July 28, 2021

In my (fairly limited) experience of psychedelic fungi, the main effect of eating them is that you lose your settled beliefs about what constitutes “normal”. This happens partially or completely, depending on how much psychoactive you ingest. But either way, everything you usually take granted is suddenly new and fascinating.

Now a parent, I’ve often wondered how trippy it must be being a baby, and whether the sheer newness of everything is one of the reasons we find early childhood near-impossible to remember. For if adults have to take psychoactives to be temporarily relieved of ingrained ideas about how the world works, babies simply haven’t acquired those ideas yet.

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By the age of about three, my daughter had a basic working knowledge of what is and isn’t “normal” in her little world. This was also roughly the point where she started to find surrealism funny rather than just baffling or upsetting. These things go hand-in-hand: to see something as absurd, you need a well-established template for “normal” or you won’t get the joke.

Now nearly five, she’s embraced surrealist humour and recently asked the cat solemnly if he was made of cheese. I was thinking about this when we watched Disney’s interpretation of Alice in Wonderland together. The movie (70 years old this week) seems strangely dated now — despite being an update of a book written in 1865. And the story’s evolution seems to be to track a gradual loss of confidence in the nature of reality, that’s seen all of us – adults and babies alike – sliding toward a hallucinatory new normal.

Victorian England was confident in its ability to distinguish reality from nonsense. This culture’s solution-oriented practicality abounds across Britain’s architecture and infrastructure: our many handsome Victorian-era railway bridges and viaducts. So practical were they that Charles Dickens satirised the hyper-focus on bare facts in the teacher Thomas Gradgrind, a figure in his 1855 novel Hard Times dedicated to stripping all wonder out of schoolchildren in place of abstract facts. Overly-arid educational programmes are still described as “Gradgrindian”.

Under assault from Gradgrind and his real-world analogues, the realm of fantasy retreated to the nursery. Lewis Carroll’s Alice, written in 1865, joined the surrealist verse of Edward Lear (1812-1888) and the proto-fantasy-fiction of George MacDonald (1824-1905) in cementing the realm of fantasy as something only for children.

But this kind of bizarre, grotesque or fantastical “nonsense” fell out of fashion in British children’s literature after the horror of two world wars. In a post-war Britain of collapsing moral, economic and imperial certainties, the closeness of absurdity to terror — surreal humour collapses fear and relief into comedy — was perhaps less appealing. British kids’ books of the era tend more to non-fiction, such as the classic Ladybird books, or child-scale adventures with happy endings such as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.

Meanwhile, grotesquerie migrated to the United States. Mid-century Disney animation blends saccharine sentiment with high fairytale idealism and an often-violent undercurrent. Absurdist violence lurks in the backdrop of enduring “Disney princess” classics, for example in the sheer shoutiness of Prince Charming’s exhaustingly aggressive royal father in Cinderella(1950). And if caricature makes for comical interludes in the “princess” classics, it’s front and centre in less well-known titles such as the 1940 Pinocchio, and the (to me) deeply unsettling 1947 Fun And Fancy Free. But of all the fantasies mid-century Disney’s gave shape to for a rising American imperium, Alice (1951) is the strangest.

It’s also the closest to an uninterrupted bad trip. When (perhaps like Alice) you nibble at the right kind of mushroom, leaving behind your assumptions about what’s ‘normal’ can bring a rainbow-tinged, child-like wonder to everyday phenomena such as running water, or the texture of a leaf. But when a trip goes less well, the world seems to take on a sinister cast. Windows might become grotesque faces, perhaps, or a sound behind you seems the onrushing footfall of a hungry demon.

Carroll’s Alice never feels nightmarish in book form, no matter how far from normality the heroine travels – perhaps because you can just close the book. John Tenniel’s classic engravings are unsettling; but at least they don’t move, or shout at you.  The weirdness of Wonderland in the Disney version, though, is immersive, kinetic and boils with buried aggression.

Disney is one of the foremost imagineers of the twentieth-century American dream: a vision in which anyone could realise anything if only they worked hard enough. It’s a central Disney message, recurring across songs, slogans, live-action shows and marketing strategies.

Crucially, though, the happy ending in every case includes a release from caricature. Each ending sees loud, aggressive or comical figures safely relegated to secondary roles, while the attractive main characters get their happy ever after. It’s not just that dreams come true; it’s also that when they do it will be a good trip.

Fifties America was as confident in its certainties about what’s real, as Victorian England was a century earlier. In both, the bizarre and grotesque were treated as diverting fun for children; for both, at the end, Alice wakes up from her dream, and goes home for tea.

But it wasn’t long before the counter-culture was tapping at the doors: in 1966, Timothy Leary called on America’s youth to “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. And the following year San Francisco’s Jefferson Airplane were at the forefront of California’s psychedelic odyssey, reimagining Alice in The White Rabbit (1967) as an allegory for getting out of your box on mind-altering substances.

Jefferson Airplane and Sixties psychedelic culture rejected the notion that “normality” was where grown-ups lived, and sought to retrieve the hallucinatory and strange for adult waking life as well. But if most participants in the counterculture woke up from their psychoactive trips in the end, others in the Sixties were creating a different kind of limitless new dream-world shorn of norms or material limits: the internet. And in the wake of this new kind of dream, we’ve seen the “rabbit hole” take on a whole new lease of life.

By the early 00s the “rabbit hole” was a metaphor for the initial clue in an “alternate reality game” This form of hybrid real-world and online storytelling offers a mix of digital treasure-hunt, collaborative problem-solving and sometimes live action to craft perhaps the first genuinely net-native form of fantasy storytelling. And if the Noughties saw the “rabbit hole” move from psychedelia to the internet, the truly digital-era “rabbit hole” was yet to come.

Today, following a “rabbit hole” means abandoning human storytelling. Researchers describe their mapping of TikTok video content, showing that popular and densely-clustered mainstream content tapers into what they call “rabbit holes” of less-viewed, less-moderated and often more extreme videos each served by algorithm. Instead of following the “white rabbit” through a narrative crafted in book or movie form, or curated in hybrid online and real-world formats, we follow a theme along pathways collated by machines.

And as we’ve ceded responsibility for serving up dreams to non-human curators, this has had a reciprocal effect on the space where we most uncritically accept grotesques: children’s entertainment. Already in 2017, commentators were documenting the phenomenon of disturbing YouTube video content created and uploaded by AI. That is, content entirely generated by machines, racking up tens of thousands of views a day from hypnotised preschoolers too young to tell the difference between “normal” and surreal. Several years and millions of video views on, and as Wired reported earlier this year, this content is still being uploaded and viewed.

And it turns out there’s a difference between Disney’s Alice and the algorithmic surrealism of CGI kids’ content or a TikTok “rabbit hole”. The “uncanny valley” is a term used to describe the feeling of discomfort we experience when confronted by something that looks human, but isn’t quite. This sense of unease now spreads well beyond an instinctive reaction to sex robots or AI-generated human faces.

Whether in Carroll’s original or the Disney remake, Alice was a carnival of grotesques created by humans as an amusing counterpoint to a reality everyone was sure existed. But a robot creating content has no intuitive sense for what’s “normal”, beyond the patterns it’s already been fed.

Unlike Disney’s Alice, if we follow the white rabbit now we won’t meet a comical caterpillar or partially-invisible cat. We won’t meet an entity as such, at all. What we’ll meet is a set of algorithms indifferent to the distinction between “normal” and “grotesque”, but still busily engaged in throwing up new material that then in turn feeds back into the algorithmic soup from which new images are created.

After my daughter cracked her joke, she looked at me expecting laughter at the shared recognition that of course the cat isn’t made of cheese. But a robot content generator has no instinctive understanding of why a cat shouldn’t be made of cheese. The robots that subsequently looped “cat made of cheese” back into their algorithms would come up with cats made of yet stranger substances. And unlike in the works of Walt Disney, today there’s no happy ending that sees the resulting grotesques put back into their place.

The generation that grew up watching Alice rejected the carefully manicured version of “normal” provided by their parents, in favour of a psychedelic pursuit of strangeness. For our part, in abdicating from human curation of our digital dreams, we’ve consented to the radical dissolution of “normal” as such; and a generation of children now consumes this material in vast quantities. We have to wonder what dreams they’ll pursue when they reach adulthood.