Sunday, February 08, 2009

More on the Tech-Driven Rat Race: From Professors to Police

I hope to get a chance to address the great comments on my last post soon. I'm going to do this second post now so I can get my contribution to this online symposium in the right ordering.

In a recent discussion of the Nature Editorial I mentioned in my last post, one of its authors came under serious criticism for several flaws in its reasoning. Thomas Murray of the Hastings Center characterized calls for "responsible use" of cognition-enhancing drugs in the healthy as utterly naive, especially given the editorial authors' reluctance to specify much in the way of strong legal rules to guarantee the "responsibility" qualifier. Nora Volkow also argued that it's unrealistic to expect any given drug to just make people "smarter" overall--there are trade-offs between focus and creativity, among other mental traits.

Faced with this onslaught, Martha Farah fell back on the old reliable defense of complacent continuumism (which I describe more fully in this paper). This is just like cosmetic surgery, she claimed--people were at first really disturbed about that, but they got used to it.

I think Farah's comparison is more revealing than she would like it to be. Like cosmetic surgery, a market for brain-enhancing drugs may draw drug companies away from real human needs and into more intense service of an already privileged elite. Such drugs also promise to spur positional competition, at younger and younger ages. (One can imagine an unenhanced high school student sullenly blaming her parents for her failure to get into college if the parents refused to ply her with the best mind enhancers at an early age.) I foresee something even more insidious with the mind-enhancing drugs--a fetishization of qualities that can be enhanced by technology over those which cannot. Rather than simply letting, say, academics perform old duties better, they will slowly change our conception of those activities.

Consider the role of steroids in policing. The Village Voice has a long story on some possibly inappropriate steroid/HGH use in the NYPD. I say "possibly" for two reasons: 1) the slippery "therapy/enhancement" distinction here and 2) the threat posed by bulked up criminals. The Voice reports that "the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office knows of 29 cops and at least 10 NYPD civilian employees—all well under the age of 60—who have received prescriptions for [steroids for] hypogonadism." Doctors quoted in the story find it implausible that so many officers would have this disorder--but there are probably other physicians who have a much broader concept of disease. And if suspects are bulking up on illegal substances, who can blame the cops for trying to catch up?

Now consider the spread of concentration-enhancing drugs from students (an old problem) to professors. Andrew Sullivan asks, "So if a prof wants to do a little Provigil, it's no worry for me. Why should it be a worry for anyone but the prof himself?" I think there are several reasons, not least the potential for medicalized competition to invade spheres of life we now deem constitutive of our identity. But for now let me just focus on how the police and profs examples intersect.

Think about the balance of scholarship produced in a regime where some labor under the supercharging influence of Provigil, and others forbear. The former will presumably generate more work than the latter. That may be fine in relatively technical fields (who wants to slow down the sequencing of a genome?). But in areas where ideology matters, the potential power of the pill-poppers can be a problem. We need to ask: what are the reasons people are not taking the drugs? A (wise) risk-aversion? A fear of disadvantaging others who can't afford them? A religious concern about "playing God"? And finally, are the people who have all these concerns really the ones we want to be drowned out by super-stimulated, super-productive others?

My basic point here is that Sullivan (and many other libertarians) make an erroneous presumption that the decision to use the drug is wholly distinct from whatever ideology a particular person has. To them, the technology is neutral in itself, and can be freely used (or not used) by anyone. In fact, the drugs fit in very well with certain ideologies and not at all with others. This is an old theme in the philosophy of technology, but is hard to encapsulate in a soundbite (itself a technology far more amenable to some ideologies than others).

At risk of stretching an analogy to the breaking point, I think professors and police face a similarly competitive landscape. The former battle for "mind share," the latter for order. The more we understand the true lesson of Darwin/Dawkins--the pervasiveness of competitive struggle in daily life--the better we can see the need for "arms control agreements" regarding enhancement technologies. (Hopefully they will be more effective than the failed policies of the past.) The question is whether we will permit ourselves to direct evolution or to be the mere products of blind technological forces. Those opting for the latter route make Benjamin's words on the "angel of history" all too prophetic:

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

--Walter Benjamin, "On the Concept of History", cited here.


Blogger Arthur Cockfield said...

The last bit of the post on directing evolution calls to mind a distinction between law and tech discussions and other legal discussions. Human nature is often viewed as immutable even in the face of changing cultures: individuals in plays of the Ancient Greeks, for instance, sound a lot like the rest of us today, several thousand years later.

But Frank's post reminds us that technology may be playing an increasing role in directing this evolution, possibly changing our fundamental natures. Cognitive-enhancing drugs today ... manipulating the genetic codes of unborn children tomorrow -- actually, we've already started this process.

While technology has presumably always played a role in human evolution (a good example is the ways that certain peoples became lactose tolerant after forming agricultural societies), it seems like the new drugs could vastly expedite this process. I wonder what role law will play in this rush toward Gattaca? (a terrific and, in my view, under-appreciated movie!)

2/08/2009 8:50 PM  
Blogger Frank Pasquale said...

Thanks for that comment. I think that one of the leading indicators here will be universities efforts (or lack of efforts) to police the use of these drugs among their students.

I have recently been listening to several discussions of science and technology featuring Nick Bostrom, John Harris, and Richard Dawkins. In Britain, at least, these thinkers appear to be at the leading edge of a hard-headed technophilia--a forward-looking embrace of technology that is only to be balanced later by regulation and redistribution. If I were to change anything in current debates on this topic, I would try to get policymakers to insist that the proper redistributive and regulatory mechanisms are in place *before* these new technologies get adopted.

As for "expediting evolution"--I think there is a qualitative change here, not just a quickening of existing processes, because the drugs have such profound effects on what we value--or are even capable of valuing.

2/10/2009 9:27 AM  
Anonymous Gordon Hull said...

I think the discussion here (and on the previous post) tends to elide a couple of different issues:

1. Human subjectivity - the "human nature" discussion. One interesting thesis is Andy Clark's - that the human mind has always been partly a product of its (technological) environment. I won't go through the cognitive science he uses to argue the point here, but suffice it to say that there's some pretty good neuroscience that supports something like this thesis (his book Natural-Born Cyborgs defends it and is quite accessible). If Clark is right, then the discussion of the damage to human nature is in some ways misleading - it's true that neurocosmetics (which sound frightening to me!) would change us, but so did the development of the pencil or of writing technology. That leads to...

2. There is a question of the distribution of these technologies, and the socio-political institutions through which they're directed. I think that if people like Clark are right, then the subjectivity question pretty quickly becomes uninteresting, and the political question becomes much more significant. It's one, of course, as noted, that libertarians are ill-prepared to answer, since they don't think social institutions have a huge effect on autonomy... but if the Clark thesis is right, then not just technology, but social institutions, will be constitutive of who we are. So the institutions through which we regulate technologies are particularly important. But ultimately, these are political questions about what kind of society we desire. If that line of argument is right, theorists like Ellul and Borgmann, that depend on a residual, Heideggerian notion of human nature, become less useful (of the people mentioned here, Landgon Winner, however, strikes me as consistently very productive).

I mention all of this because I've thought for a while that "autonomy" is a very tricky ethical concept to port to discussions of technology (But perhaps, as a journal reviewer told me once, I've been reading too much French theory...).

2/10/2009 1:41 PM  
Blogger Marc Jonathan Blitz said...


Many thanks for these very thoughtful points (here and in others posts here and elsewhere) on a fascinating topic, one that I hope receives more attention in legal scholarship and that I plan to write about myself in the coming months. I’m sorry I didn’t come upon your posts until over a year after you wrote them. But they’re just as relevant in 2010 as in 2009.

While I remain open-minded about this issue, for the moment I’m still skeptical that cognitive enhancement drugs are as threatening as you make them out to be. But it would probably help me to first make sure I understand your argument here -- and the I think I can best do that with a hypothetical example:

Imagine someone in their twenties or thirties who is extremely shy, someone who can push themselves to speak in public, or interact with strangers, but only with tremendous effort, and with significant anxiety and discomfort. This person’s shyness has played a major role in shaping his identity up to this point in his life, it’s been a key determinant of what sorts of activities he seeks out and what sorts of activities he avoids; it figures strongly in the way he views and defines his own personality, and also in the way that others perceive him. However, he decides that he’d now like to leave this personal characteristic behind -- or at least significantly weaken its influence in his life -- so that he can freely and comfortably engage in activities that have seemed off-limits to him before, perhaps being able to perform in a drama or musical performance without stage fright, or speak or debate publicly without a crippling level of anxiety.

You’re not arguing -- are you? -- that such a person is necessarily wrong in wishing to transform himself in this way, or that he should always rule out a cognitive enhancement drug as one component of a possible solution, perhaps along with more traditional forms of psychotherapy? Nor does it seem that you are arguing (but again, I’m not entirely sure) that such a person should be legally-barred from using such a cognitive enhancement drug in this way if he decides it is in his best interest to do so.

It seems to me that your primary worry is not so much about the above (hypothetical) use of cognitive enhancement as it is about people who probably (at least, on reflection) would rather not use cognitive enhancement drugs at all but feel social pressure to do so in order to keep up with colleagues or competitors or to fit in with peers and friends: The student who’d rather face the demands of college without the aid of psychopharmacology, but feels she has to use Adderall or Provigil to compete with other test-takers or essay writers. Or the shy person who (unlike the person in my previous example) is happy to remain quiet and introverted, but feels that certain jobs will be denied to her unless, like certain Prozac-using friends, she becomes more extroverted in order to come across as positively as they do in job interviews. These potential users of cognitive enhancement seem quite different from my hypothetical shy person in that they would not use cognitive enhancement drugs at all but for the fact that others in their communities and institutions are doing so (in what you describe as an “arms race” in your previous post).

It seems me that the question, then, is a little more complex than “Can we say no to cognitive enhancement drugs?” It is rather, what can society do to make cognitive enhancement drugs available to those who would benefit from them (including those who are not psychologically ill) without starting the kinds of “arms race” that imposes this technology on those who don’t want it and won’t benefit from it?

2/15/2010 1:45 PM  

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