11/5/22: Right now, I’m thinking about the best publishers for this project. If anyone has recommendations, please email me at emma.stamm@villanova.edu — thank you!


Project title: Acid Luddism: Psychedelic Experience and Human Autonomy After the Internet

Recent years have seen a rise in scholarship intervening in the myth of apolitical technological innovation. These initiatives depart from the premise that, if left unregulated, information technologies will consolidate and promote the interests of their owners to the detriment of global publics. Those who conduct research under this banner often seek to conceptualize and implement solutions intended to democratically reform various parts of our digital ecosystem. Such endeavors may, for example, theorize unbiased and/or explainable A.I.; develop social platforms designed to combat misinformation and disinformation; or encourage public interest in tech law and policy. As they gain traction within and beyond the academy, an intellectual counter-current has emerged to ask a more radical question: what if extant technologies cannot be reengineered so that their benefits outweigh their costs? What if, instead, their harms may only be vanquished by dissolution at the structural level?

In his 2022 book Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World, Jonathan Crary argues that life mediated by the internet complex — his term for the matrix of infrastructure, services, and financial interests comprising the internet’s physical and virtual dimensions — has “crossed a threshold of irreparability and toxicity.” In his words, Scorched Earth is inspired by the tradition of social pamphleteering wherein political writing forsakes nuance for a more impactful style of argumentation. Hence the book’s weighty opening line: “If there is to be a livable and shared future on our planet, it will be a future offline, uncoupled from the world-destroying systems and operations of 24/7 capitalism.” Scorched Earth presents its normative program in stark detail: from the outset, Crary calls for a revolution in social relations of which nothing less than the internet’s end would serve as both cause and effect. The project I am proposing responds to this call. Throughout the fellowship period, I will develop a book-length monograph which clarifies the political hazards of the internet complex, with a special focus on problems related to the datafication of the self. The monograph will also explore what might be gained if the internet is no longer treated as immutable, inevitable, and broadly beneficial to society. 

I approach this topic from an unusual angle. My project frames the current revival of research on psychedelic substances (popularly known as “the psychedelic renaissance”) as a uniquely illuminating study in the perils of datafication. Through this lens, I examine “the human” and “the self” as key sites of political and epistemic contestation in the digital age. Tentatively titled Acid Luddism: Psychedelic Experience and Human Autonomy After the Internet, I investigate notions of humanity, selfhood, and agency as they are affirmed and disaffirmed within two focal areas: first, the internet complex; second, today’s legal and institutionalized psychedelic research. I claim that the figure of self legitimated by the internet has negative repercussions for social cohesion and individual autonomy. Further, it reinforces assumptions regarding self and relationality that extend racist, classist, and colonialist agendas (as described by, e.g., Seb Franklin in The Digitally Disposed: Racial Capitalism and the Informatics of Value, and Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejia in The Costs of Connection: How Data is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating it for Capitalism). Crucially, the same figure serves as the object of investigation in today’s psychedelic studies. As I claim, it prevents researchers from attaining an actionable grasp of the therapeutically effective mechanisms of psychedelic-induced experiences. I also state that it is partially responsible for the many setbacks the field has endured. Put simply, the institutionalization of psychedelic medicine is failing for the same reasons that the internet threatens human welfare.

Acid Luddism asserts that our shared understanding of individual and collective life must emphasize features that cannot be rendered as variables in a scientific experiment or predictive algorithm. This is, to be sure, the premise of several texts published before and after the advent of the internet. Its original contribution rests in what psychedelic science casts in high relief. That is, when certain categories of experience, identity, and behavior are treated as more “real” than others, the alternatives may no longer serve as meaningful informants to various kinds of activity, including those in the domains of science and politics. Psychedelic researchers face the difficult task of assigning epistemic significance (or “truth status”) to strange phenomena, e.g., the hallucinations and mystical impressions characteristic of psychedelic encounters. In accordance with epistemological norms, these phenomena are generally taken as “unreal,” which diminishes their capacity to determine the course of scientific inquiry. Meanwhile, those who administer and profit from internet platforms envision users as singular (if fluid) compounds of interests, identities, habits, and desires. These amalgamated figures are only “real” to the extent that they may be expressed and communicated through digital media. Both sites conceive “the human” as neatly extricable from social and environmental context, and as consisting in a wholly positive, discrete, and data-soluble form. I indicate that this form is no more tangibly and demonstrably problematic than in the case of psychedelic medicine. Through an investigation of this area of research, Acid Luddism refines our awareness of those aspects of human life besieged by the internet, but which have heretofore remained murky and indefinite in critical technology studies.