Arguments against life extension

Paul Raven @ 06-08-2010

Via Michael Anissimov, here’s a spectacularly empty diatribe against “deathhackers” by TechCrunch‘s Paul Carr. Carr objects to the idea of radical life extension as advocated by transhumanists, which is fair enough, but as written here most of his objections seem to boil down to personal distate toward those advocates. Ad hominem ahoy!

… go to any Silicon Valley party right now and you’ll find a scrawny huddle in the corner discussing the science of living forever…


Apart from rabid over-achieving, there’s another thing that unites all life-extension obsessives: they look like death. “Medievally thin and pale,” is how the Times (quoting Weiner’s book) describes [Aubrey] de Grey.

This just in: unattractive and/or geeky people interested in living longer. Film at eleven!

Amongst the ire and jealousy of “rabid over-achievers” (and a little bit of self-promotion, natch), Carr does have a point to make, namely that death is our greatest motivator:

What if the real reason these entrepreneurs have achieved so much is precisely because – more so than other mortals – they were born with a keen understanding they are working to a fixed (if unknown) deadline? It’s that fear of death that makes them succeed, not the other way around.

Regular readers will remember that this is an idea I have a great deal of personal sympathy with, though I’ve never suggested anyone else should be prevented from chasing immortality just because I’m not sure I’d want it for myself.

Anissimov also links to a rebuttal of Carr by Greg Fish, usually more of a gadfly against transhumanist tropes than a defender thereof:

Instead of telling entrepreneurs and angel investors who have a very real passion for science and technology to embrace their mortality, Carr should be encouraging them to pursue their lofty goals. Yes, ask them pointed questions, ask them to show you their thought process, and try to steer them from fantastic, pseudoscientific, or wishful thinking, but encourage their ideas because these people can take us to new places with the right support, motivation and a guiding hand from biologists, chemists, physicists, and hands-on researchers. No one has ever made a breakthrough by refusing to aim above mediocrity, and that’s why we shouldn’t be trying to promote the gospel of “eh, it’s good enough,” among those who love to think outside the box.

Let the dreamers dream, in other words; I’m down with that, pretty much.

But there’s a bit of serendipity here, as life extension is very much on my mind at the moment. I’ve been reading Getting To Know You, David Marusek’s first short story collection; if you’ve read Marusek in the short or long form, you’ll be aware of his imagined future where radical life extension is ubiquitous among the privileged, and where a servitor underclass of clones and artificial intelligences works for them to prop up the “boutique economies” that make such a world possible. The story “Cabbages and Kale, or: How We Downsized North America” neatly captures my own personal concern about life extension technology, namely that – like almost all technologies, at least at first – it will be the exclusive province of those who are already rich, politically powerful and long-lived.

By the by, this also dovetails with the Matt Ridley essay I linked to earlier today, in that Marusek’s answer to the economic problems of a functionally immortal power class is to have them restrict reproduction in order to keep the population at a level where the system still works: a voluntary stagnation, a rigged equilibrium. But the point I’m making here is this: technologies are never inherently bad, but the way the world works tends to gift their benefits to those who have the least need of them. We shouldn’t fear life extension, but fearing life extension held exclusively in the hands of the political classes is a very wise move indeed.

[ I very heartily recommend Marusek’s short stories and novels to Futurismic readers; not only is he a writer of great craft and skill, but he deals with the complex sociopolitical outcomes of technological ideas like life extension and nanotechnology which are, at present, little more than attractive possibilities lurking beyond the horizon. ]

David Marusek on posthumanism and a soft singularity

Paul Raven @ 10-03-2009

Mind Over Ship by David MarusekWe’ve had it straight from the horse’s mouth that Charlie Stross isn’t an ideologue for the a posthuman future, but it appears (allowing for a little authorial hyperbole) that David Marusek is a little more bullish on the matter, due to his own reconception of what a singularity might really mean:

I sincerely believe that our near future includes the existence of posthumans. That is, if secular civilization survives and science advances, our subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens will branch out. Whether through purely biological means or in combination with some sort of inheritable machinery or machine interface, a new subspecies of human will coexist alongside us. Nothing like this has occurred for 30,000 years when our hominid cousin, the Neanderthal, was still around, or 200,000 years when we shared the planet with possibly three other human species. But this time we’ll be the obsolete species.

The idea of humans creating their own successors has been around for a long time and provides rich material for storytelling. The thing is, in most sf tales, you have to go through a Vingean Singularity to get to the Posthuman Future. We old model humans do poorly in singularities; by definition we are the past. Thus posthuman stories tend to be about trying to fight off the posthumans, especially if they’re machines. Brave humans strive to prevent their rise and maintain our biological supremacy. And this is where I try to break new trail in Mind Over Ship. I’m proposing a singularity that does not deny the importance of the human body but instead relies upon it.

The loathing of the body is one of the many detractions used against Singularitarian thinkers, and it’s easy enough to understand why (although, on some mornings, I’d gladly upload myself out of this damage-prone meat-machine). Perhaps Marusek’s new take on the trope will inspire another schism in post-human philosophy – a ‘soft’ singularity, perhaps?

And while we’re on the subject, Marusek’s new novel Mind Over Ship is a brilliant read, and comes heartily recommended to anyone who likes their sf to come packed to the brim with brain-bending ideas and complex plotting. Go buy it.