Home / Silicon Valley / Why Silicon Valley wants to thwart the grim reaper | John Naughton | Opinion

Why Silicon Valley wants to thwart the grim reaper | John Naughton | Opinion

‘In this world,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” This proposition doesn’t cut much ice in Silicon Valley, where they take a poor view of paying taxes. What’s interesting is that they are also coming to the view that perhaps death is optional too, at least for the very rich.

You think I jest? Well, meet Bill Maris, the founder and former CEO of Google Ventures, the investment arm of Alphabet, Google’s owners. Three years ago, Maris decided to create a company that will “solve” death. He pitched the idea to Google’s co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page and, according to a lovely piece by Tad Friend in the New Yorker, Brin, who has a gene variant that predisposes him to Parkinson’s disease, loved the idea and Page declared that Google should do it.

Thus was born Calico, which is short for the California Life Company, in 2013. It started with a billion dollars in the bank and is “extremely secretive”. “All that’s known,” Friend writes, “is that it’s tracking 1,000 mice from birth to death to try to determine ‘biomarkers’ of ageing – biochemical substances whose levels predict morbidity; that it has a colony of naked mole rats, which live for 30 years and are amazingly ugly; and that it has invested in drugs that may prove helpful with diabetes and Alzheimer’s.”

Calico is a typical product of the reality distortion field that is Silicon Valley. It’s a salutary illustration of how sudden and unimaginable wealth can warp minds. There are people in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Cupertino who truly believe they are living in the Florence of Renaissance 2.0. Their religion is what Neil Postman called Technopoly and their prevailing mindset is what the technology critic Evgeny Morozov describes as “solutionism”, the belief that all problems have technological solutions.

It turns out that death is now perceived as just such a “problem”. Friend quotes a hedge-fund manager waxing lyrical on this. “I have the idea,” he burbles, “that ageing is plastic, that it’s encoded. If something is encoded, you can crack the code. If you can crack the code, you can hack the code!” Cue loud applause from the elite audience gathered in a Californian drawing room to discuss the secrets of longevity.

That’s not to say that longevity isn’t important or relevant. In most societies, people are living longer and that’s now giving rise to acute social, psychological and economic stress. Just ask anyone who works in the NHS. Dementia and Parkinson’s disease are laying waste to an increasing number of human minds, while heart disease, cancer and diabetes are making our bodies progressively enfeebled. We live longer but our closing years can be miserable, lonely and largely pointless.

So it’s worth pouring resources into understanding and eventually curing these diseases. But the point of that is not to abolish death but to make the natural process of ageing more tolerable towards the end. And that’s what the majority of scientists and doctors are trying to achieve. They want us to have healthier lives and “compressed morbidity”, which is a polite term for a quick and painless death at the end.

The Silicon Valley crowd want something else, though: they seek to make death optional. And they think it can be done. After all, as some wag put it decades ago: “Death is nature’s way of telling you you’re fired.” Once we have mated and brought up some children, evolution regards us as disposable, past our sell-by date. So it has arranged that somewhere in our DNA are genes that will progressively trigger ageing processes, eventually causing our bodies to fail. To computer people, DNA is just code and code can always be hacked. So all we have to do is find the offending genes, edit them using Crispr and – bingo! – immortality beckons.

You have to marvel at the one-dimensionality of minds that can think like this. Apart from anything else, death is what gives meaning to life. It’s also the process that ensures human vitality: young people arrive with ideas that their elders never had and death makes room for them to grow, thrive and die in their turn. That’s why elite US universities, which do not have a retirement age for tenured professors, are increasingly desperate to find ways to incentivise them to quit.

Given that Silicon Valley billionaires are smart, they must know all this. So could it be that what underpins this strange new obsession with ensuring immortality is something more straightforward? Could it be that they all became wealthy at such a young age? So they have these unimaginable riches and have suddenly realised that they don’t have an infinite time to enjoy them. One’s heart bleeds for the poor lambs. Not.


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