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Meeting the Wise Consumer

The Beauty of Limits: A Q&A with Dr. Nicole Vincent

January 19, 2016 • By Nicole Vincent The Beauty of Limits: A Q&A with Dr. Nicole Vincent

Drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed to children who have trouble concentrating in school, to help them focus. But increasingly, college students and professionals in competitive work environments are using these medications off-label to artificially enhance their cognition. Taking these drugs allows some people to think more sharply and concentrate for longer, even on little sleep, to enjoy their work more, and some argue that expanding access to these drugs could promise extraordinary gains in human efficiency—but at what cost? Nicole Vincent, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Law, and Neuroscience at Georgia State University, says that we need to think carefully about how and when technologies like so-called “smart drugs” should be used. We should be bolder about controlling these innovations, she argues, to prevent work and economic competition from taking over other—equally important—aspects of our lives.

Read a blog post by Nicole Vincent about the importance of being bored, tired, and limited here.

What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project?

When I began to explore cognitive enhancements, I was actually more inclined to say, “look, here are these great things that can make us so much more productive and effective, and if they don’t have side effects, we might have a moral or even legal obligation to use them.” But one day, I was telling my best friend about this line of research, and she said, “Nicole, I hate your vision of the future. Do you really want everyone to live this way, working all the time?” And that was a very stinging thing to hear, in part because at the time, I was working crazy hours myself. But then I thought about it, and I realized that the extreme life I was living wasn’t making my life better, and in fact in some ways it was making my life worse.

So it became an argument for moderation, for thinking about how we can use these technologies in service of a richer life. I’m not saying these technologies are all bad, but what we want to avoid is a situation where all of their benefits are channeled toward making us even better gladiators in the workplace. I want us to think about how smart drugs can improve our lives outside of work too. But that means saying, as a society, that some uses of smart drugs are good and others are not, and to be willing to make such normative determinations.

What does “enhancing life” mean for you? In what way will your project contribute to the enhancement of life? 

It means acknowledging that there is a lot more to a good life than the things we tend to focus on when we’re in competition with each other—for instance, relationships. It’s about being aware of the way in which our choices today influence what choices we shall view as rational tomorrow, and also how our choices impact on other people’s choices. If you become more productive and competitive, what do you think others are going to do? Are they just going to sit back and do nothing? Of course not—they’re either going to have to start working harder too, or they’ll be left behind. 

What is the role of regulation? How can governments help us control technologies that could dramatically alter our lives?

We need more hands-on decision-making from the government—in terms of saying, this is a distinctly bad way of living, and we’re going to plan to make sure it doesn’t happen. Think back to the 1980s, when people were so excited about the leisure time that automation was going to create. The government could have said at that point, we know the technology is going to increase our productivity, so we’re going to reduce the workweek by one day, or shorten the length of the working day. That would have helped ensure that we wouldn’t just use those productivity gains to engage in ever-greater competition. Through proactive industrial regulation governments could have turned the ideal of a shorter work week into reality.

How do public debates - political, cultural, etc - shape your work? What are you hoping to offer those debates?

Sports are a nice example because that’s a place where we did decide to regulate performance-enhancing drugs. We made this decision that sports are a very specific thing: human bodies competing against other human bodies. In our society, there’s a kind of love for removing limitations. But as I think the sports example shows, there are times when removing limitations changes the meaning of what we do in ways we may not like. And just as performance-enhancing drugs interfere with what we would like the Olympics to be about, we need to think hard about whether removing limits on our number of waking hours will change our lives in ways that aren’t compatible with our values, with our conception of a good life broadly construed.

You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?

My favorite place to travel is to my friend Emma’s in Sydney. I love to spend time with her and her nine-year-old daughter Alice, going for bicycle rides, or down to the swimming pool, or just making dinner and talking philosophy (and yes, the small human joins in). As an ex-workaholic and ex-enhancement-enthusiast, I find that my life is actually enhanced not by working more or harder, but by hanging with these two special people.