Do I want to live forever?

Part of the Tomorrow’s People conference was a series of set-piece lectures by John Harris, professor of philosophy at Manchester University. In his final talk he started with a quote from a philosopher I really respect — Douglas Adams. He used Douglas’s story of Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged who became immortal by accident:

“To begin with it was fun, he had a ball, living dangerously, taking risks, cleaning up on high-yield long-term investments, and just generally outliving the hell out of everybody.

In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness which starts to set in at about 2.55, when you know that you’ve had all the baths you can usefully have that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the papers you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul.

So things began to pall for him. The merry smiles he used to wear at other people’s funerals began to fade. He began to despise the Universe in general, and everyone in it in particular.”

John Harris then went onto argue that finding technologies that help us achieve immortality is a good (and almost inevitable) thing.

Now, I’ve disagreed with almost everything John has argued in his lectures and this was no exception. However, he has helped me to work out what I think about enhancement. Before the conference I hadn’t really made up my mind even though I had edited a book about it.

I realised I don’t want to ‘cure’ ageing or rush headlong into the other smarter and stronger enhancements that were also talked about at the conference. I think of ageing as a good and often beautiful thing creating incredible variety in our societies that we learn a great deal from.

I’m sure life expectancy will creep upwards and I don’t have a problem with that but the radical intervention based approach to halting the aging process that some people argued for during the conference isn’t where I’d put all my money right now.

You can’t talk about this without mentioning biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey. Our profile of Aubrey in Better Humans? has been painted by some as supportive for his crusade to end aging. That’s certainly not what I meant by it. I meant the article to be about his role as a creator of public debates on the future of science which he’s very good at, and I’m glad that our interview has given him more profile because I think he gets people thinking in a way that other scientists shy away from. I also think he’s a very nice guy and I’ve enjoyed our conversations.

But Aubrey, for example, argues that money to give people in Africa mosquito nets so they don’t get malaria should be diverted into anti-aging research. I don’t believe that . I don’t believe in Aubrey’s assertion that a life saved through postponing aging is the same as a life saved by stopping someone from dying in a road traffic accident.

I’m not a bioconservative, I’m up for enhancements as and when they come along as positive byproducts of medical research although I’ll pick and choose as I go. I’m just not a rampant transhumanist. My approach is to stay involved and encourage other people to be involved in the shaping of technologies as they are being conceived . In the end I don’t think either the bioconservatives or the transhumanists will get their way.

And that’s why the best talk at the conference for me was Peter Schwartz of GBN. Peter didn’t go for the usual academic approach of ‘giving a paper’. Instead he told us he was from the year 2050, didn’t he look good for his age (104), and that he was going to tell us was what happened after the conference. This gave him a chance to talk through the various scenarios he imagines for human enhancement as if they’d happened. And the most interesting thing about this is something that every other speaker missed. They do all happen. There’s never one path for history, different people do things in different ways. Things evolve, they don’t just materialise. We work out a way to survive in a complex world that’s not always the best way or the worst, but we muddle through.

And that’s the way I’d like human enhancement to develop and the way I think it will. By contrast John Harris’s approach was universal, he argued that the transhumanists were right and that we should shift all our research priorities to follow. I just don’t think the world should — or does — work like that.

So there you go. After a year and a half working on the issue, reading lots of books and articles, meeting many of the characters involved and even editing a book on the subject, I can safely say I’m not a transhumanist or a bioconservative.

And by the way, the average life expectancy of someone who is immortal (ie does not age) is apparently around about 1,100 years because even if you eliminate ageing there are still plenty of other ways to die. There’s a cheery thought.

After the Canadian Party

Canadian politics is interesting at the moment. No, really it is. It’s uncertain whether the recently elected minority Conservative Government will last more than a few months and the Liberal Party have just set out to find a new leader as Paul Martin resigned at the weekend. Everything is in flux, so there are lots of debates and scandals for the media to follow, but I’ve been here talking about why none of this really matters because beneath the surface, democracy itself is in trouble.

It follows on from the work Tom and I did about the decline of political parties for the FT and I’ve also been talking about the recent Power Inquiry in the UK. More than one person here has said they think Canada needs its own Power Inquiry as the problems are very similar. My line has been that it’s time to look outside formal politics for ways to revitalise democracy. I’m looking for examples of Do-it-yourself Democracy and I’m not having any trouble finding some fascinating projects.

What I’ve been saying tends to split people in a similar way to the UK. Politicians get defensive while everybody else says yes, they’re much more likely to get involved in politics outside of voting or joining a party and they’d love to know more about how to do this effectively.

I recorded an interview about all this for The Current, CBC’s flagship current affairs program with Anna Maria Tremonti which will go out tomorrow at 08.30 EST and be available on the web afterwards.

Update: the interview is archived here (scroll down to part three).

Where do you come from?

James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds (one of my favourite books of recent years) has an interesting piece in the Guardian about ownership of companies. Following the hoo-ha about foreign ownership of US ports and successive attempts by foreign investors to buy the London Stock Exchange, it’s very topical. I have to admit, I’m with James on this one. I’ve never really seen why it matters what country a company comes from. Surely it’s much more important to look at their values and track-record instead.

Pro-Ams in Time Magazine

The always brilliant Steven Johnson links to a discussion he took part in about the future for Time Magazine called ‘Around the Corner’. One of the ideas that comes up is The Pro-Am Revolution that Charlie and I wrote back in 2004. When they’re talking about the internet Mark Cuban says:

“In a world where there are unlimited choices, it makes it harder to gain an audience. And so what’s happening is that in the magic middle, the pro-am world, it becomes a struggle to differentiate between what’s a labor of love and what’s a business.”

You can also hear an MP3 of Steven talking about pro-ams here.

Don’t eat marshmallows too quickly

There was a long-term study started at Stanford in the 1960s where the researchers put hungry four year olds in a room with a marshmallow on a table and told them not to eat it. They were told that if they didn’t eat it, when the researcher came back from running an errand they would get two marshmallows.

Some of the kids ate the marshmallow as soon as the adult left the room. Some thought about it for a while and then ate the marshmallow and others (about a third) waited until the researcher returned and got the two marshmallows. So far, so predictable.

But the researchers followed the children and years later checked up on how they were doing. The group that waited for the two marshmallows had more successful marriages, higher incomes, greater career satisfaction, better health, and — according to the study — more fulfilling lives.

Apparently it’s all about your ability to control your impulses, something that Julian Savulescu is saying at the conference here in Oxford could be an important aspect of human enhancement.

More about the marshmallow experiment here.

Tomorrow’s People

I’m at a conference in Oxford called Tomorrow’s people: the challenges of technologies for life extension and enhancement. Everybody here has had a copy of the Better Humans? book that James and I edited. Sitting in the main lecture theatre with 200 copies of your work being leafed through by some of the world’s leading thinkers and scientists is a bit scary.

You can see all the sessions being webcast here and get involved in a parallel online forum here.

A brief history of an ‘-ism’

Last Thursday I dropped in on the launch of a report I helped put together called Disablist Britain. It was hosted by Scope and DAA and featured the new(ish) Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton as keynote speaker. BBC News Online covered the launch here.

It was strange to see what we’ve helped to pull off. As a tiny part of a network of other organisations and people, I realised I’ve helped change the language and intentions of the Government.

Two years ago we published Disablism, deliberately setting out to get policy makers and politicians using the word and recognise that disabled people are the victims of prejudice as insidious and excluding as racism or sexism.

Taking our inspiration from the disability rights movement, we defined disablism as:

‘discriminatory, oppressive or abusive behaviour arising from the belief that disabled people are inferior to others.’

David Blunkett was the man in charge then and he was sceptical. Tom Shakespeare also took issue with it in an article for the BBC, but in the main, the pamphlet was very well recieved.

Just a few months later Andrew Smith was in charge and used the word freely, agreeing with much of what we’d said in the pamphlet. Behind the scenes in Whitehall a group of very bright and committed civil servants were using our ideas and support to push forward a Strategy Unit report called ‘Improving the life chances of disabled people’. Andrew Smith didn’t last long in the job but the work carried on in his absence.

Last Thursday John Hutton could have been reading from the introduction of Disablism. The issue of course will be in the implementation and the mainstreaming of the attitudes we’ve begun to instill in Government. I also don’t think he’s ‘got’ how differently work is defined by many disabled people and what that means for a Labour Government obsessed by ‘hard working families’.

I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from working with people from the disability rights movement. I found it incredibly hard to begin with. They didn’t trust me or Demos and probably with good reason. They’d been abused, screwed around and ignored for a very long time.

I often find it hard to explain what Demos does in those situations. But I think we help to shape the story of policy, working with all the principal actors and helping them to develop a shared language for next steps. I describe it using Peter Gallison’s idea of trading zones where change happens when people with different viewpoints and expertise come together as equals. Shiv Visvanathan calls it cognitive justice.

When I first met Katie Caryer, it was the first time I’d had a conversation with someone who uses a communicator. She shattered all my preconceptions. Young, bright, entrepreneurial, feisty and with a very clear set of ideas about how things should change. I knew from that moment that disabled people had a heck of a lot to teach policy makers. A few months later and Katie’s story was the obvious place to start when I was writing Disablism.

I’m not sure what next. While not everything is heading in the right direction, other people like the Disability Rights Commission seem to be doing a good job of stimulating discussion about disablism. Scope’s own advertising campaign about disablism has had quite an effect. And movie’s like Murderball are shattering peoples’ preconceptions about disabled people. I’ll stay involved and watch with interest as things change — I hope for the better for disabled people.

POWER to the people

The POWER inquiry was launched last week and got a heck of a lot of coverage. I went along to the drinks bash having read the executive summary and I’ve now had a chance to read the whole report. It took a while but was worth it. I like their direct style of writing and I certainly like their diagnosis of the problem.

The generally warm response the report has received is very different to a couple of years ago when Tom and I wrote about the decline of political parties in our FT Magazine piece called ‘Party Poopers’, and before that when Tom wrote It’s Democracy Stupid and people didn’t really get what he was talking about.

Our FT piece prompted John Prescott to call us Mekons on the Today programme, saying we were out of touch with what was really going on. He argued that Labour party membership figures were climbing again and that our assertion of the problem of falling trust in political parties was overblown.

John’s been a bit quiet in the follow up to the POWER inquiry.

The most interesting criticisms of the inquiry I’ve seen come from the ever-excellent David Wilcox. He’s decided it was all a bit top-down and I think I agree but I still think they’ve performed a valuable role by raising awareness of the problem.

My overall feeling is that the POWER inquiry’s analysis fits with my experience of the current state of democracy in the UK and although I think their prescription is a bit limited, I’m glad they’ve got a proper conversation going.

The question that I’m now turning to is what comes next. I think we need to accept that political parties are never going to be as dynamic and vibrant as they were in the 1950s and 60s and that voting is only a part of democratic life. As Paul Ginsborg points out, “we will perhaps vote (an activity of some three minutes) 12 times at a national level and the same number at a local one — some 72 minutes in all, perhaps one-third of the television viewing we do daily.”

What I’m interested in is people who are taking democracy into their own hands. People who are delivering democratic outcomes outside of formal politics by either taking decisions or delivering services themselves. Hopefully it’s going to turn into a long-term project for me — watch this space.

Some POWER inquiry links:

  • The legends at MySociety have already produced a version of the executive summary of the report that you can comment on.
  • The good folk at Make My Vote Count have set up a linkdump of all the UK coverage the report has recieved last week.

More on ‘Better Humans?’

There’s been more coverage and debate about our Better Humans? book this week.

In the Guardian, Dylan Evans called for the creation of new equivalents to the ‘savage reservations’ in ‘Brave New World’, where ‘freed from the oppressive technologies that regulate life in the World State, the inhabitants develop individuality, independent thinking and initiative.’

In the FT (registration required), Richard Tomkins speculated on the drawbacks of eternal life.

I also noticed that the book has been reviewed on — we get 3 out of 5. Not bad I suppose, but that is from a sample of one reviewer.

But the most interesting coverage for me was Radio 4’s Moral Maze because of the depth it got into about the issues. Interviewees included John Harris who will be giving a series of lectures at the Oxford Forum on human enhancement in a couple of weeks time and the Cyborg himself — Kevin Warwick.

Kevin was less gung ho than I’ve heard him being before, warning against military involvement in cybernetics and enhancement. His prediction for the invention of mind to mind communication though was : “within a decade”.

Melanie Philips took a conservative view of genetic selection, likening it to eugenics — an argument made in the collection by Rachel Hurst. She questioned John Harris pretty aggressively on the issue. Steven Rose agreed with Melanie (unusually) but Claire Fox couldn’t handle it describing the idea that deaf parents might prefer to have deaf children as abhorrent.

I’m beginning to look forward to the conference in Oxford. Things are warming up nicely.