October 30, 2003

Life in Abundance

In a recent essay in the Globe and Mail, futurist Peter de Jager writes about the unexpected problems that result from abundance:

What do traffic jams, obesity and spam have in common?

They are all problems caused by abundance in a world more attuned to scarcity. By achieving the goal of abundance, technology renders the natural checks and balances of scarcity obsolete.

So we're fat because our bodies were designed to alternate between scarcity and abundance, and we never give them the scarcity side of the equation. All the dieting that goes on is really just an attempt to reintroduce scarcity. We have traffic jams, de Jager claims, because we have an abundance of speed, which kills the constraint of distance. (Personally, I'd be more inclined to say that traffic jams result from the combination of an abundance of cars and a scarcity of lanes.) We have spam because spammers can send out e-mail in vast quantities justified, from their perspective, by even a minuscule return.

He concludes:

Any technology which creates abundance poses problems for any process which existed to benefit from scarcity.

Let's take one of our favorite emerging technologies, life extension, and see how it might affect the interplay between scarcity and abundance.

Linear thinkers tell us that life extension will lead to extreme overpopulation and environmental catastrophe. There's already an abundance of human life on the planet and longer lifespans will only make the situation worse. But those scenarios may miss the mark because they don't take another type of abundance into consideration. In order to become widespread, life extension will have to accompany higher levels of technological and economic development. It's been observed that birth rates consistently level off, and even begin to go down, as a society develops economically. This is currently happening in some parts of India. This abundance of material development, on the other hand, might very well have a negative impact on the environment. Throughout human history, the biosphere has generally fared best where economic development has been the most scarce. But another disruptive technology, nanotech, may turn that truism on its head.

Life extension will play havoc with life insurance. Life insurance companies make their money off the scarcity of time that our lifespans represent. Longer lives will benefit the insurance companies, with people taking longer to get the death benefit or missing it altogether by outliving the policy's term. On the other hand, annuities will pay out for much longer than planned. So the advantages and disadvantages will offset, at least to some extent..

With an abundance of time in their lives, people might begin to perceive a scarcity of meaning. There's plenty of time in a 75-year lifespan for existential angst, even with everything else we have to get done in that brief interval. Think how much more meaningless and depressing the world might look to a jaded 400-year old. The scarcity of perceived meaning may lead to the development of an abundance of philosophical and religious outlooks, many more than we have today.

Organized religion, at least the kind that emphasizes an afterlife, may paradoxically take a hit from life extension technologies. I'm thinking primarily of the longer-range life extension techniques such as cryonics and personality uploading. Religions have traditionally benefited from the scarcity of afterlife options. Give people a way of achieving "life after death" without all those ethical and metaphysical requirements and a lot of them are sure to jump at it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, even for the churches (or other religious bodies) that lose members. The folks left won't be primarily interested in salvationism, what the evangelicals call "fire insurance." They'll be looking for something deeper. Thus will the sheep be separated from the goats.

All of our notions about education and careers are firmly rooted in the unspoken assumption that life is short. Our time is scarce. A few years ago, working adults rarely decided to drop everything mid-career and do something else (or go back to school.) When post-retirement-age folks would do something like this, we tended to describe it as commendable, albeit sometimes in a patronizing way. But it was regarded as foolhardy for someone in their 30's or 40's to try it. Since I've been in the workforce, I've seen perceptions of such a shift evolve to the point that it's no longer even considered "daring" (which was the second wave after foolhardy), but a fairly standard practice. So far, this evolution has occurred not so much because we're living longer, but because we're experiencing more change faster than we ever have before. There may have always been an abundance of change experienced in a single human lifespan, but even that abundant amount is increasing geometrically. As we come to tolerate greater and greater amounts of change in our lifetimes, we become increasingly intolerant of any scarcity of options. This intolerance will only increase with substantially longer lifespans. Multiple educational specializations and careers will be the norm.

For similar reasons, multiple places of residence and multiple choices of life partner will also be the norm. For many, they are already are. For all of human history, it's been understood that (religious beliefs aside) we have but one life to live. Life extension will eliminate that dreadful scarcity. An abundance of choices combined with an abundance of time means that we will all have many lives to live, should we choose to do so.

Posted by Phil at October 30, 2003 06:44 AM | TrackBack

Insurance companies already need to deal with some of the problems of life extension. Diseases like AIDS have declined significantly in their mortality rate. The people mostly hurt by this haven't been the insurance companies but investors that were lured in by the prospects of large returns. Ie, the insurance companies involved found a way to transfer the risk that the party purchasing the annuity would outlive their expected lifespan.

I doubt that most health insurance companies would survive any large sudden increase in life expactancy (at least if they are surprised by it). Even though the costs are mostly in the insurance companies' favor, the companies make investments to hedge risks that fail to appear.

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at November 1, 2003 08:57 PM

Actually, scarcity is a 'major' factor of the equation, that unfortunately, is overlooked. The reason why people age, grow old and die to begin with is due to oxidation of the cells - oxidation occurs due to free radicals which are created by the Mitochondrial DNA once food is consumed. Since the Mitochondrial DNA is only 95% efficient, what's left after the burning process becomes toxic on the cellular level. This is what causes Alzheimer's Disease, Parkinson's Disease, and almost every form of cancer we are aware of. The human body was never meant for abundance to begin with - you can see this fact by simply watching how the cells operate; the more deprived they are, the less energy they need to operate - while 'well-fed' cells tend to burn more energy than required, which later results in apoptosis.

Science has aleady confirmed that 'calorie restriction' almost triples the lifespan of the individual - these tests have been done on mice, dogs, and yeast so far at this point...all of which have had the same results.

But, I'll try to be more on topic at this point. The simple fact remains that there needs to be a limit to growth. People who say overpopulation is ok, and that when we run out of living space on the Earth, we can simply migrate into space and find more resources elsewhere, are fools. What gives us the right to consume all of the resources of this planet, and possibly every other planet in this solar system or beyond? We have NO RIGHT, simply because we lack responsibility as a species. Look at what happened to the Rapa Nui of Easter Island after they consumed all of their resources - their technology did not save them, and they simply disappeared as if they never existed to begin with - they did, however, leave their legacy (and wasteland) behind for all the world to see...and possibly learn from. Unfortunately, mankind doesn't appear to give a shit, and history is, once again, repeating itself in the same manner.

'True' Nanotechnology will indeed give us great power - so much power in fact, that old regimes will no longer have ANY power over the people, the money system will be destroyed due to the lack of scarcity in all forms, and religion will be disposed of because the people who once thought that miracles were once created by some non-existent, omnipotent being, will have the power to create their own miracles by their own hands.

The problem is all about responsibility and how we, as a species, decides to move forward. Yes, Nanotechnology will take scarcity out of the equation entirely - the only problem is the people who are currently in power will stop at nothing to make sure that scarcity stays exactly where it is - it is, afterall, the very thing which gives them power to begin with. And then there's the responsibility - where are the boundries, and what are our limits? Do we have the right to take over the entire galaxy and populate it with a bunch of braindead zombies? If we do have the right to do so, who and what gives us those rights?

To move forward, there MUST be sacrifices - and I can't emphasize that enough. Life extension through nanotech will raise the human life span indefinitely - a lifespan of more than 10,000 years will not be uncommon. This is why it will be absolutely necessary to shut down the human reproductive system permanently. Many people think that idea is repulsive, but in all honesty, it is the ONLY option next to complete annihilation. There MUST be a limit to growth - we are just like the cells within our bodies; if we consume too much, we will use up more energy than is necessary, and overconsumption, as science is just barely proving, leads to cell death.

On another note, Insurace companies will not exist because the money system will no longer exist. Capitalism, Corporatism, and, of course, scarcity, will no longer exist in any form. You can shun and make fun of this belief all you want, but it's the truth; it is a revelation for what is coming. Forewarned is always forearmed.

Posted by: Kadamose at November 11, 2003 12:58 PM

Hrm... I have some skepticism about your 'no right' clause. I think you resort to the outright protest card because on some level you understand that 'simply migrating into space and finding more resources' is historically inevitable, given our history as a species. What kind of responsibility do we lack, objectively? To whom would these resources be better delegated?

Citing the technological capabilities of Easter Island as a point in your case is... I'll let you pick your own adjective.

You want sacrifices? Look no further than the underpriviledged. That is who has historically beared the grunt, and I forsee no U-turns on that graph.

As for responsibility? Who knows. Maybe that will go out with Capitalism, too.

Posted by: Stephen Yeago at November 14, 2003 12:53 AM

Oh, I should give my own thoughts too.

I think that limits to growth will be imposed, but I do not know that there will be any conscious or direct force that imposes them. I think for instance of the class system; the fat cats get the cool toys and the mice get the old ones.

Economics will ease the stress of the system, holding extended life above the heads of the great many. Technology will ease the stress, finding easier and cheaper methods of self-sustainence. And, of course, there is the little-held view that the species as a whole does protect itself, and we will stop short of eating our own tail.

I think people consider Phil's stance a bit hedonistic and selfish. To these people I recommend a good dose of hedonism and selfishness (and about 2000 pages of Frank Herbert). Seriously now, I think on this ground we're all speculists.

I happen to agree with some of his projections simply because he provides present applications and historical examples. For instance, when I read 'multiple choices of life partner will also be the norm' I admit that I, a child of the day, do have trouble trying to assign others with the word 'forever.' Its scary and I wish it were as simple as it is in books, but it just ain't. So I take this same method and ask myself what I would do if confronted my immortality, and promptly expect nothing less of my fellow man, haha.

I guess I feel the 'experiencing more change faster than ever before,' and somehow I feel I embrace, or maybe I'm forced to accept, the great triangle. The rate of change. As this exponent climbs, I guess sometimes I feel that if I don't keep up, I will be 120 and giving baleful looks to the neighbor-boy's glowglobe porch-lights.

Posted by: Stephen Yeago at November 14, 2003 01:32 AM

What kind of responsibility do we lack, objectively?

How about just about everything? If you're going to make a mess, make sure you can clean it up - otherwise, don't make the mess at all.

Other responsibilities include: making every living human being educated; turning everyone into vegetarians; disposing of the use of fossil fuels; and destroying every form of religion on the face of the planet since it only serves to seperate people.

Citing the technological capabilities of Easter Island as a point in your case is... I'll let you pick your own adjective.

Do you think of modern archeology and technology that highly? That would be foolish, considering modern technology can't even replicate the creation of the Moai, much less move them. The same thing applies to the pyramids of Giza, as well as many other 'pre-historic' wonders in the world. Believe it or not, but modern technology is just barely catching up with the people modern archeologists call 'primitive' - I believe in the not-so-distant future, evidence will be shown that the people that we once thought inferior to us were actually superior, and that we have actaully REGRESSED in development in the past 4,000 years.

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