Advances in technology not only have the power to render old assumptions obsolete but can actually force new and more appropriate modes of thinking. We saw this happen with the advent of nuclear weaponry. Only when the atomic genie was out of its bottle and rattling human consciousness did altruism, compassion, and common sense get a real shot at reducing the likelihood of total war. We are now reaching yet another such watershed. Operating at the deepest levels of perception, new consciousness-altering technologies herald both unprecedented crises as well as remarkable opportunities.

Until recently, of course, the big crisis with “consciousness-altering technologies” has involved pharmacology, where our experience has not been auspicious. Even as we fail to get a handle on such “low-tech” consciousness-altering agents as cocaine, heroin, and PCP, we are encountering the high-tech world of “designer drugs.” In World Monitor, Mathea Falco, former Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics Matters, wrote, “Present trends, all but unnoticed now, suggest . . . a massive switch away from imported drugs to homegrown and domestically manufactured ones. . . .” These include such recent synthetics as the extremely potent “ice,” a form of smokable methamphetamine; synthetic heroins; “Ecstasy”; “U4EUH”; and others.

Falco sensibly predicts that all our current emphasis on interdiction at the borders — indeed, any “supply-side solution” to the drug problem — will move from the merely irrational to the altogether irrelevant within five years, thanks to technological advances in pharmacology.

Within ten years, however, the ability to alter consciousness via technological advances in electronics could make any current or future “drug problem” look like a weekend bender. These simulations will be several orders of magnitude beyond what today is rather over-ambitiously termed “virtual reality.”

Still embryonic, often little more than an advanced method for viewing computer graphics, virtual reality nonetheless promises to realize one of humanity’s most ancient dreams and one of science fiction’s favorite conceits: a human/computer “cyberspace” that allows the user to create a simulated experience so convincing as to be “virtually” indistinguishable from “real” reality.

We are probably describing the communications medium of the future, an inevitable and geometric leap beyond television. Like TV, no home will be without “VR.” In fact, because it will provide powerful experiences — not just pictures or talk about experience — mature virtual reality will be an essential technology for all societies. As a learning tool alone, it will be indispensable. Naturally, though, despite its many benefits and the best intentions of today’s VR innovators, this wonderful new tool will have two distinct and very sharp edges.

The Wall Street Journal already has virtual reality looming as “electronic LSD,” tarring VR with the brush of drug hysteria and panicking researchers across the country. In fact, of course, virtual reality will be whatever we make it, from the mundane to the sublime to the diabolical.

A recent Smithsonian article described such here-and-now applications as VR “surgery” occurring within a digitized model of the actual patient’s body, or architectural “walk-throughs” that allow designers and their clients to meander around a simulated building prior to construction. Specialists hope to create VR simulations of hazardous environments like nuclear accidents, toxic waste dumps, or space stations, so that one day workers will be able to remotely and accurately guide robots working on the actual site. Related simulation technologies are already advanced and on line for training pilots, tank commanders, and space-shuttle crews. We can have little doubt that there are highly developed, highly classified VR technologies simmering on back burners in the military-industrial kitchen.

A number of vital VR components have recently come within reach: sight, through computer-generated displays; sound, through computer-synchronized audio; gravity, through computer-controlled motion of simulator modules. We already have the famous Jaron Lanier “data glove,” which allows you to manipulate and even “feel” three-dimensional objects in computer space. Researchers are working to miniaturize already-existing “eye phones” (the 3-D video equivalent of stereo headphones), “data helmets,” and even “data suits.”

Various simulator booths, the next step beyond the video arcade, are already doing big business in England and should be showing up soon at your local mall with commercially adapted versions of this technology that make Pac-Man look positively antique. There is no reason to doubt that virtual reality, like TV, will be a terrific entertainment medium. Following well-established trends in this area, every home will eventually be equipped with an electronic “recreation pod,” complete with a Nintendo Virtual Reality console. The $39.95 Virtual Reality Walkman will presumably follow.

The genuinely intriguing question concerns the sort of software this marvelous new hardware will run. Gussied-up Pac-Man or Super Mario Brothers would be a waste of resources. Any simulator technology as utterly convincing as true VR is going to have only so much time for mere games. British VR developer Jonathan Waldern put it bluntly on ABC’s “PrimeTime Live”: “The goal of VR is simple: it’s total submersion; complete detachment from reality . . . total escapism.” Along with the obvious appeal, this is a beguiling invitation to mischief.

It is entirely conceivable that advanced VR could one day give us the ability to plug in, boot up a program called “20,000-Volt Cocaine High,” and experience all the pleasant distractions with none of the unhappy physiological or criminal side effects.

If so, what happens to the “drug problem”?

Just like underground video and audio cassettes in politically repressed societies today, even early VR systems could proliferate quickly. For the determined escapist, even the first, expensive models would be quite cheap compared to a drug habit. (Current prices for VR prototypes run from $50,000 to $200,000. That may sound prohibitive, but remember that the first, crude personal computers were expensive, too.) And just like underground video and audio today, this new information technology will be impossible to control.

Many of today’s VR researchers don’t want to hear anything about “electronic LSD.” Phone calls, letters, and electronic mail raked me over the coals during the preparation of this article. The hue and cry came mainly from experts and scientists understandably worried that even a qualified acknowledgment of any negative potential in their work would put them squarely in the cross hairs of anti-drug fanatics, leading to loss of funding, derailed careers, and hate mail from Mom.

But the head-in-the-sand approach didn’t work for Oppenheimer in 1945, and it won’t work for these pioneers. The only realistic course, for science and society, leads us to confront the real roots of our real crisis. Happily, this is something VR’s mere potential strongly prompts us to do.

These roots reach deep into industrial-era culture. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley anticipated more than fifty years ago the melding of the human sensory apparatus with entertainment technologies. In 1973’s Sleeper, Woody Allen had the “orgasmatron.” “Star Trek: The Next Generation” has the “holodeck.” Writers and futurists have long envisioned a wide variety of cybernetic scenarios involving powerful simulations used for good or ill. Like so many once-fanciful technologies, from submarines to satellites, this one will probably pass from the realm of science fiction sooner than we’re prepared for. Accordingly, now is the time to prepare.

Fortunately, VR not only poses serious questions for a problematic tomorrow, but suggests practical solutions for coping with the peculiarities of today’s consciousness-altering, headline-making manias. As did nuclear weapons, VR may force us to confront, and perhaps solve, an enduring, seemingly intractable human problem.

It’s instructive to note how new information technologies drive appetites at once ancient and modern. The national appetite for television (switched on about seven hours a day in the average household) would have been hard to imagine just a short time ago. American culture has cultivated a voracious appetite for diversion. To get it, we’ve abused the arts, drugs, and sports. We’ve abused TV and we’ll abuse VR — particularly if it’s accompanied by a single, major breakthrough.

Neuroscientists have hypothesized for years that intense experiences of pleasure and euphoria, even specific memories, odors, and tactile sensations, might be induced electrically by a direct route to the relevant brain areas, completely bypassing not only the autonomous nervous system but also the chemical middleman of any naturally occurring substance or artificially ingested drug.

The various drugs we’ve come to love and hate elicit electrochemical responses in the brain; we take the drugs to elicit the responses. Everything else is just a side effect, from driving the car up a tree to cardiac arrest, physical addiction, gang warfare, and imprisonment. In simple laboratories, without any assistance from computers, white rats with electrode brain implants have for many years been happily stimulating themselves into exhaustion and even death by foregoing sleep and food in their quest for a good jolt. Brain surgery on wide-awake human subjects has demonstrated far more intriguing capabilities in humans as the surgeon delves here and there with a simple, low-voltage electric probe.

Currently, direct brain access requires physically removing the top of the skull. Humans do not yet come from the factory “cable ready,” though we soon may. There is speculation that everyone will one day receive at birth a direct brain interface implant, programmed, for example, with a lifetime telephone, medical information, and an auto-locator. There are lots of options in the meantime, however. In the nearer future, various areas of the brain — dedicated to specific conscious experience or, more powerfully, to the wide-open frontiers of dream experience — could be addressed by exquisitely tuned audio frequencies, high-energy nuclei radiation, or proton beams, making targeted areas of cerebral activity as accessible as TV channels.

People don’t take drugs to stimulate their fingertips. The brain is where the action is. Direct access to the brain, coupled with truly advanced VR technology, would provide direct access to all past and potential human experience. All you’d need then is the “right” software.

Again, this is where the matter becomes sticky. The early designers of TV had no control over the “software” future users would select. Perhaps they envisaged more Hamlet and less “Wheel of Fortune.” Today’s VR researchers are in the same boat, whether they like it or not, and so is society at large.

Just pick your program. You are the new plant manager for the American subsidiary of Sony Virtual Reality Systems, Inc., learning the ins and outs of your new, automated factory outside of Akron, program authored by Sony Personnel Training Department. You are the Duke of Anjou sacking Antwerp in 1583, program authored by Cambridge University Historic Simulations. You are Albert Einstein working through the theory of relativity, program authored by Princeton University VR Physics. You are a Viet Cong guerrilla fighting the First Air Cavalry in 1969, program authored by the Vietnamese Department of Information. You are your Soviet counterpart in arms negotiations, program authored by the KGB’s Department for Better International Understanding. Your Soviet counterpart is you, program authored by the CIA’s Department for Even Better International Understanding. You are making love to Marilyn Monroe, program authored by Studs ’n Chains Reproductions of Los Angeles. You are so high on cocaine you never want to come down, program authored by Medellín Simulations, Inc.

Of course, none of this would be “real” in any literal sense. As in today’s docudramas, for instance, the Duke of Anjou would of necessity be a “composite character.” Any virtual reality worth the name, however, aspires to be “real” enough that you come away with a very powerful experience etched in your consciousness. Perhaps one you would like to repeat. Often.

Further, if we already feel that the line between fact and fiction is blurred thanks to a medium as crude (both literally and figuratively) as television, we imply an already extraordinary gullibility; not merely a “willing” but an eager “suspension of disbelief.” More sophisticated simulator technology could erase that line altogether, particularly if it could manipulate dreams. Who, while dreaming, is not utterly convinced of the reality of the dream?

If you think “sinful” software would be amenable to prohibition, think some more. Information, even here at the rough beginnings of the information era, is all but out of control. Ask the Butchers of Beijing about fax or the Israeli Defense Forces about surreptitious PLO videos. “Illicit” programs, reduced to little bursts of digital code, will be transmittable by fiber-optic cable, by direct satellite dish, by U.S. mail, or if necessary, hand-to-hand by floppy disk down on the street corner, complete with raging gun battles.

VR researchers, very defensive about the “electronic LSD” smear, at the same time admit to worrying about “wire heads,” mavericks already in quest of massive releases of endorphins, a form of naturally occurring morphine, through electronic stimulation of the temporal lobes. Such “cyberpunk” hijinks may derail some valuable research, which would be tragic. But they should also teach us something.

Looked at from any context — whether that of the persistence of traditional drugs, the emergence of designer drugs, or the rapid evolution and potential abuse of new electronic simulation technologies — our “drug problem” assumes its true proportions. We don’t have a “drug” problem. We have never had a “drug” problem. We will not have a “virtual reality” problem. Past, present, and future, we have a consciousness problem — today compounded by the fact that it happens to be occurring in a Neanderthal political landscape.

People take drugs to change their consciousness. So do insects, birds, and mammals. Ronald Siegel, a psychopharmacologist at UCLA, argues in his book, Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise, that the urge for intoxication is as basic and species-comprehensive a desire as that for food, shelter, and sex. He writes about Lasius flavus, a yellow ant hooked on Lomechusa beetle juice. Robins migrating to Southern California deliberately get raging and often fatally drunk on ripening, naturally fermented firethorn and toyon berries. Sheep and goats will go to extraordinary lengths to eat wild narcotic lichen or hallucinogenic mescal beans. Elephants break into jungle distilleries and drink themselves into nasty tantrums. Baboons on a bender were observed by no less an authority than Charles Darwin. “The entire animal kingdom is driven by the same pursuit,” says Siegel. “It is part of our nature.”

“Substance abuse” by humans is certainly as old as recorded history, whether the substance involved is drugs, food, sex, gambling, or the popular consumer fetish of the week. Our appetite for escape has an ancient and complex nature. Its modern peculiarities stem from the fact that industrial-era humans have more ways and means of escape, more time to indulge it, more excuses to let our appetites run amuck. Contemporary social dysfunction, coupled with our ancient lust, creates ever-increasing hunger (or “market”) for escape.

The animals simply don’t have the ability to distill spirits or cook up a batch of crack. We do. The animals are very busy surviving in the wild. We aren’t. The animals aren’t suffering from forty-eight flavors of effete urban neurosis. We are.

If watching too much TV can be considered escape, we are already a culture that functions solely to escape. Eight hours work, eight hours sleep, eight hours TV. How would you describe it? Some methods of escape are simply more dangerous than others. Any method of mere escape, however, can destroy a civilization. Siegel’s yellow ant will sometimes defend the larvae of the Lomechusa beetle during attacks by predators, solely to “save the stash,” leaving its own offspring to be devoured. The parallel with crack mothers and their babies is all too obvious and sad.

In the not-so-distant future, we will encounter electronic methods of escape, whether termed “VR” or something else, which will be far more versatile and intense than any drug, utterly immune to prohibition, and possibly devoid of any self-regulating negative side effects. You may exhaust yourself emotionally making love to virtual-reality starlets and stars, but your body should feel nothing but a bit of electrical activity in the brain, no more damaging, but far more malleable, than a vivid dream. Properly designed, prolonged adventures in electronic simulation, whatever their nature, should be no more wearing on humans than wildly differing programs are on TV sets. (By contrast, the most current models for understanding chemical dependence suggest that drugs wreak their addictive havoc by upsetting the natural chemical interaction of neurotransmitters. As noted above, direct electrical stimulation bypasses the realm of chemistry altogether.) Advanced systems may even have a built-in interrupt service to stave off heart palpitations from one too many VR trysts, or just to remind you to eat, sleep, and put out the cat.

Obviously, before designer drugs come fully on line, let alone some ubiquitous new electronic technology for altering consciousness, we might think about addressing the primeval problem, the ancient lust for intoxication and escape, as it appears in a modern and, above all, a political context.

If there is a constitutional right to privacy, then we must probably agree that the extent to which we surrender to that lust is ultimately as much a matter of personal choice as managing our lust for sex. Historically, even totalitarian societies have been unable to totally prohibit intoxication (and certainly not sex). A “free” society surely can’t. To the extent we try to make personal choice (as opposed to public behavior) a crime, we merely set ourselves up for various displays of private tragedy and community folly, a truth to which the current “war on drugs” bears ample witness.

This civic impotence will only be magnified by new technologies, be they pharmaceutic or electronic. Intoxication can only be “regulated” by an as yet unprecedented and uncharacteristic cultural consensus. In the last analysis, that means effective persuasion via attractive alternatives, not more police and prison cells.

Clearly, we must be deliberately, carefully, and honestly taught from an early age to make wise choices; just as clearly, that rarely occurs in society today. Poverty obviously makes one vulnerable, but the Betty Ford Center is not filled with poor people. Both impoverishment and plenty provide impetus for escape. The resulting syndrome of vice and degradation prompts many social critics to sing familiar, irritating laments about our “loss of traditional values.”

Traditional values are a very big part of the problem — not their loss, but their stubborn, destructive persistence in the face of a changing, distinctly nontraditional world. During the Industrial Revolution, as the late Lewis Mumford asserted in his Transformations of Man, “. . . all but one of the [seven deadly] sins, sloth, was transformed into a positive virtue. Greed, avarice, envy, gluttony, luxury, and pride were the driving forces of the new economy.” “Traditional” values as we know them place all emphasis on material gain, whatever may be preached on Sundays or at election time. The two wildly disparate worlds of poverty and wealth both orbit the same sun: material gain, and by extension, the status and power that flow from it. Material gain has “value.”

Given such a “traditional” value system, it is not inaccurate to describe intoxication, or more generally, the alteration of consciousness, as a typically self-deceptive quest for more satisfying psychological and spiritual alternatives than those offered by a culture which so many have for so long described as a materialistic wasteland.

Under such circumstances, we certainly do not have a drug crisis. We have a crisis in consciousness.

Whether through religious, aesthetic, or intellectual pursuit, simple diversion, or the ingestion of chemicals, we are all searching for that primeval button in each of our minds which is forever screaming “push me!” From Cro-Magnon initiation rites in the caves at Altamira, to Native American peyote rituals, to the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, to television and crack cocaine, the alteration of consciousness is an eternal quest for inner fulfillment, forever teetering on a fine line between “right” and “wrong.” In the last analysis, and however awry the quest has gone in the advanced industrial era, being “high” remains primarily a spiritual commodity.

How to acquire this commodity safely in a society where God apparently did not survive World War II? Some have tried various TV evangelists, swamis, pop psychologies, and new age gew-gaws. Some have tried drugs. Another “opiate of the masses” is hardly required. Nor do we need to hear the cynic’s “ ’twas ever thus.” War, another perennial pastime, “ ’twas ever thus” until our war-making technologies finally scared us sane. Woe unto the president who today takes us to a war which is not “quick and clean.” Consciousness-making technologies, from cave painting to VR, likewise have the power to remake, or un-make our species. They, too, may scare us into a new mode of living. Or not.

The question hangs on our ability to establish a new cultural model built around something a bit more profound than material self-aggrandizement. The “greed is good” capitalist paradigm doesn’t even solve economic problems, let alone spiritual dilemmas, and communism fares even worse.

Now surely, the attainment of spiritual ends must remain the Eternal Riddle. The means for reaching those ends must, as the Founding Fathers recognized, remain private. Public policy is impotent here. But where these means overlap politics, perhaps in the form of drive-by shootings over the latest “Meet God” VR software, public policy can and must make the difference.

Professor Ethan Nadelmann of Princeton cites an established axiom among drug-treatment experts regarding the three most effective “cures” to dependency problems: finding God, falling in love, and getting a good job. While policy-makers can do little in categories one and two, category three is obviously wide open. It’s also in the news almost every day. Specifically, we have an increasingly unmet obligation to cultivate stronger, healthier appetites for “right activity” through better health care, education, and job opportunities. Right activity is invariably more satisfying than the “right” neighborhood, car, wardrobe, social connections, medicine chest — or VR software.

After all, it’s not as though we don’t have plenty to do, from saving the environment to putting the Third World in order (at home and abroad) to exploring the universe. Cultivation of appetite and opportunity for such work, though, requires some sense of vision and mission that keeps us awake between commercials.

Where will such a vision come from? How can it be implemented? Some will smugly dismiss such questions as naively broad, even utopian. On the contrary, I suggest that, as with weapons of mass destruction, technological advance leaves us no choice. Our current, futile, cops-and-robbers approach to such a massive and fundamental challenge as the growing crisis in consciousness hasn’t worked in the past, isn’t working today, and thanks to technological innovation on a variety of fronts, cannot possibly work tomorrow.

For survival’s sake, we need to begin thinking about the true nature of “getting stoned” long before the $39.95 Virtual Reality Walkman arrives. It would be tragically ironic if we outmaneuvered external technological threats from nuclear war to environmental catastrophe, only to succumb to an internal dysfunction: the electronic seduction of consciousness.