Death has always been the great equalizer. It was the one unavoidable aspect of existence, the one sure thing everybody could bet on. King, peasant, and all inbetween knew no matter how hard they might fight, no matter what kind of gods they may have called on, The Grim Reaper would eventually take his captive kicking and screaming beyond The Veil.
If the wealthy techno-elite in Silicon Valley have their way however, this notion of universal death will become as obsolete as fax machines and beepers.
As I write this, far off from the sandy beaches and unforgiving swampland of Florida, labs you have never heard of are doing important research for people you’ll never meet. They go to all the functions you’re not allowed in, live lives you could only dream of, and mostly regard you as irritating peasants.
And they will be damned if they have to give any of that up, even to Death itself.
Becoming as Godlike as they Knew They Always Were
The quest for immortality among the well-to do is nothing new. Emperors, Noblewomen, Queens, and Kings have all sought the secret to perpetual earthly existence, from Taoist “elixers” of Arsenic and Mercury to literally bathing in the blood of virgin maids. So far none has been successful.
Transhumanism plans to change that.
Transhumanism, for those who haven’t heard of it, is an interesting blend of philosophy and science. The idea is that humanity can overcome its biological limitations, such as aging or disease, by combining our organic selves with technology. This can run the gamut of gene therapy and bio-mechanical “mods” to our existing bodies all the way to wedding our minds to AI’s, becoming new creatures altogether.
Escaping death and becoming immortal take the reins of most Transhumanist discussions however, Transhumanist thinkers go so far as to refer to those outside the movement as “Deathist.”
It is this aspect of the philosophy that is quite in vogue among the Silicon Valley elite at the forefront of the American tech industry. Folks like Bill Maris, Elon Musk, and a host of others are spear-heading anti-death research with funds that almost boggle the mind.
Google Ventures has close to $2 billion in assets under management, with stakes in more than 280 startups. Each year, Google gives Maris $300 million in new capital, and this year he’ll have an extra $125 million to invest in a new European fund. That puts Google Ventures on a financial par with Silicon Valley’s biggest venture firms, which typically put to work $300 million to $500 million a year. According to data compiled by CB Insights, a research firm that tracks venture capital activity, Google Ventures was the fourth-most-active venture firm in the U.S. last year, participating in 87 deals….
“There are a lot of billionaires in Silicon Valley, but in the end, we are all heading to the same place,” Maris says. “If given the choice between making a lot of money or finding a way to make people live longer, what do you choose?”
Maris has since retired from Google Ventures but the money is still there, still flooding in at rate that might make a stock broker blush. Tad Friend in “Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever” has an impressive run down of the entire scene and highlights an interweaving nest of persons and labs most people have never heard of: Joon Yun, Verily, Andy Conrad, Unity Biotechnology, Peter Thiel, California Life Company, the list goes on and on. What becomes clear after even a casual reading is that, among the Tech Elite, not dying is a very serious matter.
“Joon Yun, a doctor who runs a health-care hedge fund, announced that he and his wife had given the first two million dollars toward funding the challenge. ‘I have the idea that aging is plastic, that it’s encoded,’ he said. ‘If something is encoded, you can crack the code.’ To growing applause, he went on, ‘If you can crack the code, you can hack the code!’…
“Clearly, it is possible, through technology, to make death optional,’ Rothblatt said. (She has already commissioned a backup version of her wife, Bina—a ‘mindclone’ robot named Bina48.)…’It’s enormously gratifying to have the epitome of the establishment, the head of the National Academy of Medicine, say, ‘We, too, choose to make death optional!’…
Last fall, Unity raised a hundred and sixteen million dollars from such investors as Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel, billionaires eager to stretch our lives, or at least their own, to a span that Thiel has pinpointed as ‘forever.’…
Larry Ellison, the co-founder of Oracle, lost his adoptive mother to cancer when he was in college—and later donated three hundred and seventy million dollars to aging research. ‘Death has never made any sense to me,’ he told a biographer. ‘How can a person be there and then just vanish?’ Bill Maris, who conceived of Calico, said that, when he pondered the inevitability of death, ‘I felt it was maybe our mission here to transcend that, and to preserve consciousness indefinitely.'”
They certainly make the goal sound lofty enough, don’t they? Noble geniuses on a quest to free humanity from it’s biological chains so that we might live our lives forever?
For about $50 worth of candles, wormwood, and myrrh most Occultists could easily soothe the anxiety of these billionaires. I could offer them a discount and a tour through South Florida’s shadier graveyards, but even that wouldn’t be necessary. There is ample evidence for those willing to look that life carries on beyond our earthly shell, that consciousness is indeed indefinite: ghosts have been caught on video numerous times, even phone calls to the living from dead paranormal investigators have been recorded. 42% of Americans claim to have witnessed undead apparitions and 61% of the population say they believe that other people have had supernatural experiences.
For the great majority of the country then the quest for immortality is a non-issue, a puzzling and perhaps morbid line of questioning but one with a definite answer.
Why then the fervent focus on not dying?
Under the Heaven of the Rich Exists Hell for the Poor
We have a saying in the South: “everybody wants to get to heaven but nobody wants to die.” One anonymous scientist echoes this proverb when discussing Silicon Valley’s interest in immortality:
“It’s based on the frustration of many successful rich people that life is too short: ‘We have all this money, but we only get to live a normal life span.’”
Among much of the immortality research mentioned in Freind’s report is of a “healthspan,” or the time human beings can live healthy without major complications. The billionaires packing millions into research labs talk about “eternal twenty-fiveness” and achieving a “compressed mortality” where they simply go to sleep and never wake up. It’s an ideal life, born from a section of the country where personal nutritionists and plentiful cosmetic surgery aim to make “old age” an outdated concept.
Who wouldn’t want that? Let’s look at what death looks like to the poor.
After thirty, everything starts to change. From that year on the human risk of mortality doubles every seven years; the body wears down, muscles no longer move as they used to. We age, and often not gracefully.
Christmas, 2016: my stepmother’s father sits in a chair in the living room, on visit from the retirement home specializing in the elderly with dementia. He is rushed to the bathroom by my step-mother, who quickly asks for as many towels as I can grab. The same man who in photographs displayed near the front door is smiling and protectively holding his family in a hug has covered himself and the entire bathroom floor in feces.
The stench rivals rotting flesh.
She cleans it up, and we pretend not to notice. We talk as if he’s not there, as if what’s going on isn’t really happening. A little later I will help him back into the car, as his eighty year old wife with tinges of tears remarks “He thinks he’s coming home. He keeps saying he can’t wait to go home but, I….I just can’t.”
As I help him in the car my spirit feels white flashes around his eyes and head. Whenever this happens he seems to become aware of what has occurred and looks embarrassed. He tries to navigate out the front door himself, tries to buckle his seat belt, even shakes my hand as I help him close the car door.
In these instants he knows what has happened to him, his eyes refusing to meet with others and filled with a darkness I’ve never seen before. He drips shame and sorrow, and in a merciful second he is once again adrift in whatever world those with Alzheimer’s dream in.
On the car ride home I make plans with my wife. “I want you to know…if that ever happened…”
“You wouldn’t stay.” Her eyes remain glued to the road.
“I couldn’t,” a shadow creeping from my voice, “I can’t imagine losing my intelligence, my mobility, my mind.” I cough, try to grip the wheel. “If I ever got diagnosed…” The terse words seem to chill as they hang in the air. “We’d spend a year doing everything we ever wanted..and after that…I’d go out to a national park…some woods, somewhere…and…put an end to it.”
She pauses, bites her lip. “I know.”
I am twenty-seven years old. There is a pain in my foot from when I couldn’t afford new work shoes and had to wear them for 6 months as they fell apart. I wonder in-between bouts of drinking if eventually it will keep me from walking one day and what kind of inoperable damage I’ve already done.
I work with a man whose knee causes him such great pain he has doctor’s orders to sit every two hours. If he does this his hours at work will get cut and he will be cast into poverty. He cries sometimes due to the pain when he gets off the clock, limping out to his truck as customers try to ignore him.
I work with another who is being told he must have a heart valve replaced, that he’ll be out of work for at least a year. He must use all his sick-time, all his vacation, and then proceed to blow through any savings he might have for six months before he can file for disability. He doesn’t want to. He wants to work. After he’s been out for a year the company can fire him. If he wants to get re-hired he will start at base pay. He has worked for this company for 15 years.
All this pales in comparison to another person I work with, an Iraq War veteran whose face I’ve seen eaten by skin cancer over the course of three years. His right ear has almost been completely cut off, he can only see out of one eye, and his mouth is so full of scar tissue he can only fit skittle-sized pieces of food in it. Sometimes you can see the cancer move. Every week he comes in because he can’t afford to miss work, skin flushed red after chemo, greeting customers in mumbled words as best he can as they stare at him in horror and disbelief.
These are the lives of America’s working class, lives of indentured servitude doomed to be eaten away by disease, breakdown, and cancer; a life of menial tasks for the profit of someone else, a life where the Grim Reaper’s visit is often sweet release rather than morbid tragedy; lives lived right alongside $10,000 birthday parties for puppies and robotic surgeries so out of reach they might as well not exist. It’s a dirty, grimy underbelly where healthcare more often means hoping you don’t get sick than actually doing anything about it.
What does the Ultra-Rich quest for immortality mean for them?
What Wicked World This Way Comes?
Reading “Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever” might excite the futurist in us, maybe give one the impression that perhaps all this expensive immortality research will eventually trickle down to we common proles.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Historically technological transitions often create enormous social tension, job displacement, and economic inequality. There is no magic law detailing that high technology need filter down to the poor, healthcare being the most obvious example though one of many.
According to the Pew Research Center “roughly three-in-ten adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone. Nearly half don’t have home broadband services or a traditional computer. And a majority of lower-income Americans are not tablet owners. By comparison, many of these devices are nearly ubiquitous among adults from households earning $100,000 or more a year.” This lack of technological access forces lower-income folks to use their mobile device when seeking out and applying for jobs and their kids to do homework without access to the internet, limiting the “opportunities” supposedly available to everybody.
The utopian thinking that the internet, or any technology for that matter, would make us all free is as dead as a kid who took fake MDMA at a warehouse rave. The median income in the U.S. three years ago was about the same as it was in 1995 when the tech boom really kicked off. Wages never followed. The National Bureau of Economic Research has begrudgingly admitted “although other factors including the decline in the real value of the minimum wage, de-unionization, and globalization have played some role, the major driving force behind the changes in the U.S. wage structure is technology.”
Haven’t we all noticed this? Just compare the obscene flow of money into Silicon Valley with the lack of funding for other technological projects like rebuilding infrastructure, water safety, public transit, disintegrating roads, or even public education, and you begin to realize there is abso-fucking-lutely nothing good about any of this.
How much worse will it be if death itself becomes “obsolete?”
Sophia Roosth in an interview for the Verge described the philosophy behind synthetic biology, the scientific discipline of growing living things like tissue and organs, as “the belief that if you know what all the parts do, you’ll be able to say something about the whole, and so the focus is on parts. That language of reductionism, of machine parts, affects the design and the way you approach things.”
This “machine part” thinking is evident in a large part of “Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever,” especially a part of the essay where the author describes much of the research going on as “serial-specialist approach to aging, which tackles it symptom by symptom: let’s restore those eyes, then send you down the street for a 3-D-printed kidney.”
This kind of deterministic worldview, one that increasingly colors mainstream life, puts a focus on what we are as devices; humans in a nuts-and-bolts context: rather than worry about the ozone layer we can take some anti-radiation pills, rather than complain about being on your feet for 10 hours for almost no money simply swap out your knees with some brand new ones. All of it of course predicated on your ability to buy the solution in the first place.
All of this research towards extending the “human healthspan” or becoming immortal is being carried out through a strictly capitalist framework. These private labs and billionaire-backed firms expect to make money off of whatever they find and those that can’t afford it can get fucked. Gone are the days where physicians swear before healing gods to “prevent disease whenever I can but [to always be looking] for a path to a cure for all diseases.“ Consider that thanks to modern research HIV is no longer a death sentence but it will cost you from $2,000 to $5,000 a month just to stay alive and you begin to see the picture.
Silicon Valley’s hunt to end death ignores any mitigating factors involved with the how and the why human health is in disarray; it becomes a safety net for capitalism’s failings rather than addressing the fact it’s creating problems in the first place. When we can simply replace everything at a profit or for a fee keep everything going indefinitely we don’t have to change the system that causes the damage. The same wealthy execs and
vulture venture capitalists pouring millions into extending their own lives are the same class buying private armies and underground bunkers instead of putting an end to the conditions where roving armies of the poor might threaten to eat them.
What kind of world might wait for us, provided any of these well-funded labs make a breakthrough? A world where a replacement kidney is available but costs the same as a thirty-year mortgage, thus dooming those without enough earning power to choose between an early grave or a lifetime of debt servitude? A planet where the wealthy and poor begin to separate as entirely different species, one living indefinitely with ongoing gene injections and the other fulfilling servant functions just to squeak out another fifteen cancer-free years? A techno-hellscape where the rich need never fear of losing anything because they can simply outlive each generation, marching on through time and growing colder in spirit and care?
Are you ready for the cycle of reincarnation to be effectively closed for the first time in the history of the human species? The rise of a modern-day Lichhood?
Never forget the ruling class has gotten so bold they can tell us universal healthcare is “unfeasible” while they pour millions into immortality drugs and seek godhood itself; all with the very wealth we created and they stole from us. As long as the lives and health of the working class are strip-mined for the benefit of the few the future will only grow more grim and foreboding.
For now death awaits us all, but for how long? The clock is ticking and humanity stands at a threshold. The next fifty years of history will determine the following two hundred in human development.
Who exactly do you want to have the eyes to see it?
Dr. Bones is a conjurer, card-reader and egoist-communist who believes “true individuality can only flourish when the means of existence are shared by all.” A Florida native and Hoodoo practitioner, he summons pure vitriol, straight narrative, and sorcerous wisdom into a potent blend of poltergasmic politics and gonzo journalism. He lives with his loving wife, a herd of cats, and a house full of spirits.