“We live in the shadow of a personal apocalypse.”
This is how Stephen Cave, author of Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, described the human condition when speaking at the 2014 IdeaFestival in Louisville, Kentucky. We live with an ever-present fear of death.
It’s often been said that the only two things certain in life are death and taxes. While there are droves rallying both for and against taxes, death is far less polarizing. Death comes to us all, and no one is particularly excited about it.
Cave opened his talk with an exercise to help audience members determine a rough estimate of when they would die. While this seems macabre, it served a greater purpose. When confronted with death, you are more likely to become more attached to your worldview.
“How come it can have an effect on us to be reminded of something that we all know?,” Cave asked.
To cope with death, Cave highlights four immortality stories that cultures have used and reused to cope with death:
- The elixir story – This is the belief that we can live forever on this earth in our human bodies. If we are healthy and take of ourselves, then we can live forever.
- The resurrection story – This is the realization that we are going to die, but we are going to raise up and live again. It is connected to the hope that science will soon allow us to bring back the dead body.
- The soul story – This is the story of the body as an obstacle for immortality, relative to the belief that your body is merely a carrier for your soul. Your spirit is what lives on past death.
- The legacy view story – This is the thought that we can live on through an echo that we leave in this world, whether cultural or biological.
As these stories are retold in modern times, it is easy to see where common technologies permeate some of these stories and, in a way, are enabling immortality.
The elixir story is commonly pursued by emerging technology companies. Technology investor Peter Thiel is known for his efforts to fund companies that are working on technology that can extend the human lifespan. Thiel invested $3.5 million with anti-aging researcher Aubrey de Grey, and he also funded biotech startup Halcyon Molecular, which is working on ridding the world of cancer and aging, similar to what Google is working on with its company Calico. Also, advances in 3D printing are leading researchers to attempt the printing of human organs, even human hearts.
The resurrection story is most commonly discussed around technologies such as cryonics, where a subject can be frozen with the hope that they may be thawed and reanimated later on. This, of course, was satirized by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein in her book Frankenstein, as pointed out by Cave.
The soul story doesn’t have many direct connections to modern technology, but the legacy view story does. Biologically, human can reproduce themselves a finite amount of times through having children. Digitally, however, Cave notes that we can reproduce ourselves almost an infinite amount of times through social media profiles and online identities. Consider the company LIVESON, the “social afterlife” that tweets for you after you die.
By creating new technologies and contributing to technological advances, we will be immortalized as those technologies continue to be used. For example, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn will forever be known as the inventors of internet technology.
When faced with death our worldviews, positive and negative, are magnified. These worldviews include things such as xenophobia, which often drives violent conflict in the world. Imagine the peace that could be achieved if we could lessen the focus on death, make it a secondary issue. So, if tech can help, it would be worth the effort.