Thirty five years ago at the Exum School of Moutaineering, our guide made us rappel off a 150 foot ledge on the Grand Teton. Harnessed into a bunch of rope and bowline knot of my own making, I stood frozen, terrified to take the initial step backwards off of a sheer overhang cliff. That’s when the guide tossed a pebble at me and bellowed, “Live, live, live… that’s all you ever think about.” I stepped off into the abyss, but I think of his words often as I’m surrounded by people obsessed with living longer, not always better.
Technology is pursuing everlasting life with an abandon that would put Ponce de León to shame. The quantified self movement – measuring the inputs and outputs of your body with various sensors and monitoring devices is exploding. Companies like Basis, Striiv, Nike, Reebok, Jawbone, FitBit and BodyMedia are just a few that are duking it out for better health outcomes through awareness of your body’s input and outputs. Millions are tweeting their weight to friends, persistently monitoring pulse, glucose, and sleep. And many are trying gamification, where a system of rewards can change behavior. All in the hopes of postponing the inevitable. B.F. Skinner is probably dancing in his grave.
Today’s wrist band monitors will soon seem so yesterday. Miniaturization of sensor technology allows monitors to be sewn into clothing (Heapsylon socks) and tiny skin affixed bandages (MC10). Proteus has a swallowable pill to explore your innards and report back. Brain focus and engagement is being measured by companies like NeuroSky and Melon. And $99 genetic testing from companies like 23andme offer a look at what diseases you might be susceptible to. The new status symbol is the monitored life.
The next hurdle? Last June, Global Futures, 2045, a conference held in NYC, focused on how to meld our cumulative knowledge with machines. With a little technical assist it will be possible to preserve our souls and individual knowledge forever. As the keynote speaker, Ray Kurzweil, inventor of numerous high tech gadgets and a die-hard futurist addressed a crowd that was in part curious, but in a larger part narcissistic.
There’s an audacity, and often a legendary fall, that comes with wanting to live forever. Tithonus, in Greek mythology, was granted eternal life by Zeus. Zeus forgot to add eternal youth to the wish list. Tithonus spent eternity as a feeble bodied, ailing human. Are we about to meet the same fate?
It’s been well documented that in the U.S. we spend most of our health care money during the last 20 years of life. The question is do we spend it on growing old with dignity or on buying time? Anti-aging has become a passionate hobby for an entire boomer generation and a lucrative business for anyone with the sense to capitalize on the fear.
In April, Amazon launched a special store for 50+ living. Eighty billion is spent annually on aging beauty: skin, hair loss, insomnia, incontinence. Wrinkled skin and a paunch – once the symbols of a life well lived are now forces to wage battle against.
A large and always vocal majority, as the boomer population becomes the senior population, the conversation is dominated by ways to forestall the inevitable. Intellectually we know it’s a battle we’ll lose, though perseverance continues to edge our collective lifespan upwards.
Like a Vegas gambler, we’re in societal denial about the odds. I’d like to see us devote the same intensity and commitment to having a genuine dialog about death. Eight hours a night sleep, a perfect diet engineered for your own body, constant monitoring, lack of stress equals a Stepford Wive’s manual for living.
Before my own father died, I would tell him that his would be the last generation to die of natural causes. We would simply clear a day in our busy calendars and leave it to the doctor to induce pain-free death. Whether we can stave that off for a decade or not, I’d like to hedge my bets and know that euthanasia is a possibility. Technologists who can bring innovation to this “final solution” should be looking at the inevitability of the data and not the narcissistic impulse to live forever. Monitoring and data are fine so far as they go, but it’s time to move away from a “Live, live, live” mentality and start thinking about dying with the same technological assists.