The potential implications of human enhancement is one of the main reasons why I’m at CSPO, so I was excited and a little worried when the trailer for Limitless appeared. Would Hollywood do justice to the topic, or would they make yet another trite cautionary tale?
Limitless follows one Eddie Morra, a hapless failure at the age of 35, unable to write, living in a squalid Chinatown walk-up, and recently broken up. A chance encounter with his ex-brother-in-law introduces Eddie to NZT, a drug which improves intelligence. From there, he is catapulted into a whirlwind of conspiracies and violence as he tries to stay one step ahead of his own mistakes.
The theme of the movie come out most clearly in two dialogs, one with Robert De Niro’s financier, who says “Your powers are a gift, they are not earned, and you are careless with your powers.” The second comes from Eddie’s girlfriend, when she finds out that his remarkable transformation in the past few months is due to NZT, “How do I know what’s you, and what’s the drug?” These are two common critiques of human enhancement, and psychopharmaceuticals in general; that they are a false path to knowledge which should be gained through hard work, and that they alter people in ways that damage their humanity. Neither of these critiques is particularly valid. Even when pressed, bioconservatives cannot specify what it is about human beings that enhancement threatens. Francis Fukuyama takes an entire book to weakly claim the existence of his ‘Factor X’ that defines humanity, to give one example.
This is not the position I hold to. Rather than try and defend a non-existent line between treatment and enhancement, it is better to note that human beings are continually enhancing their abilities through education and technology. We invent cars to extend our legs, books to extend our minds, and teach our children so they can benefit from our mistakes. Rather than view enhancement as a danger in and of itself, it is better to analyze the features of a particular enhancement for its risks.
By that metric, Limitless’s NZT would obviously fail. It is addictive, and leads to brain damage and death. The effects of NZT, increased alertness, pattern recognition, and focus, are certainly impressive, and impressively conveyed through camera effects in the film, but are by no means worth risking serious health problems. But let’s assume the health problems of NZT are solved, which they seem to be by the end of the film. Beyond its effects on intelligence, does NZT have any effect on morality?
Eddie Morra is not a bad person, but he’s not a particularly good person either, and his plan could be described as “1) Get rich, 2) Get powerful, 3) ???”. He’s a likeable enough jerk, with enough charisma to counteract his complete lack of actual values or goals beyond immediate pleasure. In that, the continued short-sightedness of Eddie’s planning throughout the movie is a commentary on America, and how best and brightest go into finance, law, and politics rather than the practical arts. The Russian loan-shark is a terrifying figure on NZT, but he was already a criminal psychopath. What a good person, not under duress, would do with their new powers is unknown.
NZT does certainly inspire a kind of paranoid egomania. Those who can survive the effects of the drug make one of their first priorities stamping out everyone else who might be using it, or who might pose a threat to their own wealth and power. Eddie Morra is not the first, and certainly not the last, of a series of chemically enhanced wunderkinds who shake the world of Limitless. This point is one the film makes effectively; it is the secrecy and limited access surrounding NZT that cognitive enhancement so dangerous. But would a more open system of enhancement lead to a better world, or deeper and deeper levels of Machiavellian scheming? That question remains unanswered.
Cognitive enhancement is not good or bad, but it is powerful, and like all instruments of power, it should be introduced with careful consideration. Information is not knowledge, and it certainly isn’t the wisdom to know what should aim for in life. But compared to who already populates the halls of power: the ambitious, the deceptive, and those who measure lives in dollars, is Eddie Morra so much worse? He gets everything he wants, and he doesn’t even have to drink much blood to do it.
(And a note for my friends who criticize the scientific accuracy of NZT: “It lets you access 100% of your brain.” That claim is made only by a completely unreliable drug dealer who lied five second previously. The only scene that makes no sense whatsoever is the one where… well, I won’t spoil it.)