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book cover
Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work
by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal
Dey Street Books 
9780062429667 0062429663 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by David Bey, 1/27/2020

Once upon a time, in ancient Greece, there was a handsome young sociopath named Alcibiades who betrayed everyone close to him, swapped allegiances to suit his self interest, led at least one army to ruin through his boasting, and dragged his wife out of court by her hair to prevent her from divorcing him for infidelity. However, when the people of Athens finally threw the book at him––forcing him into exile and sentencing him to death in absentia––it was for the crime of blasphemy. The charge? Profaning against the Mysteries of Eleusis by stealing the fabled kykeon potion––the hypothetically psychoactive brew acting as accelerant for much of Greek philosophy, math and science––and serving it up at a private dinner party to impress his wealthy friends.

Fast forward some two and a half thousand years later. Authors Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal write a book, titled Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. In it, the authors introduce their subject by relating the tale of the ignominious Alcibiades, and ask the question, “What is it about the pursuit of altered states of consciousness that makes them so appealing to ambitious, driven people, even when the risks of pursuing them can lead to ruin and disaster?”

In this fashion the authors frame their subject, an exploration of what they call the “altered states economy”, a topic deemed worthy of interest in part on the strength of the dollar amount associated with altered states–inspired markets, which the authors estimate at $4 trillion per year (for context, they include activities such as yoga as being part of this economy).

Kotler and Wheal have what by all accounts seems like an incredibly fun job. They study peak experiences and high performance, in pursuit of which they travel the world meeting interesting people and getting to play with really cool toys. Following on the work of psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi they study the phenomenon of flow states, moments of intense absorption in activity in which time, space and self dissolve, and performance tends to be concomitantly enhanced.

Kotler and Wheal’s particular angle on flow studies focuses on the concept of ecstasis drawn from classical philosophy and mysticism, referring to the states of “being or standing outside oneself”. Their central thesis is that, across a wide spectrum of interests and activities, momentary or protracted loss of self or ego is almost always associated with a marked improvement in measurable performance. As such, Stealing Fire tracks accelerating developments in what they call the “Four Forces of Ecstasis”; psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology and technology. Their question then: Do reliably-inducible states of performance-enhancing altered consciousness exist, and if so how can they be optimized and commodified?

As the book’s subtitle suggests, the three main areas of focus for Kotler and Wheal’s research are Silicon Valley tech culture, military training programs, the legacy of underground chemistry, and scientific fields of study that offer the means by which to radically transform innovation and behavioral development. Of these, only the subject of Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism and its intensifying relationship with psychedelic research is germane to this review.

Regarding the evolving relationship between the business and technology sectors and the psychedelic counterculture, Stealing Fire picked up the plot after a major watershed event: the publication of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. In it, Jobs is quoted as considering his youthful LSD use as being among the most important experiences of his life, and foundational to his vision for technology and design. Seemingly overnight this admission set off an avalanche of interest in psychedelics within the entrepreneurial set. Sober-minded businessmen who hitherto would never have felt emboldened to dally with crime and consciousness-expansion were suddenly all but breaking down the doors of their underground friends, desperate to try these fabled potions of inspiration and trip their way to the next Great Business Idea.

On its face, Stealing Fire would appear indicative of an encouraging trend: the mainstreaming of nonordinary states of consciousness. Along with recent titles such as Michael Pollen’s bestseller How to Change Your Mind, the book reflects a growing wave of acceptance, interest and enthusiasm for consciousness modification in sectors of society that previously have found such experiences threatening.

Not all of the book’s subject matter pertains to drugs––especially the military material. Flow-inducing altered states brought about through extreme sports, specialized training techniques, meditation, dance celebration, festival culture, and so forth are amply covered, suggestive of a reduction in the dominant culture’s long-standing fear or suspicion of (certain types of) consciousness alteration.

Now the mainstreaming is well underway, and is breaking down the barriers formerly separating the discoveries of the counterculture from domains such as corporate boardrooms or above-board military team-building operations (clandestine government attempts at weaponizing psychedelics during the 50s and 60s being another matter altogether). This development is illustrated prominently in one of the book’s earlier chapters, detailing how when Sergey Brin and Larry Page were in need of a new CEO for Google, their breakthrough approach was to use compulsory attendance at Burning Man as a way to screen potential executive candidates. Regarding the Playa as a laboratory for the establishment to experiment with incorporating fringe experience is a persistent theme in the book. Another example of this fusion is the Burning Man “Camp PlayaGon” (a combination of “Playa” and “Pentagon”), described in the book as “a collection of high-ranking Pentagon officials, futurists, and hackers…” whose members enjoy festival culture as a way to cultivate situational awareness in chaotic conditions (plus, presumably, the chance to let down some close-cropped hair).

Stealing Fire’s title is an allusion to the myth of Prometheus, who brought technological innovation to mankind and was punished for it. It seems worth noting that the significant difference between Prometheus and Alcibiades is that one selflessly risked eternal torment to benefit mankind, while the other was a rich kid who wanted to impress his friends by throwing a rager. Throughout the book there is a tension between the Promethean and Alcibiadian impulses that overshadows the subject material, perhaps even above and beyond the more optimistic intentions of the authors. Scratch many a would-be Promethean and you’ll find just another Alcibiades…

Indeed, despite the book’s remarkably sunny and cheerful tone, I must admit I read Stealing Fire with something of a heavy heart. Several of the reasons for this were superficial. Firstly, it was dismaying to be invited to bear witness to circumstances in which the promise and potential of altered states of consciousness are reduced to performance enhancement, especially in the context of a Darwinian economic milieu brimming with individuals searching for anything that might give them even the slightest edge over the competition.

In addition, I found troubling the book’s account of the process by which the excess of the new Gilded Age is being rebranded in a more spiritual and self-congratulatory light. A pattern emerges, the coopting of countercultural enlightenment narratives as a means of anointing the great capitalist gang-bang, resulting in a hipper set of conceptual desktop settings for the infrastructure of mountain retreat centers and private islands. It can be a bit tough to take in the glowing descriptions of self-styled “bohemian capitalists” sitting down for artisanal gluten-free outdoor dinners in platinum-certified eco-villages adorned with wildflower meadows and artificial firefly displays…while meanwhile, actual bohemians are being served eviction notices.

Before moving on, I want to emphasize that I don’t think poorly of Kotler and Wheal or wish them ill. They both seem like genuinely positive, passionate people engaged in a tremendously exciting field of study. That said, their endeavor to pitch ecstatic transcendence to an audience of technocratic entrepreneurs and military theorists raises a troubling set of questions deserving of a deeper critical evaluation than Stealing Fire seems willing to offer.

To their credit the authors include an appendix offering a few crumbs of caveat emptor regarding their hitherto glowingly treated sources and topics. In it they address a few of the more disappointing or controversial aspects of their subject matter. However, this largely comes off as a rhetorical flourish, a fig leaf of plausible deniability aimed at anticipating potential criticism. In any event by that point the damage, hype-wise, has been done.

(As an addendum to this review, I should hasten to point out that in the interval between the publication of Stealing Fire and now, at least one of the book’s two authors, Jamie Wheal, has experience a major evolution in his awareness of some of the more disturbing developments plaguing the so-called “psychedelic renaissance”. Interested readers are enthusiastically encouraged to check out this online interview with Wheal. I don’t think it’s a stretch to describe his present state of mind concerning these issues as “haunted”.)

In the end, the major reason I found reading Stealing Fire to be a troubling experience was the extent to which I emerged convinced that the era of thinking of psychedelics as an automatically utopian force is over. Nowadays––when “making the world a better place” is so often reduced to a branding exercise––psychedelics would appear to increasingly serve as a potential accelerant for dystopia.

Seen in a more charitable light, Stealing Fire serves as an important reminder that, like any technology, the techniques of ecstasy are neither good nor bad in of themselves. What matters are the choices we make about how we use them. While there remains tremendous potential in altered states of consciousness for the positive transformation of human values, nevertheless they can just as easily be used to make us better at war and capitalism. The architects of dystopia like to get down and party just as much as those who believe in a future that doesn’t involve universal surveillance, consumerist serfdom or corporate hegemony.

Used to be people took psychedelics so they might save the world. Increasingly now it would seem, folks are taking them to “disrupt” it. One can only hope there might be some collateral enlightenment along the way. I trust I can be forgiven my apprehensions, however, as the book’s presumed target audience––aspiring tech entrepreneurs––seems to be a population all too willing to pulp the baby in order to extract any conceivable value from the bathwater.

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