Reviewed by Annalee Newitz
Half cultural prognostication and half science journalism, David Ewing Duncan's TED Books longread When I'm 64 explores whether medicine will one day make it possible for us to live forever -- and what would happen to human society if we did. It's a hotly debated topic, and Duncan takes his time tackling every aspect of it in this lengthy essay. Engaging and often fun, the book takes us from the labs where scientists are exploring the genes that control aging, to brain-computer interface demonstrations where paralyzed people are learning to control artificial limbs with their minds. Whether we do it with biology or machines, it's likely that humans will artificially enhance our longevity at some point. Though the prospect of doubling our life expectancy seems crazy to some, Duncan argues it's not entirely implausible. Especially given how far we've come over the past century.
Still, ethical questions plague the project. While researching his book, Duncan ran a survey online and in his lectures where he asked people if they would like to live beyond the standard 80 years. Most said no, though a significant minority said they wouldn't mind living to be 120 or 164. Those yearning to be immortal represented less than one percent of respondents. Many people felt that living longer than 80 years would mean depleting the Earth's resources even more quickly than we already are. Others worried that young people would have no chance at getting good jobs, since their elders could keep working for decades longer. Some simply felt that living for a long time would be depressing and boring.
Several sections of the book are devoted to Duncan's quest to understand how it would change humanity if we could live much longer than we do now. From the rational world of tissue engineering labs where researchers hope to use 3D printers to make healthy, new organs, he ventures into Singularity University where would-be immortals from Silicon Valley listen eagerly to longevity advocate Aubrey De Gray's prediction that the first person who will live to be 1,000 has already been born. These true believers imagine that science will solve our energy problems and economic difficulties long before overpopulation due to immortality becomes a planet-destroying problem.
As if acknowledging the mostly unscientific nature of the longevity project, Duncan explores its implications by discussing mythology and science fiction about immortality. We may not know what role telomeres play in aging, but we certainly know that The Matrix and Terminator warn against using technology to enhance humans. Given the speculative nature of his topic, Duncan's forays into fiction make a lot of sense, and help provide a cultural frame for debates over longevity enhancement.
Here on Download the Universe, we often discuss how a particular e-book makes use of the medium, whether with enhanced images, video, or even just a good set of links out to more sources. But with When I'm 164, I'd like to talk about a stylistic quirk of e-books that has nothing to do with format: the fact that it's become standard practice for online writing to include a lot of first-person, confessional storytelling.
Should online writing always be personal? Certainly it's refreshing that online writers try to avoid some of the print media's fake objectivity. But should that always mean authors need to personalize their subjects?
Like a lot of longreads online, Duncan's book veers into the personal. He delves into his sadness at his parents' impending deaths, interviews both them and one of his sons about their views on life extension, and ultimately concludes the book by declaring that he's emotionally torn by the idea of living forever. In some ways, the climax of the book is Duncan's final declaration of ambivalence about scientifically enhanced longevity. I think this personal touch works in some ways -- it helps to draw the reader in, and acknowledges the highly personal responses that many people have to this area of research.
But it often reads as cheesy and unnecessary, as if Duncan were just going through the motions of making his online writing more personal than print. Of course it's easy to sympathize with his sadness at a parent's decline, but there is nothing particularly insightful or unusual to Duncan's first-person stories about these issues. He paints the scientists and thinkers he's consulted for this book in far more interesting detail than he paints himself. The first person bits just weren't necessary to make this story compelling.
Duncan is at his best when coaxing out intriguing speculations from scientists, engineers and philosophers about their views on life extension. Duncan's observations of their work form the meat of this extremely gripping tale about one possible future -- of enhanced longevity -- that could arise from contemporary medical science.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9.com, and the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction (coming in May 2013 from Doubleday).