It is no mere coincidence that the Bay Area, the technology epicenter that we all know and love to critique, has one of the lowest rates of Christian belief in the country. However, that is not to say Silicon Valley is without religion. As the power of the Valley has grown, a new belief system has captivated its culture: salvation through technology. Without much fanfare, entrepreneurs have begun to see life itself as a hackable problem that is begging to be solved. This bold assembly includes Oracle founder and chairman Larry Ellison, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Paypal co-founder and investor Peter Thiel, and, of course, Elon Musk. This blog will provide a brief background of the biotech being researched and developed; but, will primarily focus on exploring the psychology of this unofficial club and the potential effects on society.
The movement towards anti-aging practices has already picked up steam in Silicon Valley and in Hollywood; often focused on anti-oxidant molecules that protect cells from natural decay. In the article Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever by Tad Friend, Hollywood elite have been buzzing about the molecule Glutathione, dubbing it “the God molecule.” Genetics Nobel-laureate Liz Blackburn debunks this obsession by stating “taken in excess it can muffle a number of bodily repair mechanisms, leading to liver and kidney problems.” Although we cannot put our faith in a single molecule to solve this age-old problem, perhaps we can turn to one of the lesson-known offshoots of tech conglomerate Alphabet.
In 2013, the parent company of Google founded the research start-up Calico, which treats aging as a simple disease that needs to be cured like Polio or AIDS. (Calico: Google’s New Project to Solve Death) This radical mindset is not uncommon to the company or the hacker community as a whole. In the book I read last December for Tech Trek, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, hacker culture is defined by curiosity and an insatiable desire to improve faults in a system. Google co-founder Larry Page is a part of the unique collective that view mortality as a fault in our body’s system, as a bug that needs to be corrected.
In addition to Calico, there are many medications that have been identified as potential anti-aging treatments. The Futurism article Disrupting the Reaper: Tech Titans’ Quest for Immortality Rages Forward by Jacob Banas, cites treatments such as Metformin, “a medication doctors currently prescribe to patients with diabetics, [which] may reduce DNA damage and help keep cells working normally.” In addition, there are encouraging early studies of a drug called tanespimycin, a cancer treatment that identifies and aides removing cells that no longer divide properly; an example of a drug that is not currently being applied to anti-aging, but whose science could pivot with the right motivation. Right now the research is focused on extending the possible human life-span; however, the tech gurus behind the movement are, in typical fashion, aiming much higher.
Individuals: The Iron Man / Rick Sanchez Complex
It is understandable that the culture of the uber-ambitious Silicon Valley is not quite the same as your hometown. To explore it further, there seems to be a commonly-held, but rarely-spoken, understanding that there is a new and unique belief system in the Bay Area. Oliver Staley, of the global business publication Quartz, says
“Traditional religion in the Bay Area is being replaced with another sort of faith, a belief in the power of technology and science to save humanity. It’s a creed that says poverty and disease are simply programming challenges yet to be solved, bad code to be debugged.”
Staley’s article How to talk about God in Silicon Valley, is eerily reminiscent of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s infamous mantra: “God is dead and we have killed him.” Ever-intelligent and ever-ambitious entrepreneurs have begun to tackle mortality as a literal challenge to solve themselves.
I present this mindset as the Iron Man/Rick Sanchez Complex (depending on your pop-culture preferences). For those who do not consume science fiction as piously as I do, Iron Man and Rick Sanchez are fictional characters graced with supreme intelligence, too much free time for scientific exploration, and a rare form of motivational narcissism. Perhaps I am over-stereotyping, but a select few Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are reaching this characterization; where no challenge is too difficult, no mountain too high to climb. With an insatiable desire to identify, improve, and reiterate our society’s biggest problems, it was only a matter of time before these aspiring individuals questioned death. After all, if they were able to reach immortality, they would have infinite time to correct infinite bugs.
Societal: The Altered Carbon Reality
One glaring side-effect of such research and development is the question of availability; assuming a breakthrough, how accessible with the treatment be? How much will it cost? Who will receive it? It is not so far-fetched to imagine that the answer will be limited, expensive, and only those who can afford it. A future where only the handsomely wealthy have access to the elixir of life presents a massive societal concern of inequality. In an even more obscure sci-fi reference, I will borrow one of the main themes of the Netflix original series Altered Carbon, to discuss the matter of life inequality on a societal level.
In the 2018 television show, (based on the 2002 novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan) there are two distinct classes of humans: those who can afford to have their consciousness implemented into identical clones of themselves when their bodies fail them, and those who cannot. Imagine the 1% being able to live forever and the rest of the population having to live under the natural conditions of mortality. This could represent the wealthy and powerful being able to maintain their wealth and power for centuries, or powerful world-leaders entrenching themselves in power beyond what is natural. Although I am not trying to argue Elon Musk would become tyrannical if he was able to live forever, there must be government regulation of this research if it were proven to be successful. The current practices of applying this technology towards Cancer and Diabetes patients should remain the focus.
This potential innovation could bring about an entirely new revolution of philosophical questioning, if we can live forever, or just a couple centuries, should we? How will we spend our time? What will such a civilization value? Include other advances such as Artificial Intelligence and the concept of The Singularity, and the discussion becomes only more convoluted. New frontiers always garner anticipation and excitement, but this iteration requires much more consideration before we make it a reality.