Special Guest Post: iDosing, Timothy Leary, and the desire machine

14 Nov

by Arjan Dhupia

Attention: this post is a drug.

Sometimes the seeming and the real are not two genuinely different things. Consider the above video: what do we see? Possibly a guy under the influence of drugs. Quite right, however not the way you would expect. He is getting high on sounds. Binaural beats, that is, low-frequent sounds below 1500 Hz that are induced by our brains when both ears are separately stimulated by tones of slightly different frequency (say, 500Hz on the left and 510Hz on the right ear). The resulting phenoma are sounds that you can physically perceive as a beating, modulating tone. Binaural beats are a scientifically proven effect of the human auditory apparatus, and there are people who claim them to be benefitial to relaxation, meditation or anxiety reduction.

What else do we see? We attend an internet hype called “iDosing”, a buzzword for music tracks containing binaural beats of various frequencies. Youtube registers countless videos of teenagers filming themselves getting high on preparated music. These songs, according to online shop i-Doser.com, manipulate your brain waves with intoxicating effects similar to existent drugs like “marijuana, peyote or cocaine”. One track for every trip, just press play.

Which poses a few questions: is the internet our new, completely legal 24h dealer? Do we have to speak of ‘high-loading’ instead of downloading here? Wouldn’t this give a whole new meaning to music compilations? And does it actually work? Judging by the global media coverage that iDosing received, the answer would have to be ‘yes’. But don’t get your hopes up, say music scientists and neurologists. Binaural beats, as EEG tests have shown, can be used to influence our brain wave frequencies to converge to frequency ranges (alpha, theta and delta waves) we predominantly experience during or after sleep. However,  there is no scientific evidence of narcotic, or even hallucigenic, effects whatsoever.

So what do we really see here?

Aside from a collective teenage placebo performance, we see the wonderful distortion of Timothy Leary’s ‘psybernetic’ (psychedelic plus cybernetic) dream. In the late 1970s, future computer technology had been actively linked to narcotics and psychedelia. Promoting virtual reality technology, Leary, among others of the (never contradiction-free) 1960s hippie counterculture, hailed computers as a liberating force. They publicly phrophecised a consensual psychedelic experience, once humans would be able to construct and dive into artificial worlds. Thrilled by the “being in nothingness” of cyberspace, Grateful Dead-songwriter John Perry Barlow noted: “The closest analog to Virtual Reality in my experience is psychedelic”. Science-fiction literature did the rest. Who would have guessed that hippie culture, breathing its last breath, would eventually neglect the body and trade nature for a completely virtual experience?

The media phenomenon called iDosing tells us more about our desires regarding computers and technology than any Apple presentation. It may not be an escapist strategy in the context of cold war politics like Leary’s promotion of cyberspace, but we can see that the computer machine was, and still seems to be, an eschatological getaway of ample quality. Nobody has put this better than Jerry Garcia: technology is the new drugs. iDosing, as a pleasurable media performance, provides yet another vivid example of this interplay between desire, wishes and the computer machine.

That said, did you think we would leave you out in the cold?


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