Do you want to live forever?

I might have offhandedly answered yes before I read Bruce Sterling’s book, Holy Fire. To quote Amazon:

In an era when life expectancies stretch 100 years or more and adhering to healthy habits is the only way to earn better medical treatments, ancient “post humans” dominate society with their ubiquitous wealth and power.

This book is, to date, the only book I’ve read that offers a good argument for kicking the bucket. What I took away from this is that living a longer than normal lifespan happens at the expense of the next generation. That, at some point, we are meant to give up our seat in the theater of life so that someone else can enjoy the show. Until we colonize other planets and are not stuck here on Earth with limited resources, this sounds fair!

I was excited to discover this topic being discussed at Litquake by David Ewing Duncan, Sonia Arrison, and Paul Saffo. What an amazing line up! David Ewing Duncan has written eight books and writes for The Atlantic. Sonia Arrison is an author and trustee of Singularity University. Paul Saffo is a futurist and makes long-term predictions (and is involved in The Long Now Foundation). He joked that is the type of prediction to make, as by the time they come to pass (or not), everyone will have forgotten about you and what you said.

When I'm 164 at Litquake

David Ewing Duncan, Sonia Arrison, and Paul Saffo after their talk at Litquake.

The talk was fascinating and too brief! Some interesting facts about aging in general…a statistic I hope I got right: in 1960, 15% of the population was under age 5, and 5% over 60, and now that has flip flopped. China is going to face a huge crisis soon as its population ages. Also, when Social security was started, there were only 9 million people in the U.S. over age 65. In 2010, there were 40 million, and the line shoots up from there.

Much of the discussion focused on quality of life. No one wants to be 100 and be miserable!

Also, though there has been promising research done on worms and rats for life extension, all the panelists seemed to agree that it was going to be a long time before this gets to humans. I love Paul Saffo’s quote, “Many people mistake a clear view for a short distance.”

David Duncan brought up an interesting fact. When he interviewed people about living forever, he expected religion to become a non-issue in this imagined future, but interest in religion seemed not to be affected by the idea of immortality. He (I assume) figured that religion was about afterlife, but found it is also about how to live life, and thus could possibly become stronger as life gets longer.

They briefly discussed how immortality has been portrayed in literature, and it was nearly universally BAD. I’m wracking my brain to think of immortal characters that were happy and well adjusted. The only ones I can recall are usually alien or augmented with machines or in and out of cryo-sleep and they aren’t normal people hanging around living life and having to eat and deal with home repairs.

Finally, the issue of the cost of prolonging life arose. This will initially be very expensive, all agreed. The panelists pointed out that ALL technologies are initially expensive and that that early adopters pay a big price for something that isn’t even that good. By the time it is perfected, the price drops. Cell phones, computers, etc. On the other hand, the technology might remain expensive and be used exclusively by the rich, allowing them to accumulate riches and hold on to them. To paraphrase Paul Saffo, a few old turtles, surrounded by the masses who breed and die like mayflies. Yikes!!

That was more or less the conclusion Bruce Sterling reached, and also reminded me of Richard K. Morgan’s book Altered Carbon:

…what religion cannot guarantee technology has already delivered; when your consciousness can be stored in a cortical stack and routinely downloaded into a new body even death has become little more than an inconvenience. As long as you can afford a new body…

Given the fact that we have limited resources and a small planet, I can’t imagine life extension really taking off for the majority of us until we get our population under control, or, until we colonize another planet! I think that life extension would be great for space travelers since it takes so freaking long to get anywhere in this universe. Since research will continue though, I’m on the side of the pessimists and am pretty sure the treatments will be purchased only by the very rich and will cause more wealth to be consolidated by the wealthiest among us.

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