Augmenting Americans (in time?)

I am watching a Netflix documentary on the Goop Lab. Goop is a lifestyle brand created by Gwyneth Paltrow in 2008. It calls itself “the tip of the spear, we go first so you don’t have to.” I thought it might give me a glimpse of cultural innovation taking place in California. Thanks to people like Paltrow, California is the nation’s lifestyle laboratory.

The results were terrifying. The Goop team are discovered examining what they call a “psychedelic renaissance,” and define as “psychedelics being studied for their potential to address hard-to-treat mental health conditions, like PTSD, treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, and even opioid addiction.”

But this is TV. So it is not enough that Goop interview a succession of experts. No, they decided to have members of the Goop team take a variety of psychedelics on camera. We watch as they descend into the clutches of their drug as choice.

As I say, terrifying. Especially when we learn that the man doing the risk assessment/reassurance has a Masters degree in Social Work. On the other hand, he looks good on camera, so it should be fine. Right?

This experiment reminded me of a recent essay by Lee Child in the Times Literary Supplement. Child says we may have been wrong about Neanderthals. Contrary to popular opinions, they were, he says,

“…pretty much the opposite of what we have long assumed — they were intelligent, bigger-brained, better animals than us, stronger, faster, healthier, more durable, better toolmakers, caring, compassionate, gentle, artistic and organized. But they seem to have been constitutionally timid.Their settlements migrated slowly, cautiously and sensibly.”

Child paints a different picture of our species. Homo Sapiens were,

“…not cautious or sensible at all. The consensus — in what I suppose we could call psychological archaeology — seems to be that Homo neanderthalensis was painfully rational, and Homo sapiens was batshit crazy.”

Which brings us back to Goop. I do not have a master’s degree in social work, but I am prepared to venture the opinion that taking a relatively unknown drug for the sake of a TV show might just qualify as bat shift crazy.

Let’s be honest, of all the people who belong to the species, Americans are almost certainly the nuttiest. We’ll try anything, smoke anything, eat anything, because, hey, what’s the worst that can happen. We are the “what me worry” part of the species.

And this brings me to augmenting Americans. It’s pretty clear that augmentation is upon us, that we Americans are going augment ourselves like crazy. We are already “biohacking” with enthusiasm. Jack Dorsey, Twitter founder, is the poster child here. There are a supplements that give us improved probiotics. (See especially Seed.com). There NAD+ supplements for diet. (See ElysiumHealth.com). And that’s just for starters. We haven’t yet seen the mass adoption of tech inserts designed to make us smarter, faster, brighter. Doesn’t anyone think we won’t snap these up? You know, for science.

Some of this is driven by the inexhaustible American appetite for self improvement, a tradition that stretches from Benjamin Franklin and Norman Vincent Peale to Tony Robbins and Dr. Phil. We are always ready for an upgrade.

But there is a new and pressing incentive. The digital revolution was supposed to gift us with lots of free time but instead it has made us beasts of additional burden. Big data turns out to be heavy data. Our ability to track all the change happening in the world does not give us time, it takes time. We have ferocious work loads and we are going to need augmentations of every kind just to keep up, never mind get ahead.

We could think of the Bloomberg databases as an early augmentation. To have all that data at our finger tips. We are as gods. What I am hoping for next are “thinking machines” call them intellectual augmentations that help us work and rework our data and knowledge until we get those “sheet lightening” moments of understanding.

This next augmentation will be intellectual, strategic, creative. It will draw on AI and big data, but it will depend on the kind of pattern recognition that we continue to do much better than the machines. I’m not seeing this machines yet, nothing at least that works to embrace the social and the cultural piece of economic behavior. I am building my own “Griff” but it is small and mere compared to the opportunity and the necessity.

I guess it comes down to this. We are up against enormous intellectual challenges and at the moment we are being a little Neanderthal about our response. A little too cautious, sensible and timid. What we want to be is a lot more Homo sapiens, reckless, free wheeling, inventive and, if need be, bat shit crazy. It turns this is not optional. Whatever we do, however well we do it, it’s going to be barely enough.

Image: Thanks to Thomas Kelley (@unthkelley) on Unsplash.

I'm an anthropologist & author of Chief Culture Officer. You can reach me at grant27@gmail.com.

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