Digital Drugs = Free Software + Evil Genius Marketing

Lately there have been occasional blurts in the news about “Digital Drugs,” which are supposed to be special sounds you listen to on your computer that get you high.

I learned a little more about that.

It is marketing GENIUS. GENIUS.

Here’s what happened. There’s a free software program (GPL’ed) called SBAGEN, that’s been around for years. It generates binaural beats to help you meditate, relax, or whatever.  Binaural beats are a mysterious effect where if you play tones in each ear which differ slightly, such that if you played them out loud the frequencies would “beat” against each other, that same beat effect takes place inside your brain somehow, even though presumably by the time those sounds “meet” they are no longer sounds, but are neural correlates of sound, whatever that is.  There’s no prima facie reason it should work but it does.  Anyway, the binaural beat effect has been known for many years, but in the past few decades some clever folks have come up with the idea of using them to entrain brainwaves to a particular frequency, the same way you can use pulsing lights to entrain brainwaves.  The binaural beats trick is useful because normally beats at the frequency you would need to entrain brainwaves are low enough not to be easily audible, so where you couldn’t normally match sound to brainwaves, you can this way.

Whether or not entraining brainwaves has any particularly powerful effects beyond placebo is open to debate.

Anyway — SBAGEN.  Neat program, been around for years.

Some dude ripped SBAGEN off and changed it  and renamed it “i-doser.” The only real changes he made were —

  • installing some crude encryption and DRM-type stuff, so that each time you downloaded a file to play, it would include a random marking to distinguish it from any other times you downloaded it… only your copy of the program would play it, and it would only play it once. Then you have to buy it again. This is to make it more “drug” like — you have to buy a “hit” of it, and then pay to get your next fix. Even though you’re just paying for the privilege of making your computer make a humming noise.
  • making a bunch of little textfiles “play this frequency for ten seconds, then this one for two minutes, etc etc” files and naming them after drugs, cagily suggesting that they would have the effects of those drugs. Maybe some research went into this, but not likely.  In any case they’re just a bunch of text files wrapped up with the aforementioned gratuitous encryption and copy-protection schemes.

So that’s pretty much it. Eventually somebody discovered that he’d ripped off an open source program and he had to come to a legal settlement with the original author, but the revelation that he was selling what somebody had been giving away for free for years doesn’t seem to have hampered things any.

The key is the drug angle, which makes it seem rebellious and subversive, and even generates free marketing in the form of Concerned News Reports on the local news.

Mr. i-Doser must laugh all the way to the bank.  I bet he calls up local news shows all over the nation, stirring up fear and scandal, getting the equivalent of millions and millions of dollars of free advertising.