I didn’t start this blog with the intent of weighing in on social-political issues of the day, and my one foray into “modern events” so far has been some thoughts on the economic downturn helped along by the housing-market bubble (and this mostly from a personal financial advisor’s standpoint). But today I read an article on IO9,“The Next 50 Years: Why I’m Optimistic Because Everything Will Be Terrible” by John Shirley, a successful science fiction author, and discovered a stunning futurist nightmare.
Mr. Shirley goes into several problems he sees looming ahead, and I found much to seriously think about in the list. But one of them, the problem of rejuvenation (medical induced longevity), and Mr. Shirley’s approach to it, is wrong on so many levels I hardly know where to start. Here I quote:
Let’s be honest. Rejuvenation is sure to be a tremendously expensive process and it’s possible that only the super rich will regenerate — some people now in their twenties, may in eighty five years be tottering around, quite ancient — and see a youthful Paris Hilton still walking around. I suspect it will be infuriating. Or you may see Dominique Strauss-Kahn, looking younger than you do right now. Do we want Dominique Strauss Kahn chasing hotel maids in the year 2095? There are good wealthy people in the world… but there is a tendency for many of the super wealthy to be fairly awful, spoiled personalities. Having recently gotten 100 million dollars for a reality show of her fake wedding Kim Kardashian may, in thirty years, have invested the money so she can afford rejuvenation. We’ll never be rid of her. Our grandchildren may have to hear about Madonna’s latest affairs — a depressing prospect. Perhaps even a rejuvenated Rupert Murdock might be striding around in a hundred, or even three hundred years? It’s awful to contemplate the possibility of the immortality of the world’s worst assholes.
But we can avoid that fate by making laws requiring that rejuvenation for the most part goes to people who deserve it — you’ll get points for art, for science, for good works, add them up and then get rejuvenated. (Full disclosure, that idea was borrowed from a Jack Vance novel.)
Let me start with the obvious observation that it is by no means certain that we will ever find a way to halt or reverse aging completely, although we may extend our lifespans by centuries. But, assuming that we do, rejuvenation therapy will likely be a collection of techniques and technologies instead of a single, ultra-expensive process. And each technique, as it becomes available, will be under the influence of market-demand; over time each will become less expensive as its production stages are maximized and industrialized. In short, we are more likely to see continued longevity-creep over the next century–a process already happening. But what if?
Let’s say, as a speculative exercise, that one anti-aging treatment is discovered that can reliably add decades, double the healthy lifespan, etc. Say also it’s patented (likely) or requires an irreducibly expensive production process (less likely). In the first scenario, it’s more likely that a major national government, like the US, will forcibly purchase the patent if it has to–no democracy won’t vote in such a law. Or, even more likely, the company that developed the drug/treatment will simply apply an open patent, allowing any company to produce it in exchange for a small royalty. Yes, that company would become insanely wealthy, its owner the Bill Gates of his time.
The second scenario, the one that obsesses Mr. Shirley, is actually the most implausible one. But imagine it happens; his solution is for governments to grant the rejuvenation process on merit. Save it for artists, scientists, and philanthropists, the worthy. In his innocence, Mr. Shirley is suggesting making government the ultimate arbiter of immortality. He’s not suggesting keeping anyone who can afford it from buying it (wait, he is; he suggests it as an alternative to eternally young Kim Kardashians, Madonnas, and Rupert Murdochs) but modern governments already fund the arts, scientific research, and worthy charities, so why is this suggestion so nightmare-inducing?
Because any time a government acquires control of a universally desired resource (food, fuel, medicine, etc) it acquires Ultimate Power. And Life is a universally desired resource. Democracy would crumble as the real power comes to be increasingly held by the political class, and politicians and the rich who own them would, amazingly, be judged to be those most worthy of rejuvenation or longevity. Only the most draconian measures would keep Rupert Murdoch from getting The Treatment, and how would you set the point-system? What art is worthy and what art isn’t? Does literature count–in which case who decides what is pot-boiler and what is great literature? What branches of scientific inquiry will be privileged? Can the wealthy buy immortality simply by donating enough to charity or funding public works? And let’s say it’s an ongoing process, one which must be re-applied every decade or so, then the government can take it away for Bad Behavior.
Can anybody think of a better recipe for a future dystopia?
Could it happen? Probably not. For one thing, assuming a high-cost rejuvenation treatment was discovered, the first thing every democratic government in the world would do would be to throw money into research to make it less costly. The voters would settle for nothing less, so although it might take a decade or three, the price would come down. Meanwhile, the rich could not be barred from paying for it–in any reasonably open economic system the individual would have a chance (admittedly a small chance) of becoming sufficiently wealthy himself to afford it, so he won’t vote to foreclose that opportunity.
In the end, capitalism itself would drive research and development, since each step in the rejuvenation treatment that can be made cheaper increases the size of the market by lowering the cost of supply (the demand would remain equal to the number of humans on the planet). The only thing that could prevent this from happening would be the absolute failure of capitalism, in which case the elites in control of the subsequent command-economies might slow or halt future development to use The Cure as a tool for maintaining their power.
Which might be a good thing if you’re seriously worried about overpopulation (I’m not–the countries wealthy enough to afford The Treatment would be the developed countries, which tend to have zero or negative population growth except through immigration).
Meanwhile, who in their right mind would let government decide how long they can live? Don’t they listen to Gandalf?