The immortality scam sold to you by the medical-industrial complex

Who wants to live forever?

The immortality scam sold to you by the medical-industrial complex
Photo by Braňo / Unsplash

If you ever watched Babylon 5, there was an excellent episode about a fugitive war criminal back in the first season

The show was pretty heavy-handed about this.

The comparison with pre-Nuremberg experiments on live human subjects couldn't be more obvious.

There was a twist.

This 23rd century Mengele, codenamed "Deathwalker", came back bearing a gift.

A gift that got her a "free ride" with the highest levels of Earth's government.

What would make the good guys make a deal with a mass-murdering butcher who pulled medical experiments on civilian populations?

Simple. She understood marketing 101.

To get what you want, give people what they want.

Didn't hurt that she had the most irresistible offer of all time...

An immortality drug

There was only one problem.

The drug came with a terrible price tag.

Not to the user.

With her plan all but accomplished, our villainess explains that the key ingredient in the drug could not be created artificially.

It had to be extracted from a living person.

Every dose of immortality must be purchased at the price of someone else's life.

That is a masterstroke of cruel bastardry if I've ever heard of one.

This dastardly plot was prevented by Act of Vorlon...

But can you imagine?

Can you imagine the once-civilized people reduced to roaving murderers, falling on themselves like sharks in a feeding frenzy?

Transformed into animals desperate to tear their fellow people limb from limb for the sake of undying life?

You'd best believe it would happen.

We've got people right now, people who live next door to you, who want to ridicule, punish, and exile anyone who won't agree to outrageous curtailments of public life, rights, dignity, medical autonomy, and human decency handed down from bean-counting authorities with a platform.

And that's only to cling on to an ordinary lifespan.

Now dangle the promise of "forever" in front of these soy-fed Eloi

That episode aired over 25 years ago and the scenario still haunts me.

It should haunt you, too.

The ethical dilemma contained in that story isn't just about immortality drugs.

Think about any case where we have to consider who is owed what.

Is it better to give immortality to a handful and sacrifice the rest?

Or is it always wrong to murder someone so that another can be saved?

You don't have to look far in today's world to see this playing out live in real time.

That tension between "best for everyone", calculated by bureaucrats (of course), and what is owed to each individual motivates all of this.

Do you pull the lever and send the trolley to kill the one man instead of five?

Do you throw the fat man on to the tracks to save them?

Do you pull the plug on one guy to use his organs to save five others?

These are hard questions.

I tell you this: you don't answer them by solving math problems.

But immortality therapies change the whole game board.

Changes, like flips the board, throws it across the room, and kicks the dog.

One change makes everything change

Most of these calculations of "ethical" [sic] outcomes are one-dimensional.

They consider first-order benefits.

Sick person gets a therapy and gets better.

People who like to think this way are blind to systems.

They don't see the knock-on effects. Unintended consequences.

What's called higher order effects.

Save a deer from a hunter's trap and it runs into a hungry bear.

In any system with lots of parts, the pieces don't behave individually.

Any change in behavior of one part changes the behavior of all the parts.

Put a tiger in a steel cage. Feed it. Give it medical care. Make sure it lives a long healthy life.

That tiger's got everything it needs.

And it's miserable... and its jailers have done a horrible, evil thing to that poor cat.

The first-order benefits to the animal completely ignore the second-order reality of tigers. Tigers thrive when they live free and hunt and take on the risks of living in the uncertain wilderness.

Human lives are like this, only the problem is exponentially worse.

You can't strap a human being to a hospital bed, feed them through an IV drip, plug them into a TV, and place armed guards at the door to make sure they never leave.

That person might "survive" according to the raw biological stats...

But who would want to?

When the old live forever, the young die in the shade

The immortality drug kicks this problem up to the whole civilization.

The dynamics of the human life-cycle, from childhood to maturity, would change.

You get a little taste of this now as the Boomers, with decades of accumulated wealth, capital, and power/influence and longer working lives than previous generations, have effectively strangled out their children and grandchildren and beyond.

Now imagine a society where the Boomers never die.

Take a second to recover, I know that's traumatic. I write about Lovecraft and chilling horrors and that might be the most frightening thing I've ever put to paper.

If the old never pass the torch, then there are no more young.

You'd be stuck in a perennial 1969.

While the cost of our Society of Safety, administered by fretting nannies, meddling bureaucrats, and hypochondriac doctors, may not show up in the Official Numbers...

Make no mistake about it, people are not thriving just because Steven Pinker drops statistics showing that the objective measures he prefers are moving in the right direction.

The prevalence of depression, anxiety disorders, drug addictions, and all manner of everyday hopelessness, indignities, and assaults on the foundations of self-determination mean that something is badly wrong no matter how many pretty charts HR shows to the CEO.

Immortality violates the natural order

Every time a transhumanist nerd goes on about telomere therapies, cryonics, genetic therapies, planning to live for 1000 years, you are hearing this obsession with numbers.

The quality of one's years, the depth and range of experiences, the judgement of one's life as well lived...

Forget that. It's about numbers.

This is the Office Space Theory of Immortality.

Immortality is one of those things that sounds great on paper, if you're only considering first-order benefits.

Sure, I'd love an implant in my brain so I can do all this smart [sic] phone stuff without even moving my hands. Sounds great until you wake up one day and oops you're a Borg drone.

Higher-order consequences.

Violations of the natural order of things are violations for a reason.

Frankly, most of the people chasing these dreams of Perfect Control by Science are silly, empty-souled people who want to continue existing for the sake of existing. They have no higher purpose or mission.

I'm reminded of that old saying about politicians and power, lightly edited:

The type of person who craves immortality is the type of person who should never have it.

The folks who want immortality so badly, who are so afraid of dying, are cowards in their hearts.

They have nothing to live for beyond the extension of life.

They will do anything, commit any offense against dignity or justice to have it.

That's the mark of disorder in one's heart and character.

They want nothing worth wanting.

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