Friday, March 07, 2008

Did Coffee Cause the Enlightenment?

Quinn Norton imagines a future drug called Morvigil which would cut your need for sleep, improve your concentration and make you smarter. She compares the effect of such a drug to the effects of coffee on the eighteenth century. It caused all sorts of problems but it also led to the Enlightenment. Morvigil would cause a second Enlightenment. The idea that coffee caused the Enlightenment is, to say the least, contentious. It doesn't make sense - the arrival of a simple stimulant would be equally likely to be correlated with a new Dark Age; that, in this case, it wasn't is neither here not there. But what is interesting is the technocratic rhetoric. Human enhancement is a dangerous delusion that will not go away. As demonstrated by the coffee-Enlightenment point, it is a consolingly simple idea. Obviously we can't enhance ourselves because, being human, we don't know what an enhancement would be. An interminable argument follows from this. I've had it a hundred times, but nobody has yet dented my ironclad scepticism on the matter. And now for some coffee, which, as it happens, always makes me deeply irrational.


  1. The Welsh JacobiteMarch 07, 2008 9:04 am

    "the arrival of a simple stimulant would be equally likely to be correlated with a new Dark Age"

    Isn't that precisely what the so-called Enlightenment was?

  2. Not being sozzled with claret or pickled in gin may well have helped a bit. But boiling the water did one hell of a lot more for the enlightenment. As to coffee, given that we are swilling the stuff with the abandon of a summer shower, there should be a localised enlightenment every time a Starbucks is opened ?.
    And why the hell is starbucks in the spellcheck when the blasted thing will have a hissy-fit when I try to correctly spell the few words I know.

  3. "Fundamentally the relationship to the body is changing, which means we are changing, which means society is changing," Norton said.

    One of the rarely-acknowledged legacies of the Enlightenment is that people can make a good living spouting this sort of crap.

  4. Indentured labor in Europe and slave labor in the New World is what led to the Enlightenment, as it occasioned free time for the Philosophes. Indeed, the American nation owes its existence to slavery: T. Jefferson, G. Washington, so many of the founding fathers had time to articulate first a declaration of independence and then a constitution because their slaves were doing the manual labor that otherwise would have drained them, body and mind (it did drain their souls, as Jefferson noted in anguish. They knew it was wrong).

    Because coffee is all the rage now, we are rewriting history to make it loom large in the past -- hence the woman Bryan quotes. A more interesting lineage is to be found not in the coffee bean, but in sugar. There's a very good book about that (by S. Mintz) and its impact on the world. Tea is doubtless another, as much of the British Empire is tied to it.

  5. I've found certain drugs, notably phycedelics, to enhance the imaginative functions, which can enhance brain power in certain areas. When i was at school i smoked cannabis for my standard grade and higher english exams and achieved a "1" and a "B" which i'm certain i wouldn't have got if i was sober.

  6. Susan - there's a wonderful chapter on Sugar in Seeds Of Change by Henry Hobhouse (and another on Tea, come to that). If you haven't read it, seek it out - one of the most illuminating books I ever read, with particularly brilliant footnotes. His chapter on Potatoes is a perfect potted history of Ireland and its woes (with a scrupulously fair account of the Famine).

  7. Susan's comment is fair. It's a sad and strange fact (inasmuch as one can claim anything of the sort is a 'fact') that much of the ennobling things of human culture - great art, liberting political philosophies, etc., couldn't have arisen if there weren't people rich enough to sit about writing all day with servants or slaves doing all their menial chores.

  8. > Obviously we can't enhance
    > ourselves because, being human,
    > we don't know what an enhancement
    > would be.

    The one has nothing to do with the other. You might as well argue that being human, we have no idea what we should do next technologically. And there's a sense in which you would be right. We don't have a clue. But, being human, we're obviously going to take the next step, whatever it is, anyway. Same with enhancements. Besides, nobody is going to stand in the way of treatments and prostheses, and the definition of the what constitutes a condition requiring treatment is floating North all the time.

    followups should be forwarded to

  9. If human beings can't enhance themselves, why has the record for running a mile gone down by a full minute in 150 years? Or the record for home runs in a season gone from 29 (Ruth) to 71 (Bonds). Lots of factors, sure, but underneath the people just got better.

  10. Are you aware of the existence of the drug Provigil?

    FDA-approved for the treatment of narcolepsy, used by the armed forces when pilots are sent on 24-hour-long bombing missions. I've taken it (sample offered to counter side effect of another drug). Very effective - awake but absolutely not in a way that felt abnormal. Not edgy or anything like that.

    However, I immediately saw abuse potential: just how many days can you stay up, how much lack of sleep can your body handle? There will be people who test this theory.

    Pretty sure it's already banned in sports. The drug company polled street users for abuse potential and it didn't interest them (hardly a surprise: wrong crowd. People who use drugs to escape reality are not the ones who would abuse it, because it does not provide an escape. The ones who would abuse it are those who want to push beyond their natural limits: prep school students, college students (the ideal all-nighter drug), med students, law students, and people in demanding jobs or life circumstances who want to have more hours awake and alert to get things done.)

    So, keep an eye on Provigil and whether there turns out to be a downside. It hasn't been out that long, it's been getting a lot of off-label use, so I don't think the fact that an occasional dose seems to be harmless means that we won't start to see problems among people who start to rely on it to achieve performance levels that they couldn't sustain without it.

  11. Oh -- I wish I had a couple of Provigils! I"m going to Europe in a week and the first day is always lost to jetlag. It would be great to pop one of those in Charles De Gaulle and manage not to lose a day to foggy exhaustion.

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