Time and the Transhuman Condition
I guess you could say that I’ve always been perplexed by the concept of time. Painstakingly aware of things being forgotten, from my 6th birthday I began devoting the hours pre-bedtime to logging into a journal, in an OCD-style panic that left me guilt-ridden if I skimmed over even the slightest detail. Perhaps that very thing might have a direct effect on my future. And much to the annoyance of my somewhat patient mother, I learnt I was often right. Passing acquaintances or emotions that might have been skipped over in a more concise entry, would often be the exact thing I’d be looking for in retrospect.
What was the original reaction or intuition when I met that person or experienced that thing?
As a child I had an obsession with computers that lead me to be subsequently banned from my dad’s office by my mother. I took solace on nights when I could tell he was home by the faint clicks of him typing away at his Dell PC (he was an electrical engineering professor at a nearby university). Happy to have company by the little fat tomboy child he rarely saw, we sat eating snacks that we hid from my mother, whilst he explained to me circuit boards and C++.
One of the most prolific moments of self-awareness in my childhood was the day my dad’s computer crashed. Looking to back up his files quickly before he came home, I was guided through the process of ‘system restore’. Going through the calendar and backing up my dad’s PC to the specific date he had previously saved, I was struck by the analogy to my life. Here I was, logging in data every day in my journal. And yet, despite in some way being able to relive the emotions through re-reading previous posts, there was no direct ‘system restore’ to connect to preferential versions of myself. How would I ensure continuity? How would I back up to previous moments of inspiration or enthusiasm? I was aware of the potential to become distracted from the original goals that my ‘self’ had set out for me. Even reading my diary aged 7-8 showed, as to be expected, a massive change in my outlook. And I was troubled, much like the PC. How do I enable direct continuity from the person I am, was, and will be? How do I system restore myself in the case that I get distracted, or fail, or lose perspective?
My first action was to begin writing letters to my future self. I can’t ever quite convey the humility experienced opening a letter on your 18th birthday that you wrote 10 years prior. As adults we look back at our childhood and consider ourselves to be inferior. Yet our views, so pure and untouched by the later mishmash of growing up, hold an honesty and a directness.
‘Dear Riva, Riva here. I am 8. You are 18. You are reading this. Hello. How are you? I hope you are well and happy.’
And so it went on for 5 sides of paper. I’d even included a little side letter for any potential boyfriend I may have. I’ll never forget handing it over and watching this guy read a note from his girlfriend, aged 8, telling him to ‘be good to me’..accompanied with a carefully drawn picture of Bart Simpson.
Obsessed with metaphysics, I’d later skip school to go to any talk related to time. There was the 16th century nobleman a teacher told me about, who despite having control of most of the land in his region, began taking apart clocks later in life, wondering why something so basic controlled him. Then there was Dali, with his melting clock- which I learnt was more of a reference to camembert than to metaphysics. The french phrase ‘les temps destruit tout’ and the inscriptions on 15th century wedding rings in London museums that stated ‘memento mori’. What happens if I don’t want to?
I ended up working in technology. I seemed more surprised by it than my friend’s did, who reminded me of sleepovers where they had woken up to find I had sat in front of their computer the whole night straight eating cookies straight out of the pack. I wanted to see what software they had, and moreover I wanted to find their parents secret folders. By this point my mother had refused to even let me own a computer. But aged 22, I was studying programming languages in Berlin. It became quite obvious to me that if we could harness the power of technology and direct it towards genuine world problems instead of consumerism, we would be able to do great things. So i invited people to my house to discuss this. We started off with 12 people in my living room, by the time I left Berlin there was a discussion group of nearly 300.
So what’s my point in telling my story? Well, because now, more than ever, I’m worried. Those hopes for the future- humanity living longer, better and happier- well, these are goals not confined to transhumanism in any way. But as I’ve got more involved with venture capital, start-ups and emerging technologies, I’ve noticed how distracted people have become. Perhaps you’ll assert that there’s an ideological optimism in thinking that people even have these original intentions. But I can’t help that we all do somewhere. It’s just that we lose track- no logging, no continuity, no reflection. I think most of our childhood selves would abhor us now. We become a sponge for everyone else’s ideas, reflecting the world around us. And until we collectively agree that the scene we reflect is utopian, we have to resist that. In some way, society needs to ‘system restore’.
Imagine a state of mind, free from any biases- from anything, read, felt or experienced. Almost (if not totally) impossible, we’re left to deducing things to logic. But the idea of training oneself to be free from as much cultural, social or personal bias to me lies the foundation for attempting rational thought. For some it comes easy, but for the most of is it’s something we need to train ourselves to do. To a degree, we all need to at least attempt to think outside of ourselves and to play devil’s advocate to our own convictions.
On the first Berlin Singularity event when a new friend propositioned the topic of life extension, I was horrified. But then I was even more troubled by the fact that I was horrified. I asked myself to set out the argument for offence. Then one by one, I realised that none of my propositions for concluding that life extension was ‘insane, gross, disgusting, egotistical’ were actually valid. They were all marred by an extreme social and cultural bias. Just because a thing had always been in such a way, did not mean that it was valid. Just because we had accepted aging in the past as a result of not really having any other choice, did not mean it was valid. Accepting aging was totally illogical- in the same vein that we do not accept cancers, or accidents, or any other cause of mortality. I couldn’t find any differences between these diseases and the notion of aging. This wasn’t about being ‘immortal’ (a word I think we all need to shun), but if I loved life (and the lives of those around me), why would I not want to enjoy it, healthier, for as long as I possibly could?
All the money in the world can’t stop time from destroying everything. And although we may never absolve ourselves from being under it’s grasp in some way or another, we’re able now to confront biological time in a way never considered before. We’re all racing against internal clockwork. And just like the nobleman taking apart the clock to try and gain control of the one thing that eluded him, so too are longevity research groups taking apart our internal clockwork and examining the mechanism. It’s the stuff that humanity has always dreamt of. It’s also one of the areas least discussed outside our relatively small circle.
So how do we get people to system restore? Outreach is the biggest downfall in the longevity space. Thinking research is the only financial necessity is the grandest failure of most companies I meet. And when one biotech startup founder told me he ‘didn’t need every Tom, Dick or Harry understanding his research’, I agreed- I mean for all extents and purposes I’d be quite insane to think that the masses are going to care enough to understand the fine details of his molecular nanotechnology company. But then, at the same time, we all need to collectively promote our end goals. In simple terms, his company was aiming for a simple thing that everyone could understand- he just needed to step outside the science realm to understand how to communicate it. And by this I mean, outside of the circles we move in, collaboratively, and without egoism. Every piece of outreach I work on now, I consider part of a bigger picture, an attempt for a social system restore.
The first step is encouraging the avoidance of distraction. Last year I was asked to lecture business and marketing students in a university in Berlin. I thought about the things they had been taught by other members of staff- the focus on consumerism, the focus on sales. What companies would these students go on to form? What would they potentially go on to fund? Instead of following the past– all the things that were once and have always been- ourselves, our peers and our students need to contemplate that every action, whether it be business or personal, is a direct contribution to a collective future. It seems obvious but remains poorly followed. I daydream of kids and grandkids and future generations who will have no idea my array of molecules even existed. Just as I was aware as a child that the smallest detail could play a massive impact down the line, so too am I aware of that in adulthood. To think as the Iroquois tribes did – “to look ahead , as one of the first mandates given to us as chiefs, to make sure and to make every decision that we make relate to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come. . . .”
“What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?”
The transhumanist and life extension movement gets a lot of rap for being egotistical. I can’t help but consider it to be the complete opposite. The reason why I’m drawn to putting more funding and attention into longevity research is not simply for my own benefit. I’ve stated time and time again that as much as I reject aging, I’ll only age knowing I have somehow contributed for it to be better for the generations to come. Our lives are our letters to the future. It’s going to take a generation to think outside of themselves for once. As a species, we need to get our goals in check. Consider all the money and time channelled into projects with little or no positive legacy. And the projects that are aiming for positive impacts aren’t telling anyone about it. Speak up. We’re listening.
For every company I work with, I like to give them the same gift. It’s a copy of one of Georges Seurat’s paintings. His use of pointillism – a collection of microdots on the canvas in a multitude of colours- from up close seem nonsensical, from further back a beautifully intrinsic scene. To me this is the perfect analogy of the biotechnology movement. Each company a tiny dot, part of a bigger picture, a bigger goal. Nonsensical to the masses up close, in the lab, but from further back a busy and exciting landscape.
It’s up to us to collaborate on portraying the bigger picture. And it’s not just about companies putting more money into outreach, it also comes down to personal effort. There shouldn’t be the slightest whiff of egoism in this movement. What we’re aiming for is a better life for humanity. And I’m not sure there could be a better call for a little altruism than that.