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Why I Want to Live Forever

I've mentioned this before, but one of the things that baffles me the most when I say I want to live forever is the folks who say "Wouldn't you get bored?"

The question totally boggles me. Bored? Who on earth has time to be bored? Life changes constantly. In the last two thousand years, we have gone from Bronze Age tribalism through the Iron Age, the rise and fall of the empire of Rome, feudalism, the Renaissance, the discovery of a new continent, industrialization, the rise of mass communication, to atomic power and the beginning of the exploration of the physical universe. In all of that, we have seen incredible changes in society, philosophy, science, art, engineering, customs, tradition, and knowledge. Who would say of a man born in the time of Jesus and still alive today, "But aren't you bored?"

The question to me seems to show a projection of the present onto the future--I almost wonder if the folks who ask aren't envisioning people commuting to work, stopping for lunch at McDonald's, listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio, heading home through rush-hour traffic to watch reruns of "Friends" on TV in the year 6,000. I think that's particularly strange given that, in the memory of people who are still alive today, the United States has moved from a largely agrarian nation to a post-industrial nation, pausing along the way to split the atom, tame Niagra Falls, and put men on the frikkin' MOON.

No, I don't think I'd be bored.

In fact, I've started to make a list of some of the things I would like to live long enough to see--things for which a single "ordinary" human lifespan is insufficient. The next thousand years offers exciting prospects for the human species unmatched in the last ten thousand, and I want to see what happens. For example:

What will happen when we discover evidence of life elsewhere in the universe? Given the incomprehensibly vast scope of the physical universe, it seems profoundly unlikely that we alone live here. If the emergence of life is so unlikely that it happens even once out of ten billion solar systems, that would mean it's everywhere--the physical universe is just that big. If, as seems more likely, it develops and takes a foothold anywhere that it is not prevented from doing so by the laws of physics, then it's probably ubiquitous. What does it look like? How does it work? What would it mean to us to learn that we're not alone? What form would it take? Where will we find it? What implications will it have for philosophy, religion, morality, our conceptions of ourselves? What will we learn from it? Will the knowledge that it exists make us feel more connected or more disconnected from the universe and from each other? Will we see life as being more sacred or less sacred?

Will we succeed in moving beyond our own fragile home on earth? Where will we go? What will we learn? How far will it be possible for us to extend our reach? How will we change in the process? Will knowing that we have left the only home humanity has ever had for its entire existence change our conceptions of ourselves, and in what way? How will we adapt?

What does a post-scarcity society look like? From the stone knives used by our earliest hominid ancestors to the Large Hadron Collider, everything we have ever built has been built in the same way--by taking the materials we find and heating, cooling, chipping, hammering, carving, cutting, and pounding away at them until they're shaped to do the task we want. This crude method of building things, which has been refined only in degree but not in kind since the days of flint knapping and bearskins, necessarily means resource scarcity, because it is limited both by the natural raw materials available and by the man-hours of labor needed to fashion the raw materials into finished things. But what happens when we gain the ability to put things together on a molecular level exactly as we want to? Oh, then everything changes. Then it becomes possible to make just about anything--food, Ferraris, fuel, iPods, spaceships--from dirt and sunlight. No more scarcity means no more resource competition, no more competition between the "haves" and the "have nots," no more division of nations into "first world" and "third world." What will that mean for human society? How will it change the way we interact with each other? Who will be the first to figure out molecular assembly, and how will that affect everyone else? Is it true, as some folks say, that wars are fought for resources first and ideology second, and if so, will a post-scarcity society really make war obsolete? Or will we simply shift from competing for material resources to competing for ideas?

What happens when we gain the ability to control ourselves on a molecular level? Biomedical nanotechnology is a hot field of research, barely out of the starting gate--the state of the art right now is roughly at the state of the computing art during the time of Charles Babbage. We know it is possible to build machines that can change and repair living organisms on a cellular or molecular level--we just don't know how to get there yet. But what happens when we do? What does a human society look like when you take away the inevitability of deterioration, aging, enfeeblement, and death? And more than that--what does it mean to be able to make modifications to to ourselves on the level of our DNA? When you give people the ability to change in that way, will you see a society of nearly-identical supermodels, or a society of people with orange fur and tails? Will we begin to enforce common standards of physical appearance, or will we start changing ourselves in all sorts of novel and interesting ways? If people can change their physical sex at will, and be completely functional in whatever their chosen physical sex is, what will that mean for gender differences? How will that affect society, when some of our most basic assumptions about what being human means become obsolete?

What happens when we remove the biological limitations on our brains and bodies? Human brains and human bodies do not have infinite capacity. Our brains are limited, both in terms of raw processing power and in terms of the concepts we are easily able to imagine and comprehend. Are there things about the physical universe that we simply do not have the capacity to understand, in the same way that a dog does not have the capacity to understand calculus? Are we nearing the limits of what we are able to understand about the physical world around us? What will it mean if we can re-wire our brains to add capacity? What will it mean if we can change our bodies to give ourselves abilities we lack now--the ability to breathe underwater, say, or to adapt to hostile environments? How much of what we consider our "humanity" is a consequence of our limitations and of the environment we live in? If we begin to diverge from one another in these ways, will we lose our ability to relate to one another, or will this simply serve to underscore the ways in which we are all connected? What will we learn about ourselves? What will we learn about the world we live in?

What happens when we encounter the first non-human intelligence? There are many ways this might come about; it could be an AI, a non-human race, even an animal that's been modified to have a higher level of cognitive capability. How will seeing an intelligence that isn't ours affect us? What will we learn about ourselves? Will we discover new ways of comprehending the universe? Will we discover blindness in our own way of thinking, and if so, how will we be better for it?

What kind of macroengineering projects are we capable of? The largest-scale engineering we've ever done is really, when you get right down to it, not that far above Stonehenge. But what happens when we become capable of building on a global scale, or larger? The Space Elevator is a good beginner's macroengineering project, but what comes next? Will we be able to terraform planets? Build ringworlds? What will those things look like? How can they be done? How will they extend our capabilities as human beings? How will transforming the physical universe transform us? Will we encounter anyone else who is already building on this scale? What will that mean for us?

Now, to be perfectly honest, even if these things were not on the horizon, even if things would always be as they are now, I would still want to live forever. There is hardly a day that goes by that I don't encounter something that is so mind-blowingly beautiful that it makes me grateful to be alive; the world just as it exists in this instant in time is so filled with wonder and beauty that I could live for thousands of years and never grow tired of it. There is so much joy to be had, all around, that I can't quite fathom living in anything other than a perpetual state of awe.


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 8th, 2009 11:12 pm (UTC)
Uber interesting. There was a guy talking about transhumanism on NPR the other day, and I thought of you.

I can't stand losing people. I don't want to live forever unless everyone I care about does the same. Otherwise, rock on!
Dec. 8th, 2009 11:18 pm (UTC)
It sounds lovely to me.

However, I have a guess at why some people wouldn't want infinite time. Every few months I have a conversation with a coworker of mine wherein I encourage him to take vacation and do something for himself outside of the office. He won't. He says he'd be bored... in less than a week he'd be bored and adrift. I think he's scared of having free time at all. Infinite time to be filled in any way he wanted would mean a loss of security, safety, and direction. He literally would not know what to do.

I, on the other hand, have an ever expanding list of things to do to go with my ever decreasing free time.
Dec. 8th, 2009 11:31 pm (UTC)
i've considered myself a transhumanist for a while now, and always thought that living forever seemed great. just a few weeks ago, though, the man who raised me - the one person i know who seemed the most likely to live forever - died in an accident.

i realize the pain is still raw for me, and will probably fade in time, but it seems to me right now that the biggest problem with humanity achieving immortality is that there will always be a generation of people who will be living forever with the loss of someone they loved dearly. i'm not sure that that's enough to make immortality not worth it, but i do think it's a pretty big problem.

you're one of the more intelligent people i follow the musings of, so maybe you have some good response to this. even if humanity achieves perfect immortality, what can we do about the lingering shadow of death? for all i know, those who can't learn to cope will choose to die, and those who can cope will choose to live, until the death meme runs itself out and everyone left alive will be able to deal with it. or we'll all learn how to cope perfectly, with an eternity to figure out how.

but right now, it seems like a pretty big problem.

Edited at 2009-12-08 11:36 pm (UTC)
Dec. 9th, 2009 03:15 pm (UTC)
for all i know, those who can't learn to cope will choose to die, and those who can cope will choose to live, until the death meme runs itself out and everyone left alive will be able to deal with it. or we'll all learn how to cope perfectly, with an eternity to figure out how.

I agree completely. I've made similar observations, but never put it quite so clearly or succinctly as you have.

By the way, I'm very sorry for your loss.
Dec. 8th, 2009 11:34 pm (UTC)
Boredom would be the least of our worries should humanity attain immortality.
Dec. 8th, 2009 11:39 pm (UTC)
transhumanism and... vampirism? Say it ain't so, Fergie!
But it is.

In some of the more serious vampire literature out there-- i know, i know, scoff all you want, but humor me-- one of the reasons most vampires take a deep sleep every seven or eight hundred years (the length of time varies, largely on plot point and authorial whim, but it's at least once every thousand years for the most part) is because they get... full. You mention storage capacity in one of your points above, and i think that might be one of the reasons-- we can only store so much at one time, and process that, and since so much of our new knowledge and invention and creativity and everything else is at least partially referential on our past experience and knowledge, well-- after a while, we just start repeating ourselves, for want of a better analogy. i think that, and seeing everyone around us taking the Big Dirt Nap woud get... tiresome. Watching the people around you go on to the Next Big Thing is draining, no matter your faith or persepctive or belief, and there's a part of me that's sure (and more sure, the older i get and the more people i outlive) that there's a cumulative weight to that.

Or maybe it's the opposite... a kind of ennui, then: maybe you reach a point where nothing is new, where you can't get excited, where you've seen it all before. i know this sounds hard to believe, especially given the context of your essay, but think about how glacially slow some of that progress early on was (for instance, how long it took to get from that first stone wheel to radial tires, as opposed to getting from 8 track tapes to iPods)-- perhaps it's not boredom so much as it is... getting tired. After a while, the brain, the mind, the soul-- hell, even the body i'd argue-- just says, thanks for the ride, dude, but... i'm outta here... and sometimes it hapens all at the same time, being death, and sometimes... well, there's a mental istitution in every phone book i've ever picked up, and there's a spiritual advisor offering to balm your spiritual ailments no matter what your stripe or denomination...

Edited at 2009-12-08 11:39 pm (UTC)
Dec. 9th, 2009 01:05 am (UTC)
Not Boredom -- Sorrow
I don't think that boredom would be a problem for me if I were to "live forever," whatever the heck that means.

But sorrow? That could become an issue over time.


Because it is in our nature to want to connect physically and emotionally with other humans and if my lifespan were to equal the lifespans of many other humans, I think that there would come a time when I would feel profoundly lonely because I would keep losing those I loved. One might eventually move past that sorrow, of course, because eventually loss would become such a part of the life cycle of OTHER living things that one might be able to gain enough perspective to see the "big picture," but I think it would be a challenge. It's nice to have others that one can reflect with, but if one's memories go so far back that no one else shares them...
Dec. 9th, 2009 02:49 pm (UTC)
Re: Not Boredom -- Sorrow
The scenario that tacit is positing isn't one where he alone has virtual immortality, but rather one where everyone (or nearly everyone) has that option.

Even if that were not the case, I'd still take immortality. The sadness of knowing that all of my friends and loved ones will eventually cease to be doesn't begin to match the joy that sharing my life (or part of my life) brings.
Dec. 9th, 2009 02:05 am (UTC)
I find it very hard to imagine running out of new things to do. But then again, since nearly everything I've done for the past two decades (and I'm 34 - you do the math) involves keeping myself and my parents off the streets, I've been discovering new things to do far, far faster than I'm able to do any of them. Hell, by now you've probably seen more of the Pacific Northwest than I have, despite having lived here most of my life. If nothing else I'd like to see a time when my parents are dead*, survival isn't a daily priority, I can get back the youth I never really had a chance to experience, and I can be able to hear again.

*By wishing them dead in the future I don't mean ill of them, or that I want them to drop dead ASAP. Only that they have been dependent on me for nearly everything, which is why I have little time for myself, and they find the idea of even very long lifespans to be abhorrent, so they'd never go for it. Plus they're both highly dysfunctional as human beings on all levels - physically, mentally, and socially, so the world is not enhanced by their continued existences.
Dec. 9th, 2009 02:45 am (UTC)
I agree... it's the curiousity about what comes next that motivates me to want to keep on living. :D
Dec. 9th, 2009 03:02 am (UTC)
I could not agree more
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 9th, 2009 02:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Small problem
If history does, in fact, repeat itself, I suspect that it's largely because the people who learned lessons first hand then died, leaving a new generation to make the same mistakes. It would be fascinating and wonderful to live in a world where the wisdom and experience that people spend a lifetime accumulating isn't constantly being lost.

Additionally, the technologies that will bring us unrestricted lifespans will likely also allow us to enhance both our memory and our cognitive capabilities, allowing us to transcend the impulses of our primate heritage.

We're only human, but we can fix that.
Dec. 11th, 2009 08:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Small problem
Aye! We can become Borg.
Dec. 9th, 2009 05:12 am (UTC)
My mother-in-law, who is in her late 80s, occasionally says she does not want to live to be 90. She is in excellent health and has a lot of interests and activities. This boggles my mind. I ask her -- you want to die soon? I don't get it.
Dec. 9th, 2009 06:51 am (UTC)
You know, I was just thinking today that I missed your entries. Great to hear from you again.
Dec. 9th, 2009 05:25 pm (UTC)
I am with you on every bit of this.

Except I'll say: the very concept of a "post scarcity economy" is total BS. Something will always be scarce.

There is a finite amount of matter accessible within the capabilities of any technology you might imagine. More importantly, there is a finite amount of energy available. Even if we can convert matter willy-nilly with molecular assembly, it will require prodigious amounts of energy to do so. Even if we wrapped the sun in a dyson sphere, the energy collected thereby is finite and people will find things to do with all of it, requiring an economy of some sort to partition it out.

But physical resources like matter and energy aren't the only scarcities that lead to economic transactions.

Individuals' personal time is scarce - people will always pay to be one of the few who gets to see celebrities (or their uploaded equivalents) in person. Ideas, as you suggest, are also scarce.

In some ways, we can look around us and see what "post scarcity" means. Scarcity of food was a major concern for most humans for most of history. Today in first world countries sufficient nutrition can be had for a minute fraction of the average person's income. Instead the consumer herself - and her time - becomes the scarce commodity. We can only eat so much food per day! As a result, food designers (chefs, processed-foods purveyors, etc.) compete to create increasingly delectable concoctions to entertain us and thereby win a share of valuable eating capability! Or they develop increasingly quick ways of delivering food to us, competing for our limited and valuable time. Post scarcity doesn't mean scarcities disappear, they just shift to different commodities.

While manufacturing may become effectively infinite, no (plausible) futurist technology I can think of can do that for energy, matter, information/concepts, or time.
Dec. 11th, 2009 12:08 am (UTC)
Hmm. I have a hard time seeing myself ever get bored either. But I think it would change our perspective as a race, and we might wish to have what Tolkien's elves called "the gift of man" -- the limited lifespan.
Dec. 11th, 2009 08:49 pm (UTC)
It sounds very nice, but just like the other guy said, what about the people around you? And even if you could have the rest of them, would you be able to maintain your awe and fascination with them as much as you are continually awed and fascinated with the changing of the world around you? For someone who lives eons, the days mean nothing...the changing of ages, now that's significant.

Your questions all assume one thing...that humanity won't completely wipe itself out. After all, could you, the only immortal survivor, accomplish all these things on your own? Maybe. If you planned to, you would NEED eternity.

For an immortal, eternal, you might not even notice that your contemporaries were suffering in whatever primitive "competition for resources", or in their own "ideological competitions"...or you might suffer sympathetically for them. To me, I think this is exactly how eternity would play out. Human beings, for all their technological know-how and innovation, never seem to rise above petty disputes (locally or globally). As an immortal, I'm sure my "sympathy fuse" would burn out from constantly empathizing with ephemerals.

Bah, it's all moot. I'm certain that for the rest of our limited lifespan, wage slavery is all that there is for us...especially given the propensity of the current administration to spend and spend us into oblivion. Whatever race makes it to the stars, or is able to provide the answers to your questions, it won't be Americans. As a nation, under Obama...we are doomed.
Dec. 12th, 2009 04:50 am (UTC)
It is nice to see posts about living forever. I would if I could. There is a character in "sandman" by Neil Gaiman that doesn't want to die, and partly because of a bet, death leaves him alone. That appeals to me. He still has to live in society, get food, shelter etc. but he doesn't die.
As to missing people. yes, I would, but then, at least some of them would live on in my memory. As to boredom, I feel it really is a state of mind-a choice. Is seems to me western society has swallowed the belief that only the new can be entertaining, and that is takes things for granted. How east to be bored when you take things for granted. Personally, I like new things, and daydreaming about the future and so on. I also like old things, and small things. Sometimes I contemplate the amazing resources collected to bring me this worn out keyboard I'm typing on, each piece of plastic specially planned and molded, created, assembled...
I love every sunset I see. Some will stick more in memory than others, but just because this evenings wasn't the orangest or the brightest doesn't make it any less special. Beauty, experience, travel, people, cultures, personal challenges, learning, things both familiar and new, even living forever, there would be more to do and see and think on earth and in the universe than I could ever do.
Dec. 16th, 2009 09:29 am (UTC)
*blinks* We discovered a new continent in the last 2000 years? Huh. I had assumed Antartica was known even back then, but I could see that effectively being a discovery.

Mostly hoping you did not mean the Americas, as the natives would disagree with you on that one ^_^
Dec. 16th, 2009 09:40 am (UTC)
The natives knew about this one, but not Europe. The Europeans didn't know about this one. Even the Europeans who initially came here did not appear to know that this was in fact a new continent; a global recognition of all the continents is a very new thing indeed.
May. 29th, 2012 12:11 pm (UTC)
Yes, I would absolutely take this on...assuming I don't end up in some kind of post-apocalyptic society desperately fighting for survival (which is not entirely impossible).

I love life, and I don't get bored now, so why would I do so just because I have longer to do things? New inventions, activities and cool knowledge is being discovered/created all the time, and at an ever-increasing rate. I mean, 500 years ago, who would have come up with zorbing??

If I could find some source of infinite funding for funs, that would be even better, but I love my job and I love to work, so even the 9-5 lasting a few more millennia wouldn't entirely put me off....
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )