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no. 23: bewußtseinserweiterungen -> interview mit max more

The Future Hasn't Started Yet

An Interview with Max More

by Gundolf S. Freyermuth

Ray Kurzweil calls Max More the "big thinker" amongst contemporary futurists. Marvin Minsky, comparing him to the late Carl Sagan, praises Max More as one of the few who think boldly and can express themselves articulately. And these are just two voices from a long list of leading American scientists and digerati who admire the tall blonde philosopher with the British accent.

When I met Max for the first time in 1995, he was in his early thirties, a Ph.D. student at USC and chief theorist of the Extropians, "a diverse network of innovative thinkers committed to creating solutions to enduring human problems" ( In my book Cyberland (1996), I described this non-elitist, but exclusive network of digerati as a virtual combination of salon and saloon. Max had co-founded it a few years earlier, shortly after he had arrived from Oxford in Lalaland to write his thesis on identity and death.

I was fascinated by Max and his ideas. The utopian-extropian principles that he had written up and posted online expressed a new digital avant-gardism. The Extropians discussed -- much earlier and more radical and fundamental -- many of the ideas and attitudes that Wired later thrived on and that Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron would denounce as "Californian Ideology." In the Nineties, Max More was a philosopher of the zeitgeist, one of a few who dared to inquire about digital technology philosophically and to speculate what the separation of hard- and software might mean not just for the majority of machines but also for the humans who built and used them. Many years before the human nature loving left mainstream Max had realized that -- as the leading German cultural theorist Hartmut Boehme recently wrote -- the optimization of our bodies (and brains, as they are part of the body) ranks as one of the most important achievements of human culture.

In 2002, Max moved to Texas where he joined the ManyWorld Consultancy as philosophical futurist. He is currently writing a book on the so-called "proactionary principles", arguing against mostly European ideas that -- like Marquadt's "Beweislastregeln" -- are stasis producing, idolize the status quo and that are suspicious of any kind of progress.

The interview was done via Skype, with Max speaking from Texas and me pestering him from Berlin. The recording has been transcribed by Elke S. Freyermuth. I cut and edited the transcript. Max corrected and authorized the final version that is published here.


I Ten Years After: What Happened to Our Future?

parapluie: Max, you may very well be the smartest person I know. But you seem always interested in -- if not obsessed with -- getting even smarter. So what do you take these days to enhance or augment your intelligence and cognitive abilities?

Max More: Actually, I take a lot less than I used to take. I'm not too impressed with the current generation of drugs and nutrients. I did try quite a few of them. Only a few of them do help -- to a small degree ...

Ten years ago, however, when we last talked about augmenting our cognitive and intellectual abilities through smart drugs, you were expecting fast progress in the invention and availability of mind enhancing, mind expanding or even mind augmenting drugs. Did any of your far reaching hopes of the mid-1990s come true?

No, the future has been very slow to arrive. Today I know that there are various obstacles to getting these things out. The research, the process of approval -- it's all very slow in that whole pharmaceutical industry.

So regarding smart drugs, we are basically stuck in the pretty primitive stage of the mid-Nineties?

From what I hear, there are some promising drugs waiting for final approval right now. Over the past years, there's been a lot of research, probably because the aging baby boomer generation is going to need smart drugs. There is a very large market. So, a whole new wave of smart drugs will be coming out pretty soon. I don't know how effective they will be at actually augmenting, enhancing normal cognitive abilities, but the Ampakines and so on sound quite promising. I really hope they will be a little more interesting than some of the stuff I have tried.


II The Way Things Were: Past Experiences with Smart Drugs

"The longing for an alteration and expansion of our consciousness seems to be as old as mankind itself" -- you once wrote. But growing up, each of us has to come to that conclusion by her- or himself. Do you remember what initiated your search for means to transform yourself, to alter and augment your way of seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking?

I actually cannot think of any one thing that started me off that way. It's just the way I have always been, as far back as I can remember. This first showed itself in an interest in superhuman powers. When I was just a few years old I was badly drawing my own superhero comics. And then in my teens when I started to think more critically, this interest shifted to augmentation through science and technology.

Do you remember the first time that you took something to enhance your intellectual or emotional capacities?

Well, I started taking vitamins when I was 11 or 12. And when I was 17, I smoked Hashish, but it didn't really work. And I did do some mind altering things in school, not involving drugs. For example, there is a funny thing where you squat down on the floor with your hands on the floor between your knees and you take 20 very fast deep breaths, in and out and then you hold the last breath and you stand up and someone squeezes you from behind. Everything goes blurry and fuzzy and you partly lose consciousness for a few seconds and you start to hallucinate. I used to do that quite a lot and might have destroyed a few brain cells, but that was a mind altering thing I did before I started with smart drugs.

In the 1990s you experimented with then promising nootropics like Piracetam, Lucidril, Vasopressin. They had some positive effects, but also all fell short in many ways ...

You always have to consider the risk-reward-ratio. A lot of people who take Piracetam enjoy it very much. They report all kinds of auditory enhancements, improved concentration and creativity. Bu I never really had any effects from that, through quite a few trials, besides one time when I took a large dose, like 60 pills. It was the day of my Ph.D. qualifying exam at USC. I was standing in the hallway -- the philosophy department was made of stone --, and I suddenly became aware of all those sounds and echoes around me very sharply; exactly as it had been reported, especially by musicians. I was very focused, it did the job. So I found that the risk reward ratio was very much worth it.

There are also other things I have used -- Modafinil, Provigil -- and they definitely work in terms of raising alertness. But to me at least they have some pretty bad side effects. They made me itch like crazy. I tend to run hot anyway ,and they made me even hotter. Provigil worked pretty well and it was interesting that it is not like amphetamine. You could take it and stay awake if you wanted to but if you didn't want to and decided to go to sleep you could. That was an interesting effect, this voluntary wakefulness.

The Nobel laureate (for medicine) Otto Loewi is known to have taken -- in the long last phase of his life -- speed in the morning and morphine in the evening. And though he was drinking quite a bit as well, he was known to be an extraordinary lively and unusually alert octogenarian. In which way, do you think, are the new smart drugs different from these older, not so smart, but definitely mind altering drugs?

A lot of the advocates of smart drugs try to draw a sharp bright line between regular drugs and smart drugs. The idea is that smart drugs or nootropics are free of side effects, they don't do any harm, they only have positive effects. And that just doesn't seem to be true. Hydergine, for example, has a very narrow range between the effective and the very unpleasant where you feel nausea and become dysfunctional. Alcohol, on the other hand, is a rather dangerous drug, especially if you have the wrong gene, but it can be very useful for sociability. So, I don't think there is a sharp line between the older drugs and the newer smart drugs.


III How We May Think: The Superhuman Condition

The basic argument of the Extropian principles that you first wrote down in the early 1990s is the view of our species and every single one of us as a project -- nothing that's finished, but something that has to be pursued and perfected. As individuals, you wrote, we have to self-transform ourselves, as a species we have to accelerate the evolutionary process with technology. Within that far reaching project -- that many of our readers might not see as inevitable or necessary or even as something that should be accomplished at all --, which role should or even will smart drugs play?

Well, I see smart drugs really as a kind of transitional technology; not so much as a way of changing ourselves but more as a way of experimenting with ways that we could be. Eventually we will have capabilities to make more permanent changes. Even some of today's technologies, gene therapy, nerve growth factor, and so on where you can stimulate the growth of various synapses, alter the brain chemistry in more enduring ways without having to take any supplements.

Right now, however, the age of smart drugs is not over yet. In fact, it's only dawning. How will we use them? Like cosmetics? Like Prozac? Are we entering a phase of cosmetic pharmacology?

I think one advantage of smart drugs is that they have just temporary effects. You can try out different effects and then stop taking the drug instead of adopting these effects full time and integrating them into your whole personality. So smart drugs allow us to experiment with different ways of feeling and thinking. But they do have some side effects, and they are hard to get through the body, to the right places. So, I see them as very crude technologies. But, yes, they do play a role in experimentation with yourself, with 'Which person do I want to be today?', and giving that a try. They are like training wheels, starting us on the way but they will be transitional.

Social critics are comparing the use of smart drugs to the increasingly popular use of cosmetic surgery. Both seem to be basically symptoms of the same social development: People are not happy with the way they are. Many don't like their looks, their feelings, their cognitive capabilities. So they try to change that with whatever crude means are available today. Many others, however, particularly in academia, think that we shouldn't try to enhance or augment ourselves, that we rather should accept our humanity, as individuals and as a species. You are an outspoken proponent of technologically empowered changes and upgrades to the human condition, an advocate of individual self-improvement and also of humanity's transition to posthuman and superhuman life forms. What do you think of this position?

Well, these defenders of our human condition as a given natural order of things make me immediately think of the defenders of slavery as a natural thing.

You would compare being trapped in your own body, in the body and mind you were born with, to slavery?

Yes, unlike slavery it really is "natural" but it is a kind of natural oppression. Some of us might be happy the way we are. But I have certain desires and goals, things I want to achieve in life, and the natural capabilities that I have, they limit me. The way I am now just happened to me because of the evolutionary process, because my parents genes recombined pretty randomly. That process has no kind of moral authority on who I should be, what my constitution is. I think, in fact it is more our responsibility to look at ourselves and decide who we want to be and make use of technologies to help us become that way.

To reinvent ourselves as a species, to become posthuman, would require more than smart and smarter drugs ...

Yes, we will need to make changes in our hardware, the brain. Our big block is the lack of emotional intelligence. The real obstacle is the kind of one-way-street-pathways that go from the emotional centers to the cognitive region. If you see a dangerous animal, you immediately react to that and the right thought is activated to get you out of the way. But we lack the pathway going the other direction which lets our conscious, rational mind access the emotional centers. Studies show that we have a few pathways going that way. But the higher apes don't have any pathways, so it seems almost like a natural progression that we build these in using some kind of advanced technology, with nano robots or whatever, augmenting those pathways, very carefully obviously, and giving ourselves more access to what's going on in ourselves at that level. We would really become more wise integrating these emotions instead of one letting drive the other.

Let's imagine for a second, that in a few decades we will command over such improved hard- or wetware. In the digital age, however, any piece of hardware basically is only as good as the software that can be run on it ...

Yes. Even if you really have all the right hardware and wetware, that does not guarantee any new kind of enlightenment. People could misuse that very badly. So I think what it will require is change on all levels, the physical, the chemical, the social levels altogether.


IV The Way Things Are: Preserving the Status Quo

Today, in the first decade of the 21st century, we still seem pretty far away from transformations like that. What can we do right now to enhance our cognitive abilities or, at least, to prevent their year by year deterioration?

The general intent right now, at least at my age, is maintenance. The most important things are good nutrition -- eating plenty of fish because fish oils are good, taking a general multivitamins supplement --, exercise, sleep and so on. We have to maintain basic health to keep the brain functioning.

You and I are somewhat younger than the aging cohorts of baby boomers. Most of them cannot really afford to wait for further progress ...

I think anybody who is now in their sixties or seventies and think they maybe losing some cognitive abilities, the first thing they should do, the most important thing is follow the dictum 'to know thyself'. You need to know yourself biochemically rather than just starting to take various pills not knowing what you are doing. You really need designer supplements. For example the Kronos Foundation and the Kronos Clinic in Arizona are doing those tests. You can get all kinds of blood level nutrients tested, hormone levels, see what you might be deficient in, get various cognitive tests done to see whether you really are losing memory. Because a lot of people think they are losing their memory which is just normal absentmindedness which I always had since I was very young ... So I think it is important to do as much testing as you can to have some basis to then do something about it.

Ok, but if someone has a tested and proven need to do something to compensate the effects of aging - what smart drugs or what kind of combination of smart drugs and mind machines would you recommend right now?

Some supplements help ..., gingko biloba, phosphatidylserine, the amino acid tyrosine, Vinpocetine, Ginseng, acetyl-L-carnitine, pregnenolone, Donazepril (Aracept), Provigil and that kind of things may help to maintain brain health and bring back memory. That's what I would say: Take some tests first, take care of the basics, mental stimulation, different kind of mental works, stress management, and only then think about more speculative supplements. And keep a good eye on the research, on what's coming out. I think within the next two to three years there will be a lot of new possibilities.


V The Way Things Could Be: The New Enlightenment

Most people who use mind expanding drugs right now use them hedonistically, to enhance their aesthetic experiences. You, however, always stress the importance of a new enlightenment, of enhancing our intellectual and rational capacities. How important are mind altering aesthetic experiences in your, in the Extropian view for our individual progress and wellbeing as well as for the progress of our species?

I think to really reach a new enlightenment and make a fundamental improvement in the way we think and feel, aesthetic experiences are extremely important. But I think real progress won't happen with smart drugs. They can only open up some basic capabilities. There are a number of different pathways, one might be some kind of gene therapy to generate the growth internally, in a way the brain thinks is natural. Or perhaps actually grow neurons in culture and transplant them and have them reintegrated. Or even with synthetic neurons, experimental applications seem to be doing quite well. There may be areas of the brain that could be repaired and even enhanced by implanting and integrating synthetic neurons. That could be a promising pathway.

A promising pathway towards the Singularity?

I am a little bit of a Singularity skeptic ...

But this May, you were one of the main speakers at the Stanford Singularity Summit. Others were Douglas R. Hofstadter, K. Eric Drexler, Cory Doctorow and Ray Kurzweil. Could you explain to our readers what the term Singularity means and what makes you skeptical about it?

It's usually understood this way: Through accelerating development of technological enhancements and augmentation, we will become so different, so rapidly, that we today cannot really conceive what life will be like once we reach a level of superhuman intelligence. We can't do a straight line projection as life will be so radically different that we can't see beyond that point, the Singularity. And again, I am not really convinced by that completely. You know, if you take a viewpoint from a few hundred years ago there is a certain truth to that. Life has changed in radical ways that no one could imagine. But there's also a lot of things that we do recognize today. So, I don't really see there being a single point of maximum acceleration. But I do agree with the general picture of it, the escalating acceleration of technological change and the notion that our lives will be radically altered by it, that we will finally achieve super intelligence.

Which if any role will smart drugs and other mind enhancing technologies play in this rise of super intelligent life?

Certainly any kind of mind enhancing technology will play a huge role in that simply because to be really unrecognizably different you have to think rather different thoughts and change your life style radically. But there are lots of different pathways towards that: emulating or rebuilding human brains, artificially intelligent machines, maybe an intelligence that, as some people speculate, may evolve out of the internet, a kind of social intelligence enhancement that takes off on its own. But as I really have come to understand a lot in the most recent years, the big problem is not only with enhancing or augmenting our physical capability, the actual brain structure and brain chemistry. That is certainly important, but also what we do with it. So the emphasis needs to be on the way you use your empowerment, the habits you have, the cognitive habits, the institutional mechanisms, the social mechanisms. There are many obstacles to our progress. I think a lot of technologists who do see a Singularity coming don't really recognize these obstacles, particularly the individual and institutional barriers to accepting these technologies.

As part of the ManyWorlds consultancy team, based in Texas, you are known for developing smart scenarios of future developments. What's your worst case scenario regarding the use of these developing technologies that expand our consciousness and augment our minds?

Well, one should try to take very seriously one possibility I see if you consider what you can do today with certain drugs, especially ones that are highly distilled. Also look at what people do with mind activities whether it's gaming or pornography or gambling ... What could happen is that we could essentially create experiences which could be extremely engaging when they directly plug into the brain and directly stimulate the brain. We might move into these virtual worlds, becoming utterly absorbed in pure entertainment, and lose interest in accomplishing real things. I think that would be a regrettable, even dreadful, dead end of evolution.

And what is -- as we are all hopeless optimists -- your best case scenario?

There is no point in advancing intellect and cognition if you don't do anything useful with it. So it has to be integrated with social institutions and the ways we live and the politics we use and the ways we work and so on. So, that'll all have to work together. Certainly being able to think new thoughts and think them faster and more effectively and being more creative will be a very big driver of this. Ideally people would be using these coming technological breakthroughs primarily to become more healthy, to augment their abilities, to undo various kinds of natural problems that we have. And over time the augmentation would be spread to everybody and it become affordable. Everybody would start using these things sensibly so that eventually the whole human race could become sane. If we could actually reengineer ourselves, bit by bit, not by some central plan, and become a peaceful, productive joyous people, engaging in things and striving, just basically not miserable, not having to suffer from depression, no hostility or rage, just moving ahead and being productive and mutual supportive -- that would be my best case scenario.

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