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Live Long and Paranoid

June 8, 2011

I’ve been thinking about longevity research and immortality. Let’s say someone finds a way to indefinitely prolong the human lifespan. What would happen? How would it change society and how would it change us personally?

The most obvious thought occurring to cynics like myself is that the rich would hog the drug/regimen/whathaveyou. Or perhaps not hog it, but I bet the company who made the discovery would charge extreme amounts of money for it. And since it would probably require recurring treatments, sustained personal wealth would be more important than ever.

Would there be wars over this? Would there be riots if some people were left out? Would being cut off from longevity drugs be used as a punishment? (In the nations who still believe in punishment.) Maybe. Probably.

Because I think that knowing something is possible but outside your grasp is much worse than its being impossible at all. As it is we are more or less accepting that we must some day die. The inevitability removes most of the anxiety. I read somewhere once that plane crashes are calm affairs with no one panicking, because there is no way out, so the brain doesn’t even try. It might not be true, but a similar mechanism is probably at work here.

I’ve been thinking about this before in an other context. In The Lord of the Rings the elves are immortal. And even as I saw the first film (never read the books; probably never will) it struck me as more brave of an elf to risk their life than for a human.

If we suddenly could entertain the idea of immortality on a serious level, not just as a daydream, I think fear of death would become a much larger part of our lives.

“But,” you say, unimpressed, “there are many well-known ways of prolonging your life, and that doesn’t stop people from eating unhealthy, not exercising and so on.”

Thanks for bringing that up, imaginary friend. I think that there is a significant difference between having a nebulous knowledge that changing your life would give you extra years, and the definite, clear, concrete knowledge that so-and-so much money would allow you to cheat death.

No matter how well you eat and how much you take care of your body, you will still die in the end. All we have now are ways of postponing death. But to find a way to escape it altogether… That would change the playing field completely. Taking risks now is just a way of flirting with death, knowing that we can’t and won’t keep away forever. But if you knew you would keep away from it if you didn’t take risks? If you knew that almost everything you did would no longer just jeopardise the length of your life, but bring back the concept of your life even having an end.

This leads me to believe that fear of death would become both ubiquitous and crippling. People would be afraid to cross the street or drive a car or maybe even leaving the house. They would become paranoid about almost everything.

There are of course other issues to solve. People would most probably not be allowed to have children, for example. Society would change much, much slower, if at all. The longer people live, the more set in their ways they become. Or the opposite – the more they know, the less certain they become of anything.

However, I think death anxiety would be the most crippling of them all. We would no longer dare to do anything much, so hardly anything new would be made.

Unless this happens after all production and development is delegated to computers and robots of course. Then it’s no worries.

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One Comment
  1. I think this runs much, much deeper. Basically the entire universe and everything in it is centered around entropy, the notion that at a certain point in time all organisms and systems and structures will cease to exist in their current form: stars, planets, life forms, even the universe itself. The mere concept of life revolves around it; all life forms are designed with one goal in mind: to reproduce and pass on their genetic material before they die. Death is also part of the cycle of renewal: dead plants turn into fertilizer that helps grow new plants, or they are eaten by animals who then get eaten by other animals thus ensuring one another’s survival. Removing death from the equation, even just for one species, will have disastrous consequences on this system which I think we cannot even begin to comprehend.

    In the future there’s a definite possibility that we manage to greatly lengthen our lifespans to maybe even hundreds of years, and that would indeed deeply change our civilization. But I don’t think we ever will manage to completely eliminate death. If we do manage, however improbable I think that is, it can only lead to the destruction of the human race. There are always natural disasters, wars, robot uprisings etc.

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