Can technology be today’s modern psychotropic agent?
In the 1960s, societal change intersected with the introduction of LSD, a drug that promised a new understanding of reality. This substance was exploited by the CIA in a covert operation known as MK-ULTRA, aimed at developing a mind-control drug to use against enemies. Today, we see a parallel with AI and language models like GPT, which have emerged as modern tools of influence over thought and behavior, subtly affecting our digital interactions and decisions. From influencing online shopping habits to shaping political perceptions, AI has become a significant player in the quest for mind control. This trend prompts critical ethical and societal questions, as we grapple with issues of privacy, data security, and the power of algorithms. Meanwhile, substances like LSD, once associated with manipulation, are now being explored for therapeutic benefits, reflecting the evolving understanding and utilization of such tools. As we progress deeper into the Information Age, it’s essential to balance technological advancements with ethical boundaries to prevent manipulation and uphold individual autonomy.
In the whirlwind of societal change that was the 1960s, our collective consciousness met a unique compound — lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. This molecule, synthesized by Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, promised a window into a new reality, challenging conventional views of perception and the mechanics of our minds.
However, beneath the surface of this psychedelic revolution, darker forces were at work. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the early Cold War years found itself embroiled in an escalating psychological arms race. Driven by fear that communist adversaries had discovered a drug or technique allowing them to manipulate human minds, the CIA initiated a covert operation known as MK-ULTRA.
The premise of MK-ULTRA was as audacious as it was chilling — to develop a mind control drug that could be weaponized against enemies. Guided by this objective, the CIA went to extraordinary lengths, purchasing the world’s entire supply of LSD for a staggering $240,000. What followed was a scheme of unimagined proportions.
The CIA transported this sizable cache of LSD to the United States, where it was covertly disseminated to a network of hospitals, clinics, prisons, and other institutions. Disguised under a smokescreen of ethical foundations, the CIA orchestrated an extensive series of research projects. The aim was to unravel the mysteries of LSD: understanding its nature, documenting its effects on human subjects, and exploring its potential as a tool for mind control.
By proxy, the CIA orchestrated experiments involving LSD on thousands of unwitting civilians and military personnel. The unethical practices employed ranged from micro-dosing volunteers without informed consent to more extreme cases involving high-dose LSD administration and prolonged sensory deprivation. The vast scale of this operation and the ethical implications echo down to the present day, serving as a stark reminder of the lengths institutions may go in their quest for control.
Fast forward to today. We see a different yet interesting parallel scenario. Technology, especially AI and language models such as GPT are the new frontiers in the ongoing quest for influence over human thought and behavior. In essence, technology has become a new kind of ‘psychotropic agent.’
In contrast to LSD’s chemical alterations of the brain’s function, this modern psychotropic agent is not a physical substance but ‘neural driver’ that activates and rewards our brains. It works by shaping our interactions, experiences, and perceptions in the digital realm. Algorithms, the underlying structures guiding our online experiences, can potentially take on the role of digital puppet masters, subtly influencing our decisions and the information we consume.
We’ve even gone as far as recognizing ‘hallucinations’ in LLM models themselves. The irony lies in the mirroring of our historical narrative and our current technological landscape. Just as the hallucinogenic properties of LSD were once viewed as a means to manipulate and control perception in the MK-ULTRA project, today’s ‘bugs’ in GPT algorithms have been metaphorically referred to as ‘hallucinations’. This fascinating parallel suggests that even in the realm of artificial intelligence, unexpected behaviors and outputs — these so-called algorithmic “hallucinations” — echo the unpredictable nature of mind-altering substances.
Consider the role of algorithms in online shopping. They curate and recommend products based on past purchase history, web searches, and even the browsing behavior of users with similar profiles. This personalization can significantly influence purchasing decisions, encouraging consumption habits and shaping economic behaviors on a vast scale. As difficult as it might be to say out loud, it’s mind control.
Further, the role of AI and social media in shaping voter perceptions has been significant and problematic. They have revolutionized how political campaigns are run, how information is disseminated, and how voters interact with candidates. Algorithmically driven platforms curate personalized content, influencing the information users see, often reinforcing existing beliefs and potentially creating echo chambers. During elections, targeted advertising, micro-targeting of messages, and AI-generated narratives can sway voter opinions, sometimes based on misinformation or biased content. This dynamic landscape of digital political engagement offers opportunities for broadening political discourse but also raises critical concerns about transparency, information accuracy, and the potential for manipulation.
The concept of mind control, regardless of its form, plays to some of the darker facets of human nature — our desire for power, control, and dominance over others. It’s an idea that, while horrific, can be alluring to some, as it promises a means to bypass the messiness of persuasion, negotiation, and consensus-building in human interactions. It offers a shortcut to an individual’s or a group’s alignment with certain ideals or actions, often without their informed consent or even their knowledge. However, such practices can lead to gross violations of personal autonomy and freedom, fundamentally undermining the respect for human dignity. This tendency towards control and dominance over the human mind, from the era of LSD and MK-ULTRA to our current day digital manipulations, continually challenges us to uphold ethical boundaries in our quest for knowledge and power.
Just as with MK-ULTRA, these new forms of influence have raised critical ethical and societal questions. As we grapple with issues surrounding privacy, data security, and the power of algorithms to shape public discourse, the specter of MK-ULTRA serves as a potent reminder of the past. Today, as we stand on the precipice of an increasingly digitized future, we need to learn from history, ensuring our technological advancements serve societal betterment and uphold individual autonomy rather than veer towards manipulation and control.
In an intriguing twist of historical fate, after a generation, we’re witnessing the resurgence and validation of LSD and other hallucinogenic substances, this time under a different, more promising light. The compounds once associated with manipulation and mind control are now being revisited as potential therapeutic agents. Current scientific research points towards their effective use in treating various mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, and end-of-life anxiety. This shift from misuse to beneficial application dramatically exemplifies how our understanding and utilization of substances or tools can evolve over time. It reminds us that even in the face of misuse, there’s always room for transformation and redemption, turning agents of control into tools of healing.
As we venture deeper into the Information Age, it’s crucial to recognize and address the potential and pitfalls of technology as a new psychological driver. If we consider history, we’ll see that the struggle for control, especially over the mind, has consistently been a feature of societal dynamics. LSD was merely a chapter in this narrative; today, we are dealing with more advanced and subtle tools like AI and language models like GPT.
The LSD era and the MK-ULTRA project provide us with a historical mirror, reflecting the challenges we face today with technology and digital manipulation. The quest for mind control didn’t end with LSD; it simply transformed and adapted to the digital age. As we continue to evolve and navigate this ever-changing landscape, let’s ensure the narrative of progress outweighs the narrative of control, fostering an environment where technology truly serves humanity.
John is the #1 global influencer in digital health and generally regarded as one of the top global strategic and creative thinkers in this important and expanding area. He is also one the most popular speakers around the globe presenting his vibrant and insightful perspective on the future of health innovation. His focus is on guiding companies, NGOs, and governments through the dynamics of exponential change in the health / tech marketplaces. He is also a member of the Google Health Advisory Board, pens HEALTH CRITICAL for Forbes--a top global blog on health & technology and THE DIGITAL SELF for Psychology Today—a leading blog focused on the digital transformation of humanity. He is also on the faculty of Exponential Medicine. John has an established reputation as a vocal advocate for strategic thinking and creativity. He has built his career on the “science of advertising,” a process where strategy and creativity work together for superior marketing. He has also been recognized for his ability to translate difficult medical and scientific concepts into material that can be more easily communicated to consumers, clinicians and scientists. Additionally, John has distinguished himself as a scientific thinker. Earlier in his career, John was a research associate at Harvard Medical School and has co-authored several papers with global thought-leaders in the field of cardiovascular physiology with a focus on acute myocardial infarction, ventricular arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death.