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The problem with e-mortality

Techno-utopians are failing reason and failing technology

The hype over technology’s supposedly limitless ability to solve all of life’s problems shows no signs of abating. Despite the potential for emerging technologies, such as AI, to make positive, tangible differences to people’s lives, belief in their power has become fanciful. Indeed, in Silicon Valley there are a number of projects dedicated to conquering the greatest barrier to life — death.

… the efficacy of longevity treatments remains questionable and any hope being thawed back to life is still way, way off

Billionaire entrepreneurs are piling in on anti-ageing technologies and pumping money into projects to create bionic bodies or reverse ageing, all to achieve mastery over death. Most recently, Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon, Spotify’s founders, invested £4 million in longevity clinics to try to slow the ageing process. Ek and Lorentzon are following in the footsteps of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who invested in Altos Labs, a company that seeks to reverse the process of ageing in cells. More notoriously, billionaire Peter Thiel has ploughed millions into anti-ageing research. Thiel is even looking to be cryogenically frozen upon his death, with the hope of being revived once technology becomes advanced enough. However, the efficacy of longevity treatments remains questionable and any hope being thawed back to life is still way, way off.

Although the actions of a few tech elitists may seem unimportant, control of technologies that we use on a daily basis rests with them. The worldview driving the pursuit of immortality therefore matters. It shapes what technologies get prioritised, the nature of the discourse around technological advancements and the vision of the good life that gets promoted. Unfortunately, techno-utopianism, which has come to dominate Silicon Valley thinking, is bizarre and dangerous. 

Contemporary techno-utopianism is arguably tied to the thinking of evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley. Huxley was a proponent of using science and technology to improve the human condition, and this motivated his belief in both humanism and eugenics. Strands of his complex legacy still undergird techno-utopianism. Indeed, Ray Kurzweil, a futurist and principal researcher at Google, typified this when he wrote that the human species “along with the…technology it created, will be able to solve age-old problems…and will be in a position to change the nature of mortality in a postbiological future”. Kurzweil believes that humans will inevitably reach a point — the “Singularity” — where we will be able to upload our minds to benevolent supercomputers, and so exist forever. According to tech utopians this will significantly enhance our abilities, make us stronger as a species and usher in some perfect society — Memento mori would be a thing of the past, or so the logic goes.

While it is part of human nature to push boundaries, fantasy rarely makes for good policy or good choices. Indeed, if technological advancement becomes guided solely by utopian thinking, we will become laser-focused on developing futuristic elixirs for eternal life. This would come at the cost of improving life in the here and now, reducing investment in any other tech innovations, including treatments for diseases such as cancer, and new viruses. What is more, utopian fantasies are often, wrongly, legitimised by long-termism — which holds that the most productive way to help people is to focus on ensuring that humanity will survive in the distant future. What could be more “long-term” than immortality? However, this not only disguises the opportunity cost of pursuing utopian projects, but also hides their narcissism behind claims of working in our “long-term” best interests. 

Indeed, by promising a tech-enabled utopia it distracts from failures in a present system

In actuality, tech elites’ utopian visions are delusions of grandeur not dissimilar to power-hungry Chinese Emperors seeking elixirs of immortality or mediaeval alchemists trying to mimic the Resurrection. Of course, both the alchemists and the Chinese Emperors failed — with the Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, for instance, inadvertently cutting his life short after consuming an “elixir of eternal life” that contained toxic mercury. 

While techno-utopianism is highly unlikely to result in “death by mercury” it nonetheless empowers elites to disregard the risks of emerging technologies and to conceal those same risks from us.

Indeed, by promising a tech-enabled utopia it distracts from failures in a present system — just as with other utopian promises, such as the inevitable triumph of the proletariat prophesised by Marxists. In this case, it conceals the harms of current and emerging technologies. For instance, even if ChatGPT hallucinates, Google Gemini produces historical inaccuracies or social media makes us sick, as long as we believe that the technology will eventually lead to utopia, we may see less reason to be cautious in our use of it. Techno-utopianism blinds us to the risks of adopting a technology and makes us more willing to “forgive” its faults. 

Lastly, we must recognise that techno-utopianism is especially harmful as its promise of eternal life in an increasingly atheist western world bestows on elites the (delusional) belief that they can “play God”. This diminishes the moral and social barriers which guard against harmful ideas and unfettered, unregulated technological advancements. Afterall, if you were a tech entrepreneur who feels that they can freely pursue their tech fantasies — there would be no judgement that would worry you, other than that of your peers, who subscribe to the same ideology as you anyway. There is therefore little to motivate the development and use of technology to genuinely serve the public good. This should deeply worry us.

It is essential to cut through the phantasmagoria and show that techno-utopianism is just a tool for self-aggrandisement, which allows tech elites the freedom to play God and risks causing more harm than good. So, far from solving our problems, if tech elites continue to pursue technology-enabled utopias, we could find ourselves living in a technology-enabled nightmare.

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