Future Tense

Talking ’Bout My Generation: The Real Walking Dead

The problem with longevity? Old people.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Scenario: radical life extension. Probability: reasonably good, considering how we’ve gone from an average life span in the United States of below 50 in 1900 to somewhere around 80 now. Scene: a university classroom.

It’s worth taking seriously the idea that radical life extension could allow us to live perhaps 150 years or more with a high quality of life.

To explore some of the possibilities, come with me to my class. Radical life extension (RLE) has recently been achieved, and I stand at the front of the class, the 60-year-old font of all wisdom. The students are surly, because they have just realized that, thanks to RLE, I will be in my slot for years more. There is tenure, enhancing the grasp of their elders, including me, on jobs that they otherwise might have aspired to. And I will keep that job because, thanks to the relaunched AARP—now called the American Association of Rejuvinated Grandpeople, or AARG—the political and economic power remains with me and my newly rebuilt peers. The generation wars are over, and the young have lost. And we really don’t need them to be educated because, after all, we’re still here and we’re going to be here for a long time. But then, we’ve crunched the numbers and it’s cheaper to play the game and have them in educational institutions rather than in prisons. No wonder they’re surly—my generation has the power and the positions, and their chances for advancement, much less for changing the world, will be stifled for decades to come. And if medical science keeps advancing during that period, and rejuvenating me … well, it could be a lot longer.

But it’s actually worse than that. It’s easy to see how (the rejuvenated) I stand in their way when it comes to jobs, money, and power. What’s less obvious is how I represent the increasingly heavy, dead hand of the past. As part of being the boss, I’m imposing my rules and my choices about technology and work, even though the sad truth is that, more and more, I’m rapidly falling behind: falling behind information technology, falling behind in social networking technology, falling behind culturally.

Even today, the students who sit so patiently in front of the professor are different; if you take an fMRI of the brain of a digital native like today’s students and compare it to a similar scan of a digital immigrant such as myself, you can see obvious differences. What they mean, and how profound they are, is unclear, as interpreting such fMRIs is a fraught process. But what is clear is that, to some extent, they are already different human varietals. Their brains are wired for an information dense world; my wiring reflects the world of my youth, where information was still relatively scarce.

Put another way, even though the rate of technological change is slower today than it will be in coming years, I am rapidly growing obsolete. Sure, I still have things worth knowing and teaching, but the zeitgeist within which my students live, network, learn, and become human is increasingly beyond me—not because I’m not reasonably competent, but because they are, in a real sense, in a world that has already moved beyond me.

College professor and students.
If you take an fMRI of the brain of a digital native like today’s students and compare it to a similar scan of a digital immigrant, like many of their professors, you can see the difference.

Photo by Wavebreak Media/Thinkstock

Now consider radical life extension. It means that decision-making power, and economic and political authority, will be vested in a generation that is already obsolete and growing more so. People who find Facebook’s and Twitter’s popularity incomprehensible and more than slightly spooky will be making employment decisions based on outdated concepts of public and private personas. The young and innovative will be held at bay, prevented from creating new information forms and generating cultural, institutional, and economic breakthroughs. And where death used to clear the memory banks, there I stand … for 150 years. The impact on technological innovation could be devastating. Remember the end of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, when Frodo and Gandalf board the ship to Valinor, and the others are left behind? What we have here is the equivalent of my students on the ship trying to sail to their bright future, and I’m back on the dock, unable to join them … only I’m the captain of the ship, with little idea of how it works, and no idea of where it’s going. They’re not going to be happy on that boat.

But this situation may also be self-correcting. Recently, there has been a spate of articles on managing memory: eradicating old memories, creating false new ones. The old science fiction idea of wiping memories so that people won’t be limited by their past offers the scenario of a series of personalities in the same body. (This obviously raises the question of why not trade the body in while one is at it, but perhaps partial memory lube jobs will become popular.) So perhaps I should look forward to ME v. 2.1.

Moreover, if we succeed in implementing RLE, and thereby slowing our technological competence because the generation in power is not as competent with new technologies as younger cohorts that grew up embedded in it might be—well, isn’t that just our way of reducing our cultural competitiveness, and passing the baton on to other, younger, and less inhibited societies? In other words, isn’t this just the legacy systems game that eventually caught the British as they were surpassed by Germany in the early 1900s?

These speculations may never come to pass, of course. That’s why they’re called scenarios, not predictions. Taking discussions such as this at face value and basing current policy on it would be unwise, since no one really knows what is going to happen. But equally it is foolish not to practice thinking the unthinkable, because the one thing we do know is that something equally discontinuous is going to happen. And if we haven’t practiced being intellectually, culturally, and psychologically agile and adaptive, we’re toast. Just like those hypothetical future students in my class.