Silicon Valley is coming for death. But it’s looking in the wrong place.
After disrupting the way we love, communicate, travel, work, and even eat, technologists believe they can solve the ultimate problem. Perennially youthful Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan announced last year a $3 billion initiative to obliterate human disease. Among his many crusades, Paypal co-founder and Trump advisor Peter Thiel aims to end mortality. (“Basically, I’m against it,” he has said.) Alphabet has a whole company devoted to curing this most intractable of inconveniences.
And they aren’t necessarily crazy to try. Since the 19th century, average life expectancies have risen for everyone (though not at equal rates) thanks to advances in science and technology. But over the past two decades, deaths attributed to inequality, isolation, and addiction have risen for both men and women without a college education in the US. In particular, as Princeton economists revealed today, white middle-aged men with a high school education or less, hit disproportionately by the Great Recession, are dying of despair. Well-heeled techies obsessed with life extension have little to say about these problems, suggesting a grim blind spot: Are they really trying to extend everyone’s lives? Or just those of people already doing great?
Solving these problems is hard, and made harder by the fact that the real fixes for longevity don’t have the glamour of digitally enabled immortality. “It turns out that technologies which extend, augment or otherwise improve human life are already here!” writes sci-fi author and futurist Paul Graham Raven in a take-down of what he calls “Retweet Transhumanism.” “You may have heard of some of them: clean water; urban sanitation; smokeless cooking facilities; free access to healthcare; a guaranteed minimum income; a good, free education.”
Silicon Valley sells the world the idea that it wants to make things better. It exists, the rhetoric goes, not just to make products but to make progress. If that’s the case, it’s focusing on the wrong things.
“It’s distressing sometimes to see the amount of effort—not just human effort but also the rhetoric—to develop stuff that turns out to be apps or toys for rich people,” says SUNY Polytechnic Institute historian Andrew Russell, an outspoken critic of the cult of innovation . “Saying ‘We’re innovating and that is by default making a world a better place,’ and then patting yourself on the back and getting in your Tesla and driving to your seaside ranch is missing the point.”
The harm here isn’t just that Silicon Valley is trying to solve the wrong problem, which wastes brainpower and resources. The focus on innovating away death sets a cultural tone that directs attention from answers that might actually help, like infrastructure or education. Russell says kids deciding what they want to be when they grow up aspire to become like the titans in Silicon Valley—risking that they’ll grow up wanting to solve the wrong problems.
‘What would it mean to design against despair or isolation or loneliness?’
As surgeon and author Atul Gawande explains in Being Mortal, funding improvements in palliative care—making people in extreme pain or at the end of their life more comfortable—would much more meaningfully address the problem of death. You make death less terrible and inevitable by making life less painful. Silicon Valley’s simplistic life extension arithmetic—you improve life by adding more years—glosses over the complicated social forces eroding or hampering the quality of life for so many people.
“What would it mean to design against despair or isolation or loneliness?” asks Russell. “I have to think that just making another social media messaging platform doesn’t get us there.”
If the titans of Mountain View and Palo Alto are serious about fixing the real problems in the world, they can’t just start a new company or make a new app. They should recognize their place as arbiters of culture and lead by example. A video game-style quest to end death may appeal to the techie imagination, but it doesn’t engage with real problems in the real world. Instead of chasing down death, Silicon Valley could try to help people whose lives are already in free fall.