September 14, 2011

Who Wants to Live Forever?

Over the past couple of days, Slate has been hosting an interesting discussion on the pros and cons of “transhumanism.” That’s the theory/philosophy that essentially holds that human life will be greatly benefited by its entwining with technology. It runs the gamut from folks who argue about various sci-fi tech that could extend lifespans well into triple digits to those like Ray Kurzweil who envision a future when someone can be uploaded into a computer and, essentially, live forever.

Unless I’ve missed something over the past few years, none of the tech really necessary to bring about this kind of thing is remotely feasible at this point. That makes discussions about whether it’s a good thing or bad thing purely theoretical, but interesting nonetheless. So far, the writers involved in the Slate discussion are running two to one in favor.

I kind of wish Nicholas Agar, who’s post title declares “why I don’t want to be a cyborg,” would have tried a little harder at explaining why. Aside from vague assertions about losing our “humanity” (whatever that means), he doesn’t offer any solid reasons why longer living via technology would be a bad thing. I’m not unsympathetic to his position, but I’m struggling to see how it’s any different than arguing that modern medicine and the like has fundamentally changed our humanity.

That being said, I do see two potential problems with embracing transhumanism. The first is brought up by Brad Allenby, who cynically (I mean that in a good way) suggests that whether such coming changes are a good or bad thing, society as a whole will be powerless to stop them. The march of technology and all that. I tend to agree with him. But he points out that the cost of this tech would further widen the gap between rich and poor, essentially creating separate classes of “transhumans” and regular (read “poor”) humans. However, he also points out that folks in developed countries already live twice as long as those in developing nations, without much metaphysical concern about it. Regardless of where we are now, I think it’s something that transhuman proponents need to deal with.

The other problem I see is what I reluctantly call the Miracle Day problem, after the latest (horribly botched) season of Torchwood. On Miracle Day, everybody on the planet stopped dying. Things went to shit almost immediately and the threat of overpopulation loomed over the planet. Now, transhuman tech would presumably produce healthier longer lives, not just stave off death (Miracle Day only stopped death, not disease), but doubling lifespans would still lead to serious resource scarcity. Again, it’s an issue that the proponents need to address.

From what little I’ve read about it, most transhumanists are scientific Utopians, placing faith in technology to deliver us from the reality of life and death. Maybe it will someday – what do I know? But I do know that history is rife with amazing new technologies that produced negative unintended consequences and spawned their own problems. Dreaming about the future is fun and exciting. Ignoring the past while doing so is irresponsible and short sighted.


  1. Hoping the "treat" of overpopulation is a typo, not a bizarre civilization death-wish.

  2. Indeed it was. Thanks for the catch.