A startup is considering hiring a teen hacker for a critical project that must be completed in one week. The teen hacker confidently assures the company's founder that he can complete the entire assignment in just two days. "You think you can do our whole job in two days?" the founder exclaims in disbelief. "I know I can do it in two days," says the teen. "I pound Mello Yello, Oreos, and Adderall, and I don't sleep 'till I'm done."

That's a scene from HBO's hit show Silicon Valley, and you can tell that it's fiction because, in the real startup world, that budding hacker would be taking Provigil. Step into any of the coworking spaces, incubators, or shared offices that house young tech companies of the new new new economy, and you'll be shocked to see how many Provigil pills the startup kids are popping. Trust me, I'm one of them.

Provigil is one brand name for modafinil, a drug that was developed in France in the eighties and helped treat sleep disorders like narcolepsy. It was approved by the FDA in 1998, but it wasn't until 2008 that TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington published a post, saying that Provigil had become the "'entrepreneur's drug of choice' around Silicon Valley." Since then, I've seen it spread all across the startup universe, and it's even become a bit of a hit onWall Street.

The most pro-Provigil people, like entrepreneur and biohacking expert Dave Asprey, are quick to distinguish Provigil from all things bad. Asprey told CNN that "it is not even a stimulant officially," claiming, "the stuff is magic." He practically proclaims it the panacea for distraction: "Provigil's in a class by itself in terms of what it does for your ability to just focus."

Others question those claims and cite the lack of studies on Provigil's long-term health effects. The drug's FDA-approved medication guide warns that Provigil "may cause serious side effects including a serious rash or a serious allergic reaction that may affect parts of your body such as your liver or blood cells" and lists common side effects, including back pain, nausea, and diarrhea. (I think the FDA should create custom emoji for every conceivable side effect.)

But I don't want to painstakingly weigh the costs and benefits of the focus-enhancing drug of the moment. I'll leave that for others to do. Instead, I'd like to point out the paradoxically self-perpetuating role that focus-enhancing drugs are beginning to play in our so-called attention economy.

According to technology writer Nicholas Carr, the answer is no. As Carr brilliantly argues inThe Shallows, it appears that the very apps that make the world more conveniently navigable actually flatten our malleable minds, making us more susceptible to distraction. "We want friendly, helpful software. Why wouldn't we? Yet as we cede to software more of the toil of thinking, we are likely diminishing our brain power in subtle but meaningful ways."

What? All that annoying stuff of the pre-digital age—maps, the library, the post office, actual money, calculating tips, and hailing cabs—all that stuff was like a gym for our brains? Carr says yes: All those tedious things added depth, detail, and deliberation to our days. Our brain is like a neuroplastic muscle; we use it or we lose it. Basically, the apps that power our newfound convenience are turning our minds into great big thumb potatoes.

So here's where I think we are. In part because of the distracting effects of the last generation of apps, those of us who are building the next generation of apps feel the need to take focus-enhancing drugs. Are we in a spin cycle of distraction, drugs, and apps? Will the best minds of my generation be destroyed, not by madness, but by an addiction to making and using distraction apps?

And now, like David Bowie in "Five Years," my brain hurts a lot.

Maybe it's time to flush the pills . . .

Felicity Sargent is the cofounder of Definer, an app for playing with words.


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