Reporting & Essays/ The New Yorker
Every era has its defining drug. Neuroenhancers are perfectly suited for our efficiency-obsessed, BlackBerry-equipped office culture.
“A young man I’ll call Alex recently graduated from Harvard. As a history major, Alex wrote about a dozen papers a semester. He also ran a student organization, for which he often worked more than forty hours a week; when he wasn’t on the job, he had classes. Weeknights were devoted to all the schoolwork that he couldn’t finish during the day, and weekend nights were spent drinking with friends and going to dance parties. “Trite as it sounds,” he told me, it seemed important to “maybe appreciate my own youth.” Since, in essence, this life was impossible, Alex began taking Adderall to make it possible.
Adderall, a stimulant composed of mixed amphetamine salts, is commonly prescribed for children and adults who have been given a diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. But in recent years Adderall and Ritalin, another stimulant, have been adopted as cognitive enhancers: drugs that high-functioning, overcommitted people take to become higher-functioning and more overcommitted. (Such use is “off label”…
But it’s not the mind-expanding sixties anymore. Every era, it seems, has its own defining drug. Neuroenhancers are perfectly suited for the anxiety of white-collar competition in a floundering economy. And they have a synergistic relationship with our multiplying digital technologies: the more gadgets we own, the more distracted we become, and the more we need help in order to focus. The experience that neuroenhancement offers is not, for the most part, about opening the doors of perception, or about breaking the bonds of the self, or about experiencing a surge of genius. It’s about squeezing out an extra few hours to finish those sales figures when you’d really rather collapse into bed; getting a B instead of a B-minus on the final exam in a lecture class where you spent half your time texting; cramming for the G.R.E.s at night, because the information-industry job you got after college turned out to be deadening. Neuroenhancers don’t offer freedom. Rather, they facilitate a pinched, unromantic, grindingly efficient form of productivity.
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