In this week’s Sunday NYT Magazine, a discussion was recorded about the future of technology. One of my favorite writers, Sid Mukerjee, discussed chronic disease. In that discussion, he touched on a notion of immortality that I have been pondering for some time.
Here is what he said, and after is what I say in response.
MUKHERJEE: “In terms of longevity, the diseases that are most likely to kill us are neurological diseases and heart disease and cancer. In some other countries, there is tuberculosis and malaria and other infectious diseases, but here it’s the chronic diseases that dominate. There are three ways to think about these chronic diseases. One is the disease-specific way. So, you attack Alzheimer’s as Alzheimer’s; you attack cancer as cancer. The second one is that you forget about the disease-specific manners of attacking diseases and you attack longevity or aging reversal in general. You change diet, change genes, change whatever else — we might call them “trans factors,” which would simply override the “cis factors” that existed for individual diseases. And the third option is some combination of that and some digital form of immortality, which is that you record yourself forever, that you clone yourself and somehow pass along that recording. Which is to say that the body is just a repository of memories, images, times. And as a repository, there’s nothing special about it. The body per se, the mortal coil, is just a coil.”
This is the first time I have heard a major thinker put immortality into this context. And yet – its so obvious to do so!
– wouldn’t it be fair to say that every autobiography ever written would be a sincere attempt by the writer to achieve some form of immortality?
– in like manner, isn’t the task of the biographer, in part, to immortalize their subject?
– more broadly, how do societies around the world remember their ancestors? Their memories are their attempts to allow ancestors to live forever!
This point is nicely illustrated by the Irish culture. In my work on the History of Ireland, the centrality of “oral tradition” was crystal clear. I came continually across how the Irish told stories to revere their ancestors. The Irish would distill their ancestors into a wide variety of stories that helped the present generation understand the past.
So, by extrapolation from this point (which is obvious), can this be asked: “Can I be immortalized digitally?
Digital storage costs have plummeted. Methods of organizing and tagging video and audio recordings are now commonplace. Search engines are commonplace. Pattern recognition combined with search is exploding.
So what will prevent me in the future from immortalizing myself digitally? What prevents me from storing who I am, what I did, what I learned, where I have been, what I have experienced, who I knew, who my ancestors were, who my children and grandchildren were, etc etc?
Perhaps the answer is: nothing. Nothing prevents me from being digitally immortal.