In the 1993 film Demolition Man, a not-so-sensitive ‘90s guy (a cop named John Spartan, played by Sylvester Stallone) is thawed out of cryoprison in the year 2032. Halfway through the film, Spartan’s new partner on the San Angeles police force (Lenina Huxley, played by Sandra Bullock) asks Spartan if he would like to have sex—to which he unsurprisingly responds, “Oh yeah.”
Sex, however, isn’t what it used to be. It turns out that by 2032, “fluid transfer” has been outlawed and, in one of the film’s most famous scenes, Huxley and Spartan “make love” by sitting 10 feet away from each other and transmitting brain waves via specialized helmets. If you’re into that mind/body dualism thing (I’m not, but bear with me), the sex they have is decorporealized; it bypasses the cumbersome interface of human biology to create pleasurable brain waves in a more pure and efficient way. Spartan is first nonplussed, then aroused, then entirely freaked out, and removes his helmet at a very inopportune moment for Huxley. Their night ends badly.
This scene popped into my head earlier this week, as I sat in my living room with a pair of headphones on listening to strange sounds that were supposedly going to get me high by bypassing (the rest of) my biological interface to go straight for my brain waves. After a long flight and a long trip home from the airport, I’d finally made some food and sat down to eat when I found an email from a friend in my (chaotic, overfull) inbox. The message contained nothing but a URL: http://www.i-doser.com/
This is how I first heard about I-Doser, which claims to offer “binaural brain waves for every imaginable mood.” The premise is that, by playing two different audio streams at the same time (one in each ear), “I-Dosing” produces “a perceived tone inside the head, in order to alter brainwaves.” I-Doser explains I-Dosing as “THE USE OF AUDITORY TONES IN AN ATTEMPT TO ALTER CONSCIOUSNESS IN WAYS THAT CREATES A SIMULATED MOOD OR EXPERIENCE, SUCH AS TO MIMIC RECREATIONAL DRUGS” (caps lock on in original).
My first thought was, “This has to be a joke.”
Further clicking, however, revealed a complete website, one that’s actually trying to sell both digital and physical products—so perhaps it was a scam, rather than a joke? The site offers plenty of reasons to be skeptical: caps lock may be “cruise control for awesome,” but it’s not cruise control for, “wow, this seems like a legitimate website for a reputable business.” There are basic grammatical errors in the text (like adjective/adverb confusion in the FAQ), and the prose is frequently awkward. There’s an ad at the bottom of the main page inviting people to become “affiliates” with I-Doser (“NOW IS THE PERFECT TIME TO START SELLING I-DOSER BRAND PRODUCTS”) that just screams “sketchy.”
There’s also the images on the site. While most of the header images look like they were lifted from Apple ads—stylish 20-something hipsters wearing headphones and sporting facial expressions that range from contemplative to ecstatic or even orgasmic—there are also images in which women are sexualized and objectified so overtly that it becomes cheesy (see inset for an example). The media kit features only images of young women using I-Doser, all of whom are wearing heavy makeup and many of whom are dressed in lingerie. Are they selling headphones and digital files, or are they selling sex? (Actually, decorporealized sex is on offer via I-Doser as well–20 years ahead of Demolition Man‘s schedule! There’s a whole category of sex-related I-Doses, though presumably one does not need a partner or a pair of helmets to use them.)
The more I sat with the idea of “I-Dosing,” however, the more curious I became. I did my undergrad degree with a lot of seriously geeky people, and the more I thought about it, the more I could picture the exact clique of people who would have tried to build something like this. (In fact, I’d bet money that at least someone from that scene is connected to this project in some way, although the website names no names and states only, “The I-Doser group consists of several teams of underground music and tonal experts, programmers, testers, researchers and admins.”) Was it possible there was something to this stuff?
Then I found the link to download a free trial. The trial involves an app, so of course I was suspicious; in my mind, “free app” plus “sketchy-seeming website” equals “probably trying to data mine me in some way.” But I was also really, really curious, and if there’s one thing I have a hard time turning down, it’s an opportunity to indulge my curiosity. A few minutes later I’d downloaded the app, installed it, and was wondering which I should try first: “Alcohol,” “Content,” or “Sleeping Angel” (categorized as “recreational,” “sedative,” and “sedative,” respectively). I chose “Content” because it was the shortest, at 20 minutes long; I was also tired after a day of traveling and planning on going to bed early, so a simulated sedative seemed like a good idea (just in case it worked).
What happened next was…odd.
Listening to the two different sound streams that make up an I-Dose is not the seamless experience of listening to music that’s been recorded in stereo. It sounds strange, and feels a little disorienting. After a few minutes, I felt a bit seasick—though I’m somewhat prone to motion sickness, so it was hard to know if this sensation was an intended effect coming from the I-Dose itself or an incidental effect from the I-Dose’s interaction with my inner ears. I dashed off a quick response email to this effect, but I also kept listening as I finished eating and read stuff on the Internet.
This, mind you, is not how I-Doser recommends that one administer I-Doses. I-Doser says the I-Dose should be administered through their special headphones, “while lying down in a dim-lit room in solitude without any noisy distractions.” I, on the other hand, was wearing my nice but not “specially designed for I-Dosing” headphones, and was sitting mostly-upright in my bright lit living room thoroughly distracted by my food and the glowing screen of my laptop while sounds came from the heater and the ceiling fan. And yet…about halfway through, I did start to feel not just sleepy, but a bit hazy. I felt strange in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
Was the I-Dose actually having an effect on my brain? What is a “simulated drug experience” supposed to feel like? Now I was thinking not about Sylvester Stallone, but about Howard Becker.
In his 1953 paper “Becoming a Marihuana User” [pdf], sociologist Howard Becker argues that some people use marijuana for pleasure not because they are individually predisposed to engage in such deviant behavior, but because they’ve had experiences which have conditioned them to view using marijuana for pleasure as both possible and desirable. In other words, it’s not that some people are predisposed to smoke weed, and when they encounter it, they smoke it and automatically become high; rather, people smoke weed because they decided to try it, learned to perceive the biological effects of smoking it, and then learned to interpret those sensations as something pleasant, as “being high.” As Becker writes,
It is not enough, that is, that the effects be present; they alone do not automatically provide the experience of being high. The user must be able to point them out to himself [sic] and consciously connect them with his having smoked marihuana before he can have this experience.
Becker finds that learning to smoke marijuana effectively, and then learning to perceive and interpret its effects of having done so, is something marijuana users most often do in social groups. More experienced users teach novices how to inhale correctly, and guide novices through identifying and framing their subsequent experiences. “Being high” is therefore in large part social, even when people smoke marijuana alone. One can smoke all the weed one wants, but learning to become high is a different process.
This is how I felt listening to the I-Dose alone in my living room. I hadn’t yet read any of the experience reports on the I-Doser website, and I was not in a group of people who were more experienced I-Dose users, so I had no one to teach me how to identify the effects of an I-Dose. Was I perceiving simulated sedation, or was I perceiving what one feels when one’s blood sugar begins to rise again, and Sleep Imperative begins to trump Eat Imperative, late at night after a long day of traveling? (What’s the difference between “sedation” and “simulated sedation,” anyway?[i]) Unlike Becker’s informants—who had “high” to parse the effects of smoking marijuana—I had no concept to parse the effects of simulated sedation. If there are cultures of use that surround I-Dosing, I’m not a part of them; as a result, I lacked the frameworks to perceive the effects of the I-Dose and to interpret those effects as being in a desirable, altered state.
In truth, I didn’t go about my experiment very scientifically. Though I expected that nothing would happen, I chose an I-Dose that would be compatible with my current state (tired and wanting to go to bed) just in case it actually worked. If I was really going to test I-Dosing out, what I should have done is tried a sedative I-Dose when I wasn’t tired (not sure when I can find that moment in my calendar), or purchased one of their stimulant I-Doses and tried it when I was tired—though I’m unlikely to give I-Doser money, because the objectification of women in their promotional material really rubs me the wrong way. In any case, by combining a (supposed?) simulated sedative with my preexisting exhaustion, I created a situation in which I didn’t know what I was looking for while also trying to differentiate between two experiences that might feel very similar to each other.
In conclusion, I have no real idea whether I-Dosing works or not. I’ll probably try it again at some point, and if I do so, I’ll probably try “administering the dose” in something closer to the way the site suggests (though with the headphones I already own). If I feel any effects a second time around, however, this will have as much—if not moreso—to do with the fact that I’ve now read some I-Dose user reports, and have a sense of what being I-Dosed is supposed to be like. Even if I never try I-Dosing again, reading those reports has brought me closer to becoming an I-Dose user.
Whitney Erin Boesel may not be an I-Dose user, but she is a Twitter user. You can get a peek at her brain by following @phenatypical.
Woman wearing headphones image from http://www.i-doser.com/about.html
Woman holding cocktail glass full of pills image from I-Doser free trial:
“MultipleO” image from http://idosersoftware.com/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=6
Man wearing headphones image from http://www.i-doser.com/index.html
“Marijuana” image from http://idosersoftware.com/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=7&sort=20a&page=3
“Content” image from http://idosersoftware.com/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=2
[i] Moreover, if I was actually feeling effects, was I then “sedated”? Was my experience, if any, really a simulation? I went off down a Baudrillardian rabbit hole: if, for the purpose of argument, I started from the premise that recreational drug experiences are simulated experiences—I don’t actually believe that to be true, but it’s a thought experiment—could I make the case that I-Dose experiences are second or even third order simulacra? (And no, that’s not the I-Dose talking; I think like this anyway.)