Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Meditation on the (Temporary) Death of a Modern Prometheus

Fig. 1: Crackpot.
The theme of my blog is derived from the quote from Lessing that inhabits the upper right quadrant of this page: "they make glorious wreckage who are lost in seeking worlds." There's a lot packed into that one line, but I think the aspect of Lessing's wisdom that excites me most is its demand to push the boundaries of human experience and knowledge, to expand the limits of human thought and action, and at the very least you will leave something spectacular behind, even if it is only the spectacle of your own fantastic destruction. So who better to memorialize here than Dr. Robert Ettinger [Fig. 1], who pioneered the cryonics movement. For those of you just tuning in, cryonics is a theory that holds that, sooner or later, human medical technology (specifically, nanotech and free cloning) will get around the fatal limitations of the body, making death, or at least death as we know it, a thing of the past. Since we live in that past, however, the trick will be to hang on long enough for technology to catch up and save us. Ettinger theorized that a careful freezing process to preserve your physical tissues from the moment of your death could preserve you long enough for future doctors to revive you, fix the horrible damage to your cells from the freezing and thawing process, and reverse the effects of ageing, so that you awaken in a better, enhanced body, with youth and vitality that might persist indefinitely.

Some futurists and scientists reacted to Ettinger's theories as one might react to the sudden release of an enraged wolverine into a day-care center. But I must say that I am partial to those people, even crackpots, who provide what Ernst Bloch called a vor-schein, an image of the future that gives us something to strive for. Wholly apart from the fact that Ettinger's work inspired my favorite tv show [Fig. 2], I became attracted to Ettinger when I was researching a presentation which I would eventually entitle "Transhumanity: Or, Why God Never Recieved Tenure." I came across this quote from Ettinger:

Fig. 2: Fry, Philip J., in his tube.
The ‘normal’ processes of evolution are wasteful and cruel in stupefying degree… Even an occasional calamitous error in planned development could scarcely match the slaughter, millennium in, millennium out, of fumble-fingered Nature.

He's got a point, the crackpot. Evolution's strategy for solving a problem is to throw millions of organisms against it, each one a little different, in the hopes that one will squeak through and preserve life. I don't know if it is cruel, but it is certainly incapable of predicting the future. Should humans, if they can, attempt to circumvent, or indeed improve upon, the circumstances in which we find ourselves? Of course we must, we do, we always will, struggling against the entropic current towards the future.

That's the great thing about the future, of course. As a historian, I think we tend to cultivate a sense of the past as an looming and growing thing, like an old, dark city with countless filthy alleyways, that perpetually wags a warning finger at you. The future, on the other hand, appears to be a bright, sunshiney place, full of gardens and meadows and promising an end to suffering. The future has hope in it. The fact that the endless transformation of the future into the past with all its polymorphous disappointments doesn't deter our optimism is, I think, one of the great miracles of the human mind. So, the science supporting cryogenics is (as even they will admit) pretty lousy, or perhaps one should say, optimistic. It's hard to refute directly, since it's based on potential technology rather than actual, but very few of the scientists who have signed the "Open Letter on Cryonics" are actually neuroscientists, which may be one reason why there are so many disclaimers. Honestly, though, this is like a less execrable iteration of Pascal's Wager:  I mean, think about it - what have you got to lose? If humanity nukes itself back to the Stone Age, or gets wiped out by an asteroid, or fails to raise the debt ceiling, or if geriatrics never progresses to the point where it can reverse extreme cerebral ischemic injury [Fig. 3], so what? You're not going to be any more dead than you already are (turns out I'm not the first to make that analogy).

Fig 3. Well, at least the zombies will be happy.
So Bob Ettinger's 92-year allotted term on the planet Earth is complete, and his dead body has been drained, drilled, filled with anti-freeze and dunked in a liquid-nitrogen-filled tube, like 105 of his past clients, in a process that Warren Ellis, in his epic Transmetropolitan, likened to "throwing a coin into a wishing well." In Ellis' futuristic world, lots of people get "revived" by this process, and, because their first unfiltered glimpse of future society drives them irretrievably insane, they form an unwanted social underclass and spend the rest of their super-enhanced lives living in squalor in homeless shelters.

What is the lesson to take from all of this? Well, as a historian I am aware that we can make use of the "wilderness of horrors" that is our past, and find an enlightened way forward, and as a fledgling social robotics student I am aware that the path to the future is hard, uncertain, and fraught with accidents, and even if we get it all right there's still no telling where we will end up. The future is every bit as likely to be decorated with horrors as it is with wonders. Meanwhile,  every day the "Zen Buddhist Sayings" widget on my google homepage reminds me that the real trick is living in the present, and making the absolute most out of whatever time you have. Then, it doesn't really matter if you live 50, or 92, or 1000 years.

Does it?


  1. Re: Doubling Down.

    Pascal's Wager. While there's every reason to bet on God--what have you got to lose--it's really about your behavior at the table once you’ve made the bet, and it’s the essence of the criticisms against Pascal. You don’t just bet once, you keep betting. You keep betting that the Christian God is the right God. You keep betting that following a Christian path is the right decision. And that you’re on the right Christian path. And you’re going to be at the table quite a while, so you’ll have to bet against yourself, against self-doubt, reflection and fear.

    Cryonics. The wager you keep making, and you keep doubling down. The longer systems are up--just like your body--the greater the chance they're going to fail. IT talks about 'nines' or uptime. "Six nines" or 99.9999% uptime is 30 seconds a year of failure. In 20 years, that's 10 minutes of defrosting. And that’s an average. Cryonics assumes that interdependency creates greater uptime. In essence, the more networks you have, the less chance of failure. That is flying car, moon base, jet pack thinking. You’re going to be at the table quite a while, so you’ll have to bet against systems, against entropy, error and chance.

    So sure, we’re all doomed. Go to a party. Have some ice cream.

  2. Have a LOT of ice cream and you can join Dr. Bob in the future!