Cognitive Enhancement conference: some comments

Anphicon 1; cognitive enhancement and other technologies of the mind’ was a short conference by Philosophy at UWE and Uni of Bristol’s centre for Ethics in Medicine. I went along to some sessions and wanted to add a couple of comments (from our technophilia/Stiegler perspective) about the promising inquiry opened up around ‘enhancement’ via ‘smart drugs’ etc which was a main theme of the event. Presentations were a quite eclectic mix of philosophers, social science, cultural and literary theory people, medical ethicists etc., and more provided input via discussion. They will be uploaded onto the conference site at some stage.

I offer (for now) a few meditations based on a couple of the early papers from the first day. Jérôme Goffette whose term ‘anthropotech’ has been adopted by the research grouping behind the conference spoke about the use of smart drugs examined in a Canadian survey of Montreal students and recent graduates. His term (from his book) designates the ‘extra-medical modification’ of humans beyond medical treatment (the distinction here is between medical treatment aimed at achieving normal healthy function and extra medical modification aimed at superior function of one kind or another). This captures well enough the predominant discourse of enhancement under consideration here, as he showed well by egs of the marketing material/introductions from several popular books in English and French on using smart drugs.

But the comments  cited from the Canadian student users of some of these such as ADHD drugs like Ritalin seemed to make apparent what Stiegler would call the inherently pharmacological situation of their use. The drugs were credited with aiding in sustained concentration on an academic task like reading a text or completing an assignment without being distracted by email/fb/twitter, in helping the users to feel confident at a new workplace, in sustaining the energy to get through work after heavy bouts of study and then socialising, etc.  In other words, these ‘normal’ students feel unable to achieve what might be (or might have been) called ‘normal’ goals (concentrate on an assignment, manage their time, attain confidence in learning to accomplish new work tasks). The division between (self-)medication and ‘enhancement’ looks blurry here, and this before we begin to consider the possible ‘side effects’ (a debateable term in this context for similar reasons) of overuse, dependancy, unforeseen impacts on the wider personality/work or social network, etc. Smart drugs are in this view as much a ‘cure’ for an inherently injurious contemporary global western industrial milieu of neoliberal competitiveness, information overload and ‘attentional technologies’ destructive of certain forms of attention to social and personal development  no longer cultivated by our routines of socialisation and education. The cure would be, however, a very ambivalent one: a pharmaceutical regime designed for various ‘pathologies’ and disorders of attention formation and ‘health’ whose causes are, perhaps also connected to the contemporary technocultural milieu.

This blurry line(s) between less than normal (disabled, injured/impaired), normal and enhanced crossed many of the presentations and thematisations at the conference. It is clear that smart drugs are being marketed and developed as enhancements, and that a massive expansion in the ‘pharmaceutical-industrial complex’ is in train today — alone a very good reason to celebrate the initiative of Goffette and of others at this conference in promoting discussion of this.

Michael Hauskeller’s opening talk challenged the self-evidence of the notion of enhancement of cognition on the basis that cognition was not an identified, unitary thing or process but many aspects, qualities and processes characterised by different disciplines in different ways. Enhancement was then always to be approached critically via the questions ‘for who’ and ‘for what?’, according to whose criteria and in what context. I think this is a very good way to commence a consideration of these very real issues today where we are seeing the acceleration of biotechnological innovation under the permanent pressure of commercial capitalist imperatives… so long as we grasp the implication of this claim in its fullest: that not only is there no such thing as cognitive enhancement pure and simple, but that this is because there is nothing but cognitive enhancement; that the human is, as Stiegler says after Leroi-Gourhan, a technical being, a being always already prosthetic, with no essential, transcendental nature, a being in default of an essence (Technics and Time 1) .

And if Darian Meacham (a philosopher friend of mine, and co-convenor of the conference) could ask (of Hauskeller) whether the very opposition between interior and exterior, between technology and organic/biological integrity really operates today in our technically saturated milieu, the response  might be to say that it has never really operated. For Stiegler, interiority is co-constituted with exteriority; the use of the tool, made to be used as an extension/improvement of the hand, assumes the mind that anticipated its use, in order to make it, or adopt it. But that does not mean there is no difference between exterior and interior, nor that it did not or does not matter when and how technical forms alter the  relation between them.

On the contrary ; it is all the more important to assess, understand these changes because the human, its cognition, its body, is not fixed, biologically or metaphysically stable or settled. The ‘human’ is a political question, or project. Too often, and especially today, this question of the future of the human, the posthuman etc, is not addressed in this fashion, as a reiteration of this persistent question. To return to Hauskeller’s insistence that it is crucial to know the context in which ‘enhancement’ of ‘cognition’ is being promoted or researched, we could add that that the future course of the context, and of contexts, is at stake here. The biotechnological ‘enhancements’ in question in this conference are having powerful effects, chemically on individuals, and through their global marketing and dissemination. They are a part of the performativity of technoscience, ‘phenomeno-technics’ Stiegler would say, citing Gaston Bachelard.  The context changes and with it the very conditions of evaluating, negotiating and adopting from amongst its store of potentials, of posing other pathways for its renovation. no absolute necessity that the ‘human’ is retained as one of those potentials still available.


2 thoughts on “Cognitive Enhancement conference: some comments

  1. I agree that the political question is precisely the mediation between internal and external. An extended mind thesis as we find in Clark and Chalmers or earlier in Merleau-Ponty is not a consequence of the development of technology, it is the condition of mind. The political question then becomes something like the dissemination of mind into external networks – the loss of intimacy.

    1. Condition of mind and development of technology are not 2 opposed things in my (Stieglerian) view; they are composed. That is the position developed in Technics and Time 1, via the critical reading of Leroi-Gourhan. The interior emerges with the exterior. So if ‘condition of mind’ means the mind is always already conditioned technically, via the exterior milieu of ‘tertiary retentions’ (the third memory kind of cultural forms Stiegler adds to Husserl’s primary and secondary retention (upgrading ‘image consciousness’ in a post-phenomenological revision), then we are in accord 🙂

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