Saturday, May 10, 2014

Immortality and its seasons

I have a new favorite vampire movie. One that nails everything that is cool and awesome about vampires.

Or at least all the things I find fascinating about biologically immortal beings.

What would it be like to live for centuries and keep your mental faculties? Would you use the time to take in all the world's art? Or not just observe, but also master an art form by devoting two or three lifetimes worth of practice and study? With that much accruing skill and the perspective of centuries, a person might be able to create works that surpasses everything that came before.

Or why not several arts, if we're talking hundreds of years? Or several fields of science and engineering and one of the humanities thrown in for context and good measure?

Today we're all specialists. We can know a decent amount about one field, but all most all of us quickly run into the upper limits of human memory, focus, and above all, time, when we try and go beyond that. There're damn good reasons for why there aren't many individuals who are physicist - medical doctor - cellist - mechanical engineers wandering around out there.

Then there's the tricky matter of feelings. You know, those experiential sensations rooted in our biological drives and body mapping, and which motivate us to do everything from getting out of bed to becoming a Nobel Laureate.

How would your emotions evolve absent the normal constraints of growth, maturation, and age-related decline? Could you still find meaningful engagement with the world and with other humans after a 120 years or more? Can your emotions adapt to an unnaturally long life, or they set to run a course of eighty or ninety years and then peter out? A truly long life could marked by episodic struggles to spark enough new passion to stay invested in not kicking off the mortal coil.

That's ground that the literature of vampires has covered. that immortality could have it's own seasons of investment and withdrawal, of passion and detachment.

But, to stand the issue on its head, what would happen if the mechanisms of desensitization and its bastard offspring, boredom and ennui, changed for the better over the long run? You could find yourself becoming even more engaged, more invested, and more emotionally involved with the world around you without the contextual pressures of a short life. Or from changes wrought in your brain as the years go by. Desensitization is, in the end, a biological mechanism that can not only be trained, but that sometimes goes disastrously off the rails in a clinical sense due to a genetic copying errors, neurological insults, or grievous chemical imbalances. For an immortal, desensitization might simply mellow out over the extreme long term. That could allow for a much greater cognitive control over what an individual finds boring, or how quickly, or even if, they lose interest in a topic, person, or pursuit.

Of course all of this inquiry on the effects of an unnaturally long life also raises a perfectly valid meta question: Why the fuck is Alex prating on about vampire of all things? Isn't this supposed to be an uber hip science fiction / history / technology / military affairs / Pacific Northwest blog?

How did urban fantasy leak into the mix?

Mostly because Ann Rice's Interview with a Vampire is one of the best science fiction novels I've read. Or at least its exploration of the psychology of immortality made it into a fantastic quasi SF novel that my futurist teenage self enjoyed on a strange genre-hopping level. It was, for me, the first real look at what the life of truly long lived, post-humans might look like, good and bad.

The new film, Only Lovers Left Alive, does it one better than Interview, with its deliberate and sustained intensity, and relatable characters. Characters who have made the most out of their ongoing existence, immersing themselves in the arts and sciences. In a way, Tilda Swinton's and Tom Hiddleston's Eve and Adam represent a kind of ideal for how biological immortals might cope with and make use of the lifetimes at their disposal - minus the heroin-like blood addiction, of course.

From everything I've read and researched over the past twenty years, biological immortality is most likely not beyond the reach of our species. It might require another generation or two to achieve, but in the end, aging derives from a finite number of causes, and we're presently pinpointing, narrowing down, and honing in on several of those.

Assuming we can deal with the limited memory capacity of the brain and aging-related changes in the wetware that mediates emotions, immortality and its consequences might not be bad things. Especially given the falling or already very low birth rates of industrial and post-industrial nations. Toward the best-case end of the scenario-spectrum, it might even mark the transition from childhood to adulthood for our species. The chance to make mistakes and acquire wisdom, then stick around to use it, might make up for the loss of our constant reinvention and re-exploration of the world each generation. That, or immortals might also be perpetual youth voyeurs.

Good or bad, biological immortality is not something I'm expecting to see in my lifetime. Which is kind of sad, because there are so many trends in human affairs that I'd like to stick around for, and see how they play out.

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