Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Fountain of Youth 10: Attitudes toward Age, Ageing and the Elderly

Report: many elderly people live in isolation. Image © Alamy. Image Source: Daily Mail.

There's been a lot of hype in some circles about preserving youth and increasing our lifespans - often among Boomer futurists who look forward to the Singularity.  One can't really blame the Boomers for pouring money into anti-ageing research and cures for diseases that kill the elderly.  They were always a generation defined by their youth.  Now many of them seek to prolong that youth for as long as possible.  This '50 is the new 30' credo among the so-called 'Zoomers' and 'Quintastics' seeks to redefine ageing as zippy, hip and current.  Take no prisoners.  Whatever it takes.

SENS enthusiast Dr. Aubrey de Grey has argued against people (quoted on the Singularity and Futurism blog here) who oppose his attempt to stop the ageing process.  De Grey is contending with claims that anti-ageing techniques will lead to overpopulation, or that only the rich will be able to afford anti-ageing treatments.  He responds:
I have bitten my tongue and given earnest, sympathetic answers here to the many concerns I encounter when the prospect of defeating aging is raised - but I don't pretend that it has been easy to do so. I make no secret, here or elsewhere, that I have a low opinion of the reasons people give for defending aging - and an even lower opinion of the fear that people seem to have of thinking about the topic even faintly rationally. I think that apologists for aging are in a "pro-aging trance" - that they are victims of a mutually-maintained collective hypnosis on the topic, a flight from normal rationality that resembles nothing so much as the behaviour of participants in a stage hypnotist show. When I'm feeling charitable I remind myself that this is a relatively defensible coping strategy for putting the horror of aging out of our minds and getting on with our miserably short lives free of a preoccupation with how they will end. But let's remember that this logic makes sense only so long as aging really is inevitable for the foreseeable future. Today, now that we're at last able to embark on the rational design of strategies that may truly defeat aging - strategies that may succeed within the lifetimes of many people alive today - that attitude is an enormous part of the problem.
Even if you don't believe that hubris like this attracts lightning bolts from the sky, one could argue that ageing is part of the hard-wiring of humanity and of other organisms on this planet for a reason.  Why would we think that overturning that order is 'natural,' or the 'end goal' of our science and medicine?  We actually do not know what it would mean to become immortal, although our religions and myths abound with speculation about it.  Immortality is the epic quest of our species. But even the most optimistic religious visions declare that once we become immortal, we are no longer humanIt may even be the case that we need not go as far as that.  Perhaps once we pass the age of 140 we can no longer be defined as human.  Has de Grey considered what it would mean to take us down this path to inhumanity?  Doing so will change everything we have ever known about ourselves.

What we are really talking about here is a philosophical turn.  This is mature adults looking at turning 70 with the mentality of 20 year olds.  Along those lines, the drug companies now market 'cures' for ailments that are associated with ageing.  In the United States, they appear on advertisements with euphemistic acronyms, as if even saying the true names of these afflictions out loud will bring the scythe-bearer. Here are some of many that I've noticed:

- 'Low T.' - Low testosterone in men aged over 45, amended through testosterone supplements (Solvay Pharmaceuticals)
- P.A.D. - Peripheral Artery Disease, treated by the drug Plavix (Bristol-Myers Squibb/Sanofi Pharmaceuticals)
- R.A. - Rheumatoid Arthritis, treated by the drug Enbrel
- E.D. - Erectile Dysfunction, treated by the drugs Viagra (Pfizer Inc.) and Cialis (Eli Lilly)
- High L.D.L. and Low H.D.L. - High 'bad' cholesterol treated by the drug Lipitor (Pfizer Inc.)
- H.R.T. - Hormone Replacement Therapy
- Afib. and T.I.A. - Atrial Fibrillation and Transient Ischemic Attack, treated by drugs from Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
- C.O.P.D. - Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease treated by the drug Spiriva (Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, Inc./Pfizer Inc.)

Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals will even send you a pop-up book which lets you pull a tab so you can see how a blod clot will travel to your brain and kill you (unless you buy their drug, presumably).

Some argue that one way to live longer is to decrease the number of calories consumed per day to a magic number of around 1300.  Between the human growth hormone injections, drinking colostrum (one of the most disgusting anti-ageing treatments I think I've ever heard of), and plastic surgery, it's hard to discern much philosophizing or introspection on what it means to grow old.  Ageing used to be synonymous with acquiring wisdom.  Now it is synonymous with ploughing maturity into the ground, along with every grey hair and unwanted wrinkle.

The whole mentality that pushes for something like SENS does not address the fact that Boomers are trying to achieve a paradox.  They are trying to grow old without growing old.  Boomers do not recognize that when they redefined politics and culture in 1968 what they actually did was reorder society in terms of horizontal alignments (class, age, gender).  To be fair to them, this reordering had been going on for almost two hundred years before they took their shot at it.  1968 marked the culmination of changes initiated by the French Revolutionary slogans, liberty, equality and fraternity.  These ideas saw the rise of secular modernism.  They also destroyed traditional vertical alignments (family and hierarchical social systems which lauded values such as faith, duty and honour).  These pre-modern and early modern values once protected elderly people.  As Boomers fund SENS and other anti-ageing strategies, they give little thought to how those younger than them perceive their quest for eternal youth.  Boomer thinkers presumably imagine that there will be enough of their own cohort left to form a critical mass so that they may continue to shape popular culture and attitudes in their favour.  But there are no guarantees that this strategy will work.

One need only scan non-Boomer generational sites, or speak to people who remember World War II (members of the so-called 'Silent,' 'Traditional' or 'Beat' generation), to realize that the Baby Boomers are not universally loved by those older and younger than them.  Research on extending lifespans marches side-by-side with Generation X's growing concern of how to foot the bill for medical care and government-run pensions for an exploding elderly population. Why should Generations X, Y, and Z shoulder the burden of huge government debts and social security plans from which they themselves are unlikely to benefit?  In rapidly modernizing developing countries, the population ratio tips toward youth.  Why should globalization tend in the long run toward benefiting a beleagured elderly population in the western nations?

Well beyond generation wars over pension funding, there is a serious problem with how the elderly are already viewed in developed countries.  Fast-paced societies that are focussed on technological innovation, intoxicated by radical scientific discoveries, and driven by burgeoning youth culture markets are not inclined to cater to a growing aged population.   Hence, the elderly are no longer treated with concern or respect.  This issue should be addressed now, before we even go to the lab and talk about afflictions like 'Low T.'  'Elder abuse' is real. The Daily Mail recently reported (here) that many elderly people are isolated, lonely, even shunned by a glitzy, tech-engorged culture:
At least 40,000 elderly people in care homes in England are living in 'social isolation', a new survey has revealed. And as many as 13,000 are completely 'without kith or kin' and receive no letters, calls or visits at all, says the Relatives and Residents Association. The charity's Government-funded research gathered results from 686 of the 10,000 homes in England. Judy Downey of the R&RA said the situation was 'desperately sad', and told the BBC: 'We're talking about people who, largely, have dementia. They've lost so much already - they've lost their homes, their families, often their memory. No-one to help stimulate it or remind them of who they were or what they did. No-one who knows their history. Some people have never had families, some people have outlived them. Some people may well have families, but their children are on other continents and although they do care about them, they can't possibly be in touch with them.'
That last point is tremendously important.  This is not just about values.  It's about logistics. How can ageing family members be protected when their children live and work several thousand miles away?  There are attempts to change attitudes, so that being old is not equated with being 'sick' and 'isolated' and 'needy' (see a national Austrian report here).  But treatment of the elderly won't be solved simply by declaring '80 is the new 30.'  In conquering the mysteries of ageing, the Boomers will have to reappraise the strict horizontal loyalties to class, generation and gender which empowered them in their youths.  As a result, the Singularity, sparked in 2020 or 2030, may see an unexpected return to vertical social alignments and hierarchies.

See all my posts on the Fountain of Youth.


  1. I certainly have no great sympathy for the boomers (especially my own father), but I don't need to even be a boomer or old (I'm 37) to be more than slightly terrified of death myself.

    Religion adresses the issue of what comes after death, and that is comforting, but does not avoid the issue of death itself.

    That of course does not undermine the issue that the longer the boomers live, the more Gen X will have to pay.

    Until, of course, they are all gone and it's our turn.

  2. I saw a show about French Canadian history where a wise matriarch in a village reportedly said on her deathbed: "Death is terrible, but you have to go through it." In a way I found that remark comforting, that she saw death just like any other trial one confronts in life - it was still part of life. And being religious, she saw it as something one goes 'through.'

    Aside from that, in this post, I was wondering if that same fear will inspire a huge shift of values in about 10-15 years. The Boomers are such a dominant force in the developed world that their general political and philosphical views (a kind of left-wing hyperconsumer captialism, laced with a dash of French and eastern philosophies) have dominated the west since the mid-1960s. Will the threat of prolonged old age in isolation, or the fear of death, be the only things that could shake them out of their collective egocentrism?

    Generation X has already waited 25 years for some acknowledgement, some move toward conciliation so that they could work with their predecessors. Instead, they were hit with a barrage of negative publicity. As far as I can see, Boomers have made an attempt to skip over Gen X and co-opt Generation Y; but it didn't take long for that to fall by the wayside when the 2008 recession kicked in. Then the anti-Millennial articles started appearing - about the plugged-in kids being flawed, egocentric, entitled, and cut off from their own humanity (and hence deserving of being laid off). It's coverage not so different from the kind of 'slacker' smears that labeled Gen X in the early-mid 90s' recession.

    I should add that it's wrong to talk in generalized terms about any group of people, and that individuals are one thing, and social labels are another. But that's the point.

    We're talking about a period when group labels are rampant. And the Boomers acquired a lot of capital by trading in labels - labeling themselves, labeling others, hyping 'branding' into a high social science. The use of modern group labelling is one of the most dangerous trends over the past 150 years. It's a social gambit that enables the labelers to cut out their own flaws, disassociate themselves from those flaws, and project them onto another group. Then, in criticizing the labeled group, they thereby eradicate uncomfortable truths about themselves. In far more evil ways, you can see labeling used during the Boer War, WWI, and of course WWII.

    These superficial power bids based on label-trading around class, gender, generation, politics have got to stop. While I am criticizing the Boomers in what looks like their own collective terms thrown back at them, my real concern is explaining what is actually happening; what values are being pushed forward, and what the real outcomes of those values are. Everywhere, I see weird paradoxes where people say one thing and do another. Case in point - anti-ageing treatments skyrocket while elder abuse runs rampant. Why would people obsessed with youth and anti-ageing enable mistreatment or permit neglect of their own elderly parents? Would they not see that as they themselves age, that kind of logic would come back to haunt them, as would the decades they've spent criticizing their successors?

    And my point was this - if that cognitive dissonance, combined with the actual threat of old age actually gets through to the Boomers - will they suddenly engage in an about-face and change their attitudes? Will they have a 'late bloomer revolution' and overturn everything they believed in in 1968, and suddenly start emphasizing the need to renew traditional and conservative social hierarchies?