I haven’t written any serious journalism in a very long time--over two centuries, give or take. That doesn’t sound so bad, but I still remember when we didn’t live half that long.
There are two reasons I’ve let so much time pass: First of all, there hasn’t really been anything to write about for a long time. The other reason is that no one cares enough to read anymore. I think this is the one that really gets to the heart of it.
I’ve passed the time simply existing like everyone else, waiting for something to bring me back into the moment. I think you know what I’m talking about. We’ve seen too much, been around for too long, grown so wise that it’s made the whole world abstract. The world today is the same as yesterday and the day before that, and now there is a chain a hundred thousand days long telling us that tomorrow will be no different. Right?
One week ago I met an old friend of mine, and he killed me. The only reason I haven’t died from it yet is because I need to get the last word in. Because I know what’s coming, and I know all of you are just going to let it happen. When everything goes to shit all over again, I want you to know that someone noticed and rang the bell for the rest of you. So let’s wade through the sewer of history together and dig up all the pieces that point our way.
Our story begins with a man named Raymond Kurzweil. Some of you might remember the name, but most of you won’t. This was back in 2005. Ray’s work was pretty controversial because it was very hypothetical. Raymond was a futurologist, a man who studies the future and tried to imagine what it will be like.
They had a lot of these back then when they still thought about the future. Most of them are like Gordon Moore, who just made some neat statistical observations. He noticed that the number of transistors per square inch had doubled every year since they invented processors, and he extrapolated that into the future.
Raymond, however, was not like Gordon. He wasn’t satisfied looking at a curved diagram and penning on a few extra inches. His thing was making specific predictions of things that he thought would happen and how he envisioned that coming to pass. A modern-day techno-Nostradamus, although he was a bit lighter on the doomsday scenarios.
In 2005, he made a prediction that by 2099, people from a generation colloquially known as baby-boomers were still going to be alive. That was the endearing term used for children born right after the second world war. For those of you who weren’t there, the normal lifespan at this point was somewhere in the area of 70 years.
A lot of people misunderstood and thought he meant we were going to find the cure for aging and that immortality was going to be some sort of miracle pill or genetic retrovirus. That they were going to figure out how the telomeres at the end of our DNA worked, and that would be that.
Ray, of course, never said anything like that. He said that at some point during the mid-21st century, the average lifespan was going to increase by more than one year annually. That somewhere, fifty years in the future, one of those Moore-like diagrams where you can scribble on extra inches would appear. He was wrong, of course, not only in that a definitive breakthrough was needed--but that it would happen in the 21st century.
That didn’t matter to the millennials though. He was close, so close that a lot of people thought he actually nailed it. So close that it put a rocket under the ass of an industry that had been limping along since the mid 1970s. See, the year 2050 came and went, and people were still dying of old age, but the graphs showed that life expectancy was going up every year. It seemed like the sky was the limit and for most people it was. The cure for dying was just around the corner, but for many that corner was just out of reach. They were a few moments short of getting all the time in the world.
People wanted a way to trade their present for the future. Some way to borrow the time they needed to round that bend. And, they found the answer: cryogenic storage. Sure, there was no way to revive someone frozen like that, but for the hopeful and desperate masses, that didn’t matter. In the future we would have amazingly advanced technology, right?
So what had until then been a fringe business teetering on the edge of collective bankruptcy suddenly became the next big thing. People were freezing themselves left and right. Before 2040, it’s estimated that less than ten thousand people had elected to have themselves frozen upon death. By 2045, that number was closer to a hundred thousand. In 2050, over a million people had their heads preserved for the dream of living forever.
Since we are looking to the past, there is no need to pen anything onto the end of Kurzweil’s longevity chart: He was off by over a hundred years. In 2160, someone finally cracked it. An Indian researcher by the name of Divit Balakrishnan perfected an artificial intelligence capable of providing bespoke CRISPR sequences to individual genomes at almost no cost. In one fell swoop, cancer and aging were things of the past.
The governments of the world responded swiftly and achieved near-unilateral support by 2165 for an act with the charming acronym SLEI – the Single Life Enforcement Initiative. Its principle has withstood the test of time, and it is alive and well even today.
A bunch of clever politicians understood that we could not, as a species, both live forever and have children at the same rate that we were having them back then. So, in order to deal with overpopulation, an agreement was made that life-extending medical intervention would come at the cost of reproduction. That is, any operation or drug that extended life beyond the expectancy of a baseline human being would only be available to people who chose not to have kids. If you want children, you will have to make room for them down the line. Sounds fair, right?
They sure thought so. The Initiative devoted research to finding a way to ensure permanent sterility. And, it did have to be ensured, otherwise some billionaire investor or politician might eventually think himself exempt from the rules and try to reverse it. Mankind turned our stunning intellect to ending our own lifecycle, and we were successful. Even today, there is no way to reverse the damage.
SLEI did exactly what it was made to do. Money comes and goes, but reproduction has a deep biological foundation, and the implementation was flawless. It turned out surprisingly few of us were willing to trade our legacy for long lives, though the numbers did pick up as the cycle of mortality was ground away. For thousands of years now, we have all been the last of our blood.
How can that be? Well, it turns out there were two problems we had not considered. The first problem was statistics. It goes like this:
For a family line to keep going by means of reproduction, every generation has to choose to sacrifice themselves for their children. However, for a branch of the family tree to become a dead end, only takes one generation to decide they want to stick around forever. Even a low number of ultra-senescent individuals represents a staggering amount of people who will never be born. Compounding the issue was the fact that the benefits of eternal life kept growing better as the science improved. Sure, we don’t die, but there’s more than that. We eat what we want and never get fat, do what we want and never get tired. We do not get hurt; we do not starve, thirst or drown. We are not human, but eldritch and undying creatures of childlike whimsy and godlike power. In our technology-driven orgy of self-indulgence, we piled our excesses onto the planet until little remained except waste.
At the time, we still thought that we were somehow going to spread to the stars. That the laws of nature were more like guidelines and that some ingenious way of bending or breaking them was just around the corner. The universe would be our oyster. We just had to find some way of opening it up. I don’t think it was until the Martian colony collapse in the 26th century that the truth actually sunk in. Earth was it, and we had used it all up.
That was the second problem: There is a point where the environment is so fundamentally damaged it can no longer be adapted to human life. The adaptation needed for survival becomes so extensive that what comes out is no longer human. It’s us. To resist the levels of radiation and climate extremes we created, we whittled away nearly all that was left of our biological origins. Some chose our route and others chose, whether for spiritual or personal reasons, to succumb to their limitations. The principles of SLEI were maintained because overpopulation had in large part been to blame for our decimation in the first place. Statistical inevitability, combined with a world that was increasingly uninhabitable, ground our species down to its bones—or, perhaps to its fossilized remains even if we were still moving around.
To us immortals, it was only a matter of waiting for things to grow back. Earth has become hospitable again now and has been for some time—but we no longer need it to be. What kills us is not danger, but the lack of it. Our numbers dwindle because we commit suicide and manage to inflict such astonishing damage to ourselves that there is nothing to reconstitute. Sometimes we just stop moving altogether and fall into a permanent catatonia, leaving biological death only a formality. It’d be a stretch to say that there are few of us, but we are definitely fewer. That is going to matter very soon.
It’s slow going for the gods of the earth these days. Our pasts are too long, and time is too fast. Millennial tethers bind us to a past so vast it is all but impossible for us not to live in it. Even when we do look up into the present, we have no deadline, and so whether in politics or innovation, the pace is slow and the changes are unremarkable. We hardly even talk to each other anymore.
We don’t even know how many we are because so many of us no longer check in with the rest. Perhaps there is a number, hidden in some robotic cortex or in the vault of some Byzantine computer complex in the Arctic, but I looked and could not find it. To the best of my knowledge less than a billion individuals have undergone some version of the treatment. Tallying our connections over the last thousand years would put the number at less than half that.
When was the last time you changed your vote? When was the last time you even voted at all? Why bother, right? Congress hasn’t had a meeting in fifty years, and it reeked of an alumni reunion more than any serious ideological debate. There is no war because we don’t even know how to kill each other. We are each an island, completely self-sufficient and contained.
That being said, some of us have kept up appearances. We are not all phantoms. There are elections every now and then, done by the numbers and with equal representation. The wheels somehow keep turning. There are even a few who still apply themselves to finding the secrets of the universe and exploiting them.
That should bring us up to the present and to my meeting with Mr. Dorian Gray last week. That’s not his real name, but it’s what he goes by these days. Like me, he’s one of the originals. The first time I met him was in 2220 when he was a robotics researcher for DARPA. That was back when there were still countries, and they still fought each other—it was a big deal.
I met him last week and he talked about getting into politics. Wanted me to do a publicity piece. I laughed, of course, just like anyone would and told him there are no politics to get into anymore.
That’s when he showed me what kind of person names himself after an Wildean sociopath. He remembered something the rest of us forgot.
Recall my story about the 21st-century Cold Rush? Those people are all still frozen, waiting to be thawed out when the technology exists to bring them back into life everlasting.
Well guess what, boys and girls. That day was way back; we just forgot about them. Their machines never did though. They kept running, kept them cold and fresh and ready to be popped in the oven and baked into new citizens. And here’s the rub: The vast, vast majority of them only froze their heads. That means they are going to need bodies, and none of them had the foresight to include some valuables with which to pay for it all. That’s where Gray and his company comes in. I call it “ballot mining.”
To understand how it works, I want you to imagine you’re living in the 21st century. You’re feeling pretty optimistic about the direction technology has been taking. Some say yours is the generation that gets to live forever. Then you get the news. Turns out mother nature started your journey by taking a giant shit all over your genes, and you have cancer of the everything. There’s nothing that can be done, no medicine to help you. You hear through the grapevine, though, that a lot of serious people aren’t taking no for an answer. They are betting that in the future, someone is going to come along and help. All you have to do is give up your last scrap of time, and some time in the future you’ll get it back plus interest.
You go for it. As a doctor stops your heart with an injection of whatever those people used to do that, they lop off your head and stick it in the freezer. And, it works! It works, because after thousands and thousands of years you find yourself blinking your eyes awake and staring into a friendly face who tells you in your own native tongue:
Good morning! We want to make you a deal you literally can’t refuse. We have the cure to your congenital death sentence or whatever horrible fate you cut your own head off to escape. Only a small hitch though. See, you did cut your own head off, and now you have no body. That’s alright though because we can lend you one. It’s yours as long as you toe the company line. We only want to help, but we are a business, you understand.
I’m paraphrasing but the shit runs so deep that the exaggeration doesn’t even change the shade of brown.
They screw you so slowly you think they’re making love. It’s sweet enough that before you know it, they have you fucking yourself. Maybe they tell you that you’re here to bring humanity back into its stride, that you’re an Adam or Eve here to save the world. Doesn’t sound too bad until you remember the kind of asshole who made Eden. We all know how that ended, and we’ll let it happen again.
Don’t believe me? When was the last time you changed your vote? Trick question. No one campaigns anymore because we all decided long ago where we stood. Campaigning is something politicians do to get new votes, but if all the votes are set in stone, why waste time? Now someone’s rigging the draw with brand new voters, and it’s the only game in town.
The cherry on top is that these people never got the immortality treatment. They don’t even know it exists, and I’ll give you good odds that’s not something they’re going to be talking about on Dorian’s own TV network. So there are millions of new voices, indentured to whoever holds the deeds to their existence, and they can have kids. There’s no relevant legislation in place for this situation. That’s right: cutting your head off and freezing it apparently is not considered a life-extending procedure by the law. So they can technically vote and reproduce, and more importantly, they will do both those things. They have no choice. And the poor, ignorant little shits will vote themselves and their children into slavery.
Now you might be asking yourself how I could know the way it ends. That’s the wrong question: The right question is, why? It doesn’t really matter anymore, but I think I know. Because we’re bored. Because we can. Because this time we think we’ll do it right--and that’s the problem. We won’t because it will be someone’s version of right.
Most of you will pay this no mind. Some of you may even join in, but make no mistake: We are not the chosen few nor the saviors of mankind. We’re what is left. The ones who specifically weren’t too good for this world. Our conceit to benevolence is only a mask to hide our true nature. In all our time in this place, we have only ever proven two things: We can never be satisfied only looking; and everything we touch turns to shit.
Now that we’ve discovered a fountain of youth, a frozen vein of our lost humanity, it seems fitting that we can’t wait to put our hands all over it and choke the life out of our breath of fresh air.
Fuck you, Dorian.
How’s that for a publicity piece.
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