Author:
Neşe Devenot University Writing Program, Johns Hopkins University, United States
Center for Psychedelic Drug Research and Education, The Ohio State University, United States

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Abstract

Background and Aims

While many scholars have called attention to similarities between the earlier SSRI hype and the ongoing hype for psychedelic medications, the rhetoric of psychedelic hype is tinged with utopian and esoteric aspirations that have no parallel in the discourse surrounding SSRIs or other antidepressants. This utopian discourse provides insight into the ways that global tech elites are instrumentalizing both psychedelics and artificial intelligence (AI) as tools in a broader world-building project that justifies increasing material inequality. If realized, this project would undermine the use of both tools for prosocial and pro-environmental outcomes.

Methods

My argument develops through rhetorical analysis of the ways that industry leaders envision the future of medicalized psychedelics in their public communications. I draw on examples from media interviews, blog posts, podcasts, and press releases to underscore the persuasive strategies and ideological commitments that are driving the movement to transform psychedelics into pharmaceutical medications.

Results

Counterfactual efforts to improve mental health by increasing inequality are widespread in the psychedelics industry. These efforts have been propelled by an elitist worldview that is widely-held in Silicon Valley. The backbone of this worldview is the TESCREAL bundle of ideologies, which describes an interrelated cluster of belief systems: transhumanism, Extropianism, singularitarianism, cosmism, Rationalism, Effective Altruism, and longtermism.

Conclusions

This article demonstrates that TESCREALism is a driving force in major segments of the psychedelic pharmaceutical industry, where it is influencing the design of extractive systems that directly contradict the field's world-healing aspirations. These findings contribute to a developing subfield of critical psychedelic studies, which interrogates the political and economic implications of psychedelic medicalization.

Abstract

Background and Aims

While many scholars have called attention to similarities between the earlier SSRI hype and the ongoing hype for psychedelic medications, the rhetoric of psychedelic hype is tinged with utopian and esoteric aspirations that have no parallel in the discourse surrounding SSRIs or other antidepressants. This utopian discourse provides insight into the ways that global tech elites are instrumentalizing both psychedelics and artificial intelligence (AI) as tools in a broader world-building project that justifies increasing material inequality. If realized, this project would undermine the use of both tools for prosocial and pro-environmental outcomes.

Methods

My argument develops through rhetorical analysis of the ways that industry leaders envision the future of medicalized psychedelics in their public communications. I draw on examples from media interviews, blog posts, podcasts, and press releases to underscore the persuasive strategies and ideological commitments that are driving the movement to transform psychedelics into pharmaceutical medications.

Results

Counterfactual efforts to improve mental health by increasing inequality are widespread in the psychedelics industry. These efforts have been propelled by an elitist worldview that is widely-held in Silicon Valley. The backbone of this worldview is the TESCREAL bundle of ideologies, which describes an interrelated cluster of belief systems: transhumanism, Extropianism, singularitarianism, cosmism, Rationalism, Effective Altruism, and longtermism.

Conclusions

This article demonstrates that TESCREALism is a driving force in major segments of the psychedelic pharmaceutical industry, where it is influencing the design of extractive systems that directly contradict the field's world-healing aspirations. These findings contribute to a developing subfield of critical psychedelic studies, which interrogates the political and economic implications of psychedelic medicalization.

Introduction

Researchers have called attention to the ways that the hype promoting psychedelics as miracle cures replicates preceding claims about the efficacy of SSRIs and other antidepressants in prior decades. As the drug historian David Herzberg articulated in conversation with UC Berkeley's The Microdose:

There’s been an enormous amount of money invested in psychedelics as people hope that they can be the real Prozac in the same way that Prozac hoped it would be the real Valium and Valium would be the real barbiturates, which would be the real morphine. There’s a long history of hoping that maybe this time, it’s not so complicated; maybe there is a simple switch to change people without having to change any [other] aspect of their [lives]. (Hu, 2023a)

Although corporate actors assert that psychedelics will succeed where other mental health treatments failed due to their unique mechanisms of action (see Devenot, Conner, & Doyle, 2022, pp. 486–488), the project of psychedelic medicalization is following the same playbook as the earlier rollout of antidepressant pharmaceuticals. While the underlying etiology of mental illness might have shifted from a model of chemical imbalance to restricted features in the brain's energy landscape (Carhart-Harris et al., 2023), commentators are positioning psychedelics as yet another individualized, brain-based solution to complex social problems with roots in material inequality. By treating individual symptoms rather than calling for societal reorganization, the medicalization of psychedelics is repeating the same neoliberal, for-profit approach to healthcare that contributed to the poor outcomes of Prozac and other SSRIs (Davies, 2022; Ioannidis, 2008; Kemp, Lickel, & Deacon, 2014). As a result, there is every indication that the transplantation of this approach into the novel context of psychedelic medicine will lead to similarly disappointing outcomes.

Although neoliberalism arose as a theory of political-economic practices that sought to “liberat[e] individual entrepreneurial freedoms” through “strong property rights, free markets, and free trade” (Harvey, 2005, p. 2), the global ascendancy of neoliberal capitalism since the 1970s came to influence the “common sense” way that people view the world and themselves. Since its values are often internalized as natural and inevitable, neoliberalism drives people to seek out continual self-improvement in the name of personal responsibility, under immense pressure to persevere and succeed as individuals in isolation from broader community support (Gearin & Devenot, 2021, pp. 926–927). Despite evidence against the quality of care provided by the neoliberal approach to individualized, for-profit healthcare, this model has persisted—in part—because it aligns with the interests of the powerful, creating market opportunities within which wealth can be extracted from the masses and funneled to the top.

While others have noted similarities between the earlier SSRI hype and the ongoing hype for psychedelic medications,1 the rhetoric of psychedelic hype is tinged with utopian and magico-religious aspirations that have no parallel in the discourse surrounding SSRIs or other antidepressants. I argue that this utopian discourse provides insight into the ways that global financial and tech elites are instrumentalizing psychedelics as one tool in a broader world-building project that justifies increasing material inequality. This elite project reveals how medicalized psychedelics can potentially undermine the very prosocial and pro-environmental outcomes that the field's funders insist psychedelics will promote. To understand the envisioned role of psychedelics within this elite project, this paper analyzes a different parallel hype, revealing correspondences between the psychedelic industry hype and the concurrent hype surrounding artificial intelligence (AI), including the Large Language Models (LLMs) that power ChatGPT.2 The presence of these parallels is understandable when one considers their underlying affinities, like two blooms from one plant: the same Silicon Valley and venture capital forces are investing enormous amounts of capital to develop both as cultivars in their own image, selecting for desired traits that further the existing socioeconomic order.

My argument develops through rhetorical analysis of the ways that industry leaders envision the future of medicalized psychedelics in their public communications. I draw on examples from media interviews, blog posts, podcasts, and press releases to underscore the persuasive strategies and ideological commitments that are driving the movement to transform psychedelics into pharmaceutical medications. These communications reveal the pervasiveness of beliefs that circumvent the actual barriers to human and more-than-human flourishing on this planet. I begin by examining how the pharmaceutical field of psychedelic medicine has been informed by teleological and spiritual perspectives that contradict the interdisciplinary evidence base regarding the causes of trauma. With the influx of capital investments into this field, these spiritual beliefs have synergized with elitist theories of change and innovation, which position the well-being of elites as inherently more important than the material needs of the masses. Together, these strains set the groundwork for the co-optation of psychedelic discourse by longtermist transhumanists, who envision roles for psychedelic pharmaceuticals within a heroic, evolutionary project that depends on widening inequality to succeed.

This methodology and its findings contribute to a developing subfield of critical psychedelic studies that interrogates the political and economic implications of psychedelic medicalization. Through similar approaches to rhetorical analysis, each of the preceding papers in this tradition have problematized widely-held, normative, and hegemonic assumptions in the field to highlight how alternative approaches are obscured by the dominant discourses (e.g., Devenot, Conner, & Doyle, 2022; Gearin & Devenot, 2021, 2021; Noorani, 2019; Pace & Devenot, 2021; Plesa & Petranker, 2022; Tvorun-Dunn, 2022; K. Williams, Romero, Braunstein, & Brant, 2022). As this critical literature has emphasized, the neoliberal and corporatized medicalization of psychedelics promises to exacerbate the very issues that it purports to solve. Although industry insiders have positioned psychedelics as solutions for civilizational threats including political polarization, the rise of fascism, environmental degradation, and increasing rates of mental illness, scholars in other fields have associated all of these problems with rising inequality in society.3 If the psychedelic industry provides the impetus for yet more billionaires and unicorn companies, these promised outcomes—which are cited to justify the industry's rapid expansion—will amount to nothing more than a bait and switch: by increasing the overall inequality in society, the psychedelics industry could end up fueling the root causes of the very problems to which it is selling supposedly novel solutions.

Rather than addressing the systemic drivers of these interrelated problems, major funders are explicitly building the psychedelics industry to extract wealth for ever-widening inequality. In this paper, I will argue that this counterfactual approach to mental healthcare is propelled by an elitist worldview that is widely-held among Silicon Valley's billionaires. The backbone of this worldview is the TESCREAL bundle of ideologies—an acronym coined by the critical AI scholars Émile Torres and Timnit Gebru to describe an interrelated cluster of belief systems: transhumanism, Extropianism, singularitarianism, cosmism, Rationalism, Effective Altruism, and longtermism. Taken together, TESCREALism amounts to the “court philosophy” of the global oligarch class, serving to lionize the acceleration of inequality towards the goal of colonizing far-distant galaxies. Just as earlier court philosophers articulated the divine right of kings to naturalize monarchy, present-day billionaires are funding TESCREAList philosophers and “thought leaders” to articulate ethical justifications for extreme inequality under oligarchic rule.4

In its most dangerous formulation, TESCREALism sounds like science fiction. To its adherents, the rise of AI signals that humanity is hurtling towards an evolutionary phase change or technological singularity that can only be realized through elite control of the world's collective resources. A prominent example is Elon Musk, who has justified his extreme wealth in terms of “accumulating resources to help make life multiplanetary & extend the light of consciousness to the stars” (Tvorun-Dunn, 2022, p. 5). Beyond AI, TESCREALism is also a driving force in major segments of the psychedelic pharmaceutical industry, where it is influencing the design of extractive systems that directly contradict the field's world-healing aspirations. As this article will explore, some of these figures envision psychedelics as a new extractive industry for funneling wealth towards transhumanist evolution, whereas others anticipate accommodating the masses to impending evolutionary changes. In parallel to the capitalist AI field, which is plowing past critical calls for transparency and democratic engagement (Luccioni, 2023), “corporadelic” actors in the psychedelics industry are claiming an urgent mandate to address global suffering that cannot wait (W. Williams, 2020). In their capitalist manifestations, both industries claim authority to pursue solutions to the precise harms that their nascent systems are designed to actively perpetuate. As I will argue, critical voices must remain vigilant to these rhetorical strategies in order to reveal—and counteract—the fabricated, hallucinatory character of Silicon Valley's self-serving narratives. Far from the promise of healing trauma, the alternative would amount to both fields' complicity in the use of AI and psychedelics as technologies of elite persuasion.

Elite hallucinations in AI and psychedelics

Drawing on a distinction between genuine psychedelic insights and illusory “tripping,” the public intellectual Naomi Klein wrote in The Guardian about how corporate actors in the field of generative AI have co-opted the word “hallucination” as a means of subtly naturalizing their preferred approach to AI development as both good and inevitable. Klein argues that by describing unreal but plausible-sounding facts and citations as “hallucinations,” this rhetoric gives credence to the transhumanist fantasy that these companies are on the cusp of birthing an advanced form of consciousness that will trigger an “evolutionary leap for our species” (Klein, 2023).5 For Klein, this belief and its attendant mythologies—that AI will end poverty, cure all disease, solve climate change, and make jobs more meaningful—are the actual hallucinations, since these claims dissociate from the evidence of material conditions to justify AI's rapid cultivation by corporate interests. Although Klein references psychedelics as a metaphorical frame in order to highlight this point within the specific context of AI hype, she does not mention that these same elite hallucinations are also fueling the rise of psychedelic medicalization.

In the corporate rollout of both psychedelics and AI, capitalist logics actively undercut any potential for these tools to address the problems of poverty, climate change, and disease. As Klein points out:

There is a world in which generative AI…could indeed be marshaled to benefit humanity, other species and our shared home. But for that to happen, these technologies would need to be deployed inside a vastly different economic and social order than our own, one that had as its purpose the meeting of human needs and the protection of the [planet]…. In [today’s] reality of hyper-concentrated power and wealth, AI…is much more likely to become a fearsome tool of further [inequality]. (Klein, 2023)

As it stands, both AI and psychedelics are bankrolled by financial elites who are seeking new ways to profit off of (and maintain) the status quo of power relations in society. Klein argues that the solutions to climate change are not elusive, as AI enthusiasts claim; rather, the known solutions are at odds with the status quo of capitalism, which profits off of the production of oil and “consumption-based models” for economic growth. A similar argument applies to the discourse on psychedelics: to actually fix the mental health “crisis,” we need to address the root cause of inequality by ensuring access to safe food, water, shelter, education, and healthcare. Since this would require systems change, economic elites are holding out for “magic bullet” solutions that can be deployed at scale to prop up—and develop new income streams for—the existing, dysfunctional socioeconomic system. The elite vision for psychedelics as individualized treatments for social problems is thus a symptom of the problem itself, as Klein describes of AI in relation to the climate: “The climate crisis is not, in fact, a mystery or a riddle we haven't yet solved…. We know what it would take, but it's not a quick fix—it's a paradigm shift. Waiting for…a more palatable and/or profitable answer is not a cure for this crisis, it's one more symptom of it.”

In line with the promotion of other psychopharmaceuticals during preceding decades, business leaders in the psychedelics industry pitch their products as revolutionary solutions for contemporary society's ills, including the mental illness epidemic. Often, these proclamations are informed by political and economic ideologies that contradict their purported therapeutic aspirations. The following sections will present case studies of prominent figures in the psychedelic medicine industry in order to make legible what these figures mean when they claim that psychedelics will revolutionize mental healthcare. As close readings of their public statements reveal, many leaders of the psychedelic medical industry express motivations that run counter to evidence-based solutions for supporting human (and non-human) flourishing. Although some of these figures' visions for the future are unlikely to succeed, their words reveal the extent to which the public discourse about psychedelic medicines has been shaped by vested interests in maintaining the status quo of society's widespread inequalities. As Tvorun-Dunn has argued, such rhetorical analysis of this discourse provides insight into the actual “meanings and motivations” that have guided the development of psychedelics as pharmaceutical medications and biotech investment opportunities—often in contradiction to their prosocial and pro-evironmental claims (Tvorun-Dunn, 2022, p. 2).

“Net-zero trauma” and “mass mental health” through mass spiritualization (Rick Doblin, MAPS)

As in the case of AI hype, industry leaders are arguing that psychedelics offer a profitable solution to the ravages of inequality without changing society's underlying material conditions. Rick Doblin—founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS)—has repeatedly stated that psychedelics “will be a catalyst for mass mental health” through their capacity to change individual perspectives (Doblin, 2021). While international media outlets have tended to run this line without further elaboration, Doblin clarified his meaning in a 2020 podcast, when he identified “mass mental health” with a “mass spiritualization” of humanity. According to Doblin, the psychedelic experience is “the antidote to genocide, to the holocaust, to nuclear destruction, to racism…. I see the medicalization [of psychedelics]…as a tool to bring about mass mental health or mass spiritualization you could say…. I see that what we need to do with psychedelics is expand our humanity” (CIIS Public Programs Podcast, 2020). Doblin further defines this spiritualization as a shift from literal or “fundamentalist” religious beliefs to a spiritual mysticism rooted in unitive psychedelic experiences (PSYCH, 2021, 39:53). This confidence in the notion that psychedelics will radically minimize interpersonal harms reappears in another frequent slogan: “I believe that fully globalized access to MDMA-assisted therapy can lead to a world of net-zero trauma by 2070” (Doblin, 2023). These claims are based on theological beliefs rather than medical evidence, and Doblin's suggestion that psychedelic experiences necessarily encourage prosocial behavior is contradicted by both cross-disciplinary research (Pace & Devenot, 2021) and by the harms caused within MAPS's own clinical trials (McNamee, Devenot, & Buisson, 2023; Nickles & Ross, 2022).

The spiritual orientation of MAPS's mission extends beyond Doblin's public relations strategy to the scientific methodology of its clinical trials. Although MAPS describes the therapy component of its MDMA for PTSD trials as “non-directive,” their approach—which is explicitly informed by Stanislav Grof's psychedelic philosophy—includes a range of spiritual beliefs that have never been empirically supported (Devenot, Tumilty, et al., 2022; Love, 2022). Chief among these is the notion that MDMA unleashes the patient-participant's “inner healing intelligence,” which MAPS's treatment manual characterizes as “a person's innate capacity to heal” (Mithoefer et al., 2017, p. 8). Although this language sounds analogous to the body's ability to heal damaged tissue, the inner healing intelligence is a Grofian concept that attributes healing to “ordinarily hidden spiritual dimensions of existence,” which are accessed through non-ordinary states of consciousness (Grof, 2006, p. 350). MAPS's manual directs adherence raters to monitor therapists' belief in the inner healing intelligence: therapists should “trust” that difficult emotions are productive and emerge at the “best time,” according to the wisdom of the inner healer (Mithoefer et al., 2017, pp. 11–12). Although MAPS is approaching FDA approval of MDMA as a medical treatment for PTSD, this amounts to a form of faith-based healing through the unfolding of teleological processes. As the following sections will explore, these currents of teleological spirituality within the field of psychedelic medicine have primed its co-optation by Silicon Valley's elitist, evolutionary ideologies.

“Trickle-down ecstasis”: elite theories of social change in Silicon Valley (Ronan Levy, Field Trip Health)

While some psychedelic leaders are driven by spiritual motivations that bypass material barriers to flourishing, others are angling for market share by medicalizing the distress associated with inequality. Approaching extreme inequality as an inevitable feature of society, many psychedelic investors and CEOs frame psychedelics as tools for adapting individuals to the consequences of inequality in a manner that obscures the potential for societal transformation. Often, this normalization of inequality specifically venerates Silicon Valley's culture of tech disruptions as a societal good. In a paradigmatic example, Field Trip Health—a mental health and wellness company that described itself as “a global leader6 in the development and delivery of psychedelic therapies” (Eldor, 2021)—announced a special program to provide free ketamine services to individuals who were recently laid off from the tech industry (Mikhail, 2022). In that announcement and an accompanying tweet, then-CEO Ronan Levy reiterated that this opportunity was intended for white-collar workers from Silicon Valley companies including Twitter, Google, Meta, Stripe, and Amazon. Within a global context of worsening labor relations, these mass layoffs presented opportunities to challenge the inordinate power imbalances wielded by multinational corporations, but Field Trip's individualized solution obscured these systemic issues.

As a consequence of Silicon Valley's search for ever-more-profitable solutions to the consequences of widening inequality, the focus among tech elites is never on addressing the social determinants of widespread distress, since inequality is both their income stream and the object of their efforts. As Nils Redeker has described, multinational corporations (including those cited by Field Trip) have increasingly adopted strategies that focus on investing profits into financial markets rather than in workers and their pay. These corporate savings and the corresponding divestment from workers have contributed internationally to rising inequality and labor disenfranchisement, which have devastating impacts on mental health (Redeker, 2022). In a systematic review published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, Tibber and colleagues identified a consistent correlation between income inequality and poor adult mental health at the subnational level, which reinforces the longstanding sociologically-informed understanding of the effects of poverty and inequality on wellbeing (Tibber, Walji, Kirkbride, & Huddy, 2022). In their conclusion, the authors note that there is an “ethical imperative” to address the environmental causes of psychological distress, given that inequality is only predicted to rise based on current market trajectories. As they note: “In a recent report entitled ‘Britain in the 2020s’ the Institute for Public Policy Research predicted that inequality will ‘surge’ over the course of the decade…with the income of the rich forecasted to rise 11 times faster than the incomes of the poor, and an extra 3.6 million predicted to fall into poverty within this time-frame” (Tibber et al., 2022, p. 20). Instead of addressing the structural and social drivers of inequality, Field Trip's narrative centers around medicalizing the distress associated with involuntary unemployment. In doing so, it promotes individualized, pharmaceutical solutions to the pain caused by material instability, which obscures the structural roots of a precarious labor market.

For Ronan Levy and other corporate actors in the psychedelics industry, the comprehensible stresses and anxieties of life under neoliberal capitalism present lucrative market opportunities (Davies, 2022), and this profit motive is reinforced by elitist beliefs about capitalism as a social good. Speaking on a conference panel in 2020, Levy claimed that “capitalism…often gets defined in a very…negative way, but to me, capitalism is just respecting everybody's agency” (OPEN Foundation, 2021, 18:48). In a hierarchical system that funnels wealth from the bottom to those at the top, this emphasis on agency implies that elites have earned—and hence deserve—their positions of power. This perspective aligns with Silicon Valley's hierarchical ideologies, which often frame the billionaire class as more intrinsically important and valuable than the masses, since their global reach and ability to mobilize capital offer the greatest potential for wide-scale impact (Chang, 2019, pp. 188–189).7

The translation of Silicon Valley's ideologies into the psychedelics industry is evident in hallucinatory assurances that psychedelics will improve society by influencing elite perspectives. As an example, Levy has justified prioritizing the mental health of Silicon Valley's “rich white men” in terms of a “trickle-down ecstasis”8 model for social change. The latter phrase alludes to the debunked theory of trickle-down economics, whose proponents claimed that society's interests were best supported by further enriching the ultrawealthy. In this context, “trickle-down ecstasis” captures the individualistic credo that psychedelics lead to social change by percolating through the innovations and insights of tech elites. As Levy described on an industry panel:

Even if you only serve rich white men with access to psychedelic therapies, it’s going to change them in a way that I think is constructive and positive, and will create an army of people who are more open-minded and more willing to think about how we address the challenges of equity…. I know it seems counterintuitive that creating more inequity is going to create equity, but I do genuinely believe that that’s a possible outcome here. (PsychedelX, 2021, 50:14)

Although Levy's perspective holds out the prospect of improving the world through elite innovation, there is no evidence that psychedelics make billionaires more interested in equity. Despite claims to the contrary, psychedelic experiences of interconnection are often interpreted as irrefutable validations of existing status and power hierarchies (Pace & Devenot, 2021, pp. 9–11, 13). Far from persuading billionaires to relinquish their power over society, there is growing evidence that psychedelics are actually fueling elitist ideologies that naturalize inequality, as the next sections will explore.

“A significantly greater good”: TESCREALism and the tech oligarchy's new court philosophers

Beyond medicalizing the stresses of living under existing inequalities and social injustice, others in the psychedelics industry are anticipating how psychedelic medicine might lubricate a future world with even greater inequality. As Maxim Tvorun-Dunn has argued, Silicon Valley's elites are operationalizing psychedelics within an anti-human, “secular-esoteric” quasi-religion that frames capital accumulation as the necessary means for heroic, evolutionary ends (Tvorun-Dunn, 2022, pp. 2, 5). Drawing on philosophers like Ray Kurzweil and Nick Bostrom, many tech elites now embrace a worldview wherein “enterprising wealthy individuals” will be necessary to achieve “utopian gains for humanity which must not be stopped by democratic masses” (Tvorun-Dunn, 2022, p. 5). Over the last decade, these trends have coalesced in the Effective Altruism (EA) movement and its associate philosophy of longtermism, which are highly influential amongst Silicon Valley's tech elites and major funders of the psychedelics industry.

On its surface, the Effective Altruism (EA) movement champions the use of science and reason to determine the most high-impact applications of philanthropy, with the goal of improving the world while reducing suffering. In practice, however, EA rationalizes the increase of inequality as the most effective means of changing the world, since it advances the notion that individuals can best support EA's goals by making the most money as quickly as possible—a practice described as “earning to give” (Current Affairs, 2023). The Oxford philosopher William MacAskill—a co-founder of EA who has drawn positive attention for attracting tech and crypto billionaires to the movement (Crary, Gruen, & Adams, 2022; Kulish, 2022)—has argued that lucrative career paths (like finance) are more ethical than working to improve local conditions, since financial elites can scale their impact beyond the merely proximal by amassing extraordinary material resources (MacAskill, 2016). In exploring this line of reasoning, MacAskill goes so far as to argue that working for a petrochemical company can be an optimal means of mitigating climate change if it generates income to fund meaningful philanthropic efforts (MacAskill, 2014, pp. 275–276). Along the same lines, he advocates for professions that profit by “disrupting the livelihood of the global poor” (MacAskill, 2014, p. 274)—such as in the case of financial speculation on the price of wheat—so long as the wealth generated contributes to “a significantly greater good” that eclipses those incidental harms (MacAskill, 2014, p. 277). According to this line of reasoning, harmful actions can be ethically justified “if the ratio of benefit to harm is great enough” (MacAskill, 2014, p. 277).

In 2017, MacAskill coined the term “longtermism” to enshrine the flourishing of distant-future generations as among the greatest goods, and hence “a key moral priority of our time” (MacAskill, 2019). Due to this consequentialist philosophy, Silicon Valley's tech-utopian fantasies of future splendor can provide cover for the exploitation and brutalization of actual humans (and non-humans) living in the present. Scholars including Timnit Gebru and Émile Torres have already begun tracing the consequences of this philosophy for the rollout of AI, where glittering visions of a future tech utopia are distracting from the real harms that AI is causing today, including systemic discrimination from biased data sets (Benjamin, 2019; Birhane, Prabhu, & Kahembwe, 2021) and the disenfranchisement of workers through mass theft (Zanzotto, 2019). These harms are a consequence of the specific ways that Silicon Valley's elites are developing AI systems, which are at the expense of other (prosocial, democratic, non-extractive) approaches to AI development (Birhane, 2021; DAIR Institute, 2021).

Torres and Gebru argue that Effective Altruism and longtermism are the latest iterations within a cluster of ideologies that they have named the TESCREAL bundle—an acronym that organizes these worldviews according to their chronological emergence (transhumanism, Extropianism, singularitarianism, cosmism, Rationalism, Effective Altruism, and longtermism).9 As embraced by the TESCREALists of Silicon Valley, transhumanism—the futurist vision of technologically reengineering the human species—is a racist and eugenicist project that labels some forms of consciousness and modes of experience as inherently more valuable than others.10 As Torres argues, the combination of these ideologies amounts to a secular religion that “justifies pursuing the social preferences of elites” while it claims to hold the solutions to “humanity's deepest problems” (Torres, 2021a). Their scholarship reveals how, among AI's major funders and CEOs, TESCREAList beliefs have normalized the perspective that extreme inequality is a societal good, which is justifying the development of AI in a manner that exacerbates inequality. This analysis explains why elites are warning of AI's existential risks in a manner that obscures the actual, unnecessary harms that are caused by human decisions.

The TESCREAL bundle is so dangerous because it superficially appears to align with genuinely prosocial and pro-environmental orientations towards the future. For instance, longtermism seems to echo the widespread Indigenous principles of conservation and mutualism known collectively as the Honorable Harvest, which the Potawatomi poet-botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer describes as “principles and practices that…rein in our tendency to consume—[so] that the world might be as rich for the seventh generation as it is for our own” (Kimmerer, 2013, p. 180). Although these principles might sound compatible with longtermism's focus on the flourishing of distant-future generations, these two worldviews—upon closer inspection—are actually based on incompatible values and aspire to opposite goals. As Keith Williams and Suzanne Brant (both of Haudenosaunee ancestry) articulate in “Tending a vibrant world: Gift logic and sacred plant medicines,” Indigenous views on the wellbeing of future generations are commonly rooted in a non-hierarchical ontology based on reciprocity and relationality with the specific, local diversity of the more-than-human world (K. Williams & Brant, 2023).11 The authors describe how this Indigenous ontology is incompatible with neoliberal capitalism's basis in extraction and exploitation, which is premised on a colonial “hierarchization of all life.” By imposing a hierarchy wherein some forms of life are ascribed greater value and meaning than others, neoliberalism justifies the instrumentalization of those at the bottom of that hierarchy by those at the top.

Longtermism is an extension of the extractive logics that Williams and Brant characterize as “anti-life.” Drawing on Achille Mbembe's concept of necropolitics or “the subjugation of life to the power of death,” they reveal how the colonial project is premised on a (white supremacist) human exceptionalism that assumes the right to label some life as disposable, and hence to identify acceptable sacrifices in the context of a more worthy cause. The irreconcilability of colonial necropolitics with Indigenous gift logic is made apparent in the context of the global climate crisis, which is often mistaken as a justification for longtermism. At a time when the impacts of climate change are increasingly evident and disruptive, onlookers have misread longtermism as advocating for sensible behavioral changes in the present—like degrowth and fossil fuel divestment—in order to safeguard the planet for future generations (Kaspersen & Wallach, 2022).

The distinction between longtermism and Indigenous relationality is apparent in Émile Torres' analysis of the discourse surrounding AI's risks for human extinction. Torres observes that this discourse relies on an idiosyncratic sense of the word “extinction” (Torres, 2023a). Key figures among Silicon Valley's elite are interested in maintaining the planet's life support systems, but only insofar as they are waiting to reap a very specific harvest: a new form of (transhuman) consciousness that they believe will usher in a future utopia. Within their TESCREAList belief system, all of cosmic evolution has gotten humanity to a place where—for the first time—we have the necessary technological capacity (paired with an awareness of this capacity) to birth the true potential of consciousness, unshackled from the limitations of biological drives and irrational emotions. Climate disruptions only matter insofar as they might jeopardize AI's development into artificial general intelligence (AGI), which will be capable of re-engineering humanity and launching an intergalactic, posthuman civilization. Concern for the Earth's climate ceases beyond that point: In order to purge consciousness of the inefficiencies of biological existence, we must be willing to transcend humanity and to sacrifice our home planet as a source of fuel towards this evolutionary transformation.

From the perspective of some TESCREALists, the stakes for creating posthuman AGI are high (Torres, 2021a). If the tech elites are unsuccessful in this project, their failure will amount to a cosmic stillbirth. Consciousness will have failed to develop past the fetal stage of its theoretical potential, and this universe will have been a dud. In the context of this mission to colonize the stars, accelerating inequality is justified as an optimal strategy that increases the chances of a successful launch sequence. With concentrated wealth, the tech elites can funnel material resources to the right intermediary steps (like advancing AI towards AGI) while suppressing dissent by humankind's masses, who might otherwise resist this longtermist mission based on shortsighted emotional preferences for notions like justice and democracy. From this perspective, aversion to planetary sacrifice amounts to nostalgic attachment to the familiar—a limiting belief that must be overcome in order to achieve our cosmic purpose. Torres summarizes the inherent dangers of this perspective: “When one believes…that failing to realize ‘our potential’ would not merely be wrong but a moral catastrophe of literally cosmic proportions…you may be quite willing to use extraordinary means to stop anyone who stands in your way” (Torres, 2021a).

While this TESCREAList perspective might sound outlandish to the average reader, it resonates with major currents in the history of psychedelic philosophy, which might contribute to acceptance of TESCREAList ideas within the psychedelic conference community. Despite widespread associations of psychedelics with prosocial outcomes, the appropriation of psychedelics by TESCREAList billionaires had already been primed by major currents of countercultural psychedelic thought in the twentieth century, which blended evolutionary spirituality with elite theories of social change. In a paper describing its hold on the psychedelic imagination, Jules Evans defines evolutionary spirituality as the notion that human evolution “can be guided towards the creation of higher beings through such techniques as meditation, psychedelics and eugenics or genetic modification” (Evans, 2023a, p. 1). The extensive list of “leading psychedelic thinkers” who have theorized a role for psychedelics in catalyzing evolution includes MAPS's Rick Doblin and his mentor Stanislav Grof, who are at the forefront of the project of psychedelic medicalization (Evans, 2023a, p. 2).12

For many of these figures, spiritual evolutionary ideas explicitly emerged from the phenomenology of psychedelic experiences. For instance, Terence McKenna—the bardic author of True Hallucinations (1994), on which my title plays—described psychedelic visions that are virtually indistinguishable from TESCREALism:

If history goes off endlessly into the future [without an evolutionary advancement], [then the future] will be about scarcity…. We are [currently] at the breakpoint. It’s like when a woman comes to term. At a certain point, if the child is not severed from the mother and launched into its own separate existence, toxemia will set in…. The mushrooms said clearly, “When a species prepares to depart for the stars, the planet will be shaken to its core.” All evolution has pushed for this moment, and there is no going back. What lies ahead is a dimension of such freedom and transcendence, that once in place, the idea of returning to the womb will be preposterous. We will live in the imagination. We will quickly become unrecognizable to our former selves because we’re now defined by our limitations: the laws of gravity; the need to eat, excrete, and make money. We have the will to expand infinitely into pleasure, caring, attention, and connectedness. (Miller, 1993)

In this passage, McKenna frames the ongoing planetary crises (including climate change) as positive signals that we are on the right evolutionary track. Rather than alerting us to pause and reassess our collective behavior, environmental degradation demands an acceleration towards transhumanism—an evolutionary leap that will free us from umbilical dependence on our planetary home. In transcending the inefficiencies of biological existence into a life of bliss in the imagination, McKenna's vision closely resembles the TESCREAList ideas of Ben Goertzel,13 who coined the term AGI:

This is a new phase of the evolution of our species, just picking up speed about now…. Mind uploading technology will permit [us] to leave biology behind…. We will spread to the stars and roam the universe…achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions…. Radical technological advances will reduce material scarcity.… New ethical systems will emerge, based on principles including the spreading of joy, growth and freedom through the universe…. All of these changes will…[lead] to states of individual and shared awareness…far beyond that accessible to “legacy humans.” (Goertzel, 2010, pp. 9–11; Torres, 2023b)

Although this storyline reads like science fiction, this project is being bankrolled by some of the wealthiest people on the planet, including many of the billionaires who are investing in psychedelic medicine.

“A few breakthroughs away from abundance at scale” (Sam Altman, OpenAI and Journey Colab)

As Émile Torres emphasizes, TESCREALism—and its evolutionary race to digitize consciousness—is the ideology that drives Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, when he claims that through the development of AGI, “we can colonize space. We can get fusion to work and solar [energy] to mass scale. We can cure all human diseases. We can build new realities. We are only a few breakthroughs away from abundance at scale that is difficult to imagine” (Torres, 2023a). When Altman says in the same Twitter thread that “It's obviously better to save a million lives in the future than one life today,” he is not actually talking about human lives, since humans are weak and unsuited to the harsh conditions of interplanetary travel (Altman, 2022). To the contrary, his TESCREAList vision is premised on the overcoming of Homo sapiens by our digital, posthuman successors. As a consequence, the extinction of H. sapiens and all other forms of biological life is an acceptable—if not preferred—outcome of an evolutionary, eugenicist process (Torres, 2023a).

As this example illustrates, longtermism is yet another necropolitical manifestation of colonial inequality premised on the hierarchization of all life—an exceptionalism that justifies certain kinds of disposability (first of non-human life and of lives in the Global South, and eventually of human life itself) in the service of an elite, teleological vision. Despite proximity to discourses of Indigenous reciprocity, Altman's investments in psychedelic medicine must be understood as continuous with this TESCREAList mission, which is irreconcilable with Indigenous ontologies. According to a Washington Post article titled “Executive behind ChatGPT pushes for a new revolution: Psychedelics,” Altman first identified psychedelic medicine as “undervalued technology” with high profit potential during his tenure as president of Y Combinator, a startup accelerator (Gilbert, 2023). In addition to overseeing the development of ChatGPT, Altman now serves as the chairman of Journey Colab, a pharmaceutical startup that is pursuing FDA approval for psychedelic medicines including mescaline, the use of which originated with Indigenous ceremonies involving the San Pedro cactus and peyote.14

Within the psychedelics industry, Journey Colab has been praised for its emphasis on Indigenous reciprocity, beginning with its decision to place 10 percent of its founding equity into an irrevocable “Reciprocity Trust” for the benefit of Indigenous communities and “other stakeholders in the psychedelic sector” (Journey Colab, 2022). In 2022, the startup also issued a “Patent Pledge” in which it committed to not enforcing its mescaline-related patents against any “Indigenous communities and practitioners who use mescaline for bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes” (Psychedelic Alpha, 2022). Following the analysis by Williams and Brant, such displays of reciprocity obscure a deeper, colonial imposition of power directed towards capital accumulation, enclosure, and extraction, which is inherently at odds with genuine reciprocity. Altman's praise of Journey Colab's reciprocity initiatives emphasizes capital accumulation as the driving goal: “Those [Indigenous] communities will share with Journey what they know of the history of these medicines, and Journey will share what Silicon Valley is good at, with how to use startups and capitalism to deliver something to people who can really benefit from it” (Al Idrus, 2020). For Altman, “reciprocity” is code for strategic research and development towards the further enrichment of Silicon Valley's tech elites. In this context, Indigenous knowledge is framed as a source of extractable wealth to serve as grist for the TESCREAL mill.

A new soma for the masses: psychedelic shields for the budding tech-utopia (Christian Angermayer, atai Life Sciences)

While Sam Altman envisions the creation (and monopolization) of a global psychedelics industry as a means of funneling capital towards TESCREAList projects, other funders have anticipated specific roles for psychedelics in building a TESCREAList future. Influenced by the arc from transhumanism to longtermism, Christian Angermayer—the billionaire founder of atai Life Sciences and a lead investor in COMPASS Pathways—envisions psychedelics as tools for accommodating the masses to societal instability and disruption in a context of accelerating inequality. Angermayer's motivations are notable given his influential position in the psychedelics industry: in Psychedelic Alpha's 2022 Year in Review series, atai and COMPASS accounted for nearly 40% of the aggregate psychedelic sector public market cap by the end of 2022 (Psychedelic Alpha, 2023).

Angermayer takes a tech elite vision of the future for granted: humankind will be shepherded into a future of Mars travel, artificial intelligence, and widespread automation, which promises to cause extraordinary stress for the common masses of society. The influence of Silicon Valley's worldview is evident in Angermayer's rhetoric, which regularly emphasizes a transhumanist march towards themes of “self-transformation, genetic modification, nootropic drugs, AI, crypto-libertarianism and space exploration” (Evans, 2022). In this context, Angermayer presents a vision of psychedelics as tools for adapting and mollifying the masses in order to ease their acceptance of his assumed vision for this tech-utopian future world: “We need to have the discussion that we, let's say the elite…. We need to offer…these people…[in] the lower-level jobs…new jobs for them. But at the same time, we need to make sure they want [their new jobs]” (The Rubin Report, 2021).

In essence, Christian Angermayer argues that psychedelic medicines could be used to medicate popular resistance to our impending, posthuman future. Angermayer's public statements regularly align with longtermism's belief that we should “use advanced technologies to reengineer our bodies and brains to create a ‘superior’ race of radically enhanced posthumans” in order to realize humanity's ultimate—or “longterm”—potential (Torres, 2021b). Since popular resistance to these changes would pose an existential threat to the wellbeing of future (transhuman) generations, Angermayer highlights the urgency of attending to the mental health of the common masses during the early, discomforting stages of technological transformation. He notes that—if left unaddressed—this resistance will likely explode in retaliatory revolution, which would threaten the entire enterprise of building a brighter, transhuman future (Angermayer, 2021).

Rather than questioning the desirability or long-term necessity of this elite project, Angermayer focuses on addressing its near-term impacts on mental health in order to ensure that this project continues unimpeded: “Unfortunately, I deeply believe that the world we're building, with all the technology—and I'm part of the builders, this is why I'm so conscious of that—is not good for our mental health” (The Dales Report, 2023). To avert this possibility for disruptive revolution, Angermayer goes on to propose a new diagnosis for “fear of the future” (The Rubin Report, 2021), which could be treated with psychedelic medications: “Psychedelics…generally help people to move forward into the future in a positive way. Psychedelics can enhance creativity and improve neuroplasticity—two essential abilities we need to be successful with this transition, such as making ourselves open to new models of living and new job opportunities” (Angermayer, 2021). Across these descriptions, Angermayer is essentially advocating for a use of psychedelic medicines that approximates the role of “soma” in Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel, Brave New World: a drug that increases the complacency of the lower classes to discourage rebellion against an exploitative social hierarchy that does not serve their interests (Hamamra, 2017, p. 15; Huxley, 2006).

The evolutionary plan must be “cultivated correctly”: from psychedelic neuroscience to cosmoplasticity (Robin Carhart-Harris, Neuroscape Psychedelics Division, UCSF)

Christian Angermayer's call for “a new opium of the people” represents a hyperbolic vision for how psychedelics could facilitate the growth of capitalism's inequalities. However extreme this view may appear, his central contention—that psychedelic medicine can successfully medicate the distresses of living under capitalism—gains credibility from leading psychedelic scientists. Speaking to The Times, the psychologist and neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris—described as a “pioneer” of the psychedelic renaissance—explains the therapeutic effects of psychedelics in brain-based, depoliticized, and individualized terms. From Carhart-Harris’ perspective, psychedelic medicines are destined to render SSRI medications obsolete, since conventional antidepressants do not offer “a good enough curative action” (Spencer, 2022). Through this choice of language to describe the relative failure of SSRIs, Carhart-Harris implies that psychedelic medicines, by contrast, offer a cure—a possibility that is reflected in the article's headline: “Are psychedelic drugs the answer to the mental health crisis?” By emphasizing this curative alternative to SSRIs, Carhart-Harris positions psychedelics as a lucrative new market, framing this new class of pharmaceuticals as the successor to conventional antidepressants. In place of the previous paradigm of “chemical imbalance,” Carhart-Harris and many of his colleagues locate the cause of psychological distress in entrenched “canals” within the brain's energy landscape (Carhart-Harris et al., 2023). Richard E. Daws, the first author on a paper co-authored with Carhart-Harris, characterized their research as demonstrating that “Psilocybin therapy liberates the entrenched depressed brain by increasing the global integration of functional networks” (Daws, 2022). While this proposed mechanism of action differs from chemical imbalance, the underlying etiology still attributes distress to an individual’s diseased brain. As a result, this neuroscientific model functions like a docking port or protein spike, facilitating the conscription of psychedelic pharmaceuticals by neoliberal heuristics. If this explanatory model aids the assimilation of psychedelics within capitalist healthcare, it will undermine the healing potential of psychedelics, since any mainstream rollout of psychedelic medicine that fuels the current capitalist system can never meaningfully improve the global toll of mental illness.

Beyond the risk of facilitating neoliberal approaches to healthcare, there is a deeper resonance here between the language of psychedelic neuroscience and TESCREALism, which provides insight into how the rhetoric of science can carry political force despite pretensions to neutrality. Across a series of Twitter posts, Carhart-Harris has articulated sympathies with philosophers aligned with the TESCREAList bundle, including the singularitarians Ray Kurzweil and Teilhard de Chardin. By July 2023, he self-identified as a “mechanistic mystic,” citing a term from Bobby Azarian's The Romance of Reality (2022) that bears striking resemblance to TESCREAList beliefs. In particular, Carhart-Harris expresses enthusiasm for a short poem by Azarian, which opens the book’s section on “Transcendence” and hinges on the same teleological, evolutionary language that animates elite invocations of AGI:

Chains of connected cells create cognition and consciousness

Conscious creatures coalesce into creative communities called cultures

And cultures create a collective consciousness that,

If cultivated correctly, will cross the cosmos.

…sentience shall surely spread

Suffusing space-time with self-awareness and subjective states…

Through our efforts to evade death and transcend our mortality

We get grander glimpses of the romance of reality (Azarian, 2022, p. 183)

Read alongside accompanying screenshots of Azarian's philosophical prose, this “grander glimpse” into the nature of reality reflects the guiding conviction of transhumanist longtermism—namely, that humanity is an adolescent, larval stage of consciousness that must be transcended to actualize its cosmic potential of colonizing far-distant galaxies. Azarian emphasizes that this cosmic “awakening process” is by no means assured; it requires coordination and active steering through “meta-aware” participation, which must be consciously cultivated by switched-on individuals acting in concert with the cosmic mission (Azarian, 2022, p. 277–278). With language harkening to the EA movement, he asserts that “our goal should be to try to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people” within the context of “long-term,” evolutionary aims (Azarian, 2022, pp. 278, original emphasis). In his conclusion, Azarian explicitly suggests that psychedelic experiences could serve to coordinate action towards this evolutionary goal by initiating humanity into a shared “cosmic religion” (Azarian, 2022, p. 278).

Responding to Carhart-Harris’ initial post, Azarian shared that his book had been “heavily influenced” by Carhart-Harris' entropic brain hypothesis (Azarian, 2023), which Carhart-Harris had developed through his research in psychedelic neuroscience (Carhart-Harris et al., 2014).15 In his book, Azarian implies that Carhart-Harris' research has helped to “reveal…that the universe seems to be evolving according to a developmental plan…the way an organism's developmental trajectory is encoded in DNA” (Azarian, 2022, p. 187). From this perspective, actualizing AGI through the constraints of humanity's chrysalis will require “harnessing the energy in the environment” by accelerating consumption of finite resources (Azarian, 2022, p. 187). As this example illustrates, there is a danger that the rhetoric of psychedelic science could extend beyond the shortcomings of neoliberal healthcare: In parallel to the ways that psychedelic experiences might be exacerbating TESCREAList convictions among Silicon Valley's elites (as I will explore further in the next section), the discourse of psychedelic science might be inspiring their court philosophers to articulate cosmic teleologies that can only be actualized through elite interventions. If psychedelics provide justifications for exacerbating societal inequalities along these lines, their structural impact will directly counteract any world-healing potentials.

Discussion: psychedelics and AI as non-specific amplifiers

Without the mobilization of social support, reductions in inequality, attention to climate change, and other systemic changes to society's material conditions, there is no brain-based solution to distress that will be capable of achieving “mass mental health.” As the philosopher Mark Fisher has elaborated, any “privatisation of stress” within the individual's neurobiology serves the interests of capitalism by deflecting from its social determinants. Promising new pharmaceutical cures to systemic problems, corporadelia feeds into political and economic systems that are objectively harmful to mental health and to the flourishing of life on this planet. Although Fisher wrote about this idea in Capitalist Realism before the present-day era of psychedelic pharmaceuticals,16 his critique about the individualization of distress with SSRIs is equally applicable to this new psychedelic research landscape:

The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its depoliticization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). (Fisher, 2009)

As Fisher elaborates in “The Privatisation of Stress,” the ongoing environment of widespread inequality, precarity, pollution, and exploitation is making people sick, and brain-based solutions are distracting us from the only real solution, which is societal transformation through organized solidarity: “Capital makes the worker ill, and then multinational pharmaceutical companies sell them drugs to make them better. The social and political causation of distress is neatly sidestepped at the same time as discontent is individualised and interiorized” (Fisher, 2011). Based on these dynamics, there is a real risk that psychedelic capitalism will end up fueling the social determinants of distress by creating yet new billionaires and unicorn corporations, all while promising to cure the very ills that capitalism is actively perpetuating. Although the framing has changed from the days of “chemical imbalance,” the underlying logic (and its relationship to perpetuating capitalism's inequalities) remains the same, which exposes the inadequacy of corporadelia's utopian justifications for rapid scaling of the psychedelics industry.

In the absence of broader structural changes that address root causes, there will be an inherent limit on the extent to which psychedelic-induced insights can provide relief to individuals. As a metaphor, consider the theoretical risk of a “self-awareness paradox” as described by neuroscientists Gregory Scott and Carhart-Harris in a controversial paper17 that anticipates psychedelic research with individuals in comas and minimally conscious states. The authors suggest that if a psychedelic succeeds in increasing an individual's level of conscious awareness, the individual might experience emotional distress as they become aware of their “clinical predicament” and the impact of their brain injury (Scott & Carhart-Harris, 2019, p. 5). Explaining this idea for DoubleBlind, Scott “recounts a frightening possibility where ‘you wake someone up to the reality that two years have passed [and] their wife has left them”—cognizant of, but unable to change, their circumstances (Moens, 2023). Under our existing social system of widening inequality, attempts to treat the ills of poverty with psychedelic medicines might only lead to this kind of “paradoxical” reaction. Without the requisite material conditions to support positive change, psychedelics might only heighten an individual's awareness of being trapped by material circumstances that prevent human flourishing: they can't afford healthcare or feed their kids, they're working three jobs around the clock, and their water is full of lead.18

Instead of addressing these structural issues, Silicon Valley's multinational corporations are exacerbating the inequality and precarity that are driving widespread distress. These corporations rely on a global, anonymous workforce of precarious and underpaid workers to process (or “annotate”) the large-scale data sets that enable their various AI systems, ranging from chatbots to e-commerce behavioral analytics to self-driving cars. The pay provided for this challenging yet tedious work is variable and unpredictable, since companies continually shift their outsourcing to regions with the cheapest labor force. The result is “a vast tasker underclass” (Dzieza, 2023) that exploits refugees and other “victims of economic collapse” in order to build systems that maximize profits through widespread immiseration:

Each task represents a stretching of the gulf between the vast and growing ghettos of disposable life and a capitalist vanguard of intelligent bots and billionaire tycoons…. Forced to adapt their sleeping patterns to meet the needs of firms on the other side of the planet and in different time zones, the largely Syrian population of Lebanon’s Shatila camp forgo their dreams to serve those of distant capitalists. Their nights are spent labeling footage of urban areas—“house,” “shop,” “car”—labels that, in a grim twist of fate, map the streets where the labelers once lived, perhaps for automated drone systems that will later drop their payloads on those very same streets. (Jones, 2021)

In addition to those who are conscripted into such crowdwork or clickwork with no other options, some annotators are explicitly motivated by the AI hype to act against their own interests, persuaded by TESCREAList hallucinations to build the very systems that are accelerating inequality and increasing the ubiquity of alienating forms of work. In his reporting for The Verge, Josh Dzieza introduces Victor, “a self-proclaimed ‘fanatic’ about AI” who “started annotating because he wants to help bring about a fully automated post-work future” (Dzieza, 2023). Although corporations mask their identities to clickworkers, Dzieza points to evidence that Victor had been training ChatGPT for around $3 per hour. Rather than following the hype to serve as foot soldiers for elite interests, there are opportunities in these examples to mobilize in solidarity against this extractive machinery, as Adrienne Williams, Milagros Miceli, and Timnit Gebru have emphasized in Noēma (Williams, Miceli, & Gebru, 2022). Instead of medicating the distress from job loss with ketamine at wellness clinics, highly-paid tech workers could join unionizing efforts to push back against the disposability of labor and join in solidarity with the lower-paid, precarious gig workers on which these industries depend.

Silicon Valley's construction of this “vast tasker underclass” was not anticipated by early tech-utopians, who viewed the internet as an inherently democratizing force that was destined to connect the global population through new forms of equitable participation and peer-to-peer communication. In practice, multinational corporations built the infrastructure of the internet in a manner that now enables unprecedented surveillance, restrictions on information flows, and platforms for scaled behavioral control. Douglas Rushkoff—formerly among the most prominent techno-utopians—conveys the extent of this capitalist capture in the subtitle to Team Human: “Our technologies, markets, and cultural institutions—once forces for human connection and expression—now isolate and repress us” (Rushkoff, 2019). Rather than inherent features of the technology, these outcomes resulted from elite decisions that were optimizing for profit. A different internet was possible, as Rushkoff states: “This is not just coincidence, or some circumstantial byproduct of how these platforms function. This is the science of designing for behavior change” (Rushkoff, 2022, p. 105).

As happened with the early internet, the AI and psychedelics industries are still in nascent phases, and the same utopian hype is desensitizing people from noticing how elite decisions are optimizing both for profit. If we want AI and psychedelics to be used as forces for healing, connection, and expression, now is the time to name—and resist—the corporate takeover of both industries, because we might not get a second chance. As Celeste Kidd and Abeba Birhane describe, AI-generated text and images are now saturating the internet with millions of daily outputs due to the widespread adoption of generative models. Since the training data for generative AI models are largely drawn from the internet, the biases present in today's models are introducing “systemic distortions” by getting baked into the training data for all future models (Kidd & Birhane, 2023, p. 1223). In parallel to AI, corporations are now building the infrastructure for a global psychedelic industry. We must be vigilant about the possibility that harmful, untested norms and assumptions may be baked in at this early stage—especially if those norms are tuned towards the generation of profit and widening inequality. For instance, Tvorun-Dunn argues that the push to integrate psychedelics with AI and data-harvesting digital apps must be understood as “opportunities for Silicon Valley to exploit” towards TESCREAList ends, which would open new avenues to surveillance and behavioral control despite therapeutic justifications (Tvorun-Dunn, 2022, pp. 3, 5).

Writing in Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires (2022), Douglas Rushkoff suggests that Silicon Valley's embrace of psychedelics might be turbocharging its TESCREAList plans for AI. Returning from experiences at Burning Man or Amazonian retreats, many of Silicon Valley's elites report psychedelic-induced, evolutionary insights that reveal lucrative solutions to humankind's biggest problems. With their elitist views newly garbed in TESCREAList beliefs, “they return to the same exploitation, domination, and chauvinism they were doing before, only camouflaged…with more cosmic justifications” (Rushkoff, 2022, p. 115). In June 2023, an article on the front page of The Wall Street Journal described many of Silicon Valley's billionaires, including Elon Musk and Google's Sergey Brin, as “part of a drug movement” that is embracing psychedelics as “gateways to business breakthroughs” (Grind & Bindley, 2023). The authors state that among Silicon Valley's tech elite, taking psychedelics is now “a practice that has become for many a routine part of doing business.” Within this community, psychedelics are framed as offering “the fastest path to opening your mind up and clearly seeing for yourself what's going on,” as one tech industry microdosing coach described in an interview. Since psychedelics commonly induce noetic feelings of cosmic insight, often tinged with grandiosity or messianic convictions (Anderson, Danforth, & Grob, 2020), these tech elites are primed to interpret their experiences as subjective confirmations of their hierarchical, TESCREAList beliefs. Despite claims that psychedelics will make billionaires more empathic, the use of psychedelics by billionaires might be fueling the hype behind both AI and psychedelics, which increases the risks of both tools to broader society.

Conclusion: longtermism is incompatible with Indigenous reciprocity

Rhetoricians including Richard Doyle and Amanda Pratt have argued that conceptions of psychedelic harm reduction must develop extra-pharmacologically, extending from considerations of substance and dosage to the social impact of the field's rhetorical ecologies (Doyle, 2011, p. 7; Pratt, 2023, p. 153). Within these ecologies, the competing discourses of hype and anti-hype are “social facts” (Langlitz, 2023, p. 12) that influence the possible cultural applications—and risk profiles—of otherwise mutable technologies (Hartogsohn, 2017, p.10). Whereas Nicolas Langlitz has championed a descriptive, ethnographic approach to the resulting diversity of psychedelic practices, this article has taken up a more activist orientation that experiments with the field-building potentials in staking explicit moral claims. Future work in the psychedelic humanities can explore the potential for activist scholarship to shift the research landscape through counter-hegemonic speech-acts—as when “the emperor has no clothes.” In this context, inter-field collaborations—including exchanges between critical scholars in AI and psychedelics—present intersectional opportunities to expose pretense and contradictions within the dominant narratives, since these patterns can become more apparent as they reappear and play out across disparate contexts. This collaborative work can extend beyond AI to include other overhyped technologies that have been conscripted by “the gospel of tech solutionism” (Byrum & Benjamin, 2022), such as cryptocurrency and other applications of blockchain.

One clear example of the tensions and contradictions within the rhetoric of psychedelic healing emerged at the end of MAPS's Psychedelic Science 2023 conference, as reports of an Indigenous protest trickled onto the internet. In video clips shared from cell phones, the protestors (a group that included Dr. Angela Beers and Kathoomi Castro) condemned the psychedelic industry's continuations of colonialism under the banner of healing. As Castro stated to the assembled audience, “I want you to be aware that you have been deceived by this movement…. Please stop. Think! Think critically…. We need to stand in liberation together. This is not a collective liberation movement. This is a capitalization” (Rodgers, 2023, 4:47). In its coverage of the event, Lucid News praised Rick Doblin's graceful response to the protest—including his invitation for the protestors to join him onstage—as an embodiment of the field's ideals of “ego death and collective healing.” Lucid's coverage implied that there could be simple resolutions to the protestors' concerns, such as extra complimentary tickets and additional travel support for Indigenous speakers at the next conference. In its description of the protest's conclusion, Lucid reinforced this premise of mutual benefit without any fundamental change to the field's status quo: “A silence familiar to medicine people filled the space as [Lira Ornelas] Godoy and Doblin, alone on the stage, faced each other. Godoy then embraced Doblin to thunderous applause” (Lucid News, 2023).

As a microcosm of the field's tensions, this example reveals how the rhetorics of healing and intergenerational benefit are obscuring the extent to which different perspectives cannot actually coexist.19 As this paper has demonstrated, corporate psychedelia is imbued with colonialist and longtermist ideas and orientations that are incompatible with Indigenous relational ontologies. So long as the infrastructure of the psychedelics industry is built as an engine of inequality that channels wealth to its funders, it will remain nonsensical to claim that the industry is oriented towards decolonization and collective healing. As Tvorun-Dunn has argued, “To promote psychedelics…as commercial…services offered by private institutions with little oversight and a vague and undemocratic goal of improving human capacity is to relegate further commercial power to a consolidated elite who see themselves, and not others, as those who must guide our lives” (Tvorun-Dunn, 2022, p. 5).

In the fields of AI and psychedelics, where the contexts of use constrain possibilities for outcomes and applications, extractive industries cannot be expected to produce just futures. While the outputs of both AI and psychedelics often seem veridical and agentic, both can behave as “non-specific amplifiers” of available models (Pace & Devenot, 2021, p. 2)—remixing and sampling from the “building blocks…of existing beliefs, learned patterns of perception, and available cultural scripts or authorized explanations” (E. Davis, 2019, p. 28; Devenot, Seale-Feldman et al., 2022; Noorani, Bedi, & Muthukumaraswamy, 2023). LLMs are stochastic parrots (Bender, Gebru, McMillan-Major, & Shmitchell, 2021) that regurgitate pre-seeded biases in their generative outputs, while psychedelics can project images and interpretations influenced by expectancy and priming. If tech elites control the infrastructure for global access to these tools, the encoding of normative ideologies in AI's datasets and in psychedelic medicine's therapeutic protocols could have far-reaching implications by influencing beliefs and expectations in a manner that aligns with elite interests. In both cases, echoes and reflections of the status quo of power relations can seem like evidence about the fundamental nature of reality, which undermines their utility as tools for healing and liberation.

While prominent figures are now discussing the “existential risks” of AI and the “catastrophic risks” of psychedelics (Evans, 2023b) in the context of inflated hype, the mundane risks of capitalism and its ideological drivers are underemphasized topics in these fields. In parallel to these omissions, critical scholars and activists in both fields—often the very people who initiated public discussions of risk, at personal expense—have described continuing patterns of marginalization and exclusion for highlighting the real harms already caused by these industries.20 In identifying these patterns across apparently disparate fields, we can gain insight into the influence of Silicon Valley's power on the circulation of ideas and identify the real risks facing our planet. To prevent psychedelics from becoming yet another extractive industry, we need to organize beyond the hubristic fantasies of the elite's TESCREAL hallucinations. Any genuinely prosocial applications of either AI or psychedelics will depend on collective resistance to their conscription by neoliberalism and colonialism. The alternative is complicity in their use as technologies of elite persuasion.

Acknowledgements

The author thanks the anonymous reviewers in addition to Brian Pace, Brian Normand, and Russell Hausfeld for providing feedback on earlier versions of this article. In particular, this article benefitted from conversations with Brian Pace regarding the parallelism between “ripple out” and “trickle down” ecstasis. Thanks also to Sasha Sisko for identifying several of the video sources that informed the analysis.

References

1

Scholars in the psychedelic humanities and social sciences have articulated how the project of psychedelic medicalization has embraced the same brain-based approach to conceptualizing distress as previous pharmacological interventions, to the extent that the promise of psychedelic medicine risks amounting to “old wine in a new bottle” (Devenot, Conner, & Doyle, 2022; Gearin & Devenot, 2021; Noorani, 2019; Plesa & Petranker, 2022).

2

For a discussion of ChatGPT’s role in fueling the current generative AI “hype cycle,” see Marx, 2023.

3

Alex K. Gearin and I describe how the discourse of psychedelic medicalization promises individualized solutions “to societal challenges of authoritarianism and climate change,” and yet “both of these challenges have been exacerbated by the global spread of neoliberal capitalism.” As a result, “psychedelic medicine is being constructed within neoliberalism as a means of furthering neoliberal priorities, in a manner that risks exacerbating the very problems that some claim it solves” (Gearin & Devenot, 2021, p. 927). Maxim Tvorun-Dunn similarly emphasizes how the broader social impacts of the psychedelic industry's financial backers contradict their claims about prosocial and pro-environmental outcomes: “Considering that Silicon Valley has directly contributed to [neoliberalism, environmental pollution, worker disempowerment, and digital surveillance], the continued prominence of psychedelic drug use by tech executives seems directly incongruous with the pro-social, progressive forming, and environmental attributes which advocates claim psychedelics provide” (Tvorun-Dunn, 2022, pp. 1–2).

4

In Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (2018), Anand Giridharadas describes how billionaire philanthropists fund thought leaders to justify the status quo of hierarchical power relations: “[The elite] needed thinkers to…convince the wider public that they, the elite, were change agents, were the solutions to the problem, and therefore not the problem” (Giridharadas, 2019, p. 94). John Sanbonmatsu describes the ascendency of TESCREAList ideas in terms of these selective pressures: “unequal social conditions produce an unequal circulation of ideas, enabling some intellectual positions to assume preeminence over others, not because of their truth value, but because of their degree of compatibility with ascendant structures of the dominant economic system” (Sanbonmatsu, 2023, p. 204). As a result of these pressures, the most dominant proposed solutions to social problems tend to reproduce the very systems that caused those problems to begin with.

5

I prefer cognitive scientist Abeba Birhane's alternative use of “fabrications,” which avoids the misleading connotations of “hallucinations” in the context of LLMs (Birhane, 2023).

6

Although Field Trip Health had reportedly raised more than $100 million in investments since its founding in 2019, the company ultimately collapsed in 2023 (Gunther, 2023; Smith, 2023).

7

Douglas Rushkoff has described how this elitist view informs the rationale for the Future Festival—a luxury environment where tech elites take psychedelics and make business deals. In the words of its co-founder, Robert Scott: “It's important what we do here…. We're shaping the Future. These are the people who not only can do it, but these are the only people who can” (Rushkoff, 2022, pp. 113–114).

8

Although the authors of Stealing Fire claim to have coined this term to critique the phenomenon, their alternative (“ripple out”) model is functionally identical to a “trickle down” model of social change, since they frame such change as catalyzed by the insights and innovations of tech elites (Kotler & Wheal, 2017, p. 174).

9

For a brief discussion of the full TESCREAL acronym, see Troy, 2023.

10

As Keira Havens observes, “Sociobiology and eugenics [are] once again being repackaged for the public as part of the TESCREAL ideologies, pressed into service to rationalize why those with power and resources are morally justified in doing everything they can to retain it” (Havens, 2023). Along these lines, the longtermist Nick Beckstead has argued that, in the project of working towards a transhuman future, “saving a life in a rich country is substantially more important than saving a life in a poor country because richer countries have more innovation, and their workers are more economically productive” (Linton, 2023). Taking an exceptionalist standpoint that prioritizes human rationality over other modes of conscious experience, William MacAskill has claimed that “the lives of wild animals” are plausibly “worse than nothing on average” (Torres, 2023a). As a result of these positions, TESCREAList assessments of which modes of existence are deemed worthy of preserving—and conversely, which modes are rendered expendable—are saturated with colonial, racist, ableist, and speciesist assumptions.

11

Rooted in this Indigenous ontology, which is “interdependent, participatory, and ecologically-based,” Yuria Celidwen and colleagues led an Indigenous consensus process to articulate eight ethical principles for psychedelic research and practice. In synergy with the work of Williams and Brant, these principles are at odds with neoliberal enclosure, resource extraction, and capital accumulation (Celidwen et al., 2023, pp. 2–3).

12

Aside from being the presumed forerunner to FDA approval, Rick Doblin's MAPS is coordinating with many other initiatives to create regulatory pathways for psychedelic access. This influence was evident during a presentation at MAPS's Psychedelic Science 2023 conference, as Patty Salazar—Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA)—described Colorado's progress in creating a legal framework for psilocybin access under the Natural Medicine Health Act. In her coverage of the event, Jane Hu noted the clear intimacy between MAPS and this government agency, which demonstrates the impact of MAPS on the broader psychedelic ecosystem: “Based on the acknowledgments she made in her talk, it's evident that Salazar has had close relationships with MAPS” (Hu, 2023b). As a result of their proximity to all the major power players in the psychedelic industry, the evolutionary spirituality of Doblin and Grof is influential across this sector.

13

During a 2018 recording for The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Goertzel discussed his ideas about AGI in relation to Terence McKenna's psychedelic eschatology and True Hallucinations (The Joe Rogan Experience, 2018, 1:51:47).

14

As Dawn Davis (Shoshone-Bannock) and other Indigenous scholars and activists have highlighted, mainstream interest in peyote has led to “poaching and unsustainable harvesting practices,” which threaten the continuation of traditional ceremonial practices (D. D. Davis, 2012; Oberhaus, 2018).

15

In a 2022 article for Psychology Today, Azarian quotes Carhart-Harris’ hypothesis paper to present a quantitative, hierarchical assessment of “intelligence” across species: “The view taken here is that the human brain exhibits greater entropy than other members of the animal kingdom, which is equivalent to saying that the human mind possesses a greater repertoire of potential mental states than lower animals” (Carhart-Harris et al., 2014, p.2; Azarian, 2022). This human exceptionalist position mirrors the language used by longtermist philosophers to justify eugenicist perspectives about which modes of consciousness are worthy of preservation (Torres, 2023a).

16

In an introductory essay that remained incomplete at the time of his death in 2017, Fisher coined the phrase “acid communism” to articulate “ways of imagining a world after capitalist realism” that gestured to political applications of psychedelics beyond the confines of neoliberalism (Mills, 2019). Despite its fragmentary and provisional nature, Fisher’s introduction has inspired scholars and activists during the era of psychedelic medicalization to envision liberatory alternatives for psychedelics, as Emma Stamm and Alex Dymock have explored (Stamm, 2019; Devenot, Conner, & Doyle, 2022; Dymock, 2023, p.102).

17

For a discussion of the complex ethical issues involved in this proposal to study psychedelic treatments for disorders of consciousness, see Peterson et al., 2019.

18

As Sean Viña and Amanda Stephens point out, marginalized groups might experience “few positive outcomes” from psychedelics due to “liv[ing] in a world with a significantly less optimal set and setting” (Viña & Stephens, 2023, p.14).

19

The incommensurability of perspectives in the psychedelics field is encapsulated in responses to the Psychedelic Science 2023 conference. While the POC Psychedelic Collective issued a statement of “solidarity with the Indigenous group of protesters who interrupted the closing ceremony” (POC Psychedelic Collective, 2023), Germany's MIND Foundation praised the conference using colonial tropes of conquest: “The Psychedelic Science 2023 concluded on a high note…. It felt like a new frontier was breached, so perhaps it is no coincidence that the organizers chose the Wild West state, Colorado” (MIND Foundation, 2023). As scholars have noted, the “Wild West” frontier myth has served to perpetuate and glorify colonialism by obscuring the brutalities of genocide, racism, and the rapacious exploitation of natural and cultural resources (Boyer, Clark, Halttunen, Kett, & Salisbury, 2018, p. 493). TESCREALism represents a new frontier myth for the tech elite, since it justifies colonial expansion to the stars and renders as heroic their preferences for rising inequality. As Richard Slotkin describes of the earlier frontier myth: “Myth does not argue its ideology, it exemplifies it. It projects models of good or heroic behavior that reinforce the values of ideology, and affirm as good the distribution of authority and power that ideology rationalizes” (Slotkin, 1998, p. 19).

20

While philanthropic support flows to TESCREAList institutes to study AI's existential risks, Abeba Birhane has described the difficulty of receiving funding for critical work on AI (Birhane, 2022), and Timnit Gebru has “faced retaliation for uncovering and communicating the harms of AI systems” (A. Williams, Romero, et al., 2022). In the psychedelics industry, the 2022 Wonderland Miami conference—described by organizers as “the world's leading psychedelic event” (Walker, 2022)—gained notoriety for banning critical scholars, journalists, and activists under the pretense that they posed a threat to the physical safety of presenters. As James Kent wrote in coverage of this incident, “Corporate psychedelia has created a privileged class of industry insiders, and if you are not showing up to specifically amplify their message, you could find yourself on the outside looking in” (Kent, 2022). Russell Hausfeld reported that MAPS included a “reputation clause” in its speaker contract for Psychedelic Science 2023, which stated that MAPS may rescind participation by anyone who “discredits MAPS or tarnishes its reputation and goodwill” (Hausfeld, 2023). In coverage of Psychedelic Science 2023 for The Microdose, Jane Hu described a demonstration against MAPS's treatment of Indigenous voices, where one speaker “acknowledged that by speaking out, she recognizes she might not be invited back to future conferences” (Hu, 2023b).

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Journal of Psychedelic Studies
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