Timothy Leary's Dead,
No, no, he's outside looking in . . .
-- "Legend of a Mind" by the Moody Blues
Okay, we've figured out that Ronnie Reagan is enthusiastic, confident and upright. Let's take him into a punk transvestite bar and see how he reacts."
Twenty curious shoppers and amused fans crowded near the shelves of floppy disks and computer hardware at the back of The Program Store in Bethesda's White Flint Mall on Wednesday. Playing the keyboard of a demonstrator IBM-PC as if he were the Pied Piper of Computerdom is one of America's legendary bad boy geniuses. He captivated the audience, led it from one zany microchip adventure to another. His alternate bouts of absurdity and insight provoked onlookers to laughter and awe. He wanted to sell them something he says will help them think clearly.
Doctor Timothy Leary is alive and well and living in the 21st century.
For sure, his hair is almost entirely gray these days. Liver spots compete with an L.A. tan on his hands. Too much smoking causes him to cough through sentences now and then, and his left ear doesn't work as well as it once did. If you believe some accounts, his brain cells probably number fewer than before. But, at 65, the controversial pioneer of the neurological frontier has gone gonzo over designing computer software that picks up where psychoactive drugs left off.
Leary calls his first software program "Mind Mirror," and claims it is the greatest evolutionary step in human intelligence since Gutenberg began mass-printing books 500 years ago. "I'm not being a megalomaniac here," he says. "But I feel this new kind of thought-processing mind appliance is the first of a new technology." That conviction shows up in his latest slogan as the euphemism for switching on the computer: The past's "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out" has become "Turn On, Tune In, Boot Up."
After more than a year of computer industry scuttlebutt that the High Priest of Hallucinogens was at work on a software program, hopes and fears (and there were both) that "Mind Mirror" would be an attempt at a computerized LSD trip have proved overblown. Instead, Leary has relied heavily on his earlier explorations of human personality of the late '50s when, experts agree, he made seminal contributions to the field before his "altered states" experiments led to his dismissal from the Harvard faculty.
Psychological therapy thinly disguised as a computer game, "Mind Mirror" is a self-correcting device for misconceptions about one's self, about others, about anything. A label on the software package cover reads, "WARNING: The Psychologist-General has determined that using 'Mind Mirror' can be hazardous to your stereotypes. It contains humorous, thought-provoking material which could be considered adult-oriented. If you are not an adult or don't like having your thoughts provoked, use this program carefully."
Leary likes to call it "an electronic mirror of the mind" and says it is "the ultimate tool for tracking, measuring and reflecting thoughts. It is interactive. It allows one to take any thought or concept and slice it, microscope it, magnify it, plot it or change it." Users can challenge concepts with "life simulations" -- fictitious incidents, such as Ronald Reagan at the punk bar, requiring responses that test the veracity of a notion. The software, Leary says, is "part game and part philosopher on a floppy disk . . . designed to help clarify thinking."
So never mind that "Mind Mirror" is also the latest shtick of a wild and crazy guy who has never shied away from hype in his long, strange journey from dayglo guru to prison convict to international desperado to space migration visionary to Hollywood stand-up philosopher. Forget that, in 1973, one federal government official commenting on Leary's recapture following a much publicized prison break branded him "the most dangerous man alive."
And his "Jam the Computers" rhetoric of the mid-'70s? "I stick by that," says the man who coined "TFYQA" -- Think for Yourself and Question Authority. "I think that the way to jam the big computers, the authoritarian ones, is to have your own personal computer and software."
Leary says he saw the error of his ways after his son and grandchildren inducted him into computer reality a few years back via video arcades. In the '60s, he explains, "a generation of Americans discovered that there were methods for accelerating, complicating, deepening and refocusing consciousness that could lead to personal improvement." Not that computer software could replace psychoactivating drugs, mind you, but the problem was that all that mind expansion without a corresponding improvement of clear thinking, he says, led to "a vague, well-meaning, cotton-candy stupidity" -- the Wow-Man-Like-What's-Happening mentality.
"I think neurotransmitters," as Leary prefers to calls hallucinogenic drugs today, "access or activate or turn on different circuits of the brain. I don't think there's any argument about that. The problem in the '60s was that we had no guidebooks, no language, no technology to understand and express this . . . Literally, the psychedelic drug movement was a question waiting for the computer software to answer."
Is it possible that Leary could do for computer mentality in the '80s what he did for the countercultural mentality? "You mean scramble their circuits?" cracks his old antagonist and, more recently, debating buddy, Watergate trickster G. Gordon Liddy. It's unlikely, says Liddy: "He is very enthusiastic about it, there is no doubt . . . We view just about everything in the world on a 180-degree opposite point of view. I was opposed to him and all he stood for, but even when I arrested him, and I arrested him twice as a young D.A. in upstate New York , I found him to be a very civil man with great wit."
Yet marketing the work of the radical-chic shrink has proved touchy. LSD left a bad taste in the mouths of many who remember Leary as the cheerleader of a lost generation of drug-crazed, brain-dazed young people. Two years ago while visiting his parents, "Mind Mirror" producer Stewart Bonn mentioned that he might work with Leary on a software product. Bummer. Bonn's mother was outraged. Until then, Bonn, 35, hadn't given much thought to the possibility of negative perception of Leary and his program.
"There is definitely a problem," says Leary. "How do people see me? I have never wanted to answer that because it's still up for grabs. I am a legend without wanting to be. I have been pushed by the essential hallucinations of a 100 million people into a certain position, that of The Alchemist, Merlin the Magician, The Holy Grail Thing, The Pied Piper, The Witch's Cauldron -- we're talkin' collective unconsciousness of millions here, not the Department of Labor's Dictionary of Occupational Titles.
"So I'm carrying the weight of all these hallucinations. But I am equally embarrassed when they call me a Devil as when they call me a Messiah." The solution, says Leary, "is marketing to target groups.
"I may be overly optimistic, but there are, let's say, 4 million people with home computers. Three-quarters of them are gathering dust in the closet, because there is no reason why an intelligent, adult, sophisticated, human being would go to them instead of a book, instead of a good movie, or even a good rare television show. So one of my things is to try to bring the home computer out of the closet and get the dust off it.
* "There's another big market of very sophisticated, intelligent, wonderful, liberal, open-minded people who have intelligently said, 'I don't need a computer. I don't want to do my diet and my checkbook on one and I'm not a writer.'
"See, I think there's an enormous hunger for my kind of software. I've had many people say, 'This is my first reason to get a computer.' And I say that 30 million people out there in America are reasonably enlightened, reasonably tolerant, open-minded, reasonably fair, and they're hungry. What's going to kill the world is intellectual hunger for good ideas and mental fitness."
But Bonn and the folks at Electronic Arts, the San Mateo, Calif., computer firm that is publishing and distributing "Mind Mirror" (suggested retail price is $34.95 for Apple and IBM versions and $32.95 for Commodore 64), are holding their breaths on projected sales.
Promos walk a verbal tightrope: Slightly reserved so as not to offend those leery of Leary, but with an occasional innuendo such as "a street-legal trip through inner space" and "give your stereotypes the acid test." Leary is softpeddled as a "controversial psychologist" who is continuing his "earlier work" (read: "pre-LSD") designing "interactive personality tests and humanistic psychotherapies." And for the Yuppie market, the promotion adds that "like Scruples or Trivial Pursuit, it is at its best when several players or groups band together to examine a common subject."
"There have been days where I thought it was a smash hit and other days when, to be honest, I think people aren't going to get it," says Bonn, explaining that Leary's software doesn't exactly compare with the company's other top sellers -- "Doctor Jay and Larry Bird, One on One" and a fighter jet program called "Skyfox."
Orders so far are strong, reports Bonn, who adds that he would be happy if just every old hippie bought the program. "I expect sales to continue, but there could be a lynch mob outside the building by the time I go home tonight. Just kidding. I like to believe everybody wants to explore and think, but I could be wrong."
Still, a little hype never hurts. Smack on the "Mind Mirror" package is a second label: "Win a night in Hollywood with Timothy Leary and his celebrity friends . . . Contest rules inside."
Leary cringes when the contest is mentioned. "I'm embarrassed," he says. "I opposed that and my wife would be absolutely . . . well, I hid it so she couldn't see it. They promised me that they wouldn't put that in it anymore. If anyone sends it in, I guess we'll do it. I don't want to think about it."
He prefers to think about upcoming projects, new software programs he is negotiating and hopes will be published in time for Christmas. One is an interactive novel in which, as the plot develops, users guide the story according to the style of different authors, from Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald to Thomas Pynchon. The other takes self-analytical software to even greater depths than "Mind Mirror."
At The Program Store, a computer teacher, 32, from Corn Belt U.S.A. who was visiting in Washington explained why he showed up to meet Leary: "I was interested in seeing what kinda program a guy who introduced a whole generation to LSD would write," he said. "The program reflects very strongly a background in scientific psychology -- almost like personality tests with some humor. And just watching him perform, he's quite a professor."
But there was a question the teacher wanted to ask Leary: "Aren't qualities that enable you to grow more flexible in personality traits inherent in your body? If you don't have the neurological structure of a creative person, how are you going to become more creative by just talking about it?"
Leary's answer: "You're way back in the 20th century."