The Speculist: Five Arguments Against Four Arguments Against Immortaility


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Five Arguments Against Four Arguments Against Immortaility

Via Michael Anissimov, Annalee Newitz at i09 lays out the case against immortality. While she raises some interesting points, I find her arguments less than persuasive.

Let's begin.

1. We will no longer be human.

...What if all those implants and genome hacks transform us into Locutus of Borg or the Daleks? What good is living forever if you are just a shell of your former self? If you have lost your individuality and become a killing machine?

Okay, first off the specific examples given here seem to more in support of the third argument (which we'll get to in a moment) than they do a generalized fear of no longer being human. As Jamais Cascio argues (I think very convincingly) elsewhere on i09, we have always been posthuman. Humanity is a process. It has already taken us far from what we were when it started. Maybe some of Lucy's contemporaries argued that if we continue down this road of walking upright and developing bigger brains, we'll no longer be australopithecines. If so, well, I guess in a sense they were right. But fortunately, their arguments did not hold sway.

As to the points supporting this argument, I would like to abstract them just a bit. There is no question that technology may lead us in some gruesome and horrifying directions, but I don't take either the Borg or Daleks scenarios terribly seriously. Let's just say that life extension, continued modification of the human genome, and a merger of human biology with technology could lead to some very bad outcomes: some expected, some not.

Therefore, the argument goes, we should avoid these technologies.

Allow me to make a similar argument regarding a completely different set of circumstances where things can go horribly wrong. While the percentages are pretty small, every year a certain number of people are emotionally and/or physically abused, sometimes even murdered, by their spouses.

Therefore, we must conclude, no one should ever get married. In a similar vein, no one should ever ride a bicycle, seeing as people sometimes die in bicycle accidents. Also, we should never build power plants of any kind -- terrorists might blow them up.

Obviously that's absurd. For any proposed action, the possibility of bad things happening, even horrible things happening, has to be weighed against the benefits of acting and the cost of not acting. We have to look at how serious the risks are and how they might be mitigated. If the fact that something terrible might happen was reason enough not to do something, without a careful analysis of costs and benefits, we would never do anything.

2. Whatever body you're in, there you are.

So you've ported your consciousness into a cyberheaven, or a giant blue alien with sexytime hair, or a deadly robot who wears a plunger on his head. The thing is, you still have the same problems.

Sounds good! I like being me. And I like being alive, problems and all.

What an awesome alternative outlook on life we are offered here. "I can put up with my loathsome existence for 70 years or so, but that's it." Frankly, anyone who thinks life is not worth extending because one will still be oneself and one will still have problems needs to explain what exactly the rationale is for not having committed suicide already.

3. Our augmented bodies and minds will be hackable.

As computer security nerds already know, every new release means a new vulnerability. Your awesome brain-computer interface may give you unlimited memory but it also means that an evil hacker can take over your consciousness by exploiting a buffer overflow in your brain.

Okay, terrible things might happen. (See item 1, second counter-argument.) This particular horrible thing is that we might get hacked. Everyone reading this post on a computer device, please stop reading and destroy that device right now. Don't you realize that it's potentially hackable?

If the fear is that it's specifically people who are hackable, it seems that's a risk we face socially and culturally (perhaps memetically?) anyway. How do things like this occur?

4. We'll have to deal with the immortality divide.

In a future where people have access to live-extending biotech, wealth could mean living for centuries, growing more powerful. People born into poverty will have even fewer chances to compete against the rich, and the free market could stagnate. Democratic human societies might ossify into rigid, caste-based feudalism once again.

Isn't this just the digital divide argument all over again? Technology is going to create a permanent barrier between the digital haves and have-nots. Only about 20% of people in the developing world (as of a few years ago) had access to the internet. On the other hand, nearly half had access to a mobile phone. Let's just assume for a moment that those are fixed percentages (which is nonsense, see how the lines are trending up?) and that one or the other might be comparable to the distribution we are eventually able to achieve for life extension technologies.

If 50% of the developing world is denied life extension technologies, should we all be denied life extension technologies? Maybe we should give the people in the developing world a vote on this. If I were one of them, I think I'd rather take my chances on the coin flip than deny the technology to everyone. Even if 80% were denied these technologies, it's not just the large percentage in the developed world who gets punished if we don't adopt them. We just end up leaving 100% of the developing world out rather than 80%.

If the argument is that it's not fair that people get left out, I agree. Life is shockingly unfair. If the argument is that those technologies should be available to everyone, I agree with that, too. It's just a question of how we get there. There will probably be some imbalance along the way, just as there currently is with internet and mobile phone connections.

That's not a reason to relinquish those technologies. It's a reason to move ahead with them.

Newitz ends by saying that she really isn't against moving ahead with life extension technologies, as long as we don't do it in such a way as to impoverish other areas of life. Well heck -- one could make the same argument about research into, say, heart disease. She concludes with an argument for "social" immortality, which I of course am all for. The she gives us this tidbit:

But this can only be accomplished if people today are willing to pursue forms of science that aren't just aimed at augmenting the mega-elites, but will also lead to species longevity.

Darn that cabal of mega-elites! They're so sneaky getting people like me to support their cause, all the while thinking that I'm working on eliminating poverty and illness for everyone. If only I realized that it's a stark and unavoidable binary choice. Either I sacrifice my own existence for the greater good or I greedily benefit myself at the expense of others. Believing that new technologies can benefit us both individually and socially simply doesn't fit well with the literary tropes about class warfare and scarcity -- mostly drawn up in the 19th through mid-20th centuries, although still popular today -- on which Newitz apparently bases her worldview.

How oddly unfuturistic for someone who "comes from the future!"

UPDATE: Michael Anissimov comments, "This appears to be an early form of co-processing, where content from an external device (in this case, poor television shows) heavily intertwines itself with the thinking processes of the writer, to the point where reality cannot be distinguished from fiction."


Accelerating tech also means accelerating more and more people out of poverty.

To assume there will always be a divide between the rich and poor is to assume there will always be scarcities, a very questionable assumption indeed considering what has happened during the past 200 years.

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