Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Consequences of Immortality

First things first. Be rich or be human? This rhetorical question isn't meant to be a moral one, but rather a practical one raised by Paul Saffo, formerly of Institute for The Future. His point is that with access to biotechnology innovations, the rich may soon become a different species. This is similar to other predictions made by scientists recently, the American scientist Ray Kurzweil in particular, that, with the advancement of nano-technology, immortality may be possible in a few generations. So, the dream of creating an ageless super-race isn't an impractical dream anymore.

Indeed, whether this will happen is a matter of futurists, whose job is to weigh in various possibilities and make responsible predictions. Paul Saffo has been particularly prescient in the past and his ideas count in the Silicon Valley, where most of the research projects which can make this vision come true are being undertaken. However, since the thought has entered the realm of possibility, it is useful to think about the social and moral consequences of such a thing happening.

But, before that, we should stop and think for a moment whether we live in a world of scarcity or of abundance. Originating, possibly, from Steven Covey, the suggestions about abundance thinking are already everywhere. Daniel Pink's work pre-assumes a world of abundance and luxury. So, does Chris Anderson's, who believes that abundance will make zero-pricing a feasible business model. The possibility of immortality should break down the last barriers of scarcity - that of time - and it should make abundance thinking far more plausible than ever before.

In fact, to question the moral costs of immortality, Chris Anderson's thinking is a good place to start. I found zero-pricing idea interesting, but it seemed a bit out of place for me in the midst of all the hunger and deprivation that I see, on television and while travelling. It seems to me that the abundance model is based on an inappropriate, only partial, estimation of the costs involved. But, then, when I brought this up in my discussion with Sudhakar Ram, who is leading The New Constructs initiative that I referred to earlier, he had an interesting point: He divided the $60 Trillion world annual GDP by the 6 Billion population, and pointed out that, in fact, we have $10,000 annual per capita GDP in the world. With a more equitable distribution, we can indeed bring out everyone out of poverty and create an atmosphere of affluence, which can not happen till we have a scarcity mentality, which gives rise to hoarding and exclusion.

This, by itself, is an interesting point. I wouldn't even call it Utopian, because no one is suggesting 'equal' distribution and of taking the initiative for enterprise away. This remains, however distant, a practical possibility. As does immortality. And, indeed, if immortality is possible, it suddenly takes away the cost on time, and demolishes the labour theory of value altogether, because if the supply of time becomes unlimited, it is likely to be valueless.

Like, air. But, saying that, one gets to see the problem. When time may become valueless, air, and other natural things we have so far taken for granted, may become invaluable. Of course, Oxygen is commercially produced and you can already buy Oxygen cans through vending machines in some countries, but this is currently for medical purposes and for the kicks. But this may soon be needed to be made available more widely for sustaining life. So, while time becomes zero-priced, air and water may move to the opposite direction, as it seems to be already doing.

And, still, this can not be for everyone. We are where we are with about 1 billion people really living a carbon-expensive lifestyle, with another 4 billion aspiring to attain a lifestyle somewhat close to that level, and 1 billion living in abject poverty and hopeless conditions. With this, we are already stretching earth's resources. Now, if this 5 billion is made to join the party, without taking anything away from the richest 1 billion, our environment can not sustain that. While $10,000 per year may seem a decent sum of money in the context of the countries the poor lives in, it may not be so if the air and water is priced and time isn't. It may actually alter the idea of value so fundamentally that $10,000 and GDP may become meaningless concepts altogether.

And, also, alter our concepts of good and evil. For example, immortality must be matched with death, and since animals may have more pet value than poor people in distant countries, we may have to revisit the ideas of great thinkers such as Himmler and Eichmann. We are suddenly faced with the very practical possibility that this may sound like a good idea. In an odd turn of thinking, zero pricing time seems to lead to zero pricing lives, and abundance thinking suddenly seems to have turned the scarcity mentality upside down. Paul Saffo, arguably, is value-neutral - he is making a forecast about technological possibility. However, one can not, and should not be, value-neutral in the context of such a life-altering possibility, because this will indeed change the moral context of our civilization and what we thought about good and bad.

Death, for example, was always a bad thing. But, not so, in the context of drone attacks, on which Jane Mayer wrote a brilliant piece in New Yorker recently. Death, as long as it is faceless and riskless, seems to be harmless. Like those who we kill on our Video Games, we seem to be turning death into a common exercise. Again, it seems we are zero-pricing death.

So, that is it: We are entering a world where life, time and death may become zero-priced. This is exactly when the God will also be zero-priced, or, more correctly, will be made redundant. Rightly so, because we can replace him with more efficient, nimble and productive decision making system. That may prove to be the last frontier of morality.

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