The following is a short excerpt from an article by David Rakoff, published in the May 2003 issue of Gentlemen's Quarterly (GQ), pages 196-201, 213-214.
GQ is a monthly men's magazine owned by Conde Nast Publications.
May 2003 Cover
THE GRIM REAPER cannot catch a break in Newport Beach, California. In a slide show in the grand ballroom of the Marriott, a picture of the hooded, scythe-wielding one is imprisoned behind that international sign of negation: a circle with a diagonal strike through it. The simplicity of the rendering has turned the Pale Rider into a neutered Milquetoast. He could signify "No trick-or-treaters!" for all the menace he musters. This vanquished monster makes a suitable visual for Rob Freitas' lecture, "Death Is an Outrage!"
"During the time I just spoke this sentence, a dozen people died," he says, sounding duly appalled. He pauses for effect. "...and there's another dozen." The sound of pens scratching on paper fills the room as people transcribe Freitas's words. It's an Escher moment, like the cereal box with the image of the child eating beside the box with the image of the child eating beside the box, and on and on. How many people died, one wonders, in the time it took to write down what he said about how many people died in the time it took him to say it?
Death is the numinous presence that hovers over the Fifth Extreme Life Extension Conference. The three-day meeting is sponsored by Alcor, the Arizona cryonics company that has put the body of Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams in cryogenic suspension, in the hope he may one day rise again. Like worshippers at a weekend-long Easter Mass, about 150 scientists and acolytes have gathered to hear the Good News about the latest developments in securing their own resurrections and immortality. Here, death is viewed as little more than a nuisance, a persistent gnat to be batted away. Death is certainly not going to ruin anyone's fun. As chairman Ralph Merkle, a nanotechnologist from Palo Alto, California, said when he kicked things off, "This conference is about, by and for people who think life is a pretty good thing and that more life is better." Even the landscape surrounding the hotel seems imbued with optimism: rolling manicured lawns, palm trees and flower beds planted with murderously orange canna lilies, sloping gently down to the emerald golf links of Orange County.
Freitas continues: "This holocaust we call natural death produces 2.4 million deaths annually in the United States alone. The human death toll in 2001 was nearly 55 million people. The worst disasters in human history pale in comparison to natural death." Freitas goes on to liken the richness of each person -- his knowledge as opposed to, say, the street value of his hair and gold fillings -- to the equivalent of at least one book. That's a "destruction" equivalent to three Libraries of Congress per year. Further, if you agree that some people are more than one book, then it's even more devastating. If, however, you feel that some folks' book is The Prince of Tides, or that others of us add up to all the complexity of a document, frequently pink, titled "While You Were Out," then it's a tragedy of lesser magnitude.
Like many here, Freitas is a nanotechnologist. Nanotechnology is the Holy Grail of what's to come for cryonics -- the thing that will make bringing patients out of cryosuspension possible. He talks about a future in which an array of intelligent nanodevices will be dispatched into our bodies like so many Fantastic Voyage Raquel Welches, their sole mission our intracorporeal perfection. Many of the methods he cites are theoretically feasible: chromosome replacement therapy (microscopic cell-by-cell damage repair); respirocytes (artificial red blood cells that would enable us to sink to the bottom of a pool and hold our breath for four hours); microbivores (artificial white cells that would be one hundred times more effective than the real thing). All of these, says Freitas, could potentially restore us to the perfection of our youth.
"A rollback to the physiology of your late teens might be easier than your 10-year-old self," he says, "and more fun. We could live about 900 years." A terrifying prospect, since everyone else would also be 18 again, and that ruthless food chain of those miserable years would reign once more. Only this time, high school would be nine centuries long. That's close to a millennium's worth of blackheads.
The grand fantasy of cheating death, the underlying myth at the heart of this conference, is as old as humanity itself. Most every culture has a cautionary tale about some soul who aspires to godlike immortality and is brought low as a result. Not surprisingly, the disastrous hubris of Icarus is not invoked here. What is brought up repeatedly as a worthy precedent is a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend in 1773: "I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira wine, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country!"
Putting aside for a moment the overweening narcissism of wanting to live forever or the sheer implausibility of "reanimation" ever working, what defies my comprehension is why anyone would seek this out.... What has troubled me since the conference at Newport Beach is what seems to be a widespread belief among the conferees that one's allocation of privilege -- in most cases, a lengthy life essentially free of want -- is limitless and should continue to be so.... The cryonicists are simply one extreme within a cultural moment that has vilified aging to the point where the injection of a neurotoxin to erase wrinkles and halt facial expression is completely acceptable.
The Alcorians will think me a fool, no doubt, and many things in this world are an outrage, to be sure, but death at our current life expectancy doesn't strike me as one of them (and as a gay man who lived in New York City during the 1980s, I know a thing or two about people disappearing before their time). Maybe I sound like some Victorian who felt that forty years ought to be enough for any man, but one of the marks of a life well lived has to be reaching a state of finally getting it, of not needing more and of being able to sign off with something approaching peace of mind.1 Given the choice, I'll throw my lot in with the rest of those whose deaths will be irrevocable, the Dustafarians2. In my brief glimpse of what is to come, I realize how little I care to witness it.3 I have seen the future and I'm fairly relieved to say it looks nothing like me."
Notes added by Freitas:
1 "Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true." -- Demosthenes, 384-322 BC
2 Max More has dubbed such people the "Humanish". Fortunately for the sake of world diversity, such people seem quite capable of thriving in the midst of an increasingly technological world, even while shunning technology. "As a matter of record, the Amish population has shown spectacular growth: 5,000 in 1900; 33,000 in 1950; well over 100,000 today." -- William M. Kephart, William W. Zellner, Extraordinary Groups: An Examination of Unconventional Life-Styles, 5th Edition, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1994, p. 46.
3 "The future is what you make of it, so make it a good one." -- Doc Brown, Back to the Future Part III, 1990
Last updated on 6 July 2003