Pioneering Perspectives.

Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash

A Vignette.

I can’t help but find it a bit ironic that my office here at Uppsala University is right opposite the Old Uppsala Cemetery. It’s a gorgeous setting and in so many ways appropriate that the departments of anthropology, sociology, archaeology, philosophy, and theology all are housed here at Engelska Parken. It’s certainly poetic that these disciplines face the challenge of understanding, picking apart, and theorising the human condition from their own unique perspectives. It is a subtle reminder of the one piece of the human experience that we all share — even if all societies, cultures, beliefs, and individuals ascribe a different meaning to death.

Nonetheless, I still can’t help but feel it more ironic given my own field of research: technology and the future. Part because technology appears so far removed from the oft-dramatic, oft-analogue experience of death, whether one’s own or those close to us. Part because the future seems so very drastically undercut; aggressively undone by the realisation that even if there is a future, there will undoubtedly be a future in which I will no longer be. A future beyond reach.

And this is not even mentioning that many of the folks I work with and research very often wish, and work towards, circumscribing, side-stepping, defeating, undoing, or transcending death.

A Technological Boom.

We have experienced a completely insane technological boom in the past forty years: from early computing to ubiquitous computing; to mobile phones, the internet, and smartphones. And this is not even mentioning the progress made in biology, medicine, and other such fields. If the trends and pundits are to be believed, we will see technologies in twenty years that will appear as remarkable as a computer in the year 2000 would look to someone in 1980. Event ubiquitous preventative medicine might be at our doorstep soon!

And who knows what comes beyond that? Nanobots, human augmentation, quantum computing, cryonic? It’s all, by all accounts, feasible!

“Where is all the outrage? Where is the blank cheque? It’s been proven that it’s possible — why isn’t anyone doing anything?”

If you have stumbled upon this essay, you may very well already be ‘sold’ on the very idea that not only can but should death be transcended. Indeed, it is for this very type reader that I direct much of this text — In short, I write here with the intent not to convince you that all the above is feasible and, perhaps given enough time, also inevitable. Instead, I wish to turn to another phenomenon that many friends, colleagues, and contacts have brought up: why isn’t this being prioritised?

This issue, I think, is best summarised by someone I interviewed last year. “Every day, several tens if not hundreds of thousands of people die”, I was told, “it is a tragedy that makes the present pandemic pale in comparison! Yet, the world collectively put near-unlimited resources into a COVID vaccine. Yet, people look at me funny when I say I want to get rid of age-related deaths. Where is all the outrage? Where is the blank cheque? It’s been proven that it’s possible — why isn’t anyone doing anything?”

It reminds me of an old joke: when Bono walked out on stage during a fundraiser event, he dramatically clicked his finger every few seconds, and said: ‘every time I click my fingers, a child in Africa dies.’ Inevitably, some clever clogs in the audience spoke up, ‘then stop clicking your fucking fingers!’

So, what gives?

Putting on new glasses.

As an anthropologist in the field, researching new and emergent technologies, I naturally come to straddle the line between the folks and movements I research — that is to say, highly optimistic techno-utopists — and what you can broadly call the ‘general public’. I am, in this sense, neither one of the people I research, but I’m also much more involved than Sven Svensson down the road. I firmly stand with one foot on each side of this particular fence. From my vantage point, the difference in perspective between the two groups is stark — and that’s putting it mildly.

It’s an issue of vision. […] Techno-optimists are blinded by their own enthusiasm, and fail to see the perspective of those not already convinced.

The techno-optimistic folks express frustration, sometimes even a degree of hopelessness at the lack of public interest in these potential technologies — why aren’t more people doing something about it?! On the other hand: Most of the general public shrugs. It’s not that they’re directly against these technologies, but rather, they’re ambivalent; these technologies aren’t registering in peoples’ minds. It’s neither enthusiastic cheer, nor angry fist-waving. It is a shrug; indifference.

And that’s arguably more frustrating.

This gap is beginning to have clear material impacts, too. Funding isn’t being meaningfully allocated by governments, and these projects often have to rely on private donors. Further, some companies within the industry are beginning to struggle with expanding their customer base — as can be seen, for example, with Alcor’s latest shift in company membership policies. It’s critical to keep in mind here that the issue is not necessarily with customer retention, but rather with convincing new people of the importance of engaging with these emerging innovations and ideas.

In essence, then, it’s an issue of vision. Specifically, these techno-optimists are blinded by their own enthusiasm, and fail to see the perspective of those not already convinced.

What do I mean by this? In essence, enthusiasts have fully bought into the techno-scientific way of seeing the world, which extends to the potential of emerging technologies, the problems humanity faces, and those issues we may face in the future. There is a prominent chain of reasoning, A → B → C → D, and the further existence of E, F, G, H … and beyond are inferred. The answer is clear, painfully clear, even: that these technologies are not only feasible, but in fact, plausible, and therefore they will come to exist, and the more work and effort that is put into them, the sooner they will emerge.

But, and there is always a but, this isn’t a universal approach. Indeed, there is a reason I refer to these optimists as social-technical vanguards[1]; people who have accepted and are working towards a particular view of future technology that, critically, has not yet been accepted by wider society.

Whether you, dear reader, like it or not: the techno-scientific Wayfarers are not worn by everyone.

And it may be tempting to conclude that it is merely a lack of education at best, or at worst, that people are stupid. Perhaps there’s an over-used Churchill quote that can be used to labour this point. However, I would contend this is too shallow a read, no matter how tempting. The issue, rather, lies with the technologies in question — or more accurately, their implications for everyday life, society, and the wider world; these implications cannot be meaningfully imagined by most folks. They lie outside their collective frame of reference.

In anthropologist-school, where we anthropologists are kidnapped once we show a penchant for people-watching, one of the first things we are taught is to think abstractly about belief and practice; to see the world from different folks’ perspectives, and, crucially, learn to take such views seriously. What we are taught, in other words, is to see the world through different ‘logics’; to wear ‘glasses’ to see the world differently.

Viewing the world as being made up of a multitude of logics is precisely how one ought to think of these matters; those who attempt to redefine the world as most people know, understand, and experience it. That is to say: what appears wholly logical and beyond any sort of discussion, debate, or doubt to one person or group of people can be an utterly impossible notion for someone else — and this sort of fundamental difference in logics cannot easily be reconciled with more education.

Wayfarers and Aviators.

I’m not here to comment on universal truths, or argue for or against any particular perspective. Instead, I want to highlight how important it is to understand the practical implications of these differences in not only opinion or mere perspective, but differences in fundamental worldviews. Whether you, dear reader, like it or not: the techno-scientific Wayfarers are not worn by everyone.

Because the difference in perspective is so fundamental, showing someone a logical chain of events, that A leads to B etc., will rarely work. The fundamental validity of base assumptions remains outside someone’s field of vision — this is precisely why it is not merely a difference of opinion. You can show them all graphs and tables as you’d like or outline any number of formal arguments, but it is unlikely to stick. Instead, a not uncommon reaction is for folks to merely wave away ideas like ‘living forever’ as fundamentally absurd.

Functionality alone hasn’t magically convinced the world.

You may argue that this is blind irrationality, and perhaps it is, but, honestly, when have humans not been irrational? Clichéd quips aside: whether rational or irrational is irrelevant in this context. I would instead argue that it’s more important to view the situation pragmatically. These technologies promise not just to usher in sweeping change, but often promise change that is fundamentally unimaginable to most people! Brain uploads? 500-year life spans? It is all beyond the horizon of possibilities for most people. Changing such a fundamental understanding of the world, such as outlining a world without death, is not as straightforward as sending someone a biology paper abstract.

Cultures have, since time immemorial, made up stories that explain these existential questions; attempt to make sense of our collective physical limitations in ways that are more satisfying than a shrug of the shoulders. These are deeply rooted stories, whether explicitly or implicitly, and thus aren’t easily uprooted. You can’t merely throw a book at the issue, neither is it a question of waiting until the technology is functional; “that’ll show ‘em!’”. Sure, it will convince some, but lest we forget, there exist several fully functional technologies that are still being hotly debated — stem cell research, IVF, human genome editing.

Their functionality alone hasn’t magically convinced the world.

Re-thinking rethinking.

How do we move past this impasse, then? Fundamentally, it’s about realising that the scepticism is of the engineer, developer, or scientist; it is scepticism towards what the proposed technologies do. In other words, the discussion is not about how truthful or accurate the scientific data or knowledge is, but instead, it is one more akin to ideological conviction. So-called ‘facts and logic’ have rarely won someone over in a political discussion, and it won’t here, either.

Obviously, there is no one silver bullet to dealing with this particular predicament. In this case, the ‘correct’ answer, a practical approach, will depend very much on context; on whom you are speaking to. That being said, what can be said from the get-go is that the rules of engagement need to be fundamentally reconsidered: to not share the impact, importance, and value of these new innovations based on your own convictions, but to realise that the message needs to resonate beyond the bubble of the already-convinced. It needs to speak to society at large, and even several different cultures — it needs to speak different languages: to explain, but also to reassure against the fear of the unknown, unknowable, and unpredictable. Assuaging doubt is highly context-dependent.

The Old Uppsala Cemetery, right outside my office, stands as a monument to how human life has always gone: a universal fact, that has inspired hope for some, despair and dread in others; it has been the basis for critical philosophising and beautiful art. That is, as an experience, so fundamental that even when religious sentiment fades, and the spiritual aspects become artefacts of a culture’s past, these monuments remain as socially sacred as they have always been. Such artefacts are never easily thrown aside. This is a matter of ideology, and whether one likes it or not, cultural language, social credibility, sensitivities, and sensibilities, no matter how irrational they may appear on the surface, must be engaged with, considered, and either incorporated or worked around.

The proof might be in the pudding — to get the technology to work at all! — but sometimes, an even more significant challenge lies in convincing people to take a bite.

[1] Though I didn’t coin the term, that honour goes to STS Prof. Steven Hilgartner.

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