Don’t Be Afraid To Live Longer, Justin Timberlake

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Oct. 28 2011 8:20 AM

Don’t Be Afraid To Live Longer, Justin Timberlake

What the dystopian In Time gets wrong about a world of extreme life extension.

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Historically, the time necessary to distribute new technologies across socioeconomic borders has been speeding up. For instance, it took 46 years for one-quarter of the U.S. population to get electricity and 35 years for the telephone to get that far. But it took only 16 years for one-quarter of American households to get a personal computer, 13 years for a cellphone, and seven years for Internet access, a promising trend for those who wish to see the widespread use of longevity technologies. Yes, these examples are all communication innovations—but actually, health technologies themselves are fast becoming information technologies. Just like computers have a code based on 1s and 0s, so too do humans have a code, based on DNA. For example, prices for human genome sequencing are falling, which will make personalized medicine—one potential source of extended lifespans—cheaper in the future. Even if there is a gap between the life expectancy of the rich and the poor, it likely would not be a case of the rich gaining extra years at the expense of the underprivileged. Instead, the opposite is true: The rich have an incentive to make the technologies accessible to everyone, because that means more customers. Hoarding the technology would offer no advantages and would result in an unstable world.

The last major flaw of In Time’s long-living world is its portrayal of the economy as a zero-sum game. If one person gets more time, it is at the expense of others. Rather than expanding, the economy just shifts a fixed set of resources from one place to another.

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In reality, individuals innovate and economies grow, allowing more people to prosper than in the past. But people don’t seem to innovate in the film’s world, either because they are so distressed about living day-to-day or because they are so rich that they won’t try anything new for fear of losing their long lives. (Even those with scads of time left on their clock can die by misadventure, so we see a wealthy girl, played by Amanda Seyfried, who is terrified of going into the ocean and drowning.) As one character puts it, “The poor die and the rich don’t live.”

The knowledge that time is limited should instead tilt things in favor of enhanced ambition. More time means more opportunity. And, despite well-publicized stories of young tech entrepreneurs creating the next big thing, the reality is that innovation is a late-peak field. Leonardo da Vinci was 51 years old when he started painting the Mona Lisa, and Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was 50 when he discovered the X-ray. Though they might seem middle-aged by our current standards, they were actually on the elderly side for their time periods. Benjamin Franklin was 46 when he conducted his famous kite experiment verifying the nature of electricity, but he didn’t stop there. He was 55 when he invented the glass harmonica and 78 when he invented bifocals. If Franklin had the opportunity to live longer in a healthier state, one wonders what else he would have contributed to society.

During the Cro-Magnon era, human life expectancy was a meager 18 years. By the time of the European Renaissance, one could expect 30 birthdays; by 1850, life expectancy had risen to 43 years. Now, those born in Western societies can expect close to 80 birthdays and look forward to more as science and technology advance.

These gains are stunning, but even bigger possibilities await. There will be a day in the not-too-distant future when life expectancy—and, more importantly, health expectancy—is 150 years. It won’t stop there, of course, but that is what is in our near-term view. That doesn’t mean the world will be problem-free or that core tensions between people will disappear. Indeed, in a world where people are around for longer, relationship issues may be more pronounced. (Get ready to deal with a great-grandmother-in-law.) Young workers entering the workforce will have to battle supercentenarians who have no urge to retire. We may face new and troubling types of pollution and perhaps epidemics that we cannot yet fathom.

Being around to witness those problems will be exciting and challenging, but it won’t be anything like the scenario portrayed in In Time.

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