Monday, March 10, 2014

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (Wormfest 2014)




The Second Annual National Wormhole Week or Wormfest 2014 is a fun blog-hop co-hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh, Stephen Tremp, and L. Diane Wolf. Last year we were asked where we would go and what we would do if we could slip back in time via a wormhole. This year we've been asked to name one thing where science advances mankind, and one where technology with unforeseen consequences will go too far and set mankind back. What a great theme.



One Step Forward...
Life Extension. Being able to extend a person's active, productive life-span by a few more years or perhaps even decades or centuries would give those who receive this gift more time to do great things. Instead of slowly, inexorably crumbling into dementia and oblivion, the greatest minds of each generation could go through an extended personal renaissance. If it became possible to extend lifespans past the century-mark, to live for multiple centuries or even longer, it would transform everything. The so-called 'Long view' might become far more important. There ought to be time enough to tackle really big projects, to conduct very long-term research, to extend human civilization out into the solar system and beyond...

Two Steps Back...
It's easy to imagine the classic SciFi scenario of long-lived near-immortal scientist-philosopher-adventurers on a grand mission to build a bright, shiny future, you know, Civilization with a capital 'C,' but it's probably another still-born fantasy born of the First Great Depression's pulps and the American Renaissance following WWII. Just like silver lame and jet-packs...I have my doubts that we'll see it outside of cartoons or commercials.

However, if only for the sake of a thought experiment, we were to consider what it would be like for a small group of self-chosen technocratic elites to have a monopoly on the technology of life extension...well...I still doubt we'd ever get our jet-packs. What we would get, most likely, would be one of the most oppressive, restrictive, totalitarian regimes in human history. Not everyone would 'deserve' or be 'entitled' to having their life extended. There would have to be standards. someone would have to control access to this technology and thus they would become the arbiters of who lives long and who dies early. Whomever formed this inner circle, cabal of the wise, benevolent council of magnanimity or whatever they called it would get to decide what things mattered, what merited the reward of long life, and what things should be allowed to die off or die out. Enlightened scientists, like those uptight white guys in Fifties SciFi are no match for scheming politicians or would-be neo-Mandarin Bureaucrats. Such a society might not value innovation nearly as much as it would appreciate and demand conformity, loyalty, obedience. A bureaucracy that has been allowed to grown-up over the course of decades tends to distort everything it touches. Case in point, look at how different the United States of America has become from when it first started out. That was only a couple of centuries and change. Good, bad or ugly; whatever your opinion on the way things are today, they have changed drastically. Imagine what a 'free market' system manipulated by one-percenters who manage to live for multiple centuries might develop into. It makes me think of Dickens on crack. But let's suppose for a moment that somehow, possibly via the intervention of the Internet perhaps, the technology behind life extension escaped the greedy clutches of the elites and spilled out into the general populace. If anything, that's a far scarier scenario.

People living more than five years past their retirement has already seriously undermined and upset the financial system built-up around pensions, benefits and so on. People already are living multiple decades past the point where the actuaries calculated they would drop out of the system, expire, die. Social Security has never been funded sufficiently for anyone to live for very long while receiving benefits, certainly not thirty or more years. Imagine what would happen if more than a few people gained the ability to live well into a third or fourth century? How would we reconcile the established financial and economic systems with the new reality? Is it even possible? Talk about a Pandora's Box. We're already seeing some pretty radical transformations and developments from people in developed countries living well into their seventies, eighties and nineties. What happens when/if Joe Six-Pack can reasonably expect to live well into their third century or more? How do we address the needs of each generation without causing it all to meltdown into a terrible mess?

Can Capitalism manage things under these new circumstances, or will it give way to some form of Socialism, or will a third alternative arise?

Will Felons lose their right to life extension? Should they?

How will we as a society deal with people raising a second or third or fourth family in their second hundred years of life?

What will happen in terms of legal adulthood--age of consent, minimum age to drink, drive or vote?

People tend to grow more conservative the older they get. How conservative could someone coming into their fourth century get? The AARP is now the single largest voting block in the USA. If we end up re-tooling retirement, say pushing the age upward or dropping chronological age altogether and instead base retirement upon personal health, fitness, cognition or functionality, for the sake of argument, what happens to this massive political juggernaut? If people begin to live multiple centuries, are they going to be more likely to become generationally stratified? Will there be multiple, hierarchically-oriented generation gaps in-between each block of fifty years or so?

So many questions and so much potential for conflict and opinion...and exploration through fiction, now, before it's one more fact of life...

I'd better get back to writing.



26 comments:

  1. The more we change, the more our problems will change. Immortality is supposed to be overrated, as one gets bored after a few centuries. . . Would that happen if we could have other planets to go to? Enjoyed your post!
    New follower too, nice to meet you.

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    1. Nice to meet you as well. You posed an interesting challenge for the hop. I like these sorts of Troublesome Things since they tend to provoke all sorts of interesting questions and pose all kinds of challenges that could drive any number of scenarios and stories. Very fruitful ground for developing the seeds of new ideas.

      Immortality might be lots of different things, maybe even boring, for someone. But whether one is limited to a few years or millions, boredom will remain a self-inflicted sort of thing. People who do things tend not to get bored. As we extend life-spans, we extend opportunity to do things, both great and small. Staying busy is one of the most effective ways to address depression and boredom (they have a lot in common). Just ask any farmer or drill sergeant!

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  2. It would be limited to those who could afford it unfortunately.

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    1. Possibly. Or it could be released into the general population like some sort of positive plague or virus, either as an act of techno-ideological terrorism or a brute force attempt to improve the species by a small group who know what's best. Or perhaps someone will come up with a really simple and effective way to drastically extend lifespan and release the details onto the Internet so that the basic information is out there and there is a grassroots movement of people who have made use of the info and who either want to keep it open-source and free, or maybe now that they've got theirs they don't think everyone else ought to get it now. Or maybe immortality might be an unforeseen side-effect of some other technology and we wind-up with a generation of perpetual elderly who aren't satisfied with the way things are and set about to do something about it...

      They just might be some alternatives to the eternal monopoly of the 1%. Maybe the next Revolution won't just be televised, it'll be focused on who gets to live longer, not just better...

      Who knows? But it does get me to ask those two words: "What if..."

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  3. What great questions you ask and pose answers for. And you point out today that we're already dealing with an aging population. As a baby boomer, it seems so many of my generation are working longer and longer for lots of reasons. They're healthy, still motivated and love their work. That's great, but it also takes up jobs that young people could fill.
    Any future where extended life was only available to some will not turn out good. Or are we already doing that by making health care so expensive it's not available for everyone.

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    1. Thanks. I find it a bit bizarre that a country like the USA has a shortage of jobs. that's bullshit. Pure and simple. There are tons of things that need to get done, just no will to get it done and a lot of short-sighted selfishness that's undermining all we've inherited as we allow bridges to crumble and infrastructure to collapse irresponsibly, for example. As a society we've allowed a small group to run roughshod over everyone else and that has to stop. It isn't working. We have a lot of work to do, before it's too late and we lose everything that previous generations built and bequeathed to us all.

      Health care is in the throes of major disruptions and transformations...who knows where all this turmoil is going to lead? I think that we haven't seen anything yet...

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  4. I guarantee social security wouldn't be around anymore! Of course, it you could afford to live longer, you wouldn't need it.
    Thanks for participating in the blogfest!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by. You may be right, but it might get interesting if people began to question what 'security' is supposed to mean, and what we need going forward. Maybe there's a way to revise the system we have in order to get it to suit where we're going...which might make for some fairly robust conflicts and thus open the way to a very different sort of social SciFi than we saw around the Sixties/Seventies...

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  5. I do not think that people who live pasty their retirement upset the financial system. They worked and saved the money for the retirement. It is the government who spent their money and now there is not enough young working people to replace that loss.

    I love the idea of elixir of life. There should be some kind of test developed to make sure that criminals and 'bad' individuals can't get it.

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    1. My observation is based on discussions with actuaries and people working within the Reinsurance industry. Pension funds have been reinvested from the beginning, so as to grow the money into larger sums to handle projected costs associated with each wave of newly retired employees drawing against the funds. The system behind the scenes with retirement funds, as with most financial schemes and insurance, is very similar to gambling, a complicated form of risk assessment and informed speculation. The structure used to be based on assumptions rooted in analysis of the way things had appeared back then...and in the early days pensions did not have to be paid-out much past 5-10 years. That changed. As people continued drawing pensions well past the projected/expected limits, things started to break down. It isn't rocket science, it's just math. Math plus the greedy patina of highly educated gamblers who don't want anyone looking behind the curtain of their very opaque 'industry.'

      As for the government spending social security funds, well yes, you are right on the money there--conniving politicians seized upon a short-term solution that they approached as though it were some sort of 'borrowing' and never repaid the so-called 'loan.' Money, especially vast sums such as the US government handles ought to be managed by qualified professionals and not left to the whims and stupidity of elected officials, many of whom have declared bankruptcy, committed check fraud, other forms of fraud, or otherwise demonstrated a profound inability to manage their own money honestly or effectively. But so long as Congress self-polices its members, this will only get worse, never better.

      The real problem with SocSec is simple: fewer people paying in, more people drawing out. Only politicians or someone trying to sell something make it more complicated. Of course, Telling people that we can't meet the bill that has come due is an ugly proposition. Especially when it causes people to ask where the money went. Interesting how Congress votes themselves pay raises, have their own special health care insurance no one else can get, and manage to spend a huge amount of money on themselves even when there's no money for repairing ridges or paying veteran benefits...

      Okay. Enough. Aside from all that unpleasantness, I do like the idea of some sort of life prolongation technology, in whatever form it may come it. I am however very suspicious/distrustful of anyone who wants to determine who gets it and who doesn't...that sort of thing ends to lead to oppression, and to wars and worse...

      I do like your idea of a test of fitness or competence or social relevance or whatever the metric might be, as it would be a clear indication of those traits, abilities and other things that society truly valued and desired and wanted. You get what you pay for. If this test was similar to college entry exams or something of the sort, then you'd have social engineering managed by whomever manages such things on behalf of 'society,' and if you could keep it honest and transparent, great...but once it gets murky, underhanded and corrupt...look out. Great premise for fiction...

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  6. I can't see life extension applying to everyone. Only the elite and wealthy would surely have this opportunity since the world would become over-populated. It would also perhaps mean that this elite class would be in control and rule.
    The thought of wider generation gaps is truly terrifying. We are obsessed with youth today, and there is not much respect now for older generations. Unless there is some social progression I don't think I'd like to be part of a society that wants to prolong life.
    This is an excellent blog and mind provoking.

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    1. I like 'What If?' and I prefer to question things, not accept other people's assumptions as anything more than their assumptions. I fully respect your opinion, but I am intrigued with looking at alternatives that aren't covered by what I'm seeing already expressed.

      When you speak of the elite and wealthy...which segment of that group are we talking about? OPEC-royalty? Chinese Technocrats? A cabal of aggressively forward-thinking widows of former CEOs on a covert crusade to change the world? More boring old white guys? There are quite a few options to consider just within the so-called 1%-ers. Robert Heinlein had his Howard Families. I'm rather taken with the idea of a few competing parallel 'families' set-up along similar lines, perhaps one or more of them have solved the immortality things, possibly each of them min very unique ways. That is the premise for a story I've been working on for a while now. I'll post the thing to the blog, or link to it if it gets into a zine.

      Over-population due to life extension is a funny idea, to me. You see, if all those long-lived people can't figure out how to settle the solar system or otherwise cope with their situation, maybe they deserve to die off like any other organism that overpopulates it's ecosystem. But really, the idea that they'd just sit still and bury themselves in offspring is missing out on the ultimate pressure release valve: space migration. It doesn't have to be like O'Neil, Leary or any of the golden Age SciFi writers described it, but prolonged life-spans are too good a thing to waste on producing flabby couch zombies. But that is a personal opinion. and possibly quite wrong. Maybe there are people out there right now secretly working on converting the majority of the world's population to immortal blobs of dreaming goo that they can rely upon as voters and online playmates...

      The ever-widening generation gap idea is terrifying. The obsession with youth goes way back, the ancient Greeks had people complaining about it, so it's not new, but rather something indicative of a certain form of development. youth is exciting mostly because right now, it has a lot of the advantages. But once older people get to experience a decent standard and quality of life--free of pain, no dementia, genuine good health, and so on, that will change. But would such a society become oppressively restrictive in the pursuit of safety, equality or stability? Without some emotional maturity, we're just building a better petri dish to grow bigger and badder fascists and demogogues...I'd like to think we could do better...but will we?

      Thanks for dropping by the blog. You provoked a few deep thoughts yourself with your comment today, so thanks for that as well! This has been a fun blog hop...I still have to make time to get over to the rest of the participant's blogs.

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  7. Excellent points. I worry humanity isn't ready for a lot of the choices our new discoveries will allow. creating a new 'hierarchy' of humans based on 'worthy' criteria is terrifying!

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    1. In some respects, humanity still isn't ready for the discoveries of the Nineteenth century, much less all the stuff we've learned about in the last five years. Not everyone is going to ever be ready, nor will they desire to be, and we still don't have a good way to handle that sort of opting out option.

      I do like looking at the choices all these new discoveries offer us all. In some ways we have far more opportunities than ever before. But we do need to keep in mind that not all options are equally accessible, nor universally desirable.

      Who determines the standards for 'worthiness' might turn out to be the worst tyrants in history, even if the process turns out to be some sort of moderated voting by the masses via the internet. By it's nature such a thing is divisive, not cooperative, and is rooted on scarcity-thinking, fear and out-moded assumptions that may or may not apply any longer...so yeah, it could get terrifying far too easily...

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  8. In a related thought, I just wrote a short sci-fi story set in a time when high medical care costs for an aging population have bankrupted the nation and heart-rending choices have to be made. It's called The Death Squad.

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    1. A fairly large portion of 'health care costs' are administrative overhead. Reliable artificial intelligence might wipe-out the whole medical billing sub-industry and slash all those paperwork costs down to a tiny fraction of what they once were.

      Where can we find your story?

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  9. Dickens on crack is right. I agree that the life extension going on already is upsetting the financial security blanket that is now unraveling fast. Also, it seems that other illnesses, such as cancer and weird immune-deficiencies are killing young people in almost direct correlation to those growing older. There is always a price, a balance, whether it is direct or not, it is there.

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    1. Glad you liked that phrase. It seems to sum things up fairly well. We're in the early phase of the disruption caused by what life extension we're already experiencing within the current population. It will accelerate in the next few years.

      There are a lot of bizarre environmental illnesses that we never heard about twenty years ago, and new strains of things like influenza pop up all the time. Some of it is due to improved records, diagnostics, and access. some of it might be due to obesity, or sedentary lifestyles, or whatever. But it does seem that a lot of diseases that would normally have struck sometime after middle age, are now affecting much younger victims. Maybe that's some sort of fluke of the statistical distribution, a bias in reporting, or some sort of indication of really bad things going on...I don't know. But it is a disturbing trend. And yes, there is always some form of equilibrium working away in the background, one way or another, if we can only see it.

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  10. You make great points on the downside of life extension not only in the post, but in your comments. Thinking logically of things according to the way they are now, longer lives would certainly bust the financial system. Living longer would mean having to work longer. It's a conundrum for sure and a good topic for speculative literature.

    Lee
    Wrote By Rote
    An A to Z Co-host blog

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    1. Thanks sir. Longer lives would almost certainly break the old systems, but since we have empirical proof right before our eyes that people are in fact living longer, we very clearly need to build a new system, and to take a good look at our priorities and responsibilities. Maybe we need to work longer, or maybe we need to work differently. This is definitely a conundrum we're going to be wrestling with going forward, so I expect to see quite a bit of fiction inspired by all the debate and discussion.

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  11. Yes, get back to writing, please! This idea is too brilliant not to explore in fiction.

    Me personally, I see that 1% of wealthy controlling this particular super technology and a small but heroic group of rebels striking back to obtain it for the rest of humanity... but that may be just because I've watched way too many sci-fi movies myself.

    AWESOME post!

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    1. Now that I'm feeling better, I am working on it.
      I like your premise. So what if it has a cinematic feel to it? People enjoy that sort of thing. I was just wondering how some of my favorite pulp heroes might deal with this sort of thing and that got me to write-up some notes that could lead to something interesting, I hope.

      Thank you for the kind words.

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  12. Hope I'm better late than never here...
    I haven't been able to read everyone's comments, but all this makes me think of the movie "In Time" and the other stories like it. Sorry, movie geek here. :)
    Good post.

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    1. There is no deadline on comments on my blogs. I like having things out there as asynchronous content--you can discover it any time and make a comment on even the oldest posts and that's fine with me. I appreciate people taking time out to read my stuff, and comments are always nice, so by all means please do feel welcome!

      I haven't seen 'In Time.' I'll look that up--we're both big movie geeks here, and we love to watch movies together. It's always nice to meet another movie geek! Thanks for the comment.

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  13. Awesome. I just read a book based on this concept, and wow! The implications and epic. I'm all for longevity though we'd have to figure out how to bring it about naturally so ALL people could be benefited. That's the primary thing I'd fear with extending lives, that it would become skewed toward the rich or powerful.

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    1. Thanks. There's a lot of interest in this area. We all get older. I'd really like to see some sort of shift towards quality of life over duration. A hundred years or more of chronic illness, menial servitude or scrapping to get by in the gutter-slums isn't that wonderful a gift. Longevity is only part of the discussion, and possibly not really the most important part; meaning seems to be far more important. I'm curious what most people who receive extended lifespans might do with them, as in the case of those of us living in more affluent countries who already live well into the 80s and beyond...

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