Huxley, Hesse and The Cybernetic Society

(Part 2 of 2) By Timothy Leary and Eric Gullichsen

Editors Note: The following is the second part of an excerpt from Timothy Leary and Eric Gullicson's unpublished book The Cybernetic Society, written in 1987, which we began in our first issue of Island Views The first part focused on Huxley’s importance to the emerging cybernetic society and this final installment looks at the contributions of the novelist Herman Hesse.

Hermann Hesse, for his part, was born in 1877 in the little Swabian town of Calw, Germany, the son of Protestant missionaries. His home background and education, like Huxley's, was intellectual, classical, idealistic.

No question about it, Huxley was right. The life of H.H. exemplifies change and metamorphosis. If we accept Theodore Ziolkowski's academic perception, "Hesse's literary career parallels the development of modern literature from a fin de siecle aestheticism through expressionism to a contemporary sense of human commitment." To wit:


Hesse's first successful novel, Peter Camenzind, 1904, reflected the frivolous sentimentality of the Gay '90s which, like the Roaring 1920, offered a last fun frolic to a class society about to collapse. Can we compare Hesse during this period with F. Scott Fitzgerald? With M.I.T.'s Huxley?


According to Ziolkowski, "From aestheticism he shifted to melancholy realism . . . Hesse's novels fictionalize the admonitions of an outsider who urges us to question accepted values, to rebel against the system, to challenge conventional 'reality' in the light of higher ideals."

In 1911 he made the obligatory mystical pilgrimage to India and along the Ganges picked up the micro-organisms that were later to appear in a full-blown Allen Ginsbergsonian mysticism.


In 1914 Europe convulsed with nationalism and military frenzy. Hesse, like Dr. Benjamin Spock in another time-warp, became an outspoken pacifist and war resister. Two months after the "outbreak of hostilities," an essay entitled "O Freunde, nicht dieser Tone" ("Oh Friends, not these tones") was published in the Neue Zurcher Zeitung. It was an appeal to the youth of Germany, deploring the stampede to disaster. His dissenting brought him official censure and newspaper attacks. From this time on, Hesse was apparently immune to the ravages of patriotism, nationalism and respect for authority.


It should have been Journey to the West.

"I scorned all evasion. I told him frankly that I was a participant in that great enterprise of which he must also have heard, in the so-called 'Journey to the East' or the League Expedition, or however it was described by the public. Oh yes, he smiled ironically, he certainly remembered it. In his circle of friends, this singular episode was mostly called . . . the Children's Crusade. This movement was not taken quite seriously in his circle. It had indeed been compared with some kind of theosophical movement or brotherhood. Just the same, they had been very surprised at the periodic successes of the undertaking.

"Then, to be sure the matter apparently petered out. Several of the former leaders left the movement; indeed, in some way they seemed to be ashamed of it and no longer wished to remember it. News about it came through very sparingly and it was always strangely contradictory, and so the whole matter was placed aside and forgotten like so many eccentric political, religious or artistic movements of those postwar years. At that time so many prophets sprang up, so many secret societies with Messianic hopes appeared and then disappeared again leaving no trace.

"His point of view was clear. It was that of a well-meaning skeptic . . . It was not for me to convert Lukas, but I gave him some incorrect information; for instance, that our League was in no way an off-shoot of the post-war years, but that it had extended throughout the whole of world history, sometimes, to be sure under the surface, but in an unbroken line, that even some phases of the World War were nothing else but stages in the history of our League. Further, that Zoroaster, Lao Tse, Plato, Xenophen, Pythagoras, Albertus Magnus, Don Quixote, Tristam Shandy, Novalis and Baudelaire were cofounders and brothers of our League.

"He smiled in exactly the way that I expected."


In 1922 Hesse wrote Siddhartha, his story of a Kerouac-Snyder manhood spent "on the road to Benares" performing feats of detached, amused, sexy one-upmanship.

In the June issue of Playboy magazine, the Islamic yogic-master Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Noble and Powerful Servant of Allah) summarizes with his legendary cool the life stages he has experienced. Abdul-Jabbar has obviously studied Hesse, since he uses Bead Game fugue techniques to weave together the strands of his biography: basketball, racism, religion, drugs, sex, jazz, politics. ". . . in my senior year in high school," says Abdul-Jabbar, "I started reading everything I could get my hands on -- Hindu texts, Upanishads, Zen, Hermann Hesse -- you name it.

"Playboy: 'What most impressed you?

"Abdul-Jabbar: Hesse's Siddhartha. I was then going through the same things that Siddhartha went through in his adolescence, and I identified with his rebellion against established precepts of love and life. Siddhartha becomes an aesthetic man, a wealthy man, a sensuous man -- he explores all these different worlds and doesn't find enlightenment in any of them. That was the book's great message to me, so I started to develop my own value system as to what was good and what wasn't."

Siddhartha (and Abdul-Jabbar) were not the only Hesse heroes to "develop their own value systems." The star of Hermann's next book took self-actualization to the limit.


Steppenwolf (1927) was described by the pious Ziolkowski as a "psychedelic orgy of sex, drugs, and jazz." Other observers with a more psyber-historic perspective, present company included, have seen Steppenwolf as a final send-up of the solemn polarities of the Industrial Age. Hesse mocks the Freudian push-pull conflicts, the Newtonian gravities, the Nietzschian either-torments, the Jungian polarities, the Hegelian dialectic machineries of European thought.

The hero of Steppenwolf, Harry Haller, enters "The Magic Theatre. Price of Admission: Your Mind." Here Hesse screens a classic psyber-farce. First he films a "Great Automobile Hunt," a not too subtle send-up of the sacred symbol of the Industrial Age. Then Hesse opens a door marked "Guidance in the Building-Up of the Personality. Success Guaranteed!" Here H.H. learns to play a post-Freudian video game in which the pixels are the elements of his own personality. "We can demonstrate to anyone whose soul has fallen to pieces that he can rearrange these pieces of a previous self in what order he pleases and so attain to an endless multiplicity of moves in the game of life."


This last sentence precisely states the basis for post-industrial psycho-pop, anticipating the 1980s high-tech religions of self-actualization: all 38,000 of them! You learn how to put together the elements of your self in what order pleases you!

The mid-life crisis of the Steppenwolf, his overheated Salinger inner conflicts, his Woody Allen despairs, his unsatisfied Norman Mailer longings are dissolved in a whirling kaleidoscope of quick-flashing neuro-realities. "I knew," gasps H.H. "that all the hundred pieces of life's game were in my pocket . . . One day I would be a better hand at the game."


What do you do after you've reduced the heavy, massive boulder-like thoughts of your mechanical kulture to pixel clusters?

If it's 1987 you write a new software program for your life.

If you're Hermann Hesse in 1942 you read Quantum Physics and Janesch chemistry and you rearrange the fissioned bits and pieces of your personality in new combinations. Synthetic chemistry of the mind. Hesse was hanging out in Basel, home of Paracelsus. Alchemy 101. Solve et coagule. Dissolve the elements and re-compose them in new combinations.

Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar you become a Master of the Bead Game. Let the random-number generator shuffle your thought-deck and deal out some new hands!


Understandably, Hesse never gives a detailed description of this pre-electronic data-processing appliance called the Bead Game, but he does explain its function. Players learned how to digitize thought -- convert decimal numbers, musical notes, words, thoughts, images into elements, glass beads which could be strung in endless abacus combinations and rhythmic fugue sequences to create a higher level language of clarity, purity and ultimate complexity.


Hesse described the Bead Game as "a serial arrangement, an ordering, grouping, and interfacing of concentrated concepts from many fields of thought and aesthetics."

In time, wrote Hesse, ". . . the Game of games had developed into a kind of universal language through which the players could express values and set these in relation to one another."

In the beginning the Thought Game was designed, constructed, and continually updated by a guild of mathematicians called Castalia. Later generations of hacks used the Bead Game for educational, intellectual and aesthetic purposes. Eventually the Bead Game became a global science of mind, and indispensable method for digitizing thoughts, clarifying thoughts and communicating them precisely.


Hesse, of course, was not the first to anticipate digital thought-processing. Around 600 BC the Greek Pythagoras (music of the spheres) and the Chinese Lao (Yin-Yang) Tse were speculating that all reality and knowledge could and should be expressed in the play of binary numbers.

In 1832 a young Englishman, George Boole, developed an algebra of symbolic logic. In the next decade Charles Babbage and Ada Countess Lovelace worked on the analytic thought-engine. A century later, exactly when Hesse was constructing his Game in Switzerland, the brilliant English logician Alan Turing was writing about machines that could simulate human thinking. AI, Artificial Intelligence.

Hesse's unique contribution, however, was not technical, but social. Forty-five years before Toffler and Naisbitt, Hesse predicted the emergence of an information culture. In The Glass Bead Game H.H. presents a sociology of computing. With the rich detail of a World Cup novelist he describes the emergence of a utopian subculture centered around the use of digital mind appliances.

Hesse then employs his favorite appliance, parody, psyber-farce, to raise the disturbing question: what about class division between the computer hip and the computer illiterate? Cyber-crats vs. Cyber-proles. The electronic elite versus the rag-and-glue primitives with their hand-operated Caronas? What about the dangers of two-tier society, the information-rich thought-processors and the information-poor letter-men? The psyber-punks vs. the wood-fibre thought-holders.


The Glass Bead Game is the story of Joseph Knecht, whom we meet as a brilliant grammar school student about to be accepted into the Castalia brotherhood and educated in the intricacies of the authorized thought-processing system.

The descriptions of Castalia are charmingly pedantic. The reverent reader is awed by the sublime beauty of the psyber-system and the dedication of the psyber-monks.

The scholarly narrator explains, "This Game of games . . . has developed into a kind of universal speech, through the medium of which the players are able to express values in lucid symbols and to place them in relation to each other . . . A game can originate, for example, from a given astronomical configuration, a theme from a Bach fugue, a phrase of Leibnitz or from the Upanishads, and the fundamental idea awakened can be built up or enriched through assonances to relative concepts. While a moderate beginner can, through these symbols, formulate parallels between a piece of classical music and the formula of a natural law, the adept and Master of the Game can lead the opening theme into the freedom of boundless combinations."

In this last sentence, Hesse describes the theory of digital computing. The wizard programmer can convert any idea, thought, or number into binary number chains which can be sorted into all sorts of combinations.

We re-encounter here the age-long dream of philosophers, visionary poets and linguists of a universitas, a synthesis of all knowledge, the ultimate "relational-data base" of ideas, a global language of mathematical precision.


Hesse with Mt. Palomar foresight understood that a language based on mathematical elements need not be cold, impersonal, rote. Reading The Glass Bead Game we share the enthusiasm of today's hacker-visionaries -- the Negropontes, the Minskys, the Paperts, the Kays, the Pynchons, yes, even the Feigenbaums and McCorducks, the von Neumans, the Engelbarts, the Taylors, the fugue-intoxicated Hofstadters who know that painting, composing, writing, designing, innovating with clusters of electrons (beads?) offers much more creative freedom than expressions limited to ink mechanically printed on paper, chemical paints smeared on canvas, acoustic (i.e., mechanical-unchangeable) sounds.


In the Golden Age of Chemistry scholar-scientists learned how to dissolve molecules and to recombine the freed elements into endless new structures. Indeed, only by precise manipulation of the play of interacting elements could chemists fabricate the marvels which have so changed our world.

In the Golden Age of Physics, physicists, both theoretical and experimental, learned how to fission atoms and to recombine the freed particles into endless new elemental structures.


In The Glass Bead Game Hesse portrays a Golden Age of Mind. The knowledge-information programmers of Castalia, like chemists and physicists, dissolved thought molecules into elements (beads) and wove them into new patterns, the iconography that "sings like crystal constellations."


Hesse apparently anticipated McLuhan's First Law of Communication: the medium is the message. The technology you use to package, store, communicate your thoughts defines the limits of your thinking. Your choice of thought-tool determines the limitations of your thinking.

If your thought technology is words-carved-into-marble, let's face it, you're not going to be a light-hearted flexible thinker. An oil painting or a wrinkled papyrus in a Damascus library cannot communicate the meaning of a moving picture film. New thought-technology creates new ideas. The printing press created national languages, the national state, literacy, the industrial age. Television, like it or not, has produced thought-processing very different from oral and literate cultures.

How can we forget that brutal Zen koan about the Challenger disaster which everyone watched on TV?

Q. The head of NASA has his eyes glued, as usual, to the TV monitor. He sees the fireball explosion. What does he do?

A. He shakes his head resignedly and says, "I ordered a Bud Lite."

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were pre-television.


Understanding the power of technology, Hesse tells us that the new Mind Culture of Castalia was based on a tangible mental-device, a thought-machine, "a frame modeled on a child's abacus, a frame with several dozen wires on which could be strung glass beads of various sizes, shapes and colors."

Please do not be faked out by the toy-like simplicity of this device. Hesse's message is that the medium has changed. Hesse has changed the units of meaning, the vocabulary of thought. Hey, this is serious, serious stuff. Once you have defined the units of thought in terms of mathematical elements you've introduced a major mutation in the intelligence of your culture.


The Glass Bead Appliance was first used by musicians, "the wires corresponded to the lines of the musical staff, the beads to the time-values of the notes. "A bare two or three decades later the Game . . . was taken over by mathematicians. For a long while, indeed, a characteristic feature of the Game's history was that it was constantly preferred, used, and further elaborated by whatever branch of learning happened to be experiencing a period of high development or a renaissance. ". . . At various times the Game was taken up and imitated by nearly all the scientific and scholarly disciplines . . . the analytic study of musical values had led to the reduction of musical events to physical and mathematical formulas. Soon afterwards, philology borrowed this method and began to measure linguistic configurations as physics measures processes in nature. The visual arts soon followed suit . . . Each discipline which seized upon the Game created its own language of formulas, abbreviations, and possible combinations . . . ". . . It would lead us too far afield to attempt to describe in detail how the world of Mind, after its purification won a place for itself in the state . . . supervision of the things of the mind among the people and in government came to be consigned more and more to the intellectuals . . . This was especially the case with the educational system . . ."


"The mathematicians brought the Game to a high degree of flexibility and capacity for sublimation, so that it began to acquire something of a consciousness of itself and its possibilities." In this last phrase, Hesse premonitors Arthur C. Clarke's and Stanley Kubrick's nightmare about Artificial (NEUROTIC) Intelligence. "Open the pod doors, HAL." "Sorry about that, Hermann," replies the insecure AI. "This mission is too important to be threatened by human error."


Hesse tells us that the first generations of computer adepts created a "hacker culture," an elite sect of cyber-monk knowledge processors who lived within the constructions of their own minds disdaining the outside society.

Then Hesse, with uncanny Orwellian insight, describes the emergence of a phenomenon which at the present moment has become the fad in the information sciences.

The Artificial Intelligence cult.

By 1984 billions of dollars were being spent in Japan (the so-called Fifth Generation projects), in America (MCC) and in Europe to develop Artificial Intelligence programs. Other unhappy nations which already suffer from a serious intelligence deficit, namely Soviet Eurasia and the Third World nations, seem to be left out of this significant cyber-political development.

The aim of A.I. projects is to develop enormously complicated smart machines which can reason, deduce, make decisions more efficiently than "human beings."

The mega-buck funding comes from large bureaucracies, federal, corporate, the military, banks, insurance firms, oil companies, space agencies, medical-hospital networks.


The mental tasks performed by the AI machineries include:

-- Expert Systems which provide processed information and suggest decisions based on correlating enormous amounts of data. Here, the computers perform at the speed of light the work of armies of clerks and technicians.

-- Voice recognition programs; the computer recognizes instructions given in spoken languages.

-- Robotry.

In 1987 A.I. has become the buzz-word among investors in the computer industry. There seems little doubt that reasoning programs and robots will play increasingly important roles in western society. And Japan.


Humanists in the computer culture claim that there is only one form of intelligence -- natural intelligence. Brain-power which resides in the skulls of individual human beings. This warm-wet-ware is genetically hard-wired and experientially programmed to manage the personal affairs of one (1) person, the owner, the end-user.

It is also useful in exchanging precise, digitized thoughts with others.

All thought-processing tools -- hand-operated pencils, printed books, electronic computers -- can be used as extensions of natural intelligence. They are appliances for packaging, storing, communicating ideas: mirrors which reflect back what the user has thought.


As Douglas Hofstadter put it in Godel, Escher, Bach, "The self comes into being at the moment it has the power to reflect itself." And that power, as Hesse suggests, is determined by the thought-tool used by the culture.


Individual human beings can be controlled, managed by thinking machines -- computers or bead games only to the extent that they voluntarily choose to censor their own independent thinking.

Says who?

Says Hermann Hesse.

In the last chapters of The Glass Bead Game the hero, Joseph Knecht, has risen to the highest post in the Castalian order. He is Magister Ludi, Master of the Glass Bead Game.

The Game, by this time, has become a global Artificial Intelligence system which runs the educational system, the military, science, engineering, mathematics, physics, linguistics. And above all, aesthetics. The great cultural ceremonies are public thought-games watched with fascination by the populace.

At this moment of triumph the Mind Master begins to have Weisenbaum doubts. He worries about the two-tier society in which the Castalian "computer" elite run the mind-games of society far removed from the realities of human life. The Castalians, we recall, have dedicated themselves totally to the life of the mind, renouncing power, money, family, individuality. A Castalian is the perfect "organizational man," a monk of the new religion of Artificial Intelligence. Knect is also concerned about the obedience and self-renunciation demanded by the A.I. Priesthood.


After some hundred pages of weighty introspection and confessional conversation Joseph Knecht resigns his post as the High Priest of Artificial Intelligence and heads for a new life as an individual in the "real world."

He explains his "awakening" in a letter to the Order. After 30 years of major league thought-processing, Knecht has come to the conclusion that organizations maintain themselves by rewarding obedience with privilege! With the blinding force of a mystical experience Knecht suddenly sees that the Castalia A.I. community "had been infected by the characteristic disease of elitehood -- hubris, conceit, class arrogance, self-righteousness, exploitiveness . . ."!

And, irony of all irony, the member of such a thought-processing bureaucracy "often suffers from a severe lack of insight into his place in the structure of the nation . . . his place in the world and world history."

Before we, in the sophisticated '80s, rush to smile at such platitudes about bureaucratic myopia and greed, we should remember that Hesse wrote this book during the decade when Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini were terrorizing Europe with totalitarianism. The cliche Athenian-democratic maxim "Think for Yourself, Question Authority" was decidedly out of fashion, even in civilized countries like Switzerland.


Gentle consideration for the touchiness of the times was, we assume, the reason why Hesse, the master of parody, leads his timid readers with such slow, formal tempo to the final confrontation between Alexander, the President of the Order, and the dissident Game Master.

In his most courteous manner Knecht explains to Alexander, The Prince of Cyber-crats, that he will not accept obediently the "decision from above."

The President gasped in disbelief. And we can imagine most of the thought-processing elite of Europe, the cyber-profs, the intellectuals, the linguists, the literary critics, the editors of magazines joining Alexander when he sputters, ". . . not prepared to accept obediently . . . an unalterable decision from above -- have I heard you aright, Magister?"!

Later Alexander asks in a low voice, ". . . and how do you act now?"

"As my heart and reason command," replies Joseph Knecht.

With this noble espousal of "the unauthorized life," Hermann Hesse becomes a Patron Saint of Cyberpunk.

Timothy Leary, Ph.D., is a stand-up philosopher living in Beverly Hills. As a professor of psychology at Harvard, Leary conducted the Psilocybin Research Project that was to catapult him to fame. Author of 28 books, and uncounted articles, Leary has turned his attention to the creation of multimedia computer software that will convey his unique intelligence.

Last Updated: Monday, June 05, 1995

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