In the past 48 hours we have learned about everything there is to know about the life of Steve Jobs from the countless obituaries. Most attention has obviously gone to his role in the evolution of Apple Computer. Other popular topics were his business and marketing genius, his difficult personality and even his love life. Some articles also briefly mentioned his conversion to Zen Buddhism and his experimentation with LSD in the 1970′s. This piece by Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan focuses on that topic. It highlights the impact that Buddhism and experimentation with mind-altering drugs have had on his creativity and how Steve Jobs can be seen as an example of the other America, the America that lies beyond the narrow idea of the “Christian Nation” as it was constructed by conservatives in the past decades:
Steve Jobs, who died yesterday, combined in himself all the contradictions of the Sixties and of Bay Area experiments in consciousness. It seems to me entirely possible that the young Jobs would have joined the OccupyWallStreet.org protests.
He is a one-man response to the charge that the counterculture produced no lasting positive change. Jobs’s technological vision, rooted in a concern for how people use technology or could use it more intuitively, profoundly altered our world. He used to say that those who had never had anything to do with the counterculture had difficulty understanding his way of thinking.
Jobs dropped out of college, gathered Coca-Cola bottles to turn them in for money, got free meals from the Krishna Consciousness Society (“Hare Krishnas”), and later made a trip to India, where he converted to Buddhism.
I’d be interested to know how that happened. There is very little Buddhism in India. Tibetan Buddhists have centers in places like Varanasi (Banares) in North India, because these monks are political or cultural exiles from Communist China. The Dalits or ‘untouchables’ of western Indian have had a conversion movement to Buddhism. Jobs is said to have gone with a college buddy to see a Hindu guru devoted to the monkey-god, Hanuman. I really wonder whether the Buddhism was not encountered in the US rather than in India, though the trip to India may have influenced his decision.
In the same period, he was doing psychedelic drugs like LSD, which he later said were very important to his creative vision.
Indic spiritual traditions were important to Jobs, especially Buddhism. The quest for states of altered consciousness, which characterized some in my generation, was central to his creative vision.
The DOS operating system was something that only an engineer could love, a set of odd commands entered on a blinking line against a black backdrop. Jobs preferred icons, and changed computing forever. He, at least, was convinced that without the liberal social and spiritual experimentation of his youth, his creative vision would not have been the same.
The conservative backlash of the past 30 years has put hundreds of thousands of people behind bars for drug use (though not for alcohol use, the licit dangerous drug), and Rick Perry’s insistence that the US is a Christian nation is an attempt to erase the Steve Jobses from American history. Herman Cain’s Islamophobia is an attempt to exclude people like Jobs’s biological father from American legitimacy. But you can’t take a Muslim Arab immigrant, a Hindu guru, Buddhist monks, and some little pills out of this great American success story without making nonsense of it. Multiculturalism and cultural and religious experimentation, not fundamentalism and racism, are what make America great. Jobs showed that they are not incompatible with that other American icon, business success. Contemporary conservatism has given us over-paid and under-regulated financiers who add no real value to anything, unlike Jobs. If the Perrys ever do succeed in remaking the US in their own image, it will be a much reduced, crippled America that can no longer lead the world in creative innovation.
For more on the possible relationship between psychedelics and the evolution of the personal computer and the internet read What the Doormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer by New York Times technology reporter John Markoff. Or this piece on the Huffington Post from a few years back:
Psychedelic drugs, Markoff argues, pushed the computer and Internet revolutions forward by showing folks that reality can be profoundly altered through unconventional, highly intuitive thinking. Douglas Engelbart is one example of a psychonaut who did just that: he helped invent the mouse. Apple’s Jobs has said that Microsoft’s Bill Gates, would “be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once.” In a 1994 interview with Playboy, however, Gates coyly didn’t deny having dosed as a young man.
Thinking differently–or learning to Think Different, as a Jobs slogan has it–is a hallmark of the acid experience. “When I’m on LSD and hearing something that’s pure rhythm, it takes me to another world and into anther brain state where I’ve stopped thinking and started knowing,” Kevin Herbert told Wired magazine at a symposium commemorating Hofmann’s one hundredth birthday. Herbert, an early employee of Cisco Systems who successfully banned drug testing of technologists at the company, reportedly “solved his toughest technical problems while tripping to drum solos by the Grateful Dead.”
“It must be changing something about the internal communication in my brain,” said Herbert. “Whatever my inner process is that lets me solve problems, it works differently, or maybe different parts of my brain are used.”
Burning Man, founded in 1986 by San Francisco techies, has always been an attempt to make a large number of people use different parts of their brains toward some nonspecific but ostensibly enlightening and communally beneficial end. The event was quickly moved to the desert of Nevada as it became too big for the city. Today, it’s more likely to be attended by a software engineer than a dropped-out hippie. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, are longtime Burners, and the influence of San Francisco and Seattle tech culture is everywhere in the camps and exhibits built for the eight-day festival. Its Web site suggests, in fluent acidese, that “[t]rying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind.”
Gilmore doubts, however, that a strict cause-and-effect relationship between drugs and the Internet can be proved. The type of person who’s inspired by the possibility of creating new ways of storing and sharing knowledge, he said, is often the same kind interested in consciousness exploration. At a basic level, both endeavors are a search for something outside of everyday reality–but so are many creative and spiritual undertakings, many of them strictly drug-free. But it’s true, Gilmore noted, that people do come to conclusions and experience revelations while tripping. Perhaps some of those revelations have turned up in programming code.
And perhaps in other scientific areas, too. According to Gilmore, the maverick surfer/chemist Kary Mullis, a well-known LSD enthusiast, told him that acid helped him develop the polymerase chain reaction, a crucial breakthrough for biochemistry. The advance won him the Nobel Prize in 1993. And according to reporter Alun Reese, Francis Crick, who discovered DNA along with James Watson, told friends that he first saw the double-helix structure while tripping on LSD.
EDIT: Slate just published an article on the topic as well.