Designer drugs, Cyberpunk, and the Hacker mentality

Designer Drugs

Earlier this week, I read a interesting piece on designer drugs at I was broadly aware of the concept, but was amazed by how relatively easy, even commonplace, such a thing is these days. The article cast my mind in several different directions, which I thought I would share here.

My first reaction was that it reminded me of “Solstice” (1985) by James Patrick Kelly – a short story published in the “Mirrorshades” (1986) anthology. “Mirrorshades” was the first obviously cyberpunk (in which I include the cyberpunk derivatives for brevity) work I read, and in many ways has influenced my life.


One aspect of Science Fiction which is often over-egged is the prescience of the field; throw enough ideas out there and a few will always hit something. Cyberpunk does seem to have a pretty good track record – with “Solstice” and the article being just the latest, but maybe this apparent success rate is because Cyberpunk doesn’t generally look that far into the future; it’s much easier to predict what technologies may appear in the next few decades than those a thousand years from now. For example, maybe Kelly was aware of the work of Shulgin and others. And there’s always confirmation bias…

Then again maybe the dystopian tendencies of the entire genre are more in keeping with the direction society seems to be travelling. Maybe the pessimism of the last decades is more realistic than the optimism of the ‘golden age of SF’. And maybe there is a realism in accepting that there are no better angels to our nature, but rather the best we can hope for is a limited enlightenment to the self interests of a small subset of humanity.

The Hacker Mentality

Growing up, this dystopian vision of cyberpunk appealed to me. The hacking aspects of much of the genre deeply resonated with me, despite entering into the genre long before beginning my current career in security. And it wasn’t just the computer-hacking which resonated, it was all the rest, whether it be medical- (human-computer interfaces etc), physical-, or pharma-. All intrigued my teenage mind. And it continues to intrigue my adult mind, hence my second thought on reading the article was that what was being described was phenomenally cool!

This then got me thinking, in a moment of introspection, why did I find the idea of designer drugs, and the democratization of such things, so amazing? And then it came to me – pushing the boundary of designer drugs, breaking into computers (legally, in case the police are reading…), 3D printing, home PCRing, and the like are all just aspects of the same thing. They are all results of looking at life in a certain way – always wondering what is going on behind the scenes, under the surface. A refusal to just accept the reality we see on the surface, and a desire to look inside and push the boundaries.

I term this the hacker mentality. This is what drives some children to take apart their toys, disassemble their parents belongings, perform all manner of destructive acts – not necessarily because they are ‘acting out’, but maybe because they want to work out how something operates. By their teenage years, many of those who have the potential for this mentality have had this drilled out of them by society’s pressure to conform.

In those in which the potential, and indeed the urge, remains, it touches many aspects of our lives, and leads to interesting common threads. Irrespective of the exact manifestation and specialism of the urge – computers in my case, drugs in that of Alexander Shulgin and “Karl”, there is a high likelihood that anyone afflicted may have at least a minor, and unfortunately potentially unhealthy, interest in lock-picking, explosives, and many other fields. There is a search for knowledge, and a refusal to just accept the “truth” peddled us. I’m certain that if I was to come to the attention of the authorities then my reading lists, searches, and interests would cause me to be red-flagged; we unfortunately now live in a world where the desire for knowledge is suspect, and the hacker mentality given free reign is at risk of landing the afflicted a jail term rather than the career and fame of the dilettantes of the past, let alone the polymaths.

The common thread

And that brings me to my last thought on the matter, which draws on the three elements described above. It’s interesting, and depressing, to see how the ‘authorities’ react to all manifestations of the hacker mentality. Those who largely do not share this hacker mentality often react in the same way – by legislating against it, and by doing so often causing more damage than if they had provided mechanisms for their citizens to safely follow our urges to -hack. In this area the cyberpunk authors have broadly been at their most accurate, which is depressing as this is also when they tend to be at their most dystopian.

Perhaps the governments of the world need more hackers to help craft sensible legislation. Then again, given our predilection for breaking things just to see how they work, maybe not.

This article was written whilst half-drunk in an airport waiting room. Perhaps free WiFi isn’t always a good idea…


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