L’impératif hédoniste – Chapitre 3

3. When?

« The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation »

3.0 Our Emotional Future.

Set aside for now the practical merits or ethical urgency of the abolitionist project. What grounds are there for predicting that suffering and malaise will be replaced by gradients of genetically preprogrammed well-being? When, if ever, might paradise-engineering become practical politics?

If any such Post-Darwinian Transition does occur, then the revolution will happen only once. It will never be reversed. There won’t be any going back to the old Darwinian order after it transpired its successor wasn’t as wonderful as advertised. For in practice it will be far better.

The prospect of such invincible bliss may seem very distant back here in the biological Dark Ages. Yet it shouldn’t be. Even now, most of us try to manipulate our states of mind via chemical means. We just aren’t very good at it. Throughout history, humans have tried to alter their consciousness via the use of a variety of natural agents. Arbitrary, and highly selective, proscription and persecution by the ruling elites has failed to prevent people from experimenting with psychedelics and mood-enhancers alike. By the turn of the twenty-first century, perhaps $400 billion or 8% of world trade was in illicit drugs.

Recreational agents which are legal and socially sanctioned by respectable society aren’t, of course, popularly viewed as drugs at all. The nicotine addict and the alcoholic don’t think of themselves as practising psychopharmacologists; and so alas their incompetence is frequently lethal.

Is such incompetence curable? If it is, and if the abolitionist project can be carried forward with pharmacotherapy in advance of true genetic medicine, then a number of preconditions must first be in place. A necessary and sufficient set could not possibly be listed here. It is still worth isolating and examining below several distinct yet convergent societal trends of huge potential significance.

  1. First, it must be assumed that we will continue to seek out and use chemical mood-enhancers on a massive, species-wide scale.
  2. Second, a pioneering and pharmacologically (semi-)literate elite will progressively learn to use their agents of choice in a much more effective, safe and rational manner. The whole pharmacopoeia of licensed and unlicensed medicines will be purchasable globally over the Net. As the operation of our 30,000 plus genes is unravelled, the new discipline of pharmacogenomics will allow drugs to be personally tailored to the genetic makeup of each individual. Better still, desirable states of consciousness that can be induced pharmacologically can later be pre-coded genetically.
  3. Third, society will continue to fund and support research into genetic engineering, reproductive medicine and all forms of biotechnology. This will enable the breathtaking array of designer-heavens on offer from third-millennium biomedicine to become a lifestyle choice.
  4. Fourth, the ill-fated governmental War On (some) Drugs will finally collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Parents are surely right to be anxious about many of today’s illegal intoxicants. Yet their toxicity will no more prove a reason to give up the dream of Better Living Through Chemistry than the casualties of early modern medicine are a reason to abandon contemporary medical science for homeopathy.
  5. Fifth, the medicalisation of everyday life, and of the human predicament itself, will continue apace. All manner of currently ill-defined discontents will be medically diagnosed and classified. Our innumerable woes will be given respectable clinical labels. Mass-medicalisation will enable the big drug companies aggressively to extend their lucrative markets in medically-approved psychotropics to a widening clientele. New and improved mood-modulating alleles, and other innovative gene-therapies for mood- and intellect-enrichment, will be patented. They will be brought to market by biotechnology companies eager to cure the psychopathologies of the afflicted; and to maximise profits.
  6. Sixth, in the next few centuries an explosive proliferation of ever-more sophisticated virtual reality software products will enable millions, and then billions, of people to live out their ideal fantasies. Paradoxically, as will be seen, the triumph of sensation-driven wish-fulfilment in immersive VR will also demonstrate the intellectual bankruptcy of our old Peripheralist nostrums of social reform. Unhappiness will persist. The hedonic treadmill can’t succumb to computer software.
  7. Seventh, secularism and individualism will triumph over resurgent Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. An entitlement to lifelong well-being in this world, rather than the next, will take on the status of a basic human right.

There are quite a few imponderables here. Futurology is not, and predictably will never become, one of the exact sciences. Conceivably, one can postulate, for instance, the global triumph of an anti-scientific theocracy. This might be in the mould of the American religious right; or even some kind of Islamic fundamentalism. Less conceivably, there might be a global victory of tender-minded humanism over the onward march of biotechnical determinism. It is also possible that non-medically-approved drug use could be curtailed, at least for a time, with intrusive personal surveillance technologies and punishments of increasingly draconian severity. Abetted by the latest convulsion of moral panic over Drugs, for example, a repressive totalitarian super-state could institute a regime of universal compulsory blood-tests for banned substances. Enforced « detoxification » in rehabilitation camps for offenders would follow.

These scenarios and their variants are almost certainly too alarmist. Given a pervasive ethos of individualism, and the worldwide spread of hedonistic consumer-capitalism, then as soon as people discover that there is no biophysical reason on earth why they can’t be as happy as they choose indefinitely, it will be hard to stop more adventurous spirits from exploring that option. Lifelong ecstasy isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.

3.1 Hedonism After The War.

So as an illustration of at least one plausible run of events leading to an adoption of the biological strategy, it is worth considering the consequences likely to ensue when western state governments finally abandon their ill-starred and intellectually incoherent War Against Drugs. This retreat might not seem inevitable. Here at least, however, it will be assumed that the freedom to control one’s own states of consciousness can’t be usurped by government indefinitely. State mind-control measures may relax in the face of, first, an ascendant libertarian and free-market ideology; second, a rising younger generation of experienced illegal drug-takers, averse from being criminalised and scornful of the hypocrisies and double standards of the older generation; and, third and not least, the unparalleled and uncensorable information explosion across the Internet on the detailed practicalities of how to synthesise and enjoy psychotropics of every description.

Decriminalisation, first de facto and then de jure, and subsequent legalisation will not entail a straightforward abdication of state control. On the contrary, the state will intervene from motives of fiscal self-interest and paternalistic responsibility in the distribution process. The manufacture and supply, and certainly the quality and purity, of psychotropics will be licensed, guaranteed and regulated. This will reclaim a multi-billion pound sector of economic life from organised and disorganised crime. It will further allow a drastic and politically expedient reduction in direct taxation. It should also eliminate some of the toxic adulterants common in street-drugs. Thousands of newly decriminalised drug-users will re-enter mainstream civil society. More intelligent drug-education, and the social institutionalisation of previously illicit forms of drug-use, will further contribute to the harm-reduction process.

Yet this is to paint a dangerously rosy picture of the consequences of legalisation. Desirable as it may be to stop criminalising and even locking up a growing percentage of the younger generation, notably in the USA, the far-reaching social and medical problems stemming from ill-informed drug-use will remain. For a start, an enormous and perhaps unquantifiable number of (currently) illicit and licit drug-users alike are, in effect, self-medicating. They don’t like their own stressed, anxious or depressive consciousness the way it is otherwise. So they pursue what seem the only remedies realistically on offer. Their choices aren’t altogether surprising. Other nominal mood-brighteners actually sound depressing. State-endorsed « antidepressants » are available solely on prescription. They get doled out by severe (wo)men in white coats. Officially, in any case, all such agents are of potential therapeutic value only to those deemed by the medical authorities to be mentally ill. This isn’t a role or a label most people would willingly adopt. Such a severe image-problem means that millions of people who would otherwise benefit are missing out on some of the most worthwhile products of medical science.

They are more likely to turn instead to drugs with a very different image. The main shortcoming of the widely-used illegal euphoriants, such as cocaine and the amphetamines, is less that they are physically dangerous – they collectively kill only a minuscule fraction of 1% of the numbers carried off each year by the two legal state-sanctioned killers, tobacco and alcohol – but that receptor re-regulation ensures their long-term effects are very nearly the opposite of those for which their users take them in the first instance. The medical authorities, meanwhile, maintain a convenient fiction about all present or potential clinically approved mood-boosters. The official line is that delayed-action « antidepressants » have a negligible effect on « normal » people unless they are « really » depressed; or unless a « pathological » manic euphoria is induced, which would need to be medicated in turn. Moreover the medical profession’s otherwise healthy caution about the risks of polypharmacy needlessly restricts the formulation and enjoyment of some very beautiful psychoactive cocktails of potent life-enrichers.

Once legalisation of currently banned and controlled drug-groups occurs, there will nonetheless be tremendous pressure on the state to sponsor the research, development and marketing of mood-brighteners for the wider population. These will certainly be safer and more effective than the trashy street-drugs currently in circulation. Initially, many traditionalists will undoubtedly continue to practise and proselytise Total Abstinence in the spirit of the Just Say No school of thought. At the other extreme, a small minority of thrill-seekers in search of the ultimate high will probably still take crack and the like with predictably disastrous consequences. The human mind/brain isn’t capable of sustaining such intensities of pleasure indefinitely without substantial design-enhancements not yet on offer. For millions of more responsible and psychopharmacologically educable people, however, the possibility of Better Living Through Chemistry will prove irresistible. They will judiciously pick-and-mix from a gamut of mood-brighteners, smart drugs, serenics, aphrodisiacs, anti-ageing drugs and other agents drawn from life-enhancing categories not yet invented. Already there are at least a few tentative indications that humanity’s psychopharmacological stone-age is starting to draw to a close.

One class of mood-brightener appealing to the more temperamentally cautious will be psychoactive agents with a therapeutic window: safer, more potent and much more rewarding variants of a drug like nicotine. With nicotine, the brain very efficiently modulates how much or how little it wants, and within a quite narrow range, to achieve optimal effects. Other designer-drugs will deliver dose-incremental benefits, but on a delayed-reward basis of receptor re-regulation. Cautious polypharmacy, too, in the shape of combined dopamine and serotonin agonists and re-uptake blockers looks especially promising. Rather than spending months in exorbitantly expensive talk-therapy with ill-defined goals and benefits, people will be able to take professional specialist advice on customising and fine-tuning the psyche. Dysfunctional traits of personality can then be psychochemically retailored. The gap between idealised self-image and uncomfortable reality will shrink. Within a few generations at most, the role of a national health service may be to keep people happy as well as healthy: an anachronistic distinction that may gradually outlive its usefulness.

3.2 On Why We Need Bigger Drug Pushers.

Presently-illegal drug-use might be styled « pressure from below ». Pressure « from above » will come from the giant, multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical companies. So long as the official dogma of hard-line therapeutic minimalism dictates that there should be no clinically-sanctioned drug-use in « healthy » people, a lot of very interesting drugs indeed aren’t going to make it to the marketplace. Hence while medico-political orthodoxy holds, great commercial advantage accrues to the manufacturers if as much of everyday human life as possible can be pathologised. For it can then be mass-medicated with patentable drugs, preferably on a long-term basis. The intimate relationship the industry enjoys with the medical profession and its trade press will generally help the drug firms to communicate their views effectively. If ill-specified and ubiquitous conditions such as age-related memory-loss can be granted formal diagnostic respectability, they can then be combated with cholinergic boosters and other forms of cognitive enhancer. The use of such drugs can subsequently diffuse into the wider population. They may be used by student examinees or ambitious executives, for instance, to gain a competitive edge over their drugless contemporaries. And there are much more exciting agents in development than the (not especially) smart drugs currently on offer.

Very large numbers of young people today are at least in shallow, physical terms tolerably fit. Possibly much of a sizeable and potentially lucrative market will be allowed to remain untapped. If, on the other hand, it were to be (rightly!) medically acknowledged that statistically normal spells of youthful anxiety, lassitude, sub-clinical depression and angst were a colossal health problem, then the pharmaceutical industry and the new end-users of its products would in their different ways both be much better off. For while the cynic may entertain doubts about the motives of the drug companies and their marketing techniques, it should be emphasised that the actual consequences of a creeping medicalisation of the human condition are often to the good. Suspicious as many commentators may be of such newly-labelled conditions as « dysthymia » and the like, diagnostic categories of this nature reflect submerged misery and malaise on an uncharted scale. Such states merit treatment even by today’s dismally low minimum criteria for emotional good health. The problem is not that we are medicalised too much, but too little; and not very well.

Next in line for medicalisation might be a hitherto little-acknowledged syndrome christened, say, « hypo-hedonic disorder » or some term of equally portentous gravity. This label might widen the diagnostic drag-net to another 30-40% of the population. All of them, the drug companies will rightly feel, deserve the best treatment money can buy. Slowly, the species-typical emotional baseline will creep upwards, until takeoff to self-sustained felicific growth finally triumphs.

3.3 Good Code Gets Better.

One as yet fundamentally under-medicalised territory is the human genome. Several thousand reasonably well-defined genetic disorders have currently been classified. Aside from a few tentative clues, however, the genetic basis of medically-certified mood-disorders has not been properly defined. We do not, in any case, have genes « for » happiness, anxiety, depression, and so forth, in any but the following sense. The presence or absence of certain genes with certain other genes makes it statistically more or less likely that an organism will be happy, anxious or depressed in a given type of environment and in a given range of circumstances. The statistical margin of advantage, however, does not need to be very large for natural selection to get to work.

Natural selection isn’t going to be around for that much longer. The human genome will have been mapped out within the next few years. It will take several decades more to discover which combinations of genes code for structures and proteins that, other things being equal, will depress mood and well-being in childhood and later life. They can in time be taken out or repressed. Those which have multiple complex effects, and can’t readily be dispensed with, can be replaced with variant alleles of the same gene whose actions are more benign. Conversely, genes associated with hyperthymia i.e. the relatively uncommon mental abnormality of feeling consistently happy in the absence of exhausting (hypo-)mania, can be introduced, reduplicated and vigorously expressed in progressively larger numbers of the population and their germ lines. The spread of hereditary hyperthymia should portend a comprehensive reworking of the genome. Recoding the genetic bases of mind, body and virtual worlds will conceivably take hundreds of generations and more. A lot will depend on how long it takes to cure the ageing process. The end of obligatory mortality will force a halt to the traditional breeding free-for-all. Genome redesign is sure to become ever more daringly ambitious. Old-fashioned electrodes in the pleasure centres may be aesthetically distasteful. But they are a great deal simpler.

Again, it will be the big companies, this time in the biotechnology sector, who will initially be driving the psychogenetic revolution forward. A huge potential market exists for their products. In the short-term at least, real moral dilemmas will have to be confronted. These will be not unlike the dilemmas posed today by the existence of fundamentalist parents who deny their child a lifesaving blood-transfusion. Future parents who decide, whether in deference to God or Nature, to decline gene-therapy for a child they know will likely grow up depressive, for example, may be open to accusations of child-abuse. Responsible parents, on the other hand, will want to get their kids the best happiness money can buy.

Accounts like this inevitably sound cold, technocratic and Brave New Worldish. It should be recalled that the developments they describe should avert suffering on a scale which a single mind cannot possibly comprehend; and make a lot of people blissfully well.

3.4 The Death-Spasms Of Peripheralism.

A further reason for predicting the abolition of the capacity for negatively-charged experience is superficially very different. It stems from a speculation on one indirect effect of omnipresent, multi-modal and immersive Virtual Reality software. This potential multi-trillion dollar industry is here posited to dominate social, personal, artistic and economic life after the first century or two of the next millennium.

An assumption of this paper has been that (post-)humanity will eventually break free from the Tyranny Of The (traditional, gene-manipulated) Intentional Object. Our genes have ensured that emotion is so pervasively encephalised that we have convinced ourselves that happiness can only be achieved, and frustration avoided, by chasing after a crazy patchwork of intentional shibboleths of no inherent value whatsoever. Humans have fought thousands of unbelievably vicious wars against each other in consequence. In a sense, our whole culture is a monument to the Peripheralist strategy; and a very unpersuasive advertisement for it too. One of the few things that might convince us, as a species, that Peripheralism can’t bring lasting happiness would be for us to see what it would be like if everything in the environment were perfectly as human-beings might wish, and for our most impossible fantasies and desires to be realised. Of course it has always been natural to assume that such a notion was an idle pipedream. Even a Roman Emperor couldn’t get everything he wanted.

An all-pervasive network of virtual realities, however, will enable everyone to have their intentional objects of desire fulfilled, and at minimal cost. Interactive or solipsistic, artistic masterpiece or pornographic wish-fulfillment, an ever-growing software library of virtual worlds will enable everyone to have their dreams come true.

3.5 And Yet It Still Grinds.

It won’t, mirabile dictu, make most of us much more happy for very long. The hedonic treadmill will still grind. A revolution of rising expectations will eventually lead people to expect, as of right, to enjoy and enact any set of perceptions and narrative structures they choose. They’ll expect to do so in virtual worlds with laws and body-images of their own choosing. In the absence of a decent mesolimbic repair-job, boredom, angst and other dormant negativities will periodically surface. They’ll sour the ostensibly perfect idylls and utopias. For ironically, a mass migration into virtual worlds might come to represent Peripheralism’s final fling. Only total control of one’s notional surroundings may be enough to convince many people of the futility of pure environmental manipulation if their goals include lasting happiness and fulfillment.

A symbiotic union of biologically programmed euphoria and mature virtual reality software engineering, however, is an awesomely good prospect. In fact, such a hybrid could furnish one explanation, however unlikely, of the absence of any signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy. For if a species acquires the sophistication to generate to order any possible experience at all, whether hedonic, perceptual or other modes of being altogether, then the motivational incentives to choose the inconvenient kinds of experience involved in (non-virtual) space-exploration etc are somewhat diminished. Indeed, since VR is probably less difficult to accomplish than interstellar flight, the very possibility of vulgar physical star-hopping may just never arise.

3.6 The Technology of Shop-Soiled Utopias.

Two problems with the VR-scenario in general are worth briefly discussing. The first is technical. It may be alleged that realistic VR won’t happen, contrary to the above, because it’s too difficult. Serious interactive virtual world-making would require processing power several orders of magnitude faster than anything available today. In allusion to the power of the human visual apparatus, it has been remarked that Reality is 130 million polygons a second. Barring a revolution in portable quantum supercomputing, this is simply unattainable by artificial means.

One response here is simply to cite Moore’s Law: processing power has been roughly doubling every other year, and its tempo shows no sign of slackening off. This leads to some dizzying projections. Moreover 130 million polygons a second are probably wasted on a lot of people. The kinds of fantasy scenarios that stir our deepest emotions, and those which might supposedly make us most happy, are mainly of a rather uncomplicated kind. They tend to appeal to relatively primitive appetites in settings where finely-wrought visual subtleties are less than crucial. For even in our fantasies we enact parodies of genetic fitness-maximising behaviour.

It is true that the time-scales projected here for the development of the more sophisticated sorts of virtual world are vague. They may even be wildly off-beam. Yet the dates, in common with all the other rough chronologies suggested in this manifesto, are but a twinkle in the eye of eternity; vitally important to individual members of the few generations around the Transition epoch, but a minor detail in the history of life on earth and beyond.

3.7 Living In The Real World.

A second reason for doubting that omnipresent virtual realities will ever lead to the demise of Peripheralism is that, as the name suggests, they aren’t real. A sense of authenticity, or any notion that one’s actions really matter, will be lacking in even the most startlingly lifelike creations. They may sometimes be entertaining, it will be suggested, but even the greatest masterpieces of virtual reality software will never displace Real Life. Interacting with real flesh-and-blood people endowed with real feelings, it is claimed, will always take precedence over responding to mindless phantoms conjured up by machines.

As a peg to hang one’s discontents on, the unreality of the impostors one might meet in virtual paradise (or in one’s capacity as virtual Lord of the Galaxy, Casanova of the Cosmos or whatever) might indeed temper one’s enjoyment. Admittedly, those who by contemporary standards have relatively benign genes and psychochemistry may not be unduly troubled. After all, when watching plays or movies, or when reading a good thriller, one isn’t usually perturbed by the fictional status of the protagonists. Many enthusiasts find even today’s crude electronic games gripping for long periods; and when Sega’s Sonic arrived, I recall feeling pangs of jealousy at being unable to compete for people’s attention with a mere electronic hedgehog. Moreover even disbelievers in direct-realist stories of perception seldom seem to be smitten down by the awful sense of loneliness and isolation that life behind the veil can induce.

Yet even if any serious malaise in virtual paradise is confined to the temperamentally angst-ridden, there is a limit to how far perceptual-style manipulation can go. When, as a species, we can generate by artificial means essentially any perceptual experience or scenario at all from the finite selection of states theoretically on offer, then it is just about possible, I suppose, that what used innocently to be called progress will in effect come to a stop. The future beyond the next millennium might just consist of people permuting variations of the same old types of perceptual and pseudo-perceptual experience. On no particularly knock-down evidence, however, I think it more likely that we will want to access and explore the modes of consciousness accessible only by more radical reconfigurations of neurochemistry, beyond the influence of mere surface transducers. The limbic system will be a very obvious early target. And when the gene-driven biochemistry of nastiness has been unravelled and purged from our minds, it is hard to see us ever putting it back.

Chapitre 4