Death Is Wrong, Says Creepy Kids’ Book

What's to come?
March 14 2014 8:25 AM

The Most Terrifying Kids’ Book

A transhumanist wants children to know that Death Is Wrong.

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A good kids’ book delivers knowledge fundamental to living in the world, such as the (now apparently out of print) classic Everyone Poops. But Death Is Wrong, a new children’s title from transhumanist author Gennady Stolyarov, can only steer children toward confusion about mortality.

The book encourages kids to help eradicate death with technology. Its front cover takes that message literally, showing a kid banishing the Grim Reaper, who is down on one knee in defeat.

In late February, Stolyarov and the Movement for Indefinite Life Extension started an Indiegogo campaign to raise $5,000 to distribute 1,000 free copies to kids. The campaign ends on April 23, and so far the funds fall well short of the goal. There’s no specified age range, but Stolyarov describes it as “the book I would have wanted to have as a child, but did not” and recalls asking his grandmother at age 5 how “could it ever be right for all this experience to just end?” Based on the illustrations (done by Stolyarov’s wife) that depict everything from famous scientists and immortal jellyfish, the only prerequisite for readers seems to be knowing about death.

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Stolyarov is part of transhumanism and Humanity+, movements that endorse “the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities.” However, Death Is Wrong simplifies the transhumanist stance, which also advocates research, deliberation, and discussion about how to implement such technologies. A 2012 World Future Society study revealed that 76 percent of self-identified transhumanist respondents desire immortality, but the rest don’t, for reasons including overpopulation, boredom, and death’s important role in life. (In the book, Stolyarov dismisses those objections to immortality as “excuses.”)

Should immortality be humanity’s goal? Google seems to think so. But there’s a difference between curing grave diseases, which would increase our lifespans, and “solving” death. Stolyarov sells kids an updated myth of pharaohs, the fountain of youth, and Gilgamesh cloaked in the singularity, the theorized point at which technology and superior artificial intelligence fundamentally alter life. He implies that death is the Problem and that solving it will ensure smooth sailing, which is irresponsible at best and disastrous at worst. He mentions how much interest our accounts will accrue, how much free time we’ll have, and how we’ll treat Earth better since we’ll be around longer. But he glosses over the downsides, including the inevitable class divides and social strife that would arise from the continued death of those who can’t afford immortality. Vanquishing his own lifelong dread of death seems to trump the consequences.

“My greatest fear is that, in the year 2045, I will be 58 years old and already marked by notable signs of senescence, sitting at the kitchen table, drinking my morning coffee, and wondering, ‘What happened to that singularity we were promised by now?’ ” Stolyarov wrote in an article for his website, the Rational Argumentator. There are only three responses to death: fear it, accept it, or, apparently, fight it. Stolyarov rails against acceptance, even when unaccompanied by belief in the afterlife; he rejects the Buddhist position of experiencing pain caused by death while knowing death has released a loved one from suffering. Instead, he targets an audience that could conceivably solve death before he has to stare it down, which is neither braver nor better.

What we should teach kids about technological frontiers warrants serious consideration—before we extend our lifespans. Preparing kids for the future might include discussing transhumanist ideas (depending on how many sets of Google Glass the parents own), but Stolyarov doesn’t seem to have fully considered the impact of telling kids death is wrong.

Death Is Wrong makes immortality seem within reach, describing doubling a roundworm’s life via genetic mutation and the cell-rejuvenating Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence proposed by bio-gerontologist and anti-aging crusader Aubrey de Grey. While we can’t currently stop ourselves from getting older, Stolyarov argues, we can age without decaying, like tortoises, quahogs, and trees. “Technology gives us more food, energy, and space than our ancestors had, and the growth in population only gives us more and more smart people who can create more technologies,” is just one example of Stolyarov’s reductionism. Representing a legitimate problem as a solution invites disaster, especially if it means ignoring issues such as overpopulation.

The transhumanist declaration acknowledges technology’s double-edges: “humanity faces serious risks, especially from the misuse of new technologies. … Although all progress is change, not all change is progress.” This consideration is missing from the book. Part of preparing kids for a technological future is teaching them that not all technology is necessary or beneficial, and that we can make technological mistakes.  Putting all our eggs in the “technology will fix everything” basket is even more dangerous than putting them all in the “death is wrong” basket. What if technology doesn’t cure death? What if it, or the rush to develop it, actually causes death?

Kids will likely eventually find out about transhumanism and the singularity, given their increasing prominence in everything from science classes to video games. I’ve introduced many college students to these concepts in the research seminar I teach on artificial intelligence. They accept that technology will drastically change life, and most say there’s no point in resistance or fear because it’s inevitable. I don’t disagree. The difference is that college students are far better equipped than kids to contextualize these ideas and consider their implications—they recognize death’s wrongness as an idea, not a fact.

One of my students was 7 years old when he learned about the singularity in the online Dresden Codak comic. In the story, a transhumanist imagines fighting with someone about Ray Kurzweil and the law of accelerating returns, which provides the basis for the exponential growth of technology. The comic addresses objections to transhumanism, though it doesn’t mention immortality. My student says the comic helped him accept the transhumanist vision of the future, but that another approach may have left him either skeptical or opposed to transhumanism. I wonder what he would have thought about Death Is Wrong. While the singularity isn’t as paradigm-shifting for my students as it is for me, they can’t undo a lifetime of coming to grips with death, either—they draw a line between transhumanism and immortality.

Stolyarov might argue he’s advocating adaptation, and thus survival, but curing death would constitute artificial selection—a drastic and deliberate change in our own evolution. Inherent in that argument is a troubling notion of human exceptionalism—that we shouldn’t have to play by evolution’s rules. Stolyarov suggests we select ourselves (those who can afford it, anyway), rather than leave it to nature.

Representing death as wrong gives it greater power, especially when people do die. If death is wrong, are people who die bad, or are they victims of an obsolete paradigm? Either way, making peace with death would be particularly challenging. Kids could grow up not just afraid of death, but also afraid of failing to fix it. Stolyarov makes death a powerful nemesis that could rule their lives—just as it’s ruled his.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and SlateFuture Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Joelle Renstrom lives in Boston, where she teaches and writes about all things geeky. Her blog, Could This Happen?, explores the relationship between science and science fiction.