Immortality... dream or nightmare?

I posted this on the other place in the “hacking human lifespan” thread, but wouldn’t mind the kind of deeper discussion we seem to be managing here.

I do have one or two issues with the essay: I don’t think many of us need to imagine the existence of people who believe in their genetic superiority, but I think the point he’s trying to make is valid. This was, after all, written pre-45, before there were literal nazis in the White House. But the idea that progress would be even harder if we were dealing with the actual Jefferson or Lee, still holding McCain-like to their crusty old-man seats of power isn’t unthinkable. What about an immortal Caesar, or Caligula? Would immortal-Newton want anything to do with quantum physics, or would he use his authority to keep it in the realm of pseudoscience, since so much of it could not be measured at the time?

I agree with John Rogers that in reality, immortals can fuck the hell right off, but what about the rest of you? Would it be a dream, or a literal living nightmare?


I’d sign up for immortality.

I do understand the problems others have but as far as life extension goes, if 200 or 300 years is so awful, why isn’t 30 or 40 years a great life span? Why is the current span perfect?

I am not motivated by death, I’m haunted and annoyed by it. I am not doing great things in the face of a deadline. Like most people, I’m mostly getting by and could use more time on my slow going long term projects. I will have much unfinished in the end, most of my life has been treading water to keep from drowning.


I guess you could embrace the future shock and live as a sort of perpetual tourist. Always new lands to explore.


I think this question is inextricably tied to the question of population level. I’m aghast at suggestions that Earth isn’t overpopulated, that the planet can handle ten billion plus - it’s not just that I dispute the data and reasoning that goes into such reckonings, but also it’s a matter of being devalued.

If there were only a dozen humans on the whole planet, we wouldn’t be worth very much except in terms of potential. Scale up to the point where we can run a civilisation, and each of us is a microcosm of that, magnified by our networks. But keep increasing the numbers to the point we’re at now, and we find ourselves becoming vermin.

It’s about balance. Extended lifetimes should be off the table until we can achieve sensible population levels. There are certainly other issues to resolve; interesting questions about all the implications for society and so on, but I’m inclined to think the most central issue is this question of the value of a single person.

I believe that if the global population was only half a billion or so, we’d each be valued more, and we’d each actually be more valuable; less dispensable. And obviously, if we started living ten to fifteen times as long, that would affect the ideal population size proportionately.


For me it would be a dream to have centuries to learn and master skills, and to watch history unfold. I don’t accept the author’s premise most people would become set in their ways. You can’t underestimate how much existing social expectations, economic and biological realities play into this. For instance, your chances of dramatically switching careers at age 40 are not only slim, but the attempt may deny you the resources you’ll need for retirement. In a society where 40 is practically puberty, you’d have much more latitude to experiment.

People who are set in the ways, moreover, also tend to be bitter because society that changing around them. And, by the time it does, it’s usually hard for them to adapt—to start fresh and compete with younger people. In a society where everyone lives 1,000 years, adaptation is basic life skill. Complaining at age 60 that your profession is becoming obsolete is the equivalent of teen angst. You get over it. You learn that life isn’t going to let you get too comfortable for too long and you learn to prepare for (even embrace) social change.

And let’s say you did live in the 19th century and were dismayed to have to give up your slaves. Then, they gave women the vote. Then, the civil rights era. Then, gay marriage. How long do you realistically think that someone could maintain a rigid worldview before they’d finally cave?

And let’s talk about memory. How much do you actually remember from when you were 12? or 22? How much have you forgotten? Do your former selves seem like completely different people? As a 500 year-old, how much do you think you’ll have retained from when you were 50? I think that that kind of lifespan, without any adjustment to strength of memory, would feel like something akin to reincarnation. You’d have vague recollections of having been blacksmith for 40 years, sometime in the distant past, but you’d only remember the very highs and lows—the time an army sacked your village, etc.

500 year-olds wouldn’t be ultraconservative versions of today’s 60 year-olds. Rather, today’s 60 year-olds would be the equivalent of petulant teenagers who are learning, for the first time, the necessity of adapting to social change. Maturity in a pseudo-immortal society would resemble Zen-like flexibility, even spontaneity. And, with our accumulated wisdom and experience, we might not have to repeat a lot of mistakes.

A couple of movies that treat immortality really well:


The Man From Earth was very good. Explored how immortality can effect someone living in society.

If I was immortal, I would do my best to advance society to the point where spaceflight was doable for everyone and then leave to explore the solar system or the rest of the universe.


Oh, literal living nightmare. I’m 44 and plan on being dead by 60. So many things are wrong with me already, living past that point is unimaginable, let alone to, say, 400. Also, have you spent time with anyone in their 90s or even aged 100? It’s not pretty - there’s very few who make that age with mind and/or body intact. Without some sort of anti-dementia and anti-decrepitude improvement, you may as well be a head in a jar, Futurama-style.


I would assume that a greatly extended lifespan would also involve a lack of degenerative diseases and general wearing-out of the body, and a sort of youthful vigor.

The question is whether it also comes with good mental health.


A bit of both, perhaps?

As an individual, I’d at least like to see how very long term events go, or at least I think I’d like to see it. (Some of the changes, such as our current political climate, seem to be the kind of thing I’d prefer to observe from a distance.) I’d like to see if humanity makes it to a better social level, if we ever reach a “big” singularity, and other major ponderables. If we’re talking long term … I’d like to see the changes in our universe, actually getting to see Galaxies merge and, assuming it’s survivable, what happens when the Andromeda-Milky Way intersection becomes a reality. (Of course, I might not want to sit around watching it happen in real-time, so maybe some kind of “fast forward” for some parts would be in order?)

Then I start thinking of how I already have friends that are long gone and how I miss them. How would much worse would that be if it was multiplied by the hundreds, the thousands, my entire original civilization? Yeah, OK, so maybe individual immortality would become a nightmare as well.

On a universal level … yeah, sorry, I can’t see it as anything except a nightmare without a lot of other major developments. (A vastly lowered birthrate, energy management, and other changes that are really at the immortality level on their own.) I can see how we might eventually adapt to this, regarding 500 as the new 50, for instance, but I think that transition period might be a bit difficult.


But part of the reason we get social advancement and change is new brains that come along and say “this needs to change”, and as the old brains age out of positions of power, these new brains can get into those positions and actually change things. Immortality favours tyrants. Hell, people in the US were so afraid of tyrants even with our limited lifespan that they mandated term limits: would that have happened if the idea of protecting the future of their great country wasn’t needed, because they could protect it. Look at the reelection rate in Senate or Congress where those limits don’t exist. We bitch constantly about the difficulty of unseating incumbents (McCain, again, for example), because people vote for the name they recognise and if the incumbent never dies or feels the need to retire…

Why would people bother to learn new things? Look at all the laws that get proposed and even passed by those who don’t understand how the Internet works. Imagine if that seat was held by someone for whom Gutenberg’s press had been the suspicious new technology.

All this “we’ll learn to adapt” assumes progressives obtain any real power and that conservatives get frozen out. Even a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” style conservative could hold progress back centuries. It assumes that we’d somehow manage to avoid a group seizing power that would be even more motivated to ensure gerrymandering favoured them, because it would be for them personally, forever.

Old ideas die out because the people who held them precious and were highly motivated to protect them died out.

In addition, one of the drivers for rapid development is “because I want to see it happen in my lifetime”. What happens when that person now has so much longer to get things done in? We like to think they would accomplished more, but isn’t it equally likely they’ll be less motivated to push, because there is plenty of time?

I don’t fear death. I do fear people who won’t die, yet will continue to casually hurt people for their full lifespan. Imagine an immortal Bannon or Spencer or even Paul Ryan. Imagine an immortal Pence. Hell, I can think of a few members of my own family and the damage they did that was only escaped because they’re no longer here to keep doing it. Don’t forget, rebellious teenagers changed the world, only because the older generations faded out and suddenly the ideas weren’t so rebellious anymore because they were the ideas of those who had taken over the establishment. But if the establishment doesn’t vacate…


I agree that personal self-interest would exert a conservative influence where hierarchies exist, but even if the pace of social change were slower, people would still experience it, albeit over a longer span. There are still going to be cultural, scientific and historical forces driving change, and I’m skeptical that you can hold onto a rigid mindset indefinitely.

When we think of old people as being naturally conservative, part of that is, yes, that they’ve carved out some safety and stability for themselves and they don’t want to lose that. But that mindset is also a product of our own mortality. You’re told to save and create a stable situation for yourself because your body is going to betray you, and you’ll soon be rendered unable to reinvent yourself in the ways that time will demand—but what happens if that goes away? Wouldn’t the advice then become “don’t get too comfortable, be prepared to adjust?” We have people in Congress who never use a computer because they can get away with that for the short amount of time they have until death or retirement, but that’s not sustainable—eventually you’d have to catch up, or be overrun by those who have.

It might be the 100 year-olds who are really “conservative” in the current sense of the word, whereas the 1,000 year-olds have already lived so many lives that they just don’t hold onto stuff anymore. Maybe they’ve even learned that power and hedonism aren’t rewarding for long. Certainly, conservatism looks very different in a world where you know better than to kick the can on things like climate change and the national debt, and where the average person is viewing social arrangements through the lens of 1,000 years—none of this “I just have to keep this up until I collect social security,” or “I’ll suffer through my short life and then dwell in Heaven forever” stuff.

In a pseudo-immortal society, conservatism might look more like sustainability and a tendency to be judicious about how new technologies are applied. The lessons of short-term thinking would have been learned, and, moreover, there is the benefit of being able to remember what was lost each time society progressed.

And I think you would still have “new minds,” even if they weren’t housed in new bodies. If you’ve been a potter for 100 years and decide to take up physics, you’re going to enter that field with a fresh pair of eyes. And perhaps the orthodoxy isn’t too bad because immortals are constantly reinventing themselves. Really, why would you want to do or be the same thing for hundreds of years?

My basic proposition that the human brain is designed to learn and adapt and that our personalities would continue to mature over centuries and even millennia; that given sufficient time, any fool will become wise, and that much of that wisdom would consist in learning to embrace change (since the inability to do so is what causes suffering). It is the expectation of death, not old age per se, that causes some people to stop growing, that gives them the luxury of being able to just run out the clock, but without death they’d have no choice but to grow the f— up.


Social advancement through attrition is a very real thing, although it’s not just in social areas.


Howard Tayler’s current Schlock Mercenary story line is touching on some aspects of forms of immortality. (The link is for today’s strip – go back a bit to get the full story.)

Positing any sort of real progress assumes that. Medical advancement like we’re talking about here would require a quite different set of priorities on society’s part.


i actually remember so much that is verifiable starting from when i was 4 that i find the current brain science thinking about memory to be either very doubtful or strongly implying that my memory represents an extreme outlier. it isn’t a photographic memory because i know that there are quite literally millions if not billions of discrete memories i have forgotten but i can inhabit the past so fully in my mind i’ve occasionally wondered why i can’t reminisce about tomorrow. would i want immortality? given a form of immortality more or less proof against degeneration i might. one thing that needs specifying here is that immortality does not imply invulnerability. death is still possible either through misadventure or through the actions of others.

there are several different takes on immortality in schlock mercenary which are definitely worth a look– this leads to a story line debuting one of the longest lived species in the schlock universe.


True, but it is also true old ideas are resurrected because not enough people are around to remember the hell they caused the first time around. Which is why we’re having to argue facism is a bad thing all over again.

There’s that line from Skyfall which is probably ripped off from somewhere I don’t know (oooh, meta): “Age is no guarantee of experience and youth is no guarantee of innovation.”

Who was totally cool with recycling when it was first introduced? People who were children in WWII, and knew how “make do and mend, save your scraps” worked in a practical way. Who freaked out the most? Suburban teenagers and their boomer parents.

Some things we are reaching the upper limits of, just because it takes a lifetime to learn enough to be a true master. I see it in crafting all the time – by the time someone is truly proficient, they have to battle arthritis and failing eyesight to advance the common knowledge.

Meanwhile, our execrable habit of ignoring the old just because they’re old means important everyday knowledge is being lost. Historians are having to do experiential scenarios to re-learn skills from the 30s and 40s already – skills we might need to combat things like climate change and economic uncertainty.


because my parents both worked i was kept by my grandparents, both of whom had lived through the depression. gardening, butchering, and preserving–whether by canning, drying, curing, or smoking–were routine occurrences while i was growing up. from the time i was small i participated to the limits of my skill set in these activities and i still maintain my skills by canning vegetables, jams, and salsas along with the occasional production of jerky. given access to salt, sugar, a supply of herbs and spices, and a supply of pectin i can preserve a wide variety of vegetables, fruit, and meats with not much more than boiling water and smoky heat.

what i do on a craft basis now may well become essential survival skills before i die, especially if i make it into my 80s or 90s like my grandparents and great grandparents.


Do I get to have the body of a 20 year old forever or do I age all that time? In other words, I think the appeal of immortality is less about living forever than it is about avoiding living in an aging body.


I was wandering around the BBC site and found this article on Frank Lloyd Wright. He was still innovating at age 89, and the photos of the buildings he designed show very little “design fatigue”. Imagine a mind like that let loose on a 3D printer: