Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Waves of Rage in the Penny Press!

The April 27 issue of the New Yorker features an intensely infuriating article by Margaret Talbot called "Brain Gain," about the wide variety of so-called "neuroenhancers" being taken in record numbers by college students (among others) in order to boost their mental faculties and concentration. And the article is infuriating on both levels, the factual and the reportorial: the facts are as bottomlessly angering as are ALL facts connected with college students, and the reporting is neutral-bordering-on-approving of a phenomenon it should be roundly condemning.

The college students in Talbot's article, it turns out, are swallowing milligram after milligram of amphetamine salts with manufacturer names like Ritalin or Adderall. The students Talbot interviews make many claims for these drugs - that they increase powers of perception, strength of retention, potency of concentration ... but all they really seem to do is temporarily banish your brain's need for rest (at what is almost certainly a ruinous long-term physical cost, but since no reliable testing data exists - the drug companies own both the data studies and the data-studiers - we'll have to wait for each of these little synaptic time-bombs to explode before we know the extent). As all these self-medicating morons point out, eliminating their need for sleep allows them to cram in all the many and varied college activities they deem essential: schoolwork, socializing, extra-curricular activities, jobs, and titanic amounts of drinking.

But there's really only one thing all these alleged students want to protect at all costs: their own laziness. Because even with the most hectic social schedule imaginable, no drug-taking would be necessary to get accomplish everything if these young people actually worked at anything, ever. Get a paper assignment, due in fifteen days? If you start work on the paper immediately - say, by reading something and then by writing something - you'll only need to work a little bit a day to finish it well before its deadline, while still having plenty of time to do everything else you want. But college-style laziness looks at it quite differently, because almost all of these kids were big fish in the small ponds of their high schools, so they're already accustomed to being able to bullshit their deadlines. So instead of starting work on that paper the day its assigned, they start work on it the day its due - which of course means two things: 1) an enormous amount of work, really an impossible amount, and 2) a great steaming load of crap as the inevitable result.

Even Talbot's interviewed idiots are sometimes honest about this. One of them starts off with the usual bullshit:

"I don't think people who take Adderall are aiming to be the top person in the class. I think they're aiming to be among the best."

But then he wanders a little closer to the truth:

"Or maybe not even among the best. At the most basic level, they aim to do better than they would have otherwise. Everyone is aware of the fact that if you were up at 3 a.m. writing this paper it isn't going to be as good as it could have been. The fact that you were partying all weekend, or spent the last week being high, watching 'Lost' - that's going to take a toll."

Of course reading Talbot's article raised my competitive hackles, especially when there was talk of how much sharper these mystery drugs make the poor old ordinary brain. I myself possess one of those poor old ordinary brains - but I've worked hard to make get it in fairly decent shape and keep it in fairly decent shape, and I'd match it in a heartbeat against the most enhanced person in Talbot's essay.

But feistiness aside, my main reaction was sadness, because there's nothing, no external force and certainly no internal one, that will succeed in making these college students see what they're doing wrong. I know from bitter experience that the horrible patterns they're learning and reinforcing are all but unbreakable, and what's the result? An endless sea of potentially talented people never, never fully using that talent. An endless sea of people never taking the risk to learn what actual work feels like, how good it feels to look at something you've created and honestly be able to say, "That's the best I can do" ... instead of pausing briefly to sigh over missed opportunities before dutifully returning to time-wasting.

And of course time-wasting bothers me in its own right, since none of these people are ever getting a second of that wasted time back. Bothersome indeed to reach the end of a decade, or the aftermath of a heart attack, or the last week of life itself and only be able to say, "Yeah, I half-assed a bunch of shit, and now I wish I hadn't."

But hey, it's not all rage-inducing missed opportunities, now is it? After all, Talbot actually wrote this article, on deadline, and well! Probably she'll be exposed in the next issue as a Ritalin-freak ...


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