I think about Timothy Leary a lot these days. He is widely believed to have died on May 31, 1996. If so, it’s really too bad. A pioneering technopagan and an elder statesman of Cyberpunk, he would revel in Google, Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest of our digital paraphernalia. What Douglas Rushkoff has called “Present Shock” (we are way beyond Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock”) wouldn’t faze him one little bit.
Leary wouldn’t even be bothered by encroachments on personal privacy. As I remember, he rather liked having his phone tapped—because whoever was listening might actually learn something. “Privacy is the evil of monotheism,” he once said to me—or rather, he will say it to J. X. Brillig in the year 2040.
Pat’s and my jamais inter-vu with Leary, entitled “Brillig in Cyberland,” was first published in our jamais vu newsletter in December 1988. In it, Leary plays a garrulous tour guide to a futuristic, William Gibsonesque wonderworld. Leary himself included “Brillig and Cyberland” as the epilog to his last non-posthumous book, Chaos & Cyber Culture (1994).
But why am I somewhat skeptical that he actually died in 1996? Well, talk of Timothy Leary’s demise dates all the way back to 1968 and the lyrics to “Legend of the Mind” by the Moody Blues. “Timothy Leary’s dead,” the song announced. It wasn’t true then, and I’m not so sure it is now.
Leary was obsessed with life extension, and he considered death (or “irreversible involuntary coma”) an inexcusable waste of time and resources. So he didn’t plan on dying if he could possibly help it. It’s well known that Leary arranged to have his head cryonically preserved, only to change his mind shortly before his final “coma.” He grumbled,
I was worried I would wake up in fifty years surrounded by people with clipboards.
He opted for cremation—which would seem to put an end to the matter.
But in an increasingly informational world, immortality isn’t necessarily about the survival of the physical body. In “Brillig in Cyberland,” Leary explained (or will explain in 2040),
Basically, immortality is about digitizing. The more of yourself you digitize, the more of yourself is going to be immortal. The more of your actions and memories you get digitized, the more immortal you’re going to be. I was one of the first people to discover this. My claim to fame today is that there is more of me in digital form than almost any other person from the twentieth century.
There is, indeed, a lot of information about Timothy Leary kicking around, so I wouldn’t write him off just yet. While it’s true that the Moody Blues said that he was dead, they went right on to say otherwise:
No, no, no, no, he’s outside looking in.