"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 17 June 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

What, Are You On Drugs?



Self-induced catatonia has always

been the primary motive of

recreational drug-taking. For

every Alfred M. Hubbard, there

are a thousand Beavises who

prefer simple stupefaction to

the mental gymnastics that a

trip demands. And, really, who

can blame them? Thought is a

burden. It's nice to be able to

take a pharmaceutically-driven

vacation from all of the

distractions, responsibilities,

and expectations of cognition.

In a culture that places so much

emphasis on productivity and

efficiency, the reactionary

desire to get thoroughly wasted

is only natural.


So how then to explain the appeal

of smart drugs?



At first read, the concept seems

wholly improbable. Where's the

fun and rebellion in a drug that

turns you into a clear-thinking,

hard-working, more productive

member of society?



Because of the essential

contradiction that underlies

them, smart drugs have been

relatively slow to catch on.

Even after nearly two decades of

proselytizing from world-class

pushers like Durk Pearson and

Sandy Shaw, they still have yet

to achieve the popularity of,

say, crack. Nonetheless, the

'90s has been the decade of new

paradigms and the mainstreaming

of counterculture; perhaps

drug-takers are finally ready to

"drop in" with pills that turn

them into super-intelligent,

super-industrious cubicle




Given the typical smart drug

user's desire for increased

productivity, it comes as little

surprise that the center of

smart drugs culture is Silicon

Valley. And, of course, that a

primary figure - John

Morgenthaler, co-author of Smart

Drugs and Nutrients, the Bible

of the smart drug set - is a

former computer programmer. With

microprocessors doubling in

"intelligence" every 18 months

for the last two decades, it was

only a matter of time before

some of the Valley's meat

puppets began wondering why

humans couldn't at least acquire

a few additional IQ points




In this context, smart drugs can

be seen as the ultimate upgrade -

extra RAM and processing power

for your brain. Of course, no

one has ever presented any

compelling research to suggest

that they actually work. Most of

the claims their purveyors make

are anecdotal in nature, with a

few obligatory rat studies

thrown in for good measure. In

turn, the FDA and other

professional labcoat-wearers

view smart drugs with the

standard measure of

medico-bureaucrat skepticism.

James McGaugh, a UC Irvine

researcher, appears to be the

most frequently quoted member of

this camp; in almost every major

newspaper article devoted to

smart drugs, you'll find him

likening them to "snake oil" and

posing questions about their

potentially harmful side



But while McGaugh uses the snake

oil phrase pejoratively, there

is a positive aspect to that

epithet, one that has important

implications for the Web.



For as even the most haphazard

student of American hucksterism

knows, snake oil, or as it was

more formally branded, patent

medicine, was an extremely

important factor in the growth

of modern media. In the

mid-1800s, when most companies

felt advertisements were an

embarrassing admission of their

failure to sell goods in an

honorable manner, the patent

medicine companies scoffed at

such puritanical pretensions.



These savvy businessmen saw the

huge potential of the country's

first national circulation

publications: with a single ad,

they could flimflam a million

sickly rubes at once. Soon,

advertisements for such powerful

panaceas as Drake's Plantation

Bitters, St. Jacob's Oil, and

Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable

Compound began saturating the

nation's newspapers and

magazines, and sales

skyrocketed. By the turn of the

century, Americans were slurping

up $75 million of the

alcohol-spiked cure-alls per

annum, and in a blow to medical

science and commercial ethics,

the bestselling ones were

simply those that were most

heavily advertised.


[Web Review]

Which, of course, brings to mind

the Web. At a time on the Web

when allegedly popular sites

like Web Review are reduced to

press-release panhandling

because of anemic advertising

revenues, the medium is in dire

need of a miracle palliative.

Perhaps smart drugs, with their

patent-medicine-like claims of


self-improvement and relatively

untapped market potential, can

fulfill this role.


Currently, however, the smart

drug industry appears to do no

advertising on Web-based

publications. Instead, smart

drug companies have concentrated

on building their own sites,

which fail miserably as

advertisements for their wares.

Indeed, you'd think after

ingesting countless bottles of

brain boosters, smart drug

promoters like the Cognitive

Enhancement Research Institute

could at least figure out how to

spell simple words like

"impairment," but that doesn't

seem to be the case.



The bad spelling's just a tiny

irony, though. The real problem

with CERI's site, and others

like it, is the uninspiring tone

they take. Where's the verve of

their patent medicine forbears,

the unabashed salesmanship?

Compare the jaunty syntax,

aggressive capitalization, and

presumptive scope of a typical

patent medicine ad with the

diffident medical

professionalism and poor

punctuation of the standard

smart drug pitch:

"Beecham's pills are, without a  
 doubt, the most marvellous      
 Medicine in the world for       
 FEMALE AILMENTS. The Sale now   
 exceeds 6,000,000 Boxes per     

"Phosphatidyl serine has         
 impressed researchers with it's 
 ability to improve cognition and
 enhance concentration and other 
 mental functions."              

If the smart drug purveyors were

really smart, they'd put their

money where their pill-holes

are, hire some top-notch

hornswoggler to create ads that

mercilessly exploit the average

data serf's desire for extra

brainpower, then plaster them

all over the Web's most popular

sites. Java-challenged webheads

would purchase them by the

poundful, and both smart drugs

sales and Web advertising

revenues would flourish.


[Genius IQ Test]

There is one potential flaw in

this plan, however. If smart

drugs actually do make you

smarter, Web readers who start

dosing up on fistfuls of

Deprenyl and Piracetam with

every meal would eventually turn

into massive, cerebral

Schwarzeneggers, itching to flex

their pumped-up, under-utilized

synapses - and the Web, with its

vast datascapes of relentlessly

barren content, would no longer

hold their interest. As these

intellectual upstarts move on to

more challenging diversions -

the gray-matter circle jerks of

Mensa, crossword puzzles, and

TV, for example - advertising

revenues would disappear, and

once again, would-be net.moguls

will be scraping to make ends



On the other hand, this scenario

doesn't really take into account

the cortex corrosion that comes

with extended Web exposure. Like

pill junkies tossing salads of

amphetamines and barbiturates to

achieve a state of "normalcy,"

hopelessly addicted Web zombies

may need a steady influx of

cognitive enhancers just to

retain whatever smarts they

started with.

courtesy of St. Huck