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Against Transcendence

When technology appropriates the transcendental it becomes science fiction.
February 1, 2005

Science fiction is to technology as romance novels are to marriage: a form of propaganda. Both recapitu­late in narrative form the fondest illusions of the practitioners of a commonplace but difficult activity, and so contrive to make the ordinary seem exhilarating.

Technologists spend their days devising novel solutions to discrete problems. The problems, if not the projects with which they are associated, are often boring. But in science fiction, technologists are heroic. The future is interesting because of the influence of technology. But most notably, in science fiction, technology always possesses a pseudoreligious quality. Tech­nology, it is implied, will somehow allow us to transcend our ordinary, human selves.

When the science fiction writer and journalist Bruce Sterling was asked why so many science fiction novels ended with their heroes transcending their circumstances, abilities, or bodies, he was dismissive. “It’s just a riff,” Sterling answered. “The element of transcendence is just a feature of the SF genre, like feedback in rock music. People who take that stuff seriously end up turning into trolls….H. P. Lovecraft was a big fan of that cosmic-type stuff. That may be okay for him, but from the outside what you see is this pasty-faced guy eating canned hash in the dim corner of a restaurant, hands trembly, and a gray film over his eyes.”

Most technologists believe in transcendence some of the time, and some technologists believe in it all the time. At those moments when they believe in it, they’re crazy. When they believe in it completely, they’ve become trolls.

Throughout the last two issues of Technology Review, our subjects have appealed to transcendence in order to explain their projects. Last month, Jason Epstein, the retired editorial director of Random House, wrote of the occasion when he first saw a machine print a book on demand from a digital file, “It was a transcendent moment” (“The Future of Books,” January 2005). This month, W. Kent Fuchs, the dean of Cornell University’s college of engineering and a minister, remarks in a profile, “Technology is like religion,” because the two have simi­lar goals and can be similarly misused (“Cornell’s Minister of Technology”).

In the case of Aubrey de Grey, the subject of our story on anti-aging science (“Do You Want to Live Forever?”) by Sherwin Nuland, the hunger for transcendence could not be more explicit or more complete: de Grey, a computer scientist at the University of Cambridge’s department of genetics, believes he can defeat death by treating human aging as an engineering problem. When I wrote to ask why he hated aging so much, he wrote back, “Aging is repulsively gradual.” Death from aging, he said, was “barbaric.” De Grey thinks he is a technological messiah.

But what struck me is that he is a troll. For all de Grey’s vaulting ambitions, what Sherwin Nuland saw from the outside was pathetically circumscribed. In his waking life, de Grey is the ­com­puter support to a research team; he dresses like a shabby graduate student and affects Rip Van Winkle’s beard; he has no children; he has few interests outside the science of biogeron­tology; he drinks too much beer. Although he is only 41, the signs of decay are strongly marked on his face. His ideas are trollish, too. For even if it were possible to “perturb” human biology in the way de Grey wishes, we shouldn’t do it. Immortality might be okay for de Grey, but an entire world of the same superagenarians thinking the same kinds of thoughts forever would be terrible.

Most responsible biogerontologists are more cautious about the applications of antiaging science. They hope that when we understand why and how human tissues age, we will be able to better treat some of the chronic diseases of old age, like dementia, senile diabetes, or heart disease. (To learn how mitochondria, whose function declines with age, might be implicated in some of these diseases, see “Trouble in the Cell’s Power Plant”) This would, in the jargon of geriatricians, “compress the morbidity” of the elderly: the debili­ties of old age might be restricted to a rela­tively short period of time before we die. Because some of these chronic diseases are eventually fatal, or have fatal complications, some of us would live longer, too–at least a little bit. But very few who have studied biogerontology think we’ll ever transcend our mortality. As Nuland remarked to me, “Aging is not a disease. Aging is the condition on which we are given life.”

When technology appropriates the transcendental, it becomes science fiction. Transcendence is not a part of this world, or any world that we know directly. We are alone with ourselves, and even if the application of biotechnology to human nature made us something else, we would remain creatures limited in space, time, and knowledge. Technology is most useful when it is most human in scope. Then, technology offers something close to happiness (even if ultimate happiness eludes us) by providing us with more expansive lives.

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