Information War in the Age of Dangerous Substances
Lecture delivered at Public Netbase Media~Space, Vienna, April 22, 1998
The whole issue of drugs is difficult to tackle and very controversial. The war on drugs, as it is often called, has made drugs one of the most controversial issues that we are facing at the end of the 20th century. I have been trying to write about drugs for several years and I am still having difficulties even doing the basic things such as defining drugs. Even the most basic questions continually escape a very careful analysis. I want to throw out some ideas mainly looking at the possibility that drugs are best thought of as technologies, as quite literally high technologies, and possibly as communication technologies, too.
On this first issue about how we actually define what drugs are: the United States FDA, the Food and Drugs Administration, defines drugs not only illegal drugs but drugs in medicines of all kinds, as "substances which affect the structure and function of the human organism". This is quite a neat definition and really the best one that I've found. When we look at the drugs that are circumscribed by law, they tend to be those which affect thinking and perception. Specifically, they are drugs which affect brain chemistry: They are psychoactive substances. If we think of ourselves as information processing modules, amongst other things, then clearly the use of drugs changes our ability to process, retrieve and store information.
Drugs legislation, which is now globalised, originally started with local attempts to control opium, largely by the Chinese at the end of the 19th century. This was after the British had pretty much forced opium onto Chinese culture. But if legislation began with opium, it now covers all of the opiates and cocaine, amphetamines and a vast range of hallucinogens as well. As anyone familiar with this subject will know, the Americans especially are forever adding new substances their drug schedules, not only the drugs themselves but also the other substances which go into making new drugs, too. Clearly, the legislation covers a huge variety of substances and amongst the big questions that we can ask are, what do those substances have in common? And why have they been so demonized? It is often forgotten that this isn't just a legal situation, there has been a very directly military war on the drugs trade at least since 1981 when Reagan and then Bush turned the campaigns against drugs from civilian to military campaigns. Many thousands of civilians and military personnel have been killed in this struggle. It is not simply a matter of legal controls, we really are talking about a military situation.
It seems that the war on drugs has not only made the consumption and distribution of certain substances complicated but it has also made research very difficult as well. Until very recently, information of any rigorous hard kind has been very difficult to find and often unreliable. Certainly, in academic contexts, any serious discussion about drugs has been almost impossible. Also, the issue covers so many different areas and disciplines as well. One needs to have a familiarity with chemistry, with botany, with economics, law, neurology, medicine and, obviously, all of the arts and social sciences have some bearing as well, so it demands a big breath of knowledge and information. Also, the issue covers many different scales, right from the molecular action of substances in the human brain through to the action of those substances in the global economy, so it spans the micro and the macro, works at very different scales.
My first attempt to unravel and answer some of this is to suggest that we can think of drugs as technologies, as kind of soft or almost biotechnologies, or wet technologies. Perhaps even as communication technologies because the way in which drugs work in the human body and in the brain is that they basically intervene in the internal means of communication. If you think about the human body having its own internal communication system, it is using chemicals to do that: Neurotransmittors and hormones. These are the body's chemical communicators, sort of messengers that take information between cells. Those communications can be aided or block or imitated by the addition of other chemical compounds, and these are the substances we know as drugs. These other chemical compounds are foreign to the human body: Obviously, something like cocaine comes from outside of the human body, but they so closely resemble, if you like, your native communicators, your native media, that your body is happy to take them in and accept them as its own. In effect, drugs are by definition substances which have some affect on human biochemistry. They are chemical devices, molecular machines which intervene in the body's internal systems of communication.
Drugs are the substances which can slip through the chemical filters in the brain, evading its screening mechanisms and entering your system incognito disguised as an already existing chemical. In effect, they fool your body into thinking that it is dealing with an already existing familiar chemical. From this perspective, this means that drugs are very direct and very intimate means of modifying human perception and human behavior. Once they have had the effect of changing the internal communications in the brain, then also they go on to change the way in which we perceive and behave, not only on an individual level but also as cultures, as populations,as the collection of brains which receive and process and store information.
If drugs are technologies, and if we can think of them in that way, then this might be a way of making sense of the question of drug control. This would make the control of drugs almost a kind of subset or one angle of the control of technology itself. This might then allow us to get a better perspective of how and why the current drug situation has arisen, and what the whole issue is really about. If we really want to follow this line of thought, drugs would then be those communication technologies which are most tightly controlled. Perhaps we could say the only communication technologies which are controlled by international law.
The notion of the cyborg is interesting here as well. When it was very first floated in 1960 in a relatively famous essay called "Drugs, Space, and Cybernetics" by Clynes and Kline which has recently been reprinted in the "Cyborg Handbook", the article was the first to mention the cyborg and deal with the cyborg as an entity. It didn't concentrate on all the attributes of the cyborg that we now have grown use to associating with it such as prosthetic limbs and so on. Their main concern was with the use of drugs. The additional prostheses which the original cyborg had was called an osmotic pressure pump which was a kind of built-in extra organ which would allow drugs to be continually inputted into the human body. This is done in the context of space exploration but it was a very sophisticated idea of linking the human body to the possibility of introducing not only drugs in the psychoactive sense, but all sorts of different substances which would regulated and modify the human body in space. Even our beloved notion of the cyborg comes out of this history of drugs before it comes out of the history of information technology and cybernetics as we usually think of them.
Drugs are often close to military concerns. If drugs are pieces of high technology, it may also be that they are high technology communication systems which also act as weapons and are very important in a military sense. I am sure people are familiar with stories about fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force being injected with amphetamines as they take of and being injected with barbiturates when they come down – literally, uppers and downers as they are flying the planes. As the fighter pilot gets more integrated into the machinery, then the possibilities of integration with drugs become more possible and more extended. People will also be familiar with the extent to which drugs have always been used as weapons, most famously by the C.I.A. in the 1950s and 1960s. They probably, more than anybody, made the use of drugs fashionable as a weapon, but even they were only jumping in on the end of a much longer story. Hitler famously not only injected himself with metamphetamine 8 times a day apparently, but he also used mescaline in interrogation experiments. The Bavarian army is famous for having done endurance tests with cocaine. For many thousands of years, drugs have had this military use. When the Spanish were busily colonizing South and Central America, they found people using peyote, they thought, as weapons against the Spaniards, using drugs even in order to communicate with each other. This may well have been a paranoia of the colonists but nevertheless, it certainly served as a functional weapon even if it was simply their paranoia.
In this military sense, drugs, even as they work on the human body have always really functioned as weapons, as literal defense systems. If you think of the legitimate use of drugs as medicines, then you are using drugs to defend your body against the encroachments of diseases, of pain and so on. In the medical and military contexts, drugs have effectively worked as arms, as weapons. They are used to defend or augment or attack even, or certainly to manipulate the structure and the function of the organism. If you use them as medicines, they combat pain and infection and instability. In other capacities, they can heighten perception, increase endurance and, as in the case of the cyborg cited by Clynes and Kline, completely rewire the organism to allow it to deal with different alien environments as well.
In the mid-1990's, developments in chemistry resulted with new techniques which allow compounds to be engineered not only at the level of their molecular composition, but also at the level of the molecules themselves. It was the time when chemistry met digitization and computing. This was really the point at which you could properly talk about "designer drugs", drugs which are designed from scratch in laboratories and are not even extracts from a plant. The sheer speeds and capacities of the microprocessor have now made it possible to trawl through huge numbers of molecular combinations in a way which as simply impracticable until very recently. Endless different combinations of drugs can now be tried out on a computer screen before they even touch base with chemical reality. They only met the wetware world in the very last stages of their development when they are finally tested on humans. Parallel with the development of chemistry and with this convergence with computing has also been from another angle the whole development of knowledge and research on the human brain. They have all pretty much coincided at the same moment at the end of the 20th century, so there are the chemistry, the brain and the computing all just now coming together.
The other side of this whole process, the brain side of it, is as recent as computing. Both computing and a renewed interest in drugs and also knowledge of the brain really kicked off in the 1950's, when neurotransmitters were discovered. It was only at that point that this notion of the brain as a kind of internal communication system really began to be developed. In fact, LSD, the substance developed at Sandoz by Albert Hoffman, actually preceded the understanding of the brain as being a chemical system and having neurotransmittors. Interestingly enough, LSD turns out to be very close to a neurotransmittor. LSD was discovered before neurotransmittors were by a few years. In the last 50 years of these developments, we have gotten incredibly close to some understanding of the brain but, nevertheless, it still is an incredibly unknown organ even though the United Nations designated the last ten years as "The Decade of the Brain". We have almost no knowledge about how the brain works. All we are beginning to appreciate is simply how vast and complex it is. Not much more is known about the brain now than was known 50 years ago, except for the fact that we have an increasing sense of its complexity.
Increasingly, ideas about the brain are being enhanced and converging with developments in computing. As neural networking develops and parallel distributive processing, it is increasingly thought that the human brain also operates in a kind of distributed, hierarchical networked kind of way. Deleuze and Guattari have this often quoted line about "The brain is a population". This is, indeed, how it is increasingly thought of in neurology, that it is in fact a population of millions of molecular elements.
When we try to think about what is the war on drugs, given this angle that drugs are effectively soft or internal technologies, then clearly one of the first things that we can say is that the war on drugs has never been, as it says itself, a war on drugs, it is not a war against drugs, but rather a war to contain and to control them. The propaganda always speaks as a war against drugs but if you think about the extent to which pharmaceutical companies, not to mention the medical establishment, are very keen to impose drugs on the population, it is not a war about stopping drugs, it is about certain drugs or certain uses of drugs. It is control rather than prohibition. In a sense, it seems to me that the drugs situation is almost like a microcosm of global capitalism. As William Burroughs' famously said, "Drugs are the ultimate commodity. They are the only things which don't need any advertising." They come free with their own adverts; They are the commodities which sell themselves.
In terms of the market for drugs and drugs as commodities, they are, on the one hand, the most freely available goods in the sense that they are distributed in a black market, but also they are the most controlled of any commodity that exists at the moment. Arms would obviously be the only other possible contender. But if, as I am suggesting, drugs are weapons, then this would come down to almost be the same issue. But there are no other substances which are controlled at every level of their operation: From the point where a farmer plants the coca bush through to the final consumption of the wrap of cocaine, on every step of that process, drugs are subject to stringent international controls. In fact, arguably, they are at the very heart of international law itself. When the League of Nations was established in the 1920s which then became the United Nations, drugs were cited as one of the reasons for establishing an international body. So not only were they the first commodities or the only commodities to be regulated at every stage of their production, distribution and consumption, it seems that they are fundamental to the very possibility of international law. At the very least, they provided a legitimate excuse for international law to be developed.
On the other side of things, they also proved just as impossible as information to contain and control. As they are notoriously transnational, drugs are no respecters of boundaries and, in fact, they slip through those boundaries exactly in the same way as they slip in to the brain: They are disguised as other things. Arguably, they have the same kind of disruptive effects on a culture or on a nation as they have on the brain as well. You have an almost fractal picture where exactly the same processes that happen on the relatively small scale level of the brain and even on the molecular level of the way drugs work in the brain, it is repeated on almost every level of their distribution. They work in global economy almost exactly in the same way as they work in the human brain. The way in which the war on drugs is cashed out, on the one hand, having these absolutely rigorous international controls and, on the other hand, having a remarkably free market which really produces the opposite of regulation with the black market, then it seem to me that this is trying to tell us something.
We have a situation now where we have nation-states, the military and pharmaceuticals corporations all involved in trying to monopolize the use and control the production and distribution of these substances in exactly the same way, one could argue, that states, the military and information technology corporations or media corporations are effectively monopolizing their markets. It maps on almost exactly except for the fact that everything is more extreme in the case of drugs. What they want to do is to contain and monopolize their use. This is very similar to attempts to control information or to control the distribution of technology. And the street level side as well, the counter to that, also is remarkably similar to the way in which attempts to free up distribution of technology and information work as well. We've got a kind of street level black market trade, this would be the chemical hacking side of it, undercutting the legitimate trade, people effectively exploring their own brain chemistry rather than it being sanctioned by some centralized body. It also seems that this has big geo-political implications. Again, this maps onto the distribution of information and technology itself.
While the Western world has long prosecuted the war on drugs, it has also reaped the financial rewards of its own drugs trades. The American War of Independence was largely financed by tobacco and cannabis, and industrialization in Britain was also largely funded out of the opium trade and, in fact, that was the same opium trade which eventually began the spiral of international controls against all drugs. At one point in the 19th century, it is said that half of the British government's revenue came from opium. The Western world, or at least the Anglo world, has obviously done very well from the drugs trade. If one was going to be cynical about it, having achieved its own economic and industrial success through the drugs trade, that the West is now determined that other regions of the world will not enjoy the same benefits of an inevitably buoyant trade. We now find the situation where it tends to be the poorest and the least developed areas of the world which are producing drugs. Presumably, if there was a possibility of an international legalization of drugs, then all of those countries would be in the position to participate in that trade legally and they would be economically a lot more successful. The war on drugs may well also be something to do with a global protectionism on the part of the Western world.
If there is any credence in these last thoughts, it would also suggest that current debates about legalization of drugs can be very naïve, just as naïve as the attempts to argue against the legalization of drugs. Any more serious legalization would be very difficult to contrive. For a start, it would have to be global, because this is one of the few markets that is controlled on an international level. Then, it would have to be uncontrolled on an international level as well. It is not something that could be done piecemeal. It seems almost unimaginable that we could have a situation in global politics where that would be either desirable or practicable. It could well be that if we did, though, arrive at the global legalization of psychoactive substances, then this would not only have all of the cultural effects that we often imagine it would have, but it could impact on the geo-political balance of power on a global level. It is in these terms of drugs as technologies, as weapons of international importance that I think the whole issue of should be considered.