Live Long and Prosper. Umm, we’ll Get Back To You On That Prosper Bit

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

8 Responses

  1. Conor Jamison says:

    As a philosopher, the first question that sticks out to me is: What does it mean to live forever? In my opinion, talking about “forever” doesn’t make any sense, for we humans have no true concept of infinity. All we can say of it is, “Infinite is the opposite of finite,” for not in the whole world, not in the whole Milky Way galaxy, and not in the whole Universe is there an infinite number of atoms. The number would be astronomical, but just because humans can’t count that high doesn’t make it correct to offer infinity as a solution. The number would simply be beyond our computing ability. If anything, only God has a knowledge of the infinite, and even then, maybe he doesn’t. So the question becomes: What does it mean to live for a very long time? It’s quite vague, but it could be 1,000 – 1,000,000,000 years. Well, living for such a long time would first-off be tiring. I mean, think of all of the experiences that would grow upon your mind, all the weight that would sit on your shoulders. All the deaths, the loneliness, the bad times, even the good times would slowly grow. I for one can see my self living a long time, but I don’t know how long that is. I have many things I want to do in Life, many moments I want to see, but eventually I’m going to be tired. So many people I love will die, and if I get to be 250,000,000,000 I may see the Earth swallowed by the Sun. I think Life will stop meaning something at some point, and so I think I for one will live for a long time, wake up one day thinking, “I’m ready to die,” and then die of my own accord. Any continuance after that day will be me living in fear of death, and Life will be meaningless. I think that it’s a natural part of being human that we get tired, and so for any regular human being, Life will have its limit, regardless of how wealthy one is, and how afraid one may be to someday give it up. That leaves the three other possibilities for living an extremely long life, give up one’s humanity, periodically forget, or spend most of one’s time sleeping. I have no clue what it truly means to give up one’s humanity, except that they would cease to be human. Perhaps they would be a cold living process devoid of feeling, and therefore not tire at living for a very long time. I don’t know, but what kind of life is that? And if the prospect was to periodically forget, relieve oneself of the burden of memory, what life would that be? I know for me, the memory I’d hate to lose most is that of my mother, yet that is the one memory that will surely cause my eventual death. Every year, every decade that passes would make me desire life less and death more, for the possibility of what comes after. And for all we know, there could be an afterlife, and I don’t want to spend my life avoiding what comes next in an attempt to hold onto something that periodically loses its meaning. The third option is to sleep for thousands of years at a time. I’ve pondered this myself, but the more I think about it, the sillier it seems to me. What would be the joy of that, to give and receive from the world only to sleep for 10,000 years, and wake up to either a world that is no longer there or a world that is no longer one’s own? And then do the same thing again after a few hundred years maybe? For me, at least, that would soon sadden me fully, for I could never truly love and settle in a world of my own- I’d always have to give it up in exchange for another. With each prospect I mentioned, I feel I would lose my life- I don’t think it’s worth it, and I think humanity in general would feel the same way, even the people at the top.

    As for the question of “Who gets what?”, I think that there will indefinitely be a gap between the haves and the have-nots. Once longevity medicine comes out, regardless of what it specifically is, the rich will get it first. And eventually it will become cheaper and the lower classes will receive it, though the very bottom will not receive it (unless the whole of humanity demands it for them, and assuming that they would, they’d surely demand quality life for each human on Earth), and at the same time, the top will get the newer, better, more expensive version. That will continue until the moment that longevity mecidine can’t get any better, when it reaches perfection. At that point, and even maybe before, it will be up to to Earthen population as a whole to voice its opinion about how longevity should be handled. If the world unites and states that everybody should have equal access, then that should be fine, but if it doesn’t, there will always be a gap between the haves and the have-nots. Presumably, the top class will be the most well-off haves, and then the issue becomes that of world domination. If the top has all the power, and has it indefinitely thanks to their longevity, the only solution to stop that is to take their power away and give it to the whole of humanity. The only way for that to happen is for a benevolent, wholly-united Earthen League of some sorts to have the power. As I see it, the world will always be ruled by an oligarchy. The few at the top will always control everything, no matter how many governments attempt to make it seem as if they are the ones with the power. Humanity’s only hope in that respect is for the people at the top to be good people.

    Concerning over-population, there will be a limit, whether it be one of resources or or space. If humans remain as they are, they will need food to survive, but if there are too many humans, all needing food, it is not like there is an indefinite amount of food in the world. There won’t be enough food. And all of those people will want houses and furniture, and cars, and things, and all of those material items are made up of resources, which are essentially just atoms. There’s only so many atoms in the world, and we could dig into the Earth, but there are only so many kinds of atoms in the Earth. The only option I see would be to grab resources from other planets, from asteroids, from space. The issue is then, how much more mass can we bring into the Earth before it starts affecting the the planet’s orbit, and consequently, the whole dance of the solar system? That is a serious risk, because if the solar systems physical balance is off-sett, who knows what could happen? Planets could crash into each other, or something, which is clearly not good. The solution to this problem is the same solution to the problem of space: colonization of space. If we run out of space, which could happen, we’d have to colonize space. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but no offense, I like Earth, and if I had to choose between an Earth of 5 billion people and one of 13 billion people, I’d choose 5 and try to find a way to get rid of the other people. The Earth wasn’t meant to house so many people, but as soon as we stopped evolution’s population-slimming effects, we started causing over-population. Even now, Earth is being overtaken by concrete jungles, and forests are being destroyed for living space and resources, and overall, we’re taking away from the Earth so that we can live in a sub-par Earth. Over-population will only add to that. And then, the first place we’ll colonize is the moon. But two issues then come up. Humans would have to take Earth’s resources to the moon, depriving Earth of is natural state. And also, the core issue would not be stopped, as Earth became overpopulated, so will the Moon. With the first issue, again, humans will be off-setting nature, by taking from the Earth and not giving it back. That just won’t work, because the Earth needs its balance, or else it will cease to be the beautiful planet we know it to be. We can already see the side-effects of what happens when we begin working against our planet and not in harmony with it: it becomes sick. That brings it full-circle again to the fact that I, like most other humans, love the Earth, and I don’t want to see it deprived and sick and lacking in the things it needs to keep itself a healthy, living organism. And if we begin colonizing the moon, it will only keep the issue going. We will colonize, over-populate, ruin the planet, and move on. It’s that simple. If we don’t change out perspective on population, our actions won’t change, even if it is 1,000 years from now. Personally, I hope humanity chooses to lower the Earthen population. I mean, nobody needs to give birth to 13 children, especially when we live in a world of unwanted children! We are dealing with a population we can’t even currently handle, yet people have no fear about increasing the population? I think what it comes down to is what you care about. If you’re like me, and you care about all life, human, animal, plant, and that of our beautiful Earth, you’ll be against an increasing population, because there is only so much stress it can take.

    That became a bit of a rant towards the end, I apologize if it was somewhat hard to follow. But if you actually read it all, I appreciate it very much. 🙂

  2. (-1--|-0----1) says:

    This is near completely irrelevant. Over the next 20-25 years or so most of the human worforce will become obsolete; to be replaced by AI. During that period money will still have some significance. Once most or all industries are automated and in the control of a small fraction of the population, money will be of no significance whatsoever. The ones who control the industries will have very little to no need for other humans; all goods will be produced by AI-based industries.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Fuck longevity. It’s just for the rich people anyway.

  4. J Hughes says:

    The middle ground you are struggling to articulate here RU has a long history: social democracy. Under social democracy we have policies that ensure that the market does what it does best, while democracy protects social and political equality, and provides public goods that the market can’t. One such public good is the expansion of access to education, housing and so on as a right of citizenship. And yes, you are absolutely right, people will fight back if public goods like longevity are restricted to the rich, just like they fought for the right vote, the right to drinkable water, the right get their kids and education and the right not to starve when retire. Transhumanists can either begin including superlongevity in the list of demands for a more just society, a social democratic society, or join Peter Thiel on one of his islands of floating debris. Occupy the Future!

  5. Matthew says:

    It’s a matter of life and death. If you are like me, and believe death means non-existence, maybe you should be a bit more cautious with your wording about the billions who will die because capitalism failed them.

    And what about the scientists who do not have the legal right to patent the knowledge that will lead to the existence of extreme life extension? Basically, capitalism is the most fair system we have, and yet it still sucks balls.

    When their are working life extension tech, all those previous dead scientists and their families will be forgotten forever, while the venture capitalists will spin the story of their noble deeds of “creating” wealth when instead they exploited other’s knowledge! Makes me puke. It’s not ok. It’s not merely a trade off – it’s survival versus absolution.

    I know the rights to patents wear out. But what happens when people live a million years? Will the rich then be capable of dominating everyone forever?

    • Alan says:

      Money will not mean a whole lot in a society where everyone can have their needs met very cheaply and independently, as will likely happen with the advent of robotics, artificial intelligence, desktop manufacturing, and the like – so the “rich” who have only money and no reputation will be royally screwed.

      Wealth has always been primarily about one’s position in society, and that will continue. If you want to be wealthy in the future, help other people now.

      • Elliot says:

        Let’s not forget the advent of free energy, which is surely inevitable (or at least, nearly free energy) e.g. space-based solar. That sort of technology will eventually have a staggering effect on the distribution of resources, and hopefully will lead to a much more balanced planet. Obviously the doomsayers among us will find that laughable. But I’m not one of them.

  6. yissar says:

    First of all, it is already the case that rich people gets better medical treatment.

    Secondly, there are already several big and widening gaps depending on where one lives and how much one earns.

    Many people in the world still don’t have access to clean/running water, sanitation, food, decent shelter and education.

    As for hyper-longevity, it doesn’t seem that it will be come in one go, most probably it will be a gradual process where life extension gets gradually longer and does not jump suddenly from 70-80 years to infinite.
    Regarding population, we need to remember that longevity is not the only technology being researched, in parallel there are many other technologies that are being investigated in other areas, for example creating more sustainable food sources. Hopefully those other technologies will come to fruition as early as the technologies for longevity.

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