bloodygranuaile: (gashlycrumb clara)
[personal profile] bloodygranuaile
The April 3 issue of The New Yorker was the "Health, Medicine & The Body" issue, and it features a number of really strong pieces of medtech-related reporting in varying degrees of not-for-the-squeamish. But for me, the most upsetting article in the whole issue was Tad Friend's excellently creepy "The God Pill: Silicon Valley's quest for eternal life," a look into the field of longevity/immortality research.

While much of what Friend reports on in the article is a little weird on its facethere are some, uh, colorful characters involved in this line of workwhat I found to be the most disturbing aspect of the 10-page longread was what wasn't discussed: The inequalities in health care access and health care outcomes in America.

The article opens at a longevity symposium held in some dude's house, and there are three types of people in attendance: Scientists, movie stars, and venture capitalists. The scientists are obviously there because those are the people who do the science, and this is a scientific topic. The movie stars... I could probably write a whole post about Hollywood culture and why these people want to be young and lovely forever, but I'll spare you that rant for now.

The venture capitalists are where it gets weird.

According to how capitalism works, it shouldn't be weird, because longevity advancement is an interesting research/technology problem, and it is the job of venture capitalists to provide capital for interesting ventures. So if you just think of the venture capitalists as sources of funding for the project, it's cool that they're there: It indicates that the project might get funded, and improving longevity is probably a better use of capital than developing
a $400 machine that squeezes bags of juice or reinventing the bus.

This, however, is a simplistic view of venture capitalists. It ignores who they are as people: mainly, really, really rich ones.

Here is a fun fact about rich people that does not appear in Friend's article but had also been making the news that week:
Rich people in the U.S. already live an average of 15 years longer than poor people. The research, published in the most recent edition of The Lancet, concluded that this was due to our inefficient, expensive for-profit health care system, and the researchers suggested that we adopt a single-payer system like a real country.

If venture-capital-funded researchers develop a way to increase longevity or induce immortality, it's likely to be a pretty expensive medical treatment, because currently all medical treatment is expensive but new stuff is the most expensive. It would possibly not even be covered by insurance, because insurance companies never cover anything if they can find a way out of it, which means it could end up being available only to people who are already wealthy enough to pay for it out of pocket.

So then the gap between the richest 1% and everyone else would expand to a lot more than 15 years, with billionaires living forever and everyone else being subjected to normal human frailty and dying of stupid things like humans have always done. The extra lifespan would allow people wealthy enough to buy eternal life even more time to work on consolidating their fortunes and other forms of power, leading to a society ruled by a small cadre of immortal oligarchs with decades or centuries of experience in squeezing every last resource from an oppressed underclass of normal humans.

This is the premise for a bunch of shitty vampire apocalypse stories.

Bill Maris, founder of Google Ventures, is interviewed in the article and gives us the closest thing to a recognition of access and distribution issues that we get, which is this quote: "This is not about Silicon Valley billionaires living forever off the blood of young people. It's about a 'Star Trek' future where no one dies of preventable diseases, where life is fair."

Neither Maris nor Friend further discuss how to get to a Star Trek future where no one dies of preventable diseases. Instead, the article goes into a discussion of the state of the field of parabiosis, an area of research in which Silicon Valley billionaires attempt to retard aging by injecting themselves with the blood of young people.

One of the most well-known wannabe vampire oligarchs is libertarian douchebro Peter Thiel, who got rich writing code for moving money around and now thinks he's the smartest dude ever. Thiel is apparently worried that one lifetime won't be enough time to cause sufficient damage to democracy,
the free press, and society in general.

The Master vampire from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Peter Thiel, basically

This brings us to my other big issue with venture capitalists: Not only do they already siphon enough years off the lifespans of the poor, but they are frequently either greedy arrogant humans, just plain fuckin' weird, or some combination thereof.

This is actually discussed at great length in the article, making it a fascinating character study as well as an interesting scientific piece. Right at the beginning, when the venture capitalists are introduced, they're not introduced as being there to consider funding: The first line we read about them is "The venture capitalists were keeping slim to maintain their imposing vitality," because venture capitalists see themselves as Randian Captains of Industry and Masters of the Universe and all that insufferable nonsense instead of as humans who have a lot of money. So apparently they feel a need to look like the Ubermenschen they think they are. (You'd think being rich as Croesus would liberate you from giving a shit what people think about your looks, but this is apparently not the case in Uncanny Silicon Valley.)

It's pretty clear that most of the folks profiled here, Maris' protest to the contrary notwithstanding, are interested in this eternal life thing because they personally want to live forever. Sergey Brin of Google is apparently determined to prove wrong a book about anti-aging research that says he's going to die (although in fairness, it must be weird to have a book single you out personally for something so universal). Other fun quotes from the piece include, from an unnamed scientist, "This is as self-serving as the Medici building a Renaissance chapel in Italy, but with a little extra Silicon Valley narcissism thrown in. It’s based on the frustration of many successful rich people that life is too short: ‘We have all this money, but we only get to live a normal life span,’" and from one Dr. Rando (who is named, it's just that his name is Rando), "I’ve had a lot of meetings with young billionaires in Silicon Valley, and they all, to varying degrees, want to know when the secrets are coming out, both so they can get in on the next big thing and so they can personally take advantage of them."

Two other main themes keep popping up in the characterization of these vampire capitalist types. One is that they are dooftastic, mediocre nerdboys. Many of them are probably pretty smart in whatever type of smart let them become rich, but since I am smart in ways that are the opposite of things that let you become richsuch as, for example, literary criticism of spec ficthe one thing I get to be really smug about when reading this is just how simplistic their sci-fi inspirations are. The vague hand-waving about a Star Trek future has already been mentioned, and I'd probably want to leave it up to the many lefties who are better versed in Star Trek specifically than I am to explain how we're never going to get to a Trek-like economy, let alone develop fully automated luxury gay space communism, if we leave stuff up to Peter Thiel. (Another article in this issue does discuss
fully automated luxury diagnostics; it doesn't talk much about health insurance either, but it doesn't seem like such a big omission there.) However, there's also a lady who has commissioned a "mindclone" robot of her wife, despite the fact that we don't have the technology to do that yet; a guy who had a 3-D scan of his brain done and a model of it made, despite the fact that we're nowhere near close to bridging the gap in understanding between the physical structure of the brain and our actual consciousness so who knows if that scan will even be good when we do understand what we're looking for; and a dude who goes on for a bit about turning people into Marvel superheroes. Maris also gives a quote about genies that serves mostly to illustrate that he's never read a single goddamn story about genies, ever, in his goddamn life:

“Imagine you found a lamp on the beach, and a genie came out and granted you a wish,” Maris said. “If you were clever,
your first wish would be for unlimited wishes.” As Doerr nodded, Maris continued, “Let’s say you’re going to live, at most, another thirty years.” Doerr had just turned sixty. “If each day is a wish, that’s only between one and ten thousand wishes. I don’t know about you, but I want to add more—I want to add wishes faster than they’re taken away.”

The other thing that keeps popping up, which could theoretically be considered a subset of them being dooftastic mediocre nerds, is an utter and all-encompassing inability to grasp the concept of something not being a computer. They just cannot do it. It's most plainly stated in this anecdote right at the beginning of the article:

Joon Yun, a doctor who runs a health-care hedge fund, announced that he and his wife had given the first two million dollars toward funding the challenge. “I have the idea that aging is plastic, that it’s encoded,” he said. “If something is encoded, you can crack the code.” To growing applause, he went on, “If you can crack the code, you can hack the code!”

And from there it just keeps going. Friend reports that most of the "immortalists" come from tech backgrounds, and that most of them view aging as "entropy demolishing a machine." The CEO of one startup profiled chirpily offers that "Biotech is something a lot of V.C.s don't understand" as part of her explanation for why she's optimistic about raising her next round of venture financing.

Some of the people interviewed here do seem willing to put their copious amounts of money where their mouths are, in a literal sense, by popping a lot of experimental pills, as well as injecting themselves with stuff. I'm not really sure if I should be giving them credit for committing to their beliefs or just appalled at the self-experimentation.

I do know that I am not comfortable with any of these folks becoming my new vampire overlords.

One of the big issues with wealth inequality is the way it snowballs. Wealth is both a reward for playing the game right and a tool that helps you play the game better and acquire more wealth. The rich, despite not needing as much government help because have their own money, already 
collect $130,000 more in lifetime government benefits than poor people due to the gap in lifespan. If immortality becomes available, but inequalities in health care access remain, it's clear that only the rich will get to be immortal, and it'll only trickle down to the rest of us as much as they think is convenient to allow. I suspect that the resource-hoarding advantage the already-wealthy early adopters will have will ensure that that's not very far.
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