The Costs of Efficiency

by longingforthereal

The objects in this room: the green pillow I rest this notebook on, couch and further cushion behind me.  My smartphone sits symmetrically along the edge of the glass coffee table, a clean black half inch over the line.  Sharp.  Next to my data box so many books and notebooks, magazines and periodicals spew their words.  Sentences in combination from Yorker to Lears then back to Jackson again.  If I’m to raise sense up from this rubble I’ll have to stumble just right.  Evenly, to make the granules of dilapidated speech look smooth.  Sifting for the right interpretation—like shuffling cards with less surety that they’ll still deal straight.  Inspiration shifts to machination, then back to sifting again.  Sheets of paper stacked to summon the right muse.

I say I’m carving out a monograph bit by bit.  The guitar to my left sulks in front of an empty heating-pad box to remind me of my progress.  My roommate’s dirty jeans hang glumly over the banister; he said he’s taking them to the cleaners today.  Soon?  Light pours onto his face as he sits fastened to his Kindle at the dining room table.  To his left, bookcase #1 with so many books I can’t remember.  To his right, bookcase #2 with so many books I never read.  Between them an empty chair glows in the evanescent morning sunshine.  The day is now well underway.

This is how my brain works.  But just yesterday I heard of an alternative.

The way she explained it, certain drugs called SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) adjust serotonin levels to absorb cortisol and reduce cognitive symptoms like anxiety and unwanted compulsive thoughts.  It’s like taking a vitamin, she said.  Only this vitamin can really help take the edge off.

The more she spoke the more I believed it might be this simple.  I remembered the slogan from the Sixties, “Better Living Through Chemistry”, and thought about the prospect all day.  That afternoon a friend and I imagined starting prescriptions together as a kind of scientific experiment in self-management.  Clearly our brains weren’t operating at peak performance, so why not adjust the levels of certain naturally occurring chemicals to make ourselves feel more efficient, more productive, and less prone to non-optimal states of being?  So what if we did this by synthetic means.  Maybe the boost was what we needed to jumpstart our dissertations.  Maybe we would never get them done without these drugs!

Pragmatic logic never seemed so justified or exhilarating as we talked passed our initial reluctance, intent on delivering ourselves from the reality of our lives without the benefits of SSRIs.  But that night the charm began to wear off.  I was sitting in a loft listening to a bad poetry reading when the first wave of serious misgivings hit me.  I pictured myself months later, having started the drugs and taken a liking to them.  Inevitably there would come a time when my prescription was running low and I was unable to refill it immediately.  I imagined rationing my pills and calculating the possible effects of denying my brain its dose of artificial solace even for one day.  I could already feel the faint symptoms of relapse brewing.  Returning to myself without the proper admixture of chemical engineering was terrifying.  I would have to start over, maybe go on another drug.  Either way I’d be trapped.

My heart was pounding as another bad poet left the stage to what seemed like uproarious applause.  How could these people possibly think that poem was worth clapping for?  I remained reticent, insisting through my stiff body language that this was the proper aesthetic response to what we’d just heard.  I wondered how I would experience this reading if I were on the drugs, and then it hit me: the decision to tweak my brain chemistry would change everything.  Even on a low dose it would mean a new level of dependency on forces outside my control and a permanently new relationship to my own conscious mind.  Earlier in the day the prospect seemed liberating.  But the dread I felt sitting there envisioning my future on SSRIs reminded me how easy it is to sacrifice agency when the promise of convenient relief presents itself as guaranteed, and mostly cost-free.


The costs are hard to see.  This is the problem of technologies ranging from agriculture, to combustion engines, to smartphones.  In each case we might hope to remain in control by appealing to some notion of conscious/responsible use.  But the dynamics of autonomy and dependence are fundamentally altered when we allow our tools to affect the ways we think and behave, and virtually no tool has no effect.  The often obscured question is whether the effects of a given tool really constitute net benefits, or whether our uses require us to compromise our ideas of what it is to live well.  In which cases should we not accept the transaction?  Is bad poetry worth recognizing even if it doesn’t feel good?

The ideology of efficacy that underwrites technologies from personal computers to SSRIs is certainly difficult to oppose consistently.  I drive a car, use email, shop at the grocery store, etc.  And I can’t imagine life without these conveniences.  But perhaps we gain something more valuable than intellectual consistency when we choose to preserve select realms of our lives from the intoxicating promises and hidden costs of modern technology.

Opting for the ethics of an eccentric hypocrite in this sense probably does not make life any easier.  But depending on who you ask, it may reveal blind spots that are painfully inefficient to realize yet necessary to see.

-Michael Fisher