Passing time and thinking about Immortality

Posted: July 20, 2008 in Futurism, meta, writing

There is not as much research being done as I had hoped there would be. I wanted to get back into academic reading, and start posting regularly to this blog. Unfortunately, or fortunately, my brain decided, as it often does over the summer, that I need time off. So I haven’t been able to read anything that isn’t strictly for pleasure, and I’m even having difficulty at that.

Part of it is the move. I’m now in Minneapolis, still settling in and getting to know the city. But that’s neither here nor there.

One of the ways I’ve been spending (wasting?) my time has been with Stumble Upon, which pretty much drains productivity. I like to imagine it’s collecting all that lost productivity somewhere. While stumbling, I have often come across articles about life extension. As science fiction is a passion of mine (especially as it becomes more predictive), I’ve found myself thinking about life extension and immortality quite a bit.

One article I just read suggests that medical advances have been so great that medical knowledge is doubling every three and a half years. That human beings will live indefinitely, and that with current fertility rates, that puts us at 13 billion people by the end of the century.

First off, I think that number is wrong. I think that the population doubles roughly twice that fast, so if we’re at 6.5 billion now, I think we’ll be at 26 billion at the end of the century, especially if we cancel the death rate. But that’s not important.

What’s important is this idea that everyone will become immortal. I have my wife to thank for helping me work this out, but the (cynical?) truth of the matter is that not everyone will be immortal. For one thing, not everyone has the ‘stomach’ for it. Not everyone can handle life for that long. To be immortal, one has to deal with a lot of boredom. Will you work in a factory for 500 years? Maybe get a dozen PhDs, a new one every time the old one goes defunct. Do you have a hobby that will still interest you in that far off future? Are you really curious enough to read everything that was ever written?

Even the lack of stamina, though, is not the major stumbling block to immortality. Like so many other things, I think the stumbling block is money. The world has always been separated into the Haves and the Have Nots. It’s unfortunate, and many societies have attempted to rectify the idea, but at the end of the day, it just may be part of human nature.

Immortality is just another new technology. Like the iPhone. Sure, lots of people have iPhones. Lots more will sooner or later. But there are also a lot of people who just can’t afford it. Who look at the iPhone and say “My money is better spent elsewhere. Like, say, rent.” There are also some (like me) who look at the iPhone and say “wow, that is a tremendous waste of money. I have no need for a phone that can surf the internet.” But then again, I don’t even want my phone to have a camera.

Maybe the iPhone is too new for this idea. Let’s look, then, at the camera phone. Camera phone technology is nothing new. It’s been around for several years. When it first came out, a phone with a camera built in was an extra $200. Now, it’s standard. In fact, you can’t get a phone without one.

Is that how immortality will work? Maybe. Maybe it’ll start as this great new idea, but very expensive. Let’s say that there’s a price per year on life of $50,000. For some, spending five million dollars is a lot, but worth it to gain a century of life. For most of us, that’s all the money we make in a year, or it’s more money than we make in a year. So while Bill Gates decides he wants to live until the year 3000, most people just talk about how great it’ll be when the technology is cheaper.

And it will be. Ten years down the line, maybe a year only costs $5k, and that with inflation calculated in. Now those of us who make $50 can afford to buy an extra year every year without serious trouble. And since we have, say, 70 years already (3 score and ten), we’ve got enough overlap that we’re adding to the end of our lives, not paying for the years we have.

Maybe someday life extension will be so cheap that you pay your $5k when you first get pregnant, and your kid lives to be a thousand, or five thousand. Then, probably, it’ll become all pervasive. Until then, only the rich will have it.

Of course, there will be problems with immortality. For one, upward mobility will grind to a screeching halt. When the CEO is young and healthy for two hundred years, who gets promoted into his place? Probably no one. But the VPs can afford to be young and healthy too. So the junior VPs don’t get promoted. Eventually, people spend their entire lives in the mailroom. They’re still only living to 90, say, and so they work for 60 years at a job where everyone above them is young and healthy.

But then again, new careers will surface. Those immortals will need more entertainment. We can’t go recycling old movies every 30 years if people are really going to notice. So that’s at least something.

Until we remove the economy altogether. Nanotechnology is already to the point where they can build a computer hard drive with two and a half million gigabytes of storage space (that’s about two hundred and fifty thousand times as much as most high end hard drives). A decade or two down the line, and they’ll be able to build literally whatever they want. No more need for money at all.

Which means no more need for work. The ‘factories’ will be in every home, and people just feed raw materials and tell the machine what they want.

Then again, maybe that will only be in the hands of the wealthy too.

Whatever the case, it seems to me that these great advances in technology will be great in the way they always have. The guy who had a blackberry before it was cool to have blackberries will always be on the cutting edge. The people who can afford to have the latest gadgets will. The rest of us will just imagine striking it rich and getting our hands on that gadget.

Dark thought, probably cynical, but also probably true.

I may post more of these thoughts as time passes. Sooner or later, I’ll get back to book reviews, I promise.

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