Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

The technologist’s stone

A peculiar kind of cognitive dissonance grips most people who talk about death. On one hand, death is awful: It is the most tragic fate that can befall somebody, murderers are the lowest of the low, and the death of a loved one, even an elderly loved one who has lived a long life, clogs us with sadness.

On the other hand, any intimation that we might wish to, I don’t know, abolish death is met with deep suspicion. “Everyone’s time comes eventually,” I have been told. Or: “It’d be unnatural any other way.” Even: “But would you really want to live forever?”

Yes, actually. Yes I would. I have wanted to live forever for as long as I can remember. My instinctive response when asked why is, well, why not? Life is a self-evident good to me. Justifying that seems absurd — don’t you like happiness? And love? And experiencing things? Don’t you like being alive? People’s tendency to reply, “Well yes, but…” and trail off, looking vaguely concerned for my mental wellbeing, continues to mystify me.

Like large swathes of secular ethics, I suspect that this hesitancy is, in some sense, a hangover from Christianity. Christians, of course, might reasonably shun the idea of earthly immortality, but the basic impulse underlying Christianity’s doctrine of life and death — that one must endure an imperfect and pious life on Earth before rejoicing in the eternity of the empyrean — is the same one that motivates me. I just have less faith that death brings anything other than an ineffable and everlasting nothingness.

Immortality is no longer, however, as niche an aspiration as it was even five, ten years ago. Tad Friend recently published a (highly recommended) piece in The New Yorker that documents the recent anti-aging buzz that has overcome Silicon Valley. Iconoclastic tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, ever ahead of the zeitgeist, wrote in 2009 that he “stand[s] against… the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual.”

Since then, a steadily growing number of futurists have become interested in abolishing aging in one form or another. Donald Trump considered appointing Jim O’Neill, a man who considers aging a disease to be overcome, to head the FDA, before, disappointingly, settling on the more establishment, Big Pharma-friendly Scott Gottlieb. Cryonics (freezing one’s corpse in the hope that future technology may breathe life into it anew), once dismissed as mere science fiction, has slowly but surely gained popularity among Silicon Valley’s elite. Futurist and AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky, a man unafraid of polemical positions (he once argued on utilitarian grounds that a single person being tortured for fifty years was preferable to a sufficiently large number of people getting dust specks in their eyes), wrote in a post on the website Less Wrong that “If you don’t sign up your kids for cryonics then you are a lousy parent.” Thinking about cryonics reminds me of an H.P. Lovecraft line from the fictional text The Necronomicon, an esoteric book filled with secrets so vast in their cosmic implications that readers are sent insane merely by reading it. One of the few lines that Lovecraft reveals from the book goes like so: “That is not dead which can eternal lie,/And with strange aeons even death may die.” Strange aeons indeed, but perhaps ones not so far away.

I find this exhilarating. The world — especially outside of Silicon Valley — is starved of the kind of grand projects that can inspire a nation. Something like the space race would be nigh-unthinkable today (just ask Newt Gingrich). Even political projects like the New Deal or the Great Society, whatever you think of their outcomes, had an idealistic flavor to them that neither side of mainstream politics — except, arguably, parts of Trumpism and Sanders-esque social democracy — is really willing to embrace anymore. The prospect of seizing a truly fundamental part of human destiny — the inevitability of death — and forging it into a shape that befits our will is intoxicating in its grandiosity.

I think that one day the idea that death was so readily embraced, and that there was resistance against a project to eliminate it, will be incomprehensible to people. Life, and as much life as possible, will simply be taken for granted as a wonderful thing. Perhaps that’s naive of me.

Tell you what, if I’m still wrong in a thousand years, I’ll write an apology column.

 

Contact Sam Wolfe at swolfe2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.