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Nootropics and the post-Human Future

Life in NYC and SF are remarkably similar in the amount of walking that happens day to day. Unlike San Francisco, however, much of transit time is spent underground where there is no network connection and, as a result, the podcast is a standard accompaniament for Gotham walkers / subway riders. One that I’ve really come to enjoy is the podcast of the Andreesen-Horowitz (or, A16Z) venture capital business.

A16Z has recently started investing in nootropics: materials that help keep you at top cognitive function and on their nootropics podcast they had a really keen observation: as of this moment the human body is at a point such that it can be considered as a component, not unlike the Homebrew computer movement, (e.g. the Homebrew Computer Club of Santa Clara, CA circa 1981) whence came Apple among others.

We now have OEM diagnostic tools which grant us output and diagnostics about our own bodies. In just the way that the Homebrew computer club could mail-order a microcontroller, wire it up to a testing board, and then use an oscilloscope to get performance data about it (“this one sucks”, “this one can do more than it says if we remove this regulating transistor!”) we are now reaching that phase with our meat-casings.

Let’s set a visual: guys with beards, pocket-protectors, slide rules and oscilloscopes meet up at the Homebrew computer club with their latest gizmo. Journey’s latest hit is clicked off as the key is pulled from the ignition of a Corolla. The attendees do a short talk about how many K of memory it has and then someone solders the piece to a board. Or someone comes in with a new copy of “Byte” magazine or a mail-order computer kit. The best components are evaluated, someone runs to Fry’s or Pizza and Pipes and the night runs long, a beer may have been cracked.

Now let’s change the metaphor: men and women with Fitbits, iPhones, and flexible AWS computing power show up. They roll up in Ubers or self-driven cars. They have a PDF of their genomic data and least-squares curve fit data on their triglycerides, running speed, and food intake for the day on their iPhones. They have means for reading the output of the machine (Fitbit), they know its factory-shipped components (genome), and now they’re wondering how can they affect the processing of the hardware: what software changes can they make in a scientific approach that their output devices can capture. They then evaluate their specific responses to nootropic chemical additives and have reliable graphs hours alter showing response, uptake, and fall-off.

It’s splendidly Robert Louis Stevenson.

But it’s not stopping there. I recently heard about how some are even taking to upgrade the hardware of the body — an increase in commitment and risk from the mere chemistry-augmenting offered by nootropics.

Squeamish warning

Seeing these individuals takes the discussion from the (now) permissible altering biochemistry to a slightly more taboo body modification level [1]. Looking at the footage it’s not hard to imagine how this all is coming together: basement labs, sterilization procedure books scanned on the internet, medical supply overnight dot-coms, FedExed IV’s, crowdsourced local anasthetic chemistry, etc.

I think most people would respond to this footage with disgust at “bio-hackery” being tantamount to “body-butchery.” But I suggest that the sophistication of these black-market labs will move quickly from the horror scenes of “Minority Report” and quickly move to being like the plastic surgery spas of Southeast Asia.

What about that UPenn medical rock star? Having never worked a day to her 32nd birthday she leaves crippled by debt (thanks Higher Ed bubble!). Her prospects are to face the litigation-friendly California market, work for an HMO and chip away at that debt mountain, or set up shop for 3 years in a ambiguous-color-market surgery. Maybe some compliant island government “disrupts” malpractice and she set up shop for 3 years (not unlike Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon government resetting cryptography law). In less time than a residency she’s debt-free and has enough money to set up a private practice in the U.S. Sure her “experience” isn’t exactly legitimate, but there are enough discreet clients who will look the other way realizing her to be on the cutting edge of bodily performace.

I think Virtual reality will also have an effect upon the uptake of “meat vehicle” optimization. With the Occulus Rift VR rig shipping and society moving to a state of identity malleability (see: Caitlin Jenner media blitz, Jayden Smith modeling skirts, etc.), I think society will start to think of bodies as designer clothing: means of self expression that can be decorated with tattoos or mirrored glass eye-socket covers. The latter example being a famous visual from William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy.

From Neuromancer:

  "Should I?"  Case blew noisily on his coffee.
  "You needed a new pancreas.  The one we bought for you
frees you from a dangerous dependency."
  "Thanks, but I was enjoying that dependency."
  "Good, because you have a new one."
  "How's that?"  Case looked up from his coffee.  Armitage
was smiling.
  "You have fifteen toxin sacs bonded to the lining of various
main arteries, Case.  They're dissolving.  Very slowly, but they
definitely are dissolving.  Each one contains a mycotoxin.  You're
already familiar with the effect of that mycotoxin.  It was the
one your former employers gave you in Memphis."
  Case blinked up at the smiling mask.
  "You have time to do what I'm hiring you for, Case, but
that's all.  Do the job and I can inject you with an enzyme that
will dissolve the bond without opening the sacs.  Then you'll
need a blood change.  Otherwise, the sacs melt and you're back
where I found you.  So you see, Case, you need us.  You need
us as badly as you did when we scraped you up from the gutter."

But that’s science fiction or it was in 1984.

Another reference close to my heart, the RPG game “Rifts.”

A juicer is a form of any sentient being enhanced by chemicals, providing the being with an augmented strength and endurance.

As Gibson himself wrote, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed


  1. I find our history on this to be interesting. Since the advent of stimulants and depressives we’ve had a social debate about whether or not it was (literally) kosher to do so. Mormons and Muslims agree alcohol isn’t a legitmate additive. Acetaminophen is a legitimate additive for some, but not for others. This reached its most vivid extremity with the temperance movement and still has echoes with regard to sports “doping.” As we transcend chemistry, as this post sugggests, will we see “natural human” versus “modified human” culture wars / jihads? Almost certainly. See also: “Dune,” “Gattaca.”