“The man who has lived the most is not he who has counted the most years but he who has most felt life. Men have been buried at one hundred who died at their birth.” - Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Emile
Why prolong life if life is barely worth living?
I'm thinking of all the futurists out there, who talk about developing technologies to prolong human life or end the process of aging.
Joe Rogan has these guys on his podcast all the time. Harvard professor David Sinclair says we should consider aging a disease, as if it's the flu or tuberculosis. “It’s only because we all tend to go through [aging]," Sinclair said, "that we think it’s acceptable.”
Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, spends a good portion of his sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, talking about the future of humankind. Harari points to a number of emerging initiatives, like the Gilgamesh Project, which aims to make humans immortal by eradicating all diseases. He predicts that we will become higher-functioning cyborgs (with computer implants and robotic enhancements) and that we will have far more control over our children’s genes. Harari excitedly writes on his website that, “Humans are going to upgrade themselves into gods. That is, humans will acquire abilities that in the past were considered divine, such as eternal youth, mind reading, and the ability to engineer life.”
Zoltan Istvan, a transhumanist, advocates for technology that will allow us to upload our consciousnesses into machines, so that our minds, if not our bodies, can be immortal.
I am not against even the whackiest of these endeavors, but I am a bit bothered that these thinkers and their followers are entirely focused on prolonging human life before we’ve done the good work of improving human life. They talk about being transhuman before we've figured out how to best be human. They talk about living forever before we've learned the art of living well.
I realize that life has improved for many. Technology has helped to reduce global poverty and we've pretty much done away with wars. Steven Pinker says humankind, in many ways, has never had it better. I acknowledge that we’ve raised the standard of living, but I’m skeptical that we have done well to improve the quality of living. We're more peaceful, more literate, and fewer infants die at birth. But our long lives are often empty. Our cities are safer, but our communities are dead. Our peaceful times lack meaning and adventure. Our kids grow up depressed and addicted to screens.
Fertilizers, vaccines, GMO crops, and a thousand other technologies support almost 8 billion people, many of whom are rapidly advancing out of poverty. But I wonder if this is a bit like the Neolithic Revolution (a term that describes our species's transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer-herder). Historian Jared Diamond calls the transition to farming humanity's "worst mistake." Yuval Noah Harari says the farming/herding livelihood kept "more people alive in worse conditions." When hunter-gatherers were compelled to begin domesticating crops and animals, they lost their egalitarian societies and their varied and nutritious diets. They were suddenly exposed to slavery, taxation, epidemics, and grueling labor. In becoming sedentary subjects of the state and masters of the plow, they gained a lot, but they lost arguably more.
My point is that peace and prosperity and technology do not automatically lead to the good life. Progress can be existentially fatal.
Let’s look at the quality of life for the average American. Yes, he can vote, he’s free to buy his own home, and his doctors will keep him alive longer. But this is still a person who has bad habits, bad health, bad character, bad education, bad work, bad relationships, and bad deals.
1. Bad Habits
- The average American spends ten hours a day looking at screens, including 4.5 hours watching shows and movies.
- The average American household watches 7 hours and 50 minutes of TV every day.
- Americans spend 7 percent of their life outdoors. (87 percent is spent indoors, 6 percent in vehicles.)
- 47,000 Americans committed suicide in 2017, the highest rate in the last half century.
- 70,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2017, which is four times as many deaths from overdose since 1999.
2. Bad Health
- According to a 2012 study by The Lancet, 41 percent of Americans qualify as sedentary for not getting the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week.
- In 2015, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that, among Americans over twenty years old, 71 percent are overweight and 38 percent are obese.
- More than 100 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes.
- Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. — 43.8 million, or 18.5% — experiences mental illness in a given year.
- In the 2015–2016 school year, “half of all students surveyed reported having attended counseling for mental health concerns.” (Quote is from Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind, which cites a 2016 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.)
- According to Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind, the percentage of college students who describe themselves as having a mental disorder increased from 2.7 to 6.1 for male college students between 2012 and 2016 (that’s an increase of 126%). For female college students, it rose even more: from 5.8 to 14.5 (an increase of 150%)… One out of every seven women at U.S. universities now thinks of herself as having a psychological disorder, up from just one in eighteen women.
3. Bad character
- 62 million Americans voted for Donald Trump. 4. Bad education - I’m just going to quote this paragraph from Slate. I don’t mean to make this a partisan issue by pointing out Republican stupidities, but the Slate piece provides a nice summary that does the work for me: As recently as 2016, 45 percent of Republicans still believed that the Affordable Care Act included “death panels”... A 2015 poll found that 54 percent of GOP primary voters believed then-President Obama to be a Muslim… Only 25 percent of self-proclaimed Trump voters agree that climate change is caused by human activities. Only 43 percent of Republicans overall believe that humans have evolved over time… Almost 1 in 6 Trump voters, while simultaneously viewing photographs of the crowds at the 2016 inauguration of Donald Trump and at the 2012 inauguration of Barack Obama, insisted that the former were larger. 5. Bad Work - According to author Matthew Crawford of Shop Class as Soul Craft, American workers are increasingly experiencing “manual disengagement.” We aren’t growing crops, or making or manufacturing products anymore. Many of us now are cashiers and clothes-folders, which are jobs that many of us consider monotonous, meaningless, and unfulfilling.
- According to David Graeber, author of Bullshit Jobs, “a YouGov poll found that in the United Kingdom only 50 percent of those who had full-time jobs were entirely sure their job made any sort of meaningful contribution to the world, and 37 percent were quite sure it did not. A poll by the firm Schouten & Nelissen carried out in Holland put the latter number as high as 40 percent.” 6. Bad relationships - The AARP reports that 42 percent of Americans over age 45 experience chronic loneliness. - 40 percent of U.S. adults report feeling alone, 47 percent feel “left out,” 27 percent feel misunderstood, 43 percent feel they’re relations are not meaningful, and 43 percent feel isolated. Generation Z (born after 1995) are the loneliest generation. 7. Bad deals - According to The Motley Fool, almost all of us are in debt. (81 percent of baby boomers are in debt, plus 80 percent of Gen Xers and 81 percent of Millennials.) - If America's 2.2 million prison population were a city, it would be the fifth largest in the U.S., behind Houston and ahead of Phoenix. *** What's all that about living forever? Who would want to live forever with lives like these? Perhaps a healthy, wealthy, well-educated man or woman from the Bay Area. But I don't wish to shame these futurists for their prosperity or their desire to create history-changing technologies. And I'm no Luddite. If someone wants to upload their consciousness into their Toshiba, I won't unplug the power cord. I myself wouldn't mind an anti-aging vaccine or another 100 years.
I'm not against the futurists. But I think it might serve the futurist movement well if they did a better job acknowledging how life isn't all that great now, and that their beloved technologies haven't always improved it. They ought to say upfront that, in addition to researching mind-blowing technologies, we should also vigorously address the many problems people face today. And they should probably be less cocky and more cautious, and their government regulators should be substantial and scrupulous. And I suppose I wish there was a well articulated and well packaged modern-day movement (that has nothing to do with these futurists) that outlines and calls for a mastering of the art of how to live. I respect these innovators and I do believe they mean well. But I'm skeptical that the future is our best future. I believe we'd learn more about how to live well, not from the mind-bending visions of futurists, but from the examples of our ancestors. We need tighter communities, fewer screens, healthier foods, more nature, more fulfilling work, more physical activity, and more equality. No app will provide these things. I believe we would be more likely to find inspiration for what makes our lives most livable, not 20 years in the future, but 20,000 years into the past.