! Gorby
singing "Give Peace a Chance"! Mrs. Gorby quoting
Lennon--John, not Vladimir Ilyich--to Yoko Ono!
RS: Isn't the Reagan administration out of step with all this?
TL: It doesn't matter. It cannot stop the evolutionary wave.
When it is time for the human species to activate their
new brain circuits, it's gonna happen. Nothing is going
to stop it! There is no way you can pass laws against the
relentless increase in human intelligence. The evolution
of precise technology is so seductive. There's no way you
can stop individuals from exploring their brains and using
the new cybernetic-knowledge appliances.
RS: In the meantime?
TL: The old game goes on. It is the genetic duty of the power
holders to in every way discourage change in the gene
pool. This means that those of us who are wired to change
have to be really smart and really tough. If we can't
prevail over turkeys like Meese and Falwell, then fuck it,
we don't deserve to get into the future. If we can't
outmaneuver vacuous four-letter robots like Bush and Bork
and Kemp and Dole, then we better go back to school and
smarten up. We are dealing with moral-mental pygmies
here. We can navigate around Ollie North's 600-ship navy
[smiles broadly]. They don't have a chance.
Interview by David Sheff
Supplied by Gallifrey (407) 678-15546 300/1200/2400 bps