An article in Time magazine has the headline: “Steve Jobs Had LSD. We Have the iPhone“.
I don’t have an iPhone, so I guess I can’t fairly pass judgment on how profound the experience might be — but I will anyway.
The idea that possessing an iPhone would be juxtaposed with a psychedelic experience highlights the extraordinary superficiality of the era in which we now live.
As I see all around me the stony faces of people staring into their indispensable iPhones, I’m not convinced Steve Jobs made this a better world.
In a New York Times op-ed a few days ago, Martin Lindstrom wrote:
Earlier this year, I carried out an fMRI experiment to find out whether iPhones were really, truly addictive, no less so than alcohol, cocaine, shopping or video games. In conjunction with the San Diego-based firm MindSign Neuromarketing, I enlisted eight men and eight women between the ages of 18 and 25. Our 16 subjects were exposed separately to audio and to video of a ringing and vibrating iPhone.
In each instance, the results showed activation in both the audio and visual cortices of the subjects’ brains. In other words, when they were exposed to the video, our subjects’ brains didn’t just see the vibrating iPhone, they “heard” it, too; and when they were exposed to the audio, they also “saw” it. This powerful cross-sensory phenomenon is known as synesthesia.
But most striking of all was the flurry of activation in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love and compassion. The subjects’ brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member.
In short, the subjects didn’t demonstrate the classic brain-based signs of addiction. Instead, they loved their iPhones.
Picking up on this “finding,” the Time article said:
The paradoxes of love have perhaps never been clearer than in our relationships with Apple products — the warm, fleshy desire we feel for such cold, hard, glassy objects. But Jobs knew how to inspire material lust. He knew that consumers want something that not only sparkles and awes, but also feels accessible, easy to use, an object with which we want to merge and to feel one and the same.
Not coincidentally, that’s how people describe the experience of taking psychedelic drugs. It feels profoundly artificial yet deeply real, both high-tech and earthy-crunchy, human and mystically divine — in a word, transcendent. Jobs had this experience. He said that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he’d ever done. “He said there were things about him that people who had not tried psychedelics — even people who knew him well, including his wife — could never understand,” John Markoff reported for the Times.
Jobs’ experimentation with psychedelics might be noteworthy, yet those taking note display a singular lack of interest in delving into the reasons he might attach such significance to this particular kind of drug-induced experience.
Anyone who has used psychedelics understands exactly why Jobs, like others, emphasized the ineffable nature of the experience, but as true as it might be to say, “you can’t know what it’s like without taking it,” the effort to construct verbal representations of something that cannot be verbalized is not a pointless exercise.
To start with, calling a psychedelic experience a drug-induced experience is itself a misleading reference point.
We live in a society where drug-taking — either recreationally or by prescription — has never been more commonplace. So the idea that psychedelics induce particular sensations, suggests that they are yet another tool for modulating feelings and that those feelings merely happen to be located at a rarely engaged point on the feeling spectrum.
Most striking however — and this would tend to apply to those psychedelic experiences occurring in a tranquil and natural setting — is the sense that this is not a drug-induced experience. In other words, although the drug throws open a previously invisible door which will close after just a few hours, while that door remains open the intrinsic capabilities of the human mind appear to have been unlocked revealing the indivisibility of perceiver, perception, and perceived. The gap between “in here” and “out there” has dissolved.
The drug, rather than producing some form of intoxication, seems instead to peel away those perceptual filters that in everyday awareness largely shut out the world. For those rare individuals in whom those filters have already fallen away, the drug has no effect. Neem Karoli Baba, who Jobs had hoped to meet in India, had already demonstrated such an immunity to the effects of psychedelics. But the conclusion of Jobs own brief spiritual adventure was that individuals such as that particular Indian sage had much less to offer the world than the likes of Thomas Edison.
How did Jobs interpret his own LSD experience? I can only speculate, but given his role in helping create a society where our electronic connections often seem stronger than our physical relationships, I’m inclined to think that either he couldn’t retrieve much from the depths afterwards or didn’t penetrate any more deeply than the level of aesthetics. Later, when invited to support scientific research into therapeutic applications for psychedelics, Jobs declined.
The response to Jobs’ death has become a kind of instant beatification. He has become America’s greatest inventor — even though he didn’t invent anything. He is the visionary who shaped the world we live in — but is successfully developing products that cater to manufactured needs really a vision? What’s hard to dispute is that he was one of the greatest salesmen who ever lived.
This was a man who when asked whether he was glad that he had kids, said, “It’s 10,000 times better than anything I’ve ever done,” yet it seems he never found enough time to get to know them. “I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did,” said Jobs when explaining why he consented to having his biography written.
And therein lies the paradox of the age of global connectivity: it allows us to be part of ever expanding information and social networks which are formed by tying together bubbles of increasing isolation.