Death increasingly has a new face. One that endures. One that
has a life of its own.
George Carlin died
Sunday. He was an innovator and a provocateur and at his best,
pretty damn funny. He’s also illustrative of a developing trend –
the public, multimedia epitaph. In fact, he recorded the way he
would like his obituary to be, how he would like to be remembered,
in this Associated Press interview 10 years ago.
This is a trend that really began with videotape, often used to
read wills and say goodbye to loved ones. Now there are sites like
that memorialize people in perpetuity, that people can add to in
terms of memories, stories, pictures, video, etc. Where people who
were brought together through that person can still connect. Social
media sites. We also see this on facebook and myspace. (cont.)
An honest assessment of my exposure to the extreme life-extension meme.
Since being exposed to the idea of extreme life extension, which admittedly was only several months ago, I’ve found myself reacting in a more skeptical and reactionary manner than I often do when confronted with other radical new futuristic ideas and technologies. When I read about possibilities of faster than light travel, I get excited. Predictions of nano-assemblers make me hopeful. I find designs for colonies on the Moon and Mars fascinating. But when I read about trends in regenerative medicine and nanotechnology that some experts believe will conquer death, I am not enthusiastic. Instead I become very skeptical, nervous and even angry. On one level, I am surprised that I could be anything other than overjoyed that ending death could be a possibility, I very much enjoy life and, as a living organism, I have a strong instinct to stay alive. Yet I find it extremely difficult to wrap my head around the idea of life without death.
So why does extreme life extension make me uncomfortable? I’m not, nor have I ever been a religious person, though I have respect for those who are. I was raised by two atheists with PhDs in science and I haven’t ever held out hope for an afterlife. It’s not that I don’t value human life – I value it very much. As a humanist, I believe very strongly that each human life is sacred and unique and believe it is within our power, and is indeed our responsibility, to work towards giving every person as good a life as possible. I also don’t believe I am a Luddite. I am increasingly excited about technology in general, I love my cellphone and the new snazzier one I will someday get. I love my computer and wonders of the Internet. I’m fascinated by the promise of the Semantic Web. I also embrace any technology that could cure diseases or repair injuries. But when it comes to anything that may fundamentally change the way I am or the way people are in general, I am very hesitant.
I thought it would be interesting to explore some of the reactions, thoughts and feelings I have when pondering extreme life extension, as I think they probably overlap with those of the people who have been or will be exposed to these ideas.
The logic problem: Defying death seems to break down logic
When I think about the end of death, I find it hard to express myself in logical, objective terms. I am tempted to call my reactions
against extreme life extension a “bias” because there is undoubtedly an emotional aspect and I do have a predisposition against the idea. But “bias” implies an illogical perspective – can considering death a certainty really be regarded as illogical? I begin to think, “Hasn’t everything that has ever lived also died?” Well, yes, except of course for the trillions of life forms that are alive right now. So the answer becomes not “Everything that has ever lived has died.” but “Everything that has ever died, has died.” This answer is so logically recursive that it isn’t even that useful.
My post last week on the Demise of Death received so many thought provoking comments that I feel compelled to further the discussion in another post. The new information and perspectives contained in the the comments have transformed the way I intend to approach parts of the debate. With such a fertile discussion ground, I felt I would be remiss if I did not give attention and thanks to several of the eloquently expressed ideas.
Here’s the point-by-point update:
Nanotech & Biotech Will Not Necessarily End Death: That death may remain even if aging is cured was a point raised by a few of the commentors. If our bodies did not deteriorate into death, fatal accidents, acts of violence etc. could still bring about mortality. I realize that my rationale for thinking we may be able to conquer death altogether was somewhat obscure in my first post. One theory proposed by futurists and transhumanists, is that to truly conquer aging, we will not be able to rely merely on stem cells, genetic therapies and drugs.
These treatments can, the theory argues, only go so far to combat cellular deterioration. If we are to truly end, and not merely delay aging, we would eventually have to develop nanobots capable of precisely repairing cells. My own logic followed that if we are able to create effective cellular-repair nanobots, we will have mastered nanotechnology and it will serve a number of other functions beyond cellular repair.
Prolific poster Dick Pelletier has pointed out a few times that if nanobot technology were mastered, we could, in theory, surround ourselves in a sort of thin nanobot shield that could, in theory, protect us from violence and accident. Perhaps I have taken this rationale too far. It does not logically follow that by ending aging we will necessarily end death by accident or violence, but I think it is at least a reasonable possibility.
Taking Control of Your Fate Opens Pandora’s Box: Let us consider my original conjecture is incorrect and that we will be able to bring an end to aging, but not death by accident or violence. If this becomes true, we will, in effect be gaining a greatly extended life at the expense of knowing that death will certainly come either by violence, violent accident or suicide. I cannot help but think these are all troubling ends.
Admittedly, most deaths now are troubling. Death by disease and aging is most often the end of a long, painful, degrading, messy battle. But, at present, we can at least hope to be one of the lucky few to die comfortably, unknowingly in their sleep. This hope will be eliminated if aging is defeated.
Even to me the benefits outweigh the downsides, but it is deeply disturbing to know you will one day kill yourself if you aren’t hit by a bus or murdered first. This is in part what I meant when I wrote that I considered myself a part of nature and do not wish to be removed from the natural process. Taking your fate out of the hands of nature results in some very difficult decisions.
Accepting Suicide? This idea of death occurring either by chance or choice is tied to another point raised in the comments. Johnfrink said, “I’m pretty sure if we conquer death eternal life will not be forced on anybody.” And I am inclined to agree. It is unlikely that in a future without aging, omniscient police will parole the streets taking into custody all those thinking of ending it all. But that doesn’t mean suicide will be any more desirable than it is today.
Page 9, somewhere in between another problem with public services and the latest celebrity gossip, is usually where I’ll find today’s horrific murder story. A teenager is brutally beaten and then “accidentally” killed when his attackers take it too far. They get a few months inside for man-slaughter; his family gets a lifetime of heartache. Consequently, the world balance between peaceful, loving, value creators and destructive, sadistic losers is shifted yet a little further in favour of idiocy. Yet, taking another sip of coffee, we turn the page.
We think to ourselves, “There’s nothing we can do”, and continue with our daily lives. “It doesn’t really affect me or anyone I know”. We blame “fate”, we think “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” or, most fundamentally, we think “Everyone dies, he was just taken before his time”.
As a society, we still see death as inevitable. As a result, there is just no respect for human life. This, I believe, is why we have a situation where killing somebody can carry a lower sentence than stealing money from a bank.
Not only do the killers have no respect (another topic!), but neither do those handing out the pathetic sentences. Nor do the beauracrats who create the laws. Nor do the media, who report on deaths with a cold objectivity. As such, nor do the public, whose attitudes shape the decisions of authority. So we live in a world where the consequences of our actions are severely depreciated, a world where a mindless violent killing just isn’t important enough to get more than a passing mention.
In an interview with
the BBC, Gartner analyst Steve
Prentice predicts the demise of the mouse (the thing in your hand
right now, not actual mice – we need those for testing drugs on) in
the next three to five years. He remarks that although the mouse
works fine for desktops, for mobile devices like laptops, “it’s
over.” But how accurate is this belief? Is the mouse genuinely
on the edge of extinction?
It could be true. A laptop touchpad is hard to use, and carrying
around mice with all the other usual laptop baggage (power cords,
wireless internet cards, headphones) is impractical, and on top of
that, you need a flat surface. If there’s one thing the Nintendo
Wii has shown us, it’s that tracking technology is not only
available, but it’s cheap.
While there’s no denying that vocal and facial recognition
software has the potential to do away with the mouse, a majority of
users still believe that our little friend is a long way from
retirement. The reasoning? Well, for one thing, the mouse is
incredibly useful and quick. And, in the words of Adrian
Kingsly-Hughes at ZDNet, “Anything that replaces the mouse not
only has to be better than it, it’ll have to be a LOT better.” In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t
The mouse may well be discarded at some point in our near
future, but the odds of that happening in the next five years seem
like a pipe dream to me.
just a few years before the Wright brothers
achieved their historic accomplishment, Lord
Kelvin – then one of the world’s brightest men and most
accomplished scientists – declared heavier than air machines to be
He was wrong. To add insult to injury, Lord Kelvin was proved
wrong by a pair of bicycle repairmen from Dayton, Ohio.
A few years ago, a relatively unknown computer scientist,
Grey, declared that aging should not be viewed as something
which will necessarily ultimately result in death. Rather, he
theorized that aging is a disease and should be treated as
The outcry from the scientific community was similar to Lord
Kelvin’s reaction to human flight. One group of scientists even
declared that de Grey’s idea was "so far from plausible that it
commands no respect at all within the informed scientific
Well, according to this article
in Wired, the idea is now beginning to gain some acceptance within
scientific circles. (cont.)
If there’s one thing that haunted me all through elementary
school, it was the teachers, constantly reminding us that
practicing cursive was a crucial skill needed in life. Hours each
day were spent preparing for this veritable Hell of a place called
High School where the bullies were bigger, the textbooks were
heavier, and every paper had to be written in cursive. That last
point was hammered in – No teacher in high school would
EVER accept a paper from a student if it
wasn’t written in cursive.
Then came August 20th, 1997, my first day at high school. The US
History teacher shocked me with the words, “Don’t hand-write your
papers, I can’t read them they’re so illegible. I’ll only accept
typed papers.” I couldn’t believe my luck! I had scored the one
teacher that didn’t require students to write papers in cursive.
But in reality, every class I had that day I heard the same thing.
Cursive is illegible… type everything. All that practice had meant
nothing, cursive had been eliminated. It was dead.
In an age where airline tickets have gone electronic and bills
can be paid online rather than through check, handwriting itself is
becoming less and less important in our daily lives. One school
teacher even likened learning cursive to teaching kids how to drive
a stagecoach when they should be learning how to drive a car.
Students these days find it easier and quicker to type up lecture
notes than to write it out by hand. The sheer simplicity,
efficiency and speed of typing will be the undoing of
True, things aren’t looking too bright for longhand writing, but
just how bad is it? Online bill pay has killed the check along with
credit and debit cards. Blogs, social networking sites and Email
has obliterated the need for letters. Resumes are Emailed.
Applications are filled out online. All in all, for people who are
heavily immersed in the technology of today, writing is no longer
important. Sure, there is the occasional Post-it note, the grocery
list, or even written instructions. But when you think about some
of the technology most futurists say is coming around the corner,
these can all be wiped out. Refrigerators that order food for you
when your stocks get low. Voice recognition software that makes it
quicker to record instructions than to write. Even Post-its could
be replaced with flexible electronic paper, endlessly reusable and
I ask this question from neither a deep-seated fear of dying nor an egotistical desire to live forever. I simply ask it from the perspective of someone who is deeply interested in the accelerating pace of change and is concerned we are heading into a future for which few of us are really prepared.
Let me begin by sharing a couple of recent news items which speak to the astounding progress being made in the field of health care.
To begin, if I am in need of surgery sometime within the next few years, it is likely that that surgery will be conducted with the assistance of a robot. Given that these robots are already better than many human surgeons, this suggest I will not only get out of the hospital faster but that I will be in better condition when I do so. Continued advances in robotics will only improve surgical outcomes over the coming years.
Next, say, I am in an accident. There is now a very good chance – due to advances in the Nationwide Health Information Network, personal electronic records and the ever-improving capability of the Internet – that my providers will be able to rapidly access a growing wealth of medical knowledge in order to keep me alive.
Assuming then that I dodge some of these pesky middle-age risks, there is a very real chance, according to this article, that I’ll soon be able to “grow replacement body parts.” We can already replace our aging hips and knees, but what happens when I can replace my lungs and, eventually, my heart?
The question is a serious one because society is closer to this future than most people realize.
Alas, these advances – which I remind you are only from the past few days – are just the beginning. I am now 44 years and it is not unreasonable to think, given recent medical progress, that I will live to 100.
But even this is the wrong way to think about this issue. The question I – and all of us, really – need to ask is what further advances will be made in the next 56 years of my life and how might they extend my life past 100 years of age?
If a virtual world works, then you can live for eternity. A new online memorial, EternalSpace, not only lets friends and family celebrate your life after death, but can be used while alive to send messages to people - friends, family and others - well into the future. It's social media feature let's you gather family and friends together virutally to share stories or view a pre-recorded greeting that can be preserved for eternity.
Following is a description of this service...while designed primarily for grieving loved ones, it's possiblities are interesting to imagine:
EternalSpace™ (www.EternalSpace.com) unveiled a completely new type of online memorials, an immersive, multidimensional experience, that allows family, friends, colleagues, and well-wishers to connect emotionally while sharing and preserving the cherished memories of departed family members or friends - forever. Personal memorials at EternalSpace.com are peaceful, serene online environments for sharing thoughts or uploading photos and videos that celebrate a life for the days, months and years to come. EternalSpace memorials can be started or added to any time and passed to future generations who can learn about their heritage and experience first-hand accounts of their ancestors.