Anti-competition and "unfair" advantage
Anti-competition and "unfair" advantage

For the last two or three years, the BBC has sporadically published articles on “smart drugs,” or nootropics (amphetamines used to increase concentration), and the effect their use have on the work place. Immediately, the narrative is distorted because while nootropics are a type of drug, they are not in the same category as the substances traditionally stigmatized by the word “drug.” In this context, “smart drugs” signifies that the taker is someone without learning disabilities who uses the drugs for their stimulative properties.

As the BBC article “The truth about smart drugs” explained, though, the word “smart” is a misnomer since the drugs can’t augment fundamental intelligence. In other words, a smart person can use (or abuse) them to enhance focus and stay awake in order to accomplish more; a less capable person, however, will experience all of the physical consequences of taking an amphetamine without gaining any real benefits. All of these elements have led to a type of fearmongering over competition enhanced through the use of artificial drugs.

This last aspect is interesting because, as the BBC journalists have repeatedly pointed out, nootropic use is affecting the modern workplace, and therefore society as a whole. Describing a hypothetical world – which is already a reality for some – in an article titled “What would happen if we all took smart drugs?” science journalist Zaria Gorvett wrote:

            [O]ffices would become significantly more competitive.

“There seems to be a growing percentage of intellectual workers in Silicon Valley and Wall Street using nootropics. They are akin to intellectual professional athletes where the stakes and competition is high,” says Geoffrey Woo, the CEO and co-founder of nutrition company HVMN, which produces a line of nootropic supplements. Denton agrees. “I think nootropics just make things more and more competitive. The ease of access to Chinese, Russian intellectual capital in the United States, for example, is increasing. And there is a willingness to get any possible edge that’s available.”

The problems with nootropics are well documented, mostly relating to their addictive potential and the health fallout from their use, which is unsurprising considering nootropics’ chemical origins. The issue is not that people freely choose to use potentially poisonous, addictive substances in their thirst to be more productive, but that their individual choice is coopted into an anti-competition narrative.

Here it is important to note that nootropic use in a work or academic context is vastly different from steroid abuse in a sports environment. In this way, Woo’s choice of athletes as an analogy is questionable because nootropics do not function in the same way as steroids; the latter are able to change fundamentally the underlying architecture (the physical body), unlike the former which cannot surmount inherent personal limitations on abilities or knowledge. Woo’s example of steroids as an equivalency is unfortunate since it provides fodder to the idea that there is something “unfair” about advantage, confusing it with genuine cheating by chemical alteration.

At no point in the dialogue does anyone actually address the fact that those on these drugs are fully grown adults capable of making an informed decision on whether or not to swallow the tablets in the first place. In a piece titled “My smart drugs nightmare,” the BBC told the story of a film editor who took a specific brand of nootropic in order to be more productive. The narrative described his compulsion to work and his physical suffering as he took the pills for a week. In his story, he himself was not the culprit, blaming the vague spectre of professional rivals. Personal choice simply didn’t figure in this story.

In general, the discussion of nootropics in the broader English-language journalism sphere is part of a larger quest to create a vision of the workplace as a world of winners and losers. Aside from the myopic view of success as a zero-sum equation evinced by the language of the search, there is an underlying malicious desire to brand productive achievers, or even not particularly achieving but goal-oriented and hardworking people, as types of cheaters. The converse of the “cheater” narrative is the creation of victims, such as the film editor, people whose desire to be as competitive as their peers pushes them into drug use. Both versions are completely false and their only purpose is to serve an anti-competition narrative.   

Mary Lucia Darst

Mary Lucia Darst
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