First I ever heard of a sensory deprivation tank was on my family’s little cathode ray tube television set, which sat perched in a dusty oak cabinet beneath a pair of rabbit-ear antennae. I watched a character on the show Fringe enter a parallel dimension via sensory deprivation tank in order to prevent the singularity. Or something. Just shy of a decade has passed since I saw the show, so I’m rusty on the plot. But the image of the nearly-naked scientist tangled in biofeedback sensors as she floats in murky green water stuck with me.
At present, I maintain a subscription package to a Brooklyn ‘float’ center. I understand that this is both frivolous and repulsive, and I’m sorry, but also I really do genuinely take pleasure in living out certain trivial futuristic fantasies.
In my semi-feral youth, I got into pulp sci-fi, cheap novels (with the full semantic suppleness of ‘cheap’ brought to bear) haphazardly stitched together from shorter works previously published in magazines during the 30s, 40s, and 50s. I suspect I was initially drawn in by the cover art; titles announcing ‘amazing’ or ‘wonder’ hovered above Technicolor babes struggling in the jewel-hinged jaws of alien robots, a hero standing by, ready to save the day. I mean, it’s basically just adventure tales in far-future extraplanetary drag, and our family couldn’t afford cable or internet, so when I wanted a diversion, I’d bike over to the library and read that dross til the sun set.
When I was 14, my mother relocated me and my sister to a bleak little town in rural Texas. The people of Uhland, named for the German poet, were disagreeable—too naive to be evil—hayseeds that swore by individualism and team sports, Confederate flags fluttering behind their pickup trucks in a show of southern “pride.” Within the first few weeks there, I had befriended the neighborhood livestock, but had been singled out at school as a ‘dyke.’ I learned to keep my head down (conformity is an exact science, thank the lord) after seeing what happened to those that didn’t. Privately though, I began rebelling—refusing to attend church (and not because of any refined metaphysical stance), getting a secret tattoo, and eventually cutting classes—sneaking out around lunchtime to drive down to Five Mile Dam, where I’d read in the yellowed grass next to the bone-dry riverbed.
My literary taste slowly shifted from pulp to cyberpunk, a subgenre of hard sci-fi that emerged in the 80s. Cyberpunk, cast with antiheroes and set in near-future subcultural underworlds, traces the social repercussions of technology, mapping a relation between upgraded bodies/intelligences and degraded humanity. Most importantly (for my young purposes) it registers intense frustration and disappointment, indexes of the sense that neoliberalism had effectively cancelled the future (far-future sci-fi implies a secure/stable intervening time period of great length). Of course, as a teenager, one seldom reads for the geopolitical allegory and instead makes/takes things personal. It’s probably redundant to say I was frustrated then, as frustration is kind of the developmental imperative of adolescence.
And sure, I’ll concede that sci-fi was a cathartic distraction from my slightly rough childhood, from dreary small town life, and from what in retrospect was perfectly obviously anxiety. But sci-fi isn’t pure escapism. I wasn’t into magic or dragons or slashers or vampire smut. I was into hard sci-fi, with its adherence to the sometimes slippery notion of plausibility—fantasy’s hedged concession to realism. Because of this plausibility, reading hard sci-fi is an aspirational act, even if the content is apocalyptic. The reader engages with the text as if it does—and it may—exert ideological pressure on the imminent/eventual formation, expansion, or collapse of human infrastructures/networks/metasystems.
Anyway, if all that frustration was good for anything it was as a motivator, and I set my sights on gettin’ the heck outta dodge. Despite occasional truancy, my grades were good so I applied to a few dozen schools. It was with little hesitation that I decided to skip senior prom, flying up to Boston for an MIT admitted students’ weekend instead. The whole scene—the big city, the bright-eyed nerds, the imposing campus and even more imposing faculty—hit me full in the heart. Suddenly it felt like my world was full of unrestrained possibility.
One thing about hurtling into the future at ramming speed: you tend to underestimate the past’s bearing on your course. I arrived at mine ill-prepared, overwhelmed, and increasingly struggling to cope with anxiety (one downside to dwelling in possibility: some possibilities fill you with dread). I was frequently emotionally/socially/physically uncomfortable, but felt I didn’t have time both take care of my health and keep pace with my peers. After averaging about a 25% on my first few tests, I decided to work more diligently, stopped getting much sleep, and began learning how to, like, really learn. I focused all my energy on the projects of fitting in and keeping up.
As part of this effort, I watched remedial video lectures online to compensate for my inferior background, and came to rely on Richard Feynman’s physics lectures to pass electricity and magnetism. Afterwards, I picked up a copy of the Feynman’s memoirs for good measure. One section struck me. In ‘Altered States,’ Feynman recounts his meeting with John C. Lilly, inventor of the sensory deprivation tank and developer of the balanced bidirectional pulse pair technique for electrical stimulation in neuroprosthetics. Lilly had encouraged Feynman to enter the tank for a few hours in order to experience an expanded conscious state and Feynman acquiesced, expressing that he’d always wanted to feel altered but that he refused to try drugs, for fear he’d “screw up the machine”(1). Feynman’s then devolves into an Erowid style ‘trip report’ of his Ketamine and marijuana assisted hallucinations in the float tank (implying, in true stoner fashion, that “those aren’t like real drugs so…”), beginning with deep contemplations of his childhood and ending with a revelation that his ego was off center by an inch.
I took this delightful depiction of serious scientists getting caught up in silly ‘woo’ as license to abandon my ‘fitting in’ project. I could, if I liked, explore a bit. I got comfortable with being queer, started playing around with art-making, and began going to electronic music shows semi-religiously. The project up ‘keeping up’ was still going full force though, and I continued to work myself to the marrow.
In my final year at MIT, I went over to my friend Chris’ dorm to work on a problem set. After we were done, he invited me to join him and another friend for a drink. The friend, John, was a senior. When we got to his single, I noticed the navy blue sheets on his twin bed had perfectly creased hospital corners, and that on his desk, tucked behind a laptop with a russet toned screen, was a line of vitamins and a large canister of protein powder. John was wearing what I now recognize as a design-bro uniform—crisp black shirt, grey chinos, thick acetate framed glasses, non-descript boots in buttery black leather. Also, John was impossibly beautiful, like full on ice-sculpture level. After pouring a few drinks, he described his research work with a lab whose eventual aim was to overcome ageing and death. I almost choked on incredulous laughter, but caught myself. By the end of our conversation I couldn’t in good faith disagree with him when he said, “Anything is possible, given enough time and resources, right?” Even at my most burnt-out on science and tech, I still found myself optimistic about our possible futures. John recommended I read a text called Ones and Zeroes, written by Sadie Plant. Through it, I would come to encounter two non-literary outgrowths of the sci-fi ethos, ideological forces that would help to shape my aesthetic sensibilities and my understanding of the self.
Around the time that I would’ve been curled in a beanbag chair in library with my pulp, CCRU (Cybernetic Cultures Research Unit) was doing work (well, loosely speaking) at Warwick University. Fusing occult mysticism and Deleuzian theory, techno and MDMA, and emerging scientific developments and cyberpunk fiction, Sadie Plant and Nick Land along with a group of grad students, para-academics, and artists, explored the aesthetic and political potentials that inhere in digital culture. The texts and ideas that were produced by CCRU would form the foundation of Accelerationism, a kind of project for and towards a liberated future, which imagines postmodern subjects as “velocity-driven psychotics ravaged and dragged through sky and sludge, crying from revolution teargas and boring discussions at the same time…beasts using their own bodies to mash culture with physics with economics with mysticism.”(2) In Nick Land’s understanding, the liberated future is fundamentally posthuman. As he sees it, post-singularity, humanity itself would become mere “drag to an abstract planetary intelligence rapidly constructing itself from the bricolaged fragments of former civilizations”. (3) His is a dark optimism. Other elaborations of the accelerationism incubated at CCRU have given rise to a new Left radicalism which would mobilize a counter-hegemonic project in order to bring into being a just, pleasurable, and fully automated future.
In 2009, intelligence researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky founded LessWrong. LessWrong aims to help users improve their cognitive ability and effectiveness via rationality, and is funded by the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (formerly known as the Singularity Institute). The ideology of the community is closely aligned with utilitarianism, and the community has ties to the effective altruism movement, AI researchers, and to the neoreactionary movement (racist, sexist transhumanists influenced by the ideas of Nick Land). Like most successful dogmatisms, LessWrong had promises of transcendence, charismatic prophets, traditionalist adherents and radical offshoots. Ultimately, for me, the enhancements promised were too seductive to ignore entirely. In addition to exercise, a healthy diet, a variety of nootropics (‘smart drugs’) ranging from socially sanctioned caffeine intake to schedule 2 stimulants, one much discussed ‘neurotechnology for improving cognitive function’ on LessWrong is meditation. And so a few years ago, I began meditating, not to find myself or love myself or take care of myself, but to try and conquer my weaknesses—my anxiety, and my history. Transcendence, indeed.
This desire to overcome the limitations of humanity thereby rendering that borders on contempt for the flesh mirrors represents a commonality between accelerationism and the LessWrong. But where CCRU is dark, convoluted, and highly aestheticized, LessWrong is accessible, grounded, and tasteless. The dark side/light side ideologies offered by accelerationism together the various narrative forms afforded by science fiction have elaborated a way of non-anthropocentric way of seeing the world that’s future-oriented, aspirational, and sees itself as politically efficacious—a system of modern meaning making, of imposing sense and coherence on life.
During the past year, I started meditating with greater frequency, with the hope of improving my focus and my creativity because I’ve been stuck on a project. After building a continuously updated digital model of all the poetry I’ve read or meant to read during the last couple years, and I began algorithmically producing new poetry according to this model, arranging the algorithm’s output such that it sticks within a few themes and follows a loose logic. I kept hitting a wall in a certain section though. At one point, bored and frustrated, I recalled that sensory deprivation tank scene in Fridge, where the older scientist Walter turns to Olivia before she enters the tank, and says “This…will rip open your consciousness.” Kinda out of frustration with my mind, I decided I wanted to experience this violent psychological schism, and Googled whether there was a place in the city with tanks.
The proprietor of Lift Floats in Carroll Gardens definitely probably said the phrase ‘spa of the future’ to their interior designer at some point, which is unfortunate only in that I’ve now been forced to write that down. The beveled ceiling of the lobby houses recessed blue lights, recalling the glow of Cherenkov radiation (like Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen), and the furniture’s clean lines echo the black railing that runs opposite a calacatta marble half wall (remember that net art trend?). I checked in with a soft-spoken attendant who smiled up at me from behind a book, and offered a few suggestions: Shower before and after, lube up any open wounds with Vaseline, there are ear plugs in the room, enjoy. A few moments later I was naked, pulling closed the slick clamshell lid of the tank above me. The tank smelled like sterilized seawater, and was backlit teal until I pressed the button that switches off the lights. When I laid back into the tank I was buoyed up by body temperature water. It was black/quiet as death.
I began doing my usual meditation sequence as a means of clearing my mind so that I could focus on my writing/coding project. After relaxing my body, I begin imagining myself as a contingent, complicit entity, anonymous and enmeshed. My normally pretty linguistic conceptual architecture takes on a more visual form. Instead of thinking through the production of descriptive language to characterize an idea, I find myself thinking through the visualization of a diagrammatic representation of its system, moving as a point through arrows to objects, caught in flows and feedback loops. Suddenly, I imagine myself vividly as being inside a glass sphere on a Cartesian plane. I begin imagining running as fast as I can within the sphere, and realize that the plane is a spatial representation of my consciousness, and that I could explore it if I choose to. I begin tracing sweeping arcs across the manifold of my mind, and come to understand that left corresponds to my past. Moving my sphere rapidly along the left-right axis, the full range of my life extends infinitely in either direction (though I couldn’t access much of the future, as it was fragmented and obscured, still in the process of becoming). My past was unbelievably rich in events and characters, specifically the visual imagery they’re associated with. I sense the ways in which my contingency is fundamentally social, my path shaped by global forces acting through local subjects almost as objects. I feel my body vaguely, in the tank, sobbing. My shivering flesh seems an absurd and fragile scaffold for a mind to have been placed in, so I imagine my body taking another form, a bird already flown away across a parched plain. Time dilates as I imagined the bird flying, and then dipping down through a series of intense memories from my childhood in Texas, sometimes hovering directly in front of the frozen faces of people I mostly avoid inside of memories I mostly try not to remember. I feel a deep sense of warmth and compassion. Ambient music is gradually being pumped into the tank, and I come back slowly from my reverie. As I shower I decide that the experience was most like a lucid dream or (from what I hear, hi Mom, etc.) an LSD trip.
After getting dressed, I stepped into the lobby, disoriented and without any particular insight into my writing/coding project. Everything was brighter and louder and more vivid than before I went into the tank, but I was deeply relaxed. I went ahead and signed up for another session. I’m know that I’m not any closer to abandoning my history and body to become pure conscious thought navigating parallel universe, like happened in Fringe, but I have felt a lot less anxious lately, and the utility of sensory deprivation to this end has been much greater than that of meditation. Whether my future holds a transhumanist revolution/the technological singularity, or (more likely) steady subtler changes, feeling less anxious has made it more fun to dream up possible futures, and I’m grateful for those paradigmatic adventurous scientists, artists, and philosophers (whether they’re fictional or not) and their vision of a process of improvement and exploration, even and especially under abysmal initial conditions.
Buffy Cain is a queer writer and coder, interested in digital ontologies and abstract formal systems. She studied linguistics and philosophy at MIT and engages in activist work with Basic Income Action and Basic Income NYC. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Gauss PDF Editions, Arachne, and Code and Concept.
1. Feynman, Richard P. (1985). Ralph Leighton, ed. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character.
2. Aranda, Julieta et al. (2013) “Accelerationist Aesthetics” E-Flux 46
3. Williams, Alex. (2013) “Escape Velocities” E-Flux 46