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Misconceptions of Cryonics in Popular Culture
Ben Scarlato   May 14, 2009   Ethical Technology  

[May contain spoilers for various movies or TV shows.]  It is important to understand how issues such as cryonics are presented in the popular media, so as to gauge public perception of them and understand how to correct common misconceptions and appeal to popular values as much as possible. Unfortunately, in the case of cryonics a large portion of the portrayals in television and movies are negative and are rife with those misconceptions.

There are many works that have mentioned cryonics in passing or used it as an incidental plot point, such as the Alien movies where cryonics was used to travel long distances without aging, but there are also a few more direct treatments of cryonics. A number of movies throughout the years have used cryonics as a central element, and several fairly recent television shows have had episodes based on cryonics.

In fictional depictions of cryonics, it is not always clear exactly what procedure is being used or if it would in fact be better described as suspended animation, which should not be confused with cryonics and involves the slowing and suspension of vital functions rather than the preservation of a legally dead, deanimated individual. For example, Wikipedia currently lists several instances of cryonics in popular culture, including episodes of Star Trek (TOS and The Next Generation), the original Doctor Who, and Han Solo in Star Wars. However, while the procedure featured in Star Trek: TNG and Doctor Who definitely seem like cryonics, in Doctor Who it is referred to as suspended animation, just as in the original Star Trek (though at the time that it aired, cryonics was just beginning to gain some popularity).

More recent examples of cryonics in popular culture include episodes of the television shows Eleventh Hour, Nip/Tuck, and Better Off Ted. In the season finale of Nip/Tuck, Doctor Christian Troy is dying of breast cancer and decides to sign up with a cryonics company for a chance to see his son again. However, while it is much more difficult for someone with a terminal illness to finance cryonics than someone who is in good health, the cryonics company Dr. Troy chose is far more expensive than real cryonics companies. The fictional Hanson Cryogenics charged a $200,000 initiation fee with $5000 monthly dues, but membership with Alcor for the first family member costs $398.00 annually, and even whole body preservation for members in America is $150,000. Neurocryopreservation is cheaper, as is signing up with Cryonics Institute.  Moreover, for a reasonably young and healthy person, cryonics can easily be paid for over time with a health insurance policy that costs less than cable TV (in America Rudi Hoffman has a very convenient website where you can get a free quote).

The 1973 Woody Allen movie Sleeper hilariously depicted cryonics and a health food store owner who awoke to a bizarre future, where society spends large amounts of time with diversions such as the Orgazmatron, and much conventional wisdom, such as tobacco and steak being bad for health, is reversed. Another movie that featured cryonics prominently was the 1992 movie Forever Young, starring Mel Gibson, which was about a pilot who elects to participate in a cryonics experiment when his lover dies. He is revived in the present day, but starts to age uncontrollably, seemingly suggesting that one is not meant to live past their natural lifespan. The movie Cocoon,which featured old humans given the opportunity to stop their aging and aliens in cocoons rather than cryonics, at least wasn’t so uniformly negative about the quest for life extension. When one of the old humans considers the argument that he shouldn’t accept an offer of life extension because it would be cheating nature, he concludes that he does not mind cheating nature as it has been none too kind to him.

Vanilla Sky was a fascinating movie about a man who signs up for cryonics and chooses a fictional “lucid dream” option, allowing him to dream out his life as he waits to be reanimated. Apart from cryonics, the movie was beautifully bizarre in its own right, and a theme that is repeated throughout it is the idea that the sweet will never be as sweet without the bitter. These two themes come to a head at the end of the movie when the main character has to choose between remaining in his dream world and venturing into the unknown world of the future.

The idea that it is necessary to experience bitterness or pain to get the full sweetness and pleasure from life is often argued incoherently. Such arguments are particularly problematic when it comes to the idea that death is the only way to fully appreciate life, which would mean that the very desires that drive cryonics are misguided, but these arguments are also flawed when it comes to the pleasures within life. Even if it were to be shown that humans most fully appreciate happiness only after bitterness, that would be a flaw of the brain to be improved rather than cherished and preserved.  If it were the case that humans were at their happiest when they had a positive experience after a negative one, then instead of focusing on manipulating experiences, why not strive to chemically manipulate the brain to feel the moment of appreciating the sweet in contrast to the bitter?

One of the arguments that people often advance as a reason not to sign up for cryonics is that all of their loved would die while they lived on. That issue was raised in the premiere episode of Futurama, when the lead character, Fry, accidentally enters a cryonics chamber on a prank pizza delivery call. When he awakes to the year 3000, he realizes that he will never see his family, coworkers, or girlfriend again, but this causes him to rejoice as he is unhappy with his job and has just realized his girlfriend was unfaithful. While there are better answers to the objection that in the future loved ones will have died, the Futurama episode may be indicative of how cryonicists are sometimes perceived, as antisocial and with nothing to live for in the present.

Throughout these various depictions of cryonics, several misconceptions about it are perpetuated. Some of them are relatively harmless, such as Eleventh Hour implying that Walt Disney was a cryonics patient, but others are more pernicious. The misinformed idea that cryonics is vulnerable to power outages is repeated in Futurama, with a sign at a cryonics organization detailing the number of years since a power outage, as well as in Star Trek: TNG, where it is mentioned that many cryonics companies failed due to investors backing out after power outages. However, real cryonics does not rely on electricity to maintain its patients, and instead relies on liquid nitrogen to keep its patients at the appropriate temperature, with the occasional addition of more liquid nitrogen to replace that which evaporates.

For all these misrepresentations of cryonics, the Doctor Who episode that dealt with cryonics is a reminder that there is a reason for the cryonicist saying that cryopreservation is the second worst thing that can happen to an individual (death being the worst). In Doctor Who, the doctor’s archenemy Davros utilizes a planet of cryonics patients for the unpleasant fates of either becoming food or becoming Daleks.

Perhaps one of the most frequently repeated and tenacious misconceptions about the idea of cryonics is that it is a simple matter of freezing an individual and reviving them when a cure for the cause of death has been found. In reality, cryonics is supposed to work by vitrification and replacing blood with cryoprotecants which prevent damage from ice crystals, and revival will require advanced technologies such as bioengineering and molecular nanotechnology.  One of the more extreme examples of such oversimplification of cryonics was the premiere of the new comedy Better Off Ted, where a cutting-edge company with little concern for ethics decides to freeze an employee for a year. While a mention is at least made of vitrified brains, other employees look on as the test subject simply steps into a cryonics chamber and they watch as he is cooled, only to be accidentally revived a short time later when some hapless employees drop and break the container he is in. Somewhat similarly, in a 2006 episode of South Park Eric Cartman froze himself on a mountain so that he would not have to wait any longer for the release of the Nintendo Wii.

While it would be harsh to fault such comedies for not being meticulously realistic and scientific, they would seem to be reflective of a broader lack of accurate information about cryonics. Even in more serious narratives vitrification and replacement of the blood with cryoprotecants is rarely addressed, and where advanced techniques of revival are implied, there is rarely explicit mention of technologies such as nanomedicine. Such portrayals in popular culture may contribute to the number of people who criticize cryonics without really understanding it. It is disheartening to hear intelligent, educated people speak about cryonics as impossible due to ice crystal formation when they are unaware of measures to address that problem. If the popular perception of cryonics was closer to the truth, perhaps critics would more productively focus on the genuine weaknesses of cryonics, thereby starting a dialogue that could encourage more research and improved cryonics technologies.

Ben Scarlato, a former IEET intern, studied Computer Science at Rochester Institute of Technology and works as a software engineer focused on security.

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