“On a day of burial there is no perspective — for space itself is annihilated. Your dead friend is still a fragmentary being. The day you bury him is a day of chores and crowds, of hands false or true to be shaken, of the immediate cares of mourning. The dead friend will not really die until tomorrow, when silence is round you again. Then he will show himself complete, as he was — to tear himself away, as he was, from the substantial you. Only then will you cry out because of him who is leaving and whom you cannot detain.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery
All evolution in thought and conduct must at first appear as heresy and misconduct. — George Bernard Shaw
One of the strongest memories I have of my grandfather’s funeral, was standing next to my mother, trying to hold her sobbing body, as they closed the casket on her father for the last time. I was 14. It was winter. I remember lying awake, weeks later, thinking of him, outside in the darkness, his bones in the frozen ground, lost to us forever. I would grow up, finish school, maybe marry one day, travel to distant lands, laugh, cry… and no matter how much time would pass, he would be forever lost in that darkness, ended in that moment when the casket closed, never to be seen again. I can still evoke that memory quite easily, 26 years later. I still feel just as empty and sad now as I did then, with that image and feeling of loss tethered to me, and driving me forward and shaping everything I have done since, and now do.
This wasn’t my earliest thinking about death, loss and annihilation. The earliest I can remember was perhaps at the age of 5. I remember lying in bed, and I was shaken by the idea that one day I would die, and be a skeleton. I don’t remember how that idea started, how it was planted, or what fertilized it. I do remember though, how it made me feel. Small, helpless and scared.
What I do know about my childhood, was that it was unconventional, and in many ways fuelled by the sense that those truths just wouldn’t do. It didn’t matter which authority told me them. They were wrong. One of the first books I owned, in third grade, was a gift to me from a teacher. It was I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. My earliest career goals were astronaut, archaeologist, or doctor. I don’t remember playing with dolls. I read Omni magazine and was often Batman’s sidekick as a preschooler.
I always wanted to know the truth- to see its face no matter how ugly it was. Flash forward a few years and I was in my late teens, an infantry medic in the reserves. It was a job I was very proud of, which further exposed me to the grim realities of life and death. It was 1990 and we were training to serve in the first Gulf War. Thankfully that war was over before I was deployed, but it certainly gave me a taste for life’s brutality and fleeting nature. I made a habit of stopping at any car accident I would find, in an attempt to save someone from the grim coldness I knew lay in waiting. Much to my mother’s horror, it would sometimes result in me coming home from a night out covered in some hapless victim’s blood. I was still powerless and small.
That course landed me in nursing school, where very quickly I discovered my love for emergency medicine and trauma. I have spent most of my career thus far trying to stave off Death and saw far more than my share of Its victories. It was while in school that I first ventured to the internet. This is where I learned of cloned sheep, biotech, and cryonics. This is when I met Ben Best.
There was no question in my mind, that when cryonics was first presented to me, I knew it could be an answer. What I could not understand, however, was why that fact wasn’t obvious to everyone else. Every theory that I have seen since, about the preservation of consciousness, the survival of the person from a profound hypothermic state, the brilliance of why this simple idea might work stands out to me as obvious and revolutionary. It requires no real leap in faith or technical understanding. Then along came, into my experience, transhumanism. What a beautiful philosophy. The ideas of striving for a more perfect existence, of using technology and knowledge to be better than what we could ever hope to become filled every evolutionary niche left void by religion and fantasy.
Culture is a peculiar thing. Its rules enabled us as a species, to come together, form societies, and thrive in ways that would have otherwise been impossible. If you followed society’s rules, you would be fed and protected. If you were ostracised from a group, it would mean a lonely rapid death at the hands of predators.
It also sometimes gets in the way of progress. It traps many of us into behaviours that are socially conforming to the detriment of our personal safety and ambitions. I currently work for a tele-triage service. I have come to discover that a person will call me for help, with obvious life threatening symptoms. I will offer them an ambulance and they will turn it down. Initially, when I heard this, I was incredulous. The reasons often cited were not wanting to wake a loved one, or not wanting the neighbours to know that paramedics would be at their door. Why is public opinion worth more than our lives? More than once, the darker side of my nature wanted to remind them that a coroner’s vehicle would be more scandalous, but I dared not.
I have come to believe that culture plays an equally devastating role in why the numbers of contracted cryonicists are so low. A person’s life and value in our society is measured by its milestones. We are supposed to grow up, get married, procreate, display wealth and status, and then at an appropriate age cede our positions to younger members, hide our decrepitude in nursing homes and die in a timely fashion. We are supposed to look at death, when it comes for us, like a deer would stare at the headlights of our car, and accept our fate. We are measured by how well we accept that fate. Those that go without a fight are called brave and noble. We are not supposed to question that. It is the gospel of our culture. We use these milestones to measure our worth against that of other members of our tribe. Anything that exists outside of those mores is suspect and marginalized.
It’s no wonder that cryonics and transhumanism dance on the fringes of proper society. By all its standards, they are improper. They stand and say that the meagre existences we carve out of this life aren’t enough to capture our imaginations. That our lives are worth more living them, then in some romanticized notion of posterity. Grave stones and urns are a morbid relic of our ancestry, not our collective or individual futures. This collective transhuman movement is moving from the shadows into the mainstream. It is very evident if you choose to see it. If you cannot see it, let me know, and I will point you in its direction. I dare say that this fact is deeply troubling to the average citizen. So much so that they do not wish to even consider it. Instead they wrap themselves in the comfort of a glorious but vague afterlife, and of rewards that are at best tenuous and inconsistent.
We each stand at a precipice to a future filled with prosperity, where organs can be grown to order, where our creations can begin to hold more intelligence than us and we can guide them in their development, where scarcity can become another relic, where we can begin to colonize other worlds, where we can merge with such technology to the limits of our desires, where, dare I say, we can become the gods of our own creation. We stand at the edge of lifespans that may finally be long enough to contain all of our curiosities and desires, and perhaps long enough to achieve our loftiest goals. We are on the brink of a life where we can die when and if we choose, by the means we choose, rather than torn so abruptly and agonizingly from those we love.
No matter how we wish to cover our collective eyes, it is happening as we speak. I have always wanted to look at the truth, be it ugly or transcendent. I cannot cover my eyes to its brightness and I do not wish to. What I wish to do instead is be a part of its evolution. What we need at this time, is a roadmap, so that these changes can be navigated with the best values our species has created, so that this future can bring forward a nobility we understand and continue to value. How will our relationships evolve in the presence of lifespans that may soon be centuries? How will we procreate in a matter that is sustainable and valuable? How will we choose to mourn the loss of our temporarily departed? How will those placed into such suspended animation continue to have rights, and retain property like their breathing counterparts? How will the rights of our creations be attained? We have a long history of enslaving the powerless in our culture, and our greatest science fiction predicts that we will continue with similar ambitions. What choices will we make for our offspring, as the power to choose our progeny develops? We have an exceedingly rare opportunity here to be the architects of a new renaissance of humanity. We simply have to avert our gaze from the mundane long enough to see what is down the road, and what is already at the nearest truck stop.
I look forward to continuing these conversations with you, dear reader, and being part of this future rather than cowering from it. We are not small and we are not powerless.