Police on Steroids, Profs on Ritalin

cyborgflower.jpgThere has been some excellent blawgospheric comment on the Mitchell Report, a Black Sox scandal for our age (see, e.g., Jeff Lipshaw, Howard Wasserman, Michael Dimino and Alfred Yen). My question is: what will be the cultural impact? I think two recent stories on performance enhancement in other fields provide some clues, and suggest the wisdom of the PCBE’s worries.

First, the Village Voice has a long story on some possibly inappropriate steroid/HGH use in the NYPD. I say “possibly” for two reasons: 1) the slippery “therapy/enhancement” distinction here and 2) the threat posed by bulked up criminals. The Voice reports that “the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office knows of 29 cops and at least 10 NYPD civilian employees—all well under the age of 60—who have received prescriptions for [steroids for] hypogonadism.” Doctors quoted in the story find it implausible that so many officers would have this disorder–but there are probably other physicians who have a much broader concept of disease. And if suspects are bulking up on illegal substances, who can blame the cops for trying to catch up?

The other story is on concentration-enhancing drugs increasingly used not only by students (an old problem), but now by professors. Andrew Sullivan asks, “So if a prof wants to do a little Provigil, it’s no worry for me. Why should it be a worry for anyone but the prof himself?” I think there are several reasons, not least the potential for medicalized competition to invade spheres of life we now deem constitutive of our identity. But for now let me just focus on how the police and profs examples intersect.


Think about the balance of scholarship produced in a regime where some labor under the supercharging influence of Provigil, and others forbear. The former will presumably generate more work than the latter. That may be fine in relatively technical fields (who wants to slow down the sequencing of a genome?). But in areas where ideology matters, the potential power of the pill-poppers can be a problem. We need to ask: what are the reasons people are not taking the drugs? A (wise) risk-aversion? A fear of disadvantaging others who can’t afford them? A religious concern about “playing God”? And finally, are the people who have all these concerns really the ones we want to be drowned out by super-stimulated, super-productive others?

My basic point here is that Sullivan (and many other libertarians) make an erroneous presumption that the decision to use the drug is wholly distinct from whatever ideology a particular person has. To them, the technology is neutral in itself, and can be freely used (or not used) by anyone. In fact, the drugs fit in very well with certain ideologies and not at all with others. This is an old theme in the philosophy of technology, but is hard to encapsulate in a soundbite (itself a technology far more amenable to some ideologies than others).

At risk of stretching an analogy to the breaking point, I think professors and police face a similarly competitive landscape. The former battle for “mind share,” the latter for order. The more we understand the true lesson of Darwin/Dawkins–the pervasiveness of competitive struggle in daily life–the better we can see the need for “arms control agreements” regarding enhancement technologies. (Hopefully they will be more effective than the failed policies of the past.) The question is whether we will permit ourselves to direct evolution or to be the mere products of blind technological forces. Those opting for the latter route make Benjamin’s words on the “angel of history” all too prophetic:

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

–Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”, cited here.

Photo Credit: Cyborg Flower, jumpinroo.

UPDATE: Bridget Crawford has more insights here. If you’re interested in the law, tech, and theory angle, here’s a blog/symposium that Gaia Bernstein, Jim Chen, and I put together.

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