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Beware the Rise of Gerontocracy: Some Hard Lessons for Transhumanism, Not Least from Brexit
Steve Fuller   Jul 17, 2016   Ethical Technology  

Transhumanists will know that the science fiction author Zoltan Istvan has unilaterally leveraged the movement into a political party contesting the 2016 US presidential election. To be sure, many transhumanists have contested Istvan’s own legitimacy, but there is no denying that he has generated enormous publicity for many key transhumanist ideas. Interestingly, his lead idea is that the state should do everything possible to uphold people’s right to live forever. Of course, he means to live forever in a healthy state, fit of mind and body. Istvan cleverly couches this policy as simply an extension of what voters already expect from medical research and welfare provision. And while he may be correct, the policy is fraught with hazards – especially if, as many transhumanists believe, we are on the verge of revealing the secrets to biological immortality.

In June, Istvan and I debated this matter at Brain Bar Budapest. Let me say, for the record, that I think that we are sufficiently close to this prospect that it is not too early to discuss its political and economic implications.

Two months before my encounter with Istvan, I was on a panel at the Edinburgh Science Festival with the great theorist of radical life extension Aubrey de Grey, where he declared that people who live indefinitely will seem like renovated vintage cars. Whatever else, he is suggesting that they would be frozen in time. He may actually be right about this. But is such a state desirable, given that throughout history radical change has been facilitated generational change? Specifically, two simple facts make the young open to doing things differently: The young have no memory of past practices working to anyone else’s benefit, and they have not had the time to invest in those practices to reap their benefits. Whatever good is to be found in the past is hearsay, as far as the young are concerned, which they are being asked to trust as they enter a world that they know is bound to change. 

Questions have been already raised about whether tomorrow’s Methuselahs will wish to procreate at all, given the time available to them to realize dreams that in the past would have been transferred to their offspring. After all, as human life expectancy has increased 50% over the past century, the birth rate has correspondingly dropped. One can only imagine what will happen once ageing can be arrested, if not outright reversed!

So, where will the new ideas of the future come from? The worry here is that society may end up being ruled by people with overlong memories who value stability over change: Think China and Japan. But perhaps the old Soviet Union is the most telling example, as its self-consciously revolutionary image gradually morphed into a ritualistic veneration of the original 1917 revolutionary moment. To these gerontocratic indicators, the recent UK vote to leave the European Union (‘Brexit’) adds a new twist. There were some clear age-related patterns in the outcome: The older the voter, the more likely to vote to leave – and the more likely to vote at all. To be sure, given the closeness of the vote (52% to leave vs. 48% to remain), had the young voted in comparable numbers to their elders, Brexit would have lost.

One might think that the simple solution is to encourage, if not force, the young to vote in larger numbers. However, this does not take into account the liabilities of their elders when it comes to dictating the terms for living in the future. Whatever benefits might accrue to people living longer, the clarity of the memories of such people may not be an unmitigated good, as it might incline them to perpetuate what they regard as the best of their own pasts. One way around this situation is to weight votes inversely to age. In other words, the youngest voters would effectively get the most votes and the oldest voters the least. This would continually force the elders to make their case in terms that their juniors can appreciate. The exercise would serve to destabilize any sense of nostalgia that members of the same generation might experience simply by virtue of having experienced the same events at the same age.

However, two technologically based solutions also come to mind. One is for the elderly to be subject to the strategic memory loss procedure described in the film, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which might be understood as a the cognitive correlate of an inheritance tax – or even a high-class lobotomy! In other words, the elders would lose their personal attachment to events which would nevertheless remain available in the historical record for more detached scrutiny vis-à-vis their lessons for the future. The other, more drastic solution involves incentivizing the elders to exchange biological for digital immortality. This would enable them to enjoy a virtual existence in perpetuity. They might be resurrected (‘downloaded’) on a regular or simply a need-to-remember basis, depending on prior contractual arrangements. The former might be seen as more ‘religious’, as in a Roman Catholic feast day, and the latter more ‘secular’, as in an ‘on tap’ consultant. But in either virtual form, the elders could retain their attachment to certain past events with impunity while at the same time not inflicting their memories needlessly on present generations.

David Wood, the head of the main UK transhumanist organization, London Futurists, has recently published a summa of anti-ageing arguments, which makes a cumulatively persuasive case for indefinite life extension being within our grasp. But most assuredly, this would create as many social problems as it solves biological ones. Under most direct threat would be the sorts of values historically associated with generational change, namely, those related to new thinking and fresh starts. Of course, as I have suggested, there are ways around this, but they will invariably revive in a new high-tech key classic debates concerning the desirability of brainwashing and suicide.

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. From 2011-14, he published three books with Palgrave Macmillan on ‘Humanity 2.0’. His next book, due out in Autumn 2017 from Anthem Press, is on ‘post-truth’.



COMMENTS

Hello,

It is always interesting to think about a future with negligible senescence, also to imagine negative consequences, but I respectfully largely disagree:

1. We are living in a world where the average age is higher than ever. Do you really think that we are living in a society that value “stability over change” more than before? Do you really think that in countries with the average age is higher (like in Scandinavia, Japan,…) value “stability over change” more than in countries where the average age is lower (India and Nigeria for example)?

2. The change with a population advancing in age (but not in senescence) will be progressive. Nobody (*) will reach 150 years of age before the year 2050. So, we have more time than enough to prepare a transition to a society where a big part of the population lives far longer and healthier lives than ever.

3. Less important: I’m not at all in favor of the Brexit. However, I think that define the people who chose the Brexit as people in favor of stability is wrong. They want instability, with a return to an old situation.

Didier Coeurnelle

(*) To be precise, if we could stop aging today, the first person to reach 150 years would have to wait the year 2049. And to have a significant group of people reaching this age, we would have to wait at least until the year 2060.

Funny, how for all the screams of “fascist!” that are getting thrown around, it’s the Remainers that are engaging in the most calls to abridge the rights (and in your case, the very personhood) of individuals because a result did not go their way.

I find it very interesting that you mention “Think China…” as an example of “valuing stability over change. Remember that the Cultural Revolution was a youth movement, that had as its primary model “rip it all down!”. The “wisdom” of the youth paved the way for Mao.

If you look at the youth mourning Brexit, they are unable to actually articulate anything besides vague ideals and hurt feelings.

Also, assuming you’re not so self-loathing as to want the “virtual lobotomy” you propose, I would note that you are old enough that you would find yourself on the short end of your own proposed ephebocracy.

You jumped to the high-tech solutions too quickly. Read the previous paragraph. My preferred approach would be to have votes biased in favour of the young so that it’s always in the interest of the old (including me!) to persuade the young in terms that the young might appreciate. This doesn’t require lobotomies, etc.

Oh, okay, so you’re willing to see if selective disenfranchisement works, rather than just jumping straight to the mind-raping. That’s so much better. Perhaps you’d like to submit to a little mental editing? For the common good, of course.

If you don’t want to be called out as a monster, don’t suggest monstrous things. Hijacking the minds of anybody to bring them into line with orthodoxy, or for any reason, is a competitor (with only the extinguishing of them approaching parity) for the most monstrous act possible.

Re: voting - One could also make a counter-case that the proven hyper-emotionalism of millenials, and the scientific evidence that temporal lobe development is not complete until at least age 25, could be used to instead devalue the youth vote. Or simply raise the voting age to 30, so as to insure that decision-making is done at least in consultation with logic.

This is about removing bias that comes from the strength of personal memory over a long period. It has nothing to do with enforcing an orthodoxy.

As for voting, the issue is not at which age people know enough to make sensible decisions, but when they are taking decisions that materially affect the lives of others. Whatever age we allow for a driver’s license or military service or paying taxes is the age we should allow for voting. And the reason to bias votes in favor of the young is that they will need to live the consequences the longest. For more, see here: http://www.thesociologicalreview.com/blog/the-larger-lessons-of-intergenerational-conflict-from-the-brexit-vote.html

Hello,

It is always interesting to think about a future with negligible senescence, also to imagine negative consequences, but I respectfully largely disagree:

1. We are living in a world where the average age is higher than ever. Do you really think that we are living in a society that value “stability over change” more than before? Do you really think that in countries with the average age is higher (like in Scandinavia, Japan,…) value “stability over change” more than in countries where the average age is lower (India and Nigeria for example)?

2. The change with a population advancing in age (but not in senescence) will be progressive. Nobody (*) will reach 150 years of age before the year 2050. So, we have more time than enough to prepare a transition to a society where a big part of the population lives far longer and healthier lives than ever.

3. Less important: I’m not at all in favor of the Brexit. However, I think that define the people who chose the Brexit as people in favor of stability is wrong. They want instability, with a return to an old situation.

Didier Coeurnelle

(*) To be precise, if we could stop aging today, the first person to reach 150 years would have to wait the year 2049. And to have a significant group of people reaching this age, we would have to wait at least until the year 2060.

Japan? From the makers of -Ghost in the Shell—Stand alone complex- which embraces the future and its mobilities whole heartedly and mindfully as well as mentally with an equipose of zen calmness makes this country rather fearless of the future than anything else

I respect Japan for its ability to advance the frontiers while simultaneously remembering where its been. The extent can be argued, but not held in contempt. Japan engages in, as you said, MINDFULNESS, as well as equanimity.

GitS-SAC is one of my favorite series. Some of the best discussion of Transhumanist issues ever put to screen. It actually informs a lot of my thoughts about identity, mindedness, and reaction to change.

You might wish to consider that the difference between Japan’s advanced manga culture and its sclerotic political culture represents a massive cultural disconnect, not something that should be subject to facile praise from afar.

This article seems to reflect an alarming and divisive trend in popular thinking—that the outstanding characteristic of age is conservatism and unwillingness to change.  This is the path that leads to a dismissive disrespect for the experience of age. How different is compartmentalizing memories in some digital bunker from locking away old folks in “home”?

Although I am often dismayed at the rigidity of some of my age cohort, one of the strengths of being human is the ability to build on the experience of the past. Yet age is shunned in today’s workplace.  Don’t let that gray show, or you may be shown the door.

We build on the past, but the past is often shuffled away as irrelevant.  A case in point:  there are many young people who think the Holocaust did not occur.  They categorize that depth of human depravity as a mythological horror story of the past. What will prevent them from falling into the same traps in the future? 

As young people we often embrace exciting new changes without the foresight that comes from past mistakes.  We NEED the experience that comes with longevity to enrich and inform the changes and decisions of the future. 

The article suggests memory wipes, as in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” It ignored the final lesson of the movie that without the benefit of painful memories, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes as if we were locked into a self-destructive time loop.  Society can change, but it cannot truly progress while wiping out its legacy of memories.

Back in the 60s, the mantra was to never trust anyone over 30.  There was good reason for thinking that way, but it was a reactionary attitude. It is true that openness to new ideas and the ability to shift goals are the stuff of sociological evolution.  However, our entire culture shouldn’t have to stumble through unending adolescence in the name of change. 

We need to embrace and honor wisdom. At the same time we must counteract rigidity with insightful compassion by understanding that rigidity is built on fears borne of experience.

Mr Fuller, your linear analysis of “the problem” with radical life extension is invalid, because the rate of technological improvement is exponential.  For instance, Kurzweil is predicting the emergence of the synthetic neocortex extender in around 20 years, and the emergence of super intelligence in about 30 years.  Right now, cultural baggage is holding the rate of technological improvement back, and it is true that the death of key people seems to break the dam to innovative ideas being adopted.  Yet, what happens when people are radically changing with adult gene therapy, implants, and immersive virtual reality?

One thing that is particularly pertinent is the routine breaching of the Earth’s gravity well to facilitate extra terrestrial immigration.  In the past, immigration has been a great safety valve to pent up frustration at dogmatic and ossified societies and economies.  Furthermore, not only dying from old age now are the people who try to enforce the status quo that benefits themselves, but also the people who could potentially come up with the next big thing that revolutionizes society and creates an entirely new paradigm.

I find that even now the reactionaries are not trying to stop the multitude of emerging technologies that cause them future shock (which would be impossible since it is coming from all directions), but instead are retreating to their safe cocoon where they are able to maintain their “sane” serene and stolid household.

A big factor will be the emergence of an abundance economy, where key people aren’t able to bottleneck progress, because they will simply be by-passed by self-sufficient progressive minded citizens.

It seems to me that people don’t so much want to live forever, they just don’t want to die.

If I am allowed to change and to forget throughout my life then there is a sense that I become many different people over time. I’m absolutely fine with this as long as long as there is nothing resembling death that occurs at any point in this process.

I want to gradually transition over time through a succession of new identities and personalities. But any sudden erasure of memories or sudden discontinuity in my personality would be like a little death. Change needs to happen gradually and organically.

This is important for the relationships we make too. Death is a tragedy for loved ones who have a person that was important to them wrenched out of their lives. We need to avoid wrenching transitions, people would part and form new relationships as they slowly change and grow apart.

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