I read recently in The Week about a new scientific breakthrough where scientists “made the skin cells of a 53-year-old woman look and behave like those of a 23-year-old.” According to the article, this process “could be used to shave decades off organ cells.” Another technology to lengthen lifespan, along with Silicon valley pipedreams of bionic brains and cryonic freezing. Recently I read about one space entrepreneur’s continued fascination with going to Mars. He said recently that he wants to die on Mars.
I wonder if any of these tech geniuses have really thought about what it would mean to human society if we really had a way to live to be 200. There are already far too many precious human beings on earth, many of them extremely poor. Do we need them all to double their lifespans when there is even now not enough food? And who among us would actually have access to this probably extremely expensive anti-aging technology? Could it possibly be the ultra-wealthy, who are already becoming bored with their superyachts and their castles? Just what we need, a class of plutocrats staying young and beautiful on their floating castles while the rest of the world suffers and starves.
Pardon my cynicism, but it seems to me that once again our capacity for new technologies and gadgets is far outstripping our apparent inability to change the essential inequities of human behavior, which have persisted as a depressing constant for millenia without much apparent improvement. Do the entrepreneurial wizards who hog the headlines really think that things would be any different on Mars? I classify the Metaverse in the same category. Do proponents of the Metaverse really think that while life on the real earth is replete with greed, violence, and injustice, that in the Metaverse it will magically be different, like some kind of virtual reality Disneyland?
I was a kid when the first Disneyland opened in Southern California, just a half hour from my house. I loved the rides, the fantasy, the squeaky clean streets of an imagined small town America where nothing bad happened and everyone was happy. I was too young to understand what a whitewashed artifice it all was. Everyone still loves Mickey Mouse, with his high-pitched anodyne voice, but Mickey Mouse doesn’t run the world. He doesn’t even live in it. We do, and the darkness that continues to sweep the globe with ever-increasing intensity doesn’t care about Mickey Mouse. It only cares about wealth, privilege, and power. In the real world, Mickey Mouse is just another corporate brand to generate income for shareholders.
I loved science fiction when I was a kid. Robert Heinlein, Clifford D. Simak, and Theodore Sturgeon were my heroes, and every summer I took home a big stack of sci-fci books from the library and devoured them. Mars was a central venue of those classic early sci-fi dramas. “Grock”—a neologism coined by Robert Heinlein in his novel Stranger in a Strange Land–was, in his imagining, a term used by hyper-intelligent Martians to mean something like “directly intuit” or “telepathically understand.” It’s part of our language still—ever since, during the hippie days, we all “grocked” everything while stoned. Or so we thought.
So why can’t the best and brightest entrepreneurs and scientists grock that their endless gadgeteering will get us nowhere until we solve the fundamental inequities of power and privilege and learn to live in harmony? We think of ourselves—especially here in America—of living in an advanced, modern society, but since we are judging ourselves solely by our technological prowess and not by our ability to grock the natural world and the interconnectedness of everything and every creature in it, we may be tragically wrong. The Aborigines of Australia, whose intact culture has survived for 40,000 years, or the Hopi of our American Southwest, whose complex ceremonial life connects and sustains the bond between the human world and the creative landscape of plants, animals, and sunsets, may in some ways be substantially more advanced in the ways that truly matter to our long term sustainability and contentment.
From time immemorial these and other traditional cultures have taken the long view, and going to Mars in a nuclear-powered spaceship to start a new life in a barren, oxygen-starved landscape is not part of that view. They understand—they grock—in a way we have nearly forgotten, that planet Earth is our only true Mother, and unless we take better care of it and ourselves, we are not long for this or any world.