#80 Psychedelic cryptography – applications and implications

I’ve been thinking increasingly about the notion of “psychedelic cryptography,” especially after Andrés Gómez Emilsson and I’s conversation on psychedelic tracers. Before examining Andrés’s website, QualiaComputing.com, where he speaks about the cryptographic feel and context of psychedelic experiences, I think I first paid attention to this idea in a friend’s book I helped edit several months ago; however, it’s not my place to speak in detail about his psychedelic cryptography ideas until his book is published. Anyways, my plan for this stream was to empty my head of thoughts on psychedelic cryptography, take a pause, search Google for any mention of psychedelic cryptography, and then add some extra comments at the end to wrap things up.

My eyes opened wider as I read Andrés’s article and my ears perked up during our conversation about this possible notion of inserting cryptic messages into image and video that can only be decrypted with the use of a psychedelic. He said no one is likely doing this intentionally at the moment, but he and his colleagues at Qualia Research Institute noticed there’s proof of concept in the idea. Let’s start from the beginning, at least from what I know about cryptography from my research days into online privacy and surveillance studies.

Espionage and private communication. I’m aware that messages can be hidden in the EXIF data of photos, for example, and people find very clever ways to hide messages in plain sight. For example, let’s say you’re a spy at the state or corporate level; you could insert data into a photograph for example, and send that photograph to your superiors anywhere in the world. Finding a record of the security breach is more likely; what is more unlikely is discovering how the information was smuggled out, as in, the means of smuggling out said data. State institutional actors know many if not most or all of the tricks spies use, probably because they train their own spies to do the same. I assume they have ways of scanning incoming and outgoing data packets, including photos, to make sure there’s no extra or shouldn’t-be-there embedded information in a simple file such as a photograph. Ok, so there are many ways to embed information and many ways to encrypt information to (ideally) guarantee that (i) someone doesn’t find the message, but also that (ii) even if found, the interceptor would be unable to decrypt or decode it.

Next, I think of subliminal messaging. Some people say this method is debunked, that it doesn’t actually work, and to be honest I haven’t looked too much into it, but to my knowledge, why would Disney cartoonists, for example, insert hidden subtle images of penises and psychedelic mushrooms and other inappropriate things into cartoons for children. Or, when adults are forced at times to watch these cartoons with their insistent children, the adults see something that is actually not there and become offended for no reason, because hey, there’s no hidden message after all. I also heard consumer product companies insert subliminal messages into their product adverts as well. Like I said, I don’t know much about this topic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if companies put hidden messages in their image and video content that is stored in our minds for future activation to buy their product or induce a feeling to want to buy their product, for example. Social media companies hire psychology PhDs for this exact purpose: to hack the brain to induce a desired (by the company) feeling or action of a product or service (by the consumer/user).

In light of what we know about the above, are there ways to insert hidden messages into image and video that can only be seen when on a particular psychedelic? My guess is that someone will figure out this technique and exploit it for whatever reason, especially since mind-altering substances are becoming ever trendier at accelerated paces. If companies know, for example, that many people will be on a handful of drugs at a festival, say cannabis, LSD, MDMA, ketamine, and psilocybin, it’s theoretically possible that some sneaky company will implant messages in advertising and other images around the festival specific to a substance. For example, imagine two people, one on LSD and the other on ketamine, staring at a large poster just left of stage. The LSD person might see or feel the intended message because it was tailored to the altered visual perception afforded by LSD, however, the ketamine person sees nothing but the image at face value. It’s like going to see an IMAX movie, wearing the funny glasses so the pictures pop out of the screen. You’ve probably noticed that taking off the glasses blurs the movie and putting the glasses back on not only smooths out the picture but makes the images pop out. Likewise, the advertiser, with the help of smart researchers no doubt, could conceivably hack the visual perceptual altering effects of LSD so that whenever someone ingests their 3D glasses, so to speak, the LSD pops out intended hidden messages from the image.

Theoretically, this could also be done with video. In this case, imagine an intelligence officer such as the one played by Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible films. Instead of using cassette tapes that say, “This tape will self-destruct in five seconds…”, the officer must watch a short video that says not only will this video be deleted in 5 minutes, but you are only able to see and hear the hidden message within the video when substance X is in your body, and since we’re talking science fiction at the moment, we can presume that substance X is highly psychoactive and lasts only 5 minutes (hmm, perhaps a tryptamine like DMT?). This sort of technique need not be used only by intelligence agencies and their officers but could be used by advertisers and others wanting to send an encrypted message to a friend or business associate. Instead of using today’s AES 256-bit encryption to send digital data packets, senders and receivers could send embedded messages within images and videos that can only be viewed upon ingestion of a particular drug. These kinds of decryption keys might be so ubiquitous in the future, and there are potentially infinite chemical combinations still undiscovered, that someone could discover a pharmacological key, keep it to themselves, and then give the sender the drug in advance to be ingested upon receiving the encrypted message. To ensure the pharmacological key’s composition is not studied or replicated by others, perhaps someone working with the key’s discoverer could administer the key to the recipient, thereby the recipient receives the message only and not the details of the key itself.

Let’s take a more meta view of psychedelic cryptography. Perhaps plant and synthetic psychedelics now, today, are indeed akin to metaphysical decryption keys. Aldous Huxley popularized the analogy “the doors of perception,” and if there are doors, there must be keys to open those doors (assuming someone or something would put a lock on the doors in the first place, but just assume you need a key! for our purposes). One could argue that our baseline, taken-for-granted reality is encrypted. Under sober conditions, we experience and agree upon what is real. This reinforcing consensus makes it difficult to question and think about what everyone is obviously agreeing upon. Andrés mentions the often used “fish in water” example: a fish doesn’t know it’s in water, it’s just in its natural environment, however, would it know when it’s out of water, for example, when hoisted into the fisherman’s boat? Humans don’t know for certain what they are “in,” however, just like the fish suddenly finding difficulty in breathing when lifted out of the water, the psychedelically altered human knows s/he is not in her/his normal environment. Something can feel missing, although not necessarily; the altered experience might feel like an enhancement, a door opened to another dimension of experienceable reality, albeit a reality that is only accessible upon ingestion of a very specific substance and dosage, set and setting.

If psychedelics are like keys to the doors of perception, then there’s an unlocking, a decrypting at play. I shall describe the most puzzling part of this scenario in the following: Let’s say you’re a native English-speaker and you have two sheets of paper. On one sheet you have an encrypted message and on the other is the key to decrypt that message. You decrypt the message, symbol by symbol, only to realize that you don’t speak the language that was just decrypted. You recognize the decrypted message as Italian, but you don’t understand Italian. Herein lies the problem: psychedelics could be keys to open or decrypt other reality constructs, but once decrypted you’re still lost because you don’t speak or even recognize that language or dynamics of that Other World. You can assume some things from the just-decrypted Italian text, for example, if there are borrowed words such as “scenario,” “magenta,” “graffiti” and so on. These words and others are so engrained in English that we forget where they came from. Italian culture and language are arguably older than English. I wonder when a person takes a psychedelic, they open up or decrypt a more ancient reality or language, but once there, they still do not understand the goings-on of that place. An even worse predicament for the English-speaker is if the language is written in an Asian language. Personally, I can spot the differences between the written forms of these languages; one not accustomed to written Mandarin could mistake it for an alien language, in which case there are no borrowed words or symbols, leaving the psychedelic user utterly lost.

I must ponder this psychedelic cryptography angle at a later date. Like the hidden messages in (auto)stereograms, one must do something to see the message, in this case, to slightly cross one’s eyes, therefore slightly altering one’s visual perception to see something else, something beyond ordinary perception hidden in plain sight. Please leave a comment below if you have something to add.

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