A couple weeks ago, reports started appearing in newspapers about a longevity breakthrough. “Scientists destroy cells that age us.” In both the mainstream and the futurist media, this was played as probably the biggest breakthrough towards attaining hyperlongevity thus far — which it may well be.
At the same time, a mediocre mainstream movie, In Time, starring Justin Timberlake evokes popular anxieties about human life extension.
Without going into all the details (I’ve written more extensively about it here), In Time posits an extreme class society in which the poor not only don’t get their lives extended, they must earn their ordinary biological lifespans day-to-day while the rich gather thousands and even millions of years. The plot involves the suicide of a feeling-guilty time-rich man and implies not only that it is not good to live millions of years while others die young, but that it’s not that good to live that long anyway.
As serious life extension appears on an ever nearer horizon simultaneous with a period of social and economic rebellion and an increasing sense of global chaos, this may be a good time to entertain these anxieties while thinking beyond the two extant competing simplistic arguments.
The current conflicting views seem to be these:
A: Hyperlongevity will be for rich people only and we can’t afford to add to the population
B: Technologies get distributed to more and more people at an increasing rate of speed through the auspices of the free market. Demand increases. Production increases. The price gets lower. Demand increases. Production increases. The price gets lower… ad infinitum. In fact, the wealthy who are the early adopters of a new technology get to spend a lot of money on crappy versions of new technologies that are not ready for prime time.
At the risk of being obvious, it seems like there’s a lot of room in the middle for more nuanced, less certain views.
Let’s start with the notion that hyperlongevity is only for the super rich. While I largely buy the argument that important technologies get distributed to huge numbers of people via the market, it’s never a good idea to indulge in technological determinism (unless your livelihood depends on making sanguine pronouncements about the future.) For one instance, if hyperlongevity depends on surgical intervention; say, for organ replacement, and if it remains dependent in that way for a long time, hyperlongevity could, in fact, turn out to be only available to the wealthy. Indeed, organ replacement already stands as a longevity enhancement that is not very well distributed. Additionally, anyone who has had AIDS for a few decades can tell you that the drug combinations needed to maintain a semblance of health remained expensive for a very long time. There are, indeed, plenty of examples of people suffering today from the price of pharmaceuticals. The drift towards lower prices doesn’t reach everywhere, everyone, or every drug at the same speed.
On the other hand, as everyone reading H+ knows, drugs and other methods that can keep us young don’t just stop aging. They slow or lessen or stop the diseases related to aging, which when you consider the weakening of the immune system that comes with old age, is almost all of them.
Very few people would say that we shouldn’t cure cancer or heart disease because only the wealthy will be able to afford it — and those who did would be seen by most as anti-human and/or insufferably whiny.
Seen in this light, it becomes obvious that this whole “only the rich will get hyperlongevity” mentality is pathetic in the extreme — a concession of defeat before the outset. If you think optimal health and longevity should be distributed, you won’t say, “Well, it won’t be distributed so I’m against it.” You will try to make sure it gets distributed. Whether you believe in medical care for all through government or pushing these solutions towards a very large mass market or creating an open source culture that takes production and distribution into its own decentralized hands, you’ll work or fight for one or several (or all) of these solutions.
The question of population is more complex. Optimists like to throw down charts that show that wealth and quality of life has increased with increased population and love to point out that Paul Ehrlich’s uber-Malthusian “population bomb” didn’t come to pass. On the other hand, some of these good timey statistics are straining against economic crises in various parts of the world. Indeed, pessimists have counterarguments and statistics to show that resource crises are looming and we may not get the technical solutions we need for all or even most of the important ones. Finally, among many optimists, there’s a sort of blind faith that the environment that sustains us can handle almost anything we throw at it, at least up until that magical time when we’re able to really break through into much cleaner technology. But realistically, until such time, it seems that population may, in fact, be an issue.
There is also another aspect of human population that doesn’t usually enter into these discussions. What is the psychological and emotional effects of sharing the world with 7 billion humans — as opposed to say approximately 900 million people (1800) or approximately 1 million in 10,000 B.C. Might not the stress of population be the reason that the tap water in several European countries have been show to be contaminated by psychiatric drugs?
As far as relying on the free market to disperse these solutions in a way that’s timely and equitable enough not to foster an excess of anger and disgust, well, that’s not inconceivable. But it’s almost certainly not going to go down exactly that way anyway.
If we can be sure of one thing, it’s that a good percentage of those 7 billion human beings — being part of this irascible disagreeable and malcontent species — won’t let any one solution or path towards a long lived future unfold without a lot of pushback and pull-forward. The middle ground between “Fuck it. It’s just for the rich people” and “it’ll all work out just fine” is the ground on which all activity will take place — conflicts and arguments about access to life extending health care and how we live with each other when there’s a lot of us around will continue to take place against a backdrop of continued technological development, social and political diversities, natural and environmental occurrences, and an endless proliferation of activity generating memes ranging from silly to twisted to useful.
The path to the future is going to be messy, unpredictable and uncontrollable and probably will contain a mix of influences from your most favorite and least favorite memes (and then some)… just like it is now. I rather hope it remains so since homeostasis seems to me to be a condition of death even if it takes place among the living. So live long, prosper, and expect that whatever takes place amongst the humans will be beyond your ken… at least until The Singularity, if any.
R.U. Sirius is currently editor of Acceler8or at http://www.Acceler8or.com