Stephen Daisley

The pill-popping future of work looks terrifying

The pill-popping future of work looks terrifying
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In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a dystopia rules mankind in a way that renders the masses compliant consumers. The apex of medical mind control in the book is soma: a tranquilliser offering 'a holiday from reality’. Huxley describes how its users' ‘eyes shone (and)...the inner light of universal benevolence broke out on every face in happy, friendly smiles’. 

Huxley’s vision was intended as a nightmare but PricewaterhouseCoopers appear to have taken it as an inspiration. Their new report, Workforce of the Future, predicts what the labour market could look like in 2030. As you might expect, automation takes the starring role and a survey of 10,000 workers across the world presents mixed opinions. Three-quarters are ready to learn new skills; 65 per cent see technology as a good influence; but almost four in ten believe automation is putting their job at risk. 

The answer lies, the report predicts, in the creation of ‘a new breed of elite super-workers’ whose productivity ‘is maximised through sophisticated use of physical and medical enhancement techniques and equipment’. Their performance would be 'measured, monitored and analysed at every step'. PwC offers a mocked-up news report from May 2030 on 'the first large-scale use of cognitive-enhancing drugs’ in the workplace. Their prescription, Cognitalin, 'increases concentration and enhances memory function’. 

If this all sounds like science fiction, it is in fact more sci than fi. Methylphenidate is a real drug -- better known as Ritalin -- and operates as a stimulant of the central nervous system. It is most commonly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. However, there is a growing body of clinical research indicating benefits of methylphenidate use in adults. A 2014 review found that the drug 'improves working memory and speed of processing'. Research also showed 'enhanced attention processing and altered attention- and inhibition-related brain activation’. 

Fair enough, but the public wouldn’t go along with the idea of drugging workers to make them more productive. It’s like something out of, well, Brave New World, right? It might be too late: PwC’s report found that 70 per cent of those asked would consider taking mind and body-boosting treatments if it improved their employment prospects. It is already happening in Sweden, where digital start-up Epicentre implants microchips in workers for easier operation of security doors and printers. This may be the final proof that the human race is that stupid girl in every slasher movie who goes into the shadowy house alone and unarmed because nothing bad could possibly happen. 

Far from causing alarm, however, PwC sounds positively giddy at the prospect. Jon Williams is their Joint Global Leader for People and Organisation - a vaguely sinister corporate handle he earns here, where he tells an Australian newspaper:

'People use treatments to ­enhance a whole bunch of stuff in their life, why would the same not be true of work. At the moment, I suspect ­people (who answered the survey) were thinking, "I’ll take a drug that will improve my ability to concentrate, or to stay awake for longer, or to perform a manual task more times because it supports my body". In 10 or 15 years’ time, we may get to implants. So (implants at work) are ­already possible and happening and people will use it socially to pay for things and to get on to buses and public transport. Why would they not 10 years later go, sure, put one in my brain to make me think harder or for longer? It’s just natural progression.’

Williams does not sound like someone in need of drugs to make him more corporate compliant. Yet he seems to have the public merrily signing up for the chance to pill-pop their way to Employee of the Month. Perhaps this should not surprise us. In Brave New World, Lenina Crowne extols the joys of soma to her initially reluctant paramour Bernard Marx: ‘I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody's happy nowadays,’ she tries to convince him. Pressed on why she wouldn’t rather be happy ‘in your own way… not in everybody else’s way’, she grows exasperated: 'I don't understand anything,’ she sighs. 'Least of all why you don't take soma when you have these dreadful ideas of yours. You'd forget all about them. And instead of feeling miserable, you'd be jolly. So jolly.’

Just as soma makes you jolly, PwC’s semi-imagined anti-slacker drug will make you brilliant. No more distractions, no more idle meandering. You will be an überworker. 

The risks of workforce medication are obvious and range from addiction and adverse reactions to corporate liability for employees’ behaviour while taking a productivity enhancer. The ethical quandaries, however, make the practical questions seem like minor bumps in the road. Worker-drugging might be good for productivity and economic growth but it would diminish the importance of human free will. The choice to take a mind-altering substance, even if freely made, surrenders our intellectual capacity and moral decision-making to the mechanics of psychopharmacology. The work ethic ceases to be a virtue and becomes, in part at least, a function of chemicals stimulating synapses. Values that were once (and still just about) cherished in the world of work — calm reflection, clearheadedness, and personal effort — would be discarded in favour of hyperactivity, artificially-altered thinking, and chemical cheating. 

And while PwC’s crystal ball depicts a voluntary model, the nature of most workplaces would bring intense pressure to bear on dissenters. If employers today can insist that staff don't have drugs in their system when they come to work, why couldn’t the employers of tomorrow demand the opposite? How long before the use of cognitive-improving treatments crept into job adverts and contracts? If PwC’s survey is anything to go by, most of us wouldn’t be that bothered.  

Yet we should be. Our bodies and our minds belong to us and they should not be medically modified to serve a corporate bottom line. The answer to automation is not to turn ourselves into automatons. This insidious notion should go back in the pillbox it came in.