If I drink a cup of coffee, I perk up, stay awake a bit longer, and (seemingly) think a bit faster. We call this tradition.
If I take a modafinil (Provigil), I perk up, stay awake longer, and (measurably) think a bit faster. We call this cheating.
That seems to be the implication, at least, of a spate of articles popping up over the last year, from Tech Crunch to the New Yorker. People in a variety of attention-dependent industries, such as entrepreneurial business and laboratory science, are starting to use various "cognitive enhancing" drugs—and a dark future inevitably awaits. But is that the only option?
For those of you who haven't been watching this trend, the dilemma is that certain pharmaceuticals intended to treat cognitive and neurological disorders—primarily, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy—and, when used by people without these disorders, provide a kind of cognitive boost. This usually means increased focus and concentration, but it can also mean better spatial reasoning, greater alertness, and improved "clarity" of thinking. As a result, it's apparently becoming increasingly common for people in "knowledge work" professions to take these drugs as a way of improving their performance.
The mainstream debate on this subject seems to boil down to one side arguing that this is the knowledge work equivalent of athletes taking steroids, and the other side arguing that this is little different from using a more powerful computer, getting a better education, or any of the other steps we might take to improve our performance—it just happens to be pharmaceutical in nature.
There's clearly a competitive aspect to this enhancement, and that disturbs many of us. The use of cognitive drugs is driven, at least in part, by a perceived need to keep up with colleagues and rivals. The fear is, how much longer will it be possible for someone to reject the use of these drugs and still maintain competitive parity? If everyone else vying for the promotion uses modafinil to stay awake for 20 hours/day, can you afford not to? Given that the long-term effect of these drugs is still poorly-understood, however, is it at all ethical to allow this kind of "slippery-slope" scenario to come about?
These are troubling questions, but they really just scratch the surface of the dilemma. Even a broad national consensus against using cognitive enhancement drugs may crumble if another country chooses to accept—even encourage—their use. We may face a choice between altering our brain chemistries and falling behind in the global economy.
And with that altered brain chemistry, are we sure that we're not losing something? Many of the cognitive enhancement drugs serve to increase focus and concentration. But "letting your mind wander" is very often an important part of the creative process. The "aha!" experience comes from the brain making connections between superficially unrelated subjects, and identifying a deeper link. How do enhancements that focus our attention affect this process? Is it possible that cognitive drugs enhance one aspect of knowledge work—productivity—while diminishing another—creativity?
Conversely, to what degree is the uproar over modafinil, ritalin, and the like just another example of futurephobia? There's a phrase I sometimes use when talking about this kind of issue: "Technology" is anything invented after you turn 13. That is, we tend to think of new disruptive innovations as being "technology," and hence disruptive, while ignoring older innovations that have become embedded into our larger environment, no matter how much they shape our lives. Is it possible that our reaction to cognitive drugs comes from thinking of them as being technological interference with our lives? To put it another way: would we treat caffeine as casually as we now do if it were introduced today? The implication here is that, as discomfiting as these drugs may be, the longer they stick around, the more we'll start to see them as normal.
As our understanding of the brain continues to improve, the power and diversity of the cognitive modification and enhancement technologies will only grow. It's going to be increasingly difficult for individuals to avoid the question of whether to use these technologies—and harder still for society at large to avoid the question of what happens if we don't.
Provigil, Jamais Cascio
Brain Map, National Institutes of Health