The Business Model of Never Growing Up

Brian S Hall / December 15th, 2014

The very mortal Larry Page and the rapidly aging Ray Kurzweil, in their mad, sad dash to live forever, will fail in this utterly futile, mostly human effort at denying the inevitable, at fighting that greatest of fleshly trappings, that soul wrenching but unalterable truth which reveals the eternal equality of us all.

We are all going to die.

Soon.

It is what it is.

Billions of years ago, literally, dying stars sent tiny pieces of themselves hurtling through space. A few trillion of those pieces, maybe more, reached Earth, falling unseen like manna from heaven. Fewer still, as if touched by (a) God, made it inside every one of us.

For what purpose, exactly?

google-calico-cover-0913We may never know. Till then, there’s money to be made. Lots of money. And it seems to me that by design or not, and unable to conquer death, Silicon Valley has instead embraced the business model of never growing up.

Mock if you wish but this is certainly more rational then what Larry Page and Sergey Brin are doing, spending untold amounts of Google money on “tackling aging” through a series of pricey ventures. The super-smart Calico is just one:

[Google-funded] Calico is a research and development company whose mission is to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan. 

And of course it will fail. Or worse. We could wind up with this horrid “singularity” vision as espoused by Google’s Kurzweil, where computers and AI progress to a point where humans can radically alter their minds and bodies — and anyone else’s — or ‘upload’ the equivalent of our consciousness into a thinking machine that allows each of us, you and me, to effectively live forever.

What a bleak existence.

It is what you feel, see, hear, taste, who you live with, your stumbles and successes, a good joke and a big slice of birthday cake that make you who you are and all of these, every single bit, will be irrelevant to the ‘you’ inside a computer.

Each moment you go inside a computer, you die just a little bit. Till there’s nothing left.

The futile Kurzweilian effort helps explain why, outside of Google, so much brainpower and money are flowing not in fighting mortality but instead in empowering us all with the illusion of never growing up.

What is Twitter but a mode for all of us, like some recent college graduate, to espouse to everyone, every single thing we think and feel the moment we think it or feel it? Isn’t all social media in fact optimized for talking without ever listening?

Selfies celebrate the self, obviously. Why think beyond our corporeal form, at this moment, in this place? Let us glorify the now — with the self at the center, fixed for all digital eternity.

Is Uber, with its $40 billion valuation, anything other than a way for all of us, like teenagers, to never have to own a car yet always have someone there, exactly then, to take us wherever we want to go?

Gamification is the dream of liberating ourselves from the drudgery of even a moment of the kind of work “adults” must engage in.

Wearables literally transform the profoundness of computing into me, me, me!

Augmented reality seems intent on transmuting the real world, with all its imperfections, into a multi-player amusement that keeps us entertained, as if we are forever children, forever awaiting delight.

Not ready to settle down? Just need a couch to crash on? AirBNB has you covered.

Here’s a tablet! Never be bored, never feel alone — and free yourself from the fears of change, time and mortality.

Is this why Silicon Valley seems to have become so ageist? Do tech companies fear that should they hire anyone over 40 — the horrors! — then every other staffer will be forced to acknowledge their own mortality? To see exactly what awaits them?

I do not expect Silicon Valley to embrace death. But I do hope the Valley evolves to where it’s ready to fully leverage its brains and its wealth on very adult problems, many of which may never be fun but all of which are necessary should we desire a better future for everyone, however long it may last.

Brian S Hall

Brian S Hall writes about mobile devices, crowdsourced entertainment, and the integration of cars and computers. His work has been published with Macworld, CNBC, Wall Street Journal, ReadWrite and numerous others. Multiple columns have been cited as "must reads" by AllThingsD and Re/Code and he has been blacklisted by some of the top editors in the industry. Brian has been a guest on several radio programs and podcasts.
  • Rene Stein

    Somebody would need to explain the concept of uploading your consciousness to a computer to live forever. It seems to me, pretty obviously in fact, that uploading your consciousness to a computer creates a copy of it, which isn’t you, it’s a copy. You don’t get to live forever in a computer, a copy of you lives forever in a computer. What is the point of that?

    • klahanas

      Not only that, but if successful (really stretching it, even theoretically) are you human? Is that not a contradiction?

      • Rene Stein

        I would have thought all of these smart people would have figured this out with like 2 minutes of thinking. But, I guess not.

        • klahanas

          In “The Devil’s Advocate”, Al Pacino (as the devil) closes the movie by saying “vanity… definitely my favorite sin”.

          • Nevermark

            Wanting to keep living isn’t vanity. If you are going to start projecting vices on people who see things differently than you, you have lost a chance to understand a different viewpoint.

          • klahanas

            I won’t try to convince you otherwise, but striving for immortality is one of the most vain endeavors. I understand it, in some ways I admire it, but it strays from the natural order of things into the “the rules don’t apply to me” territory.

          • Nevermark

            The “natural order of things” is not a well-defined concept, so you can’t say X or Y is not the natural order of things without any evidence. (Such hubris would be vanity! 😉 Its highly unlikely that other species on other planets reach the ability to redesign themselves to better survive then don’t do it. By definition, life is what survives.

            Perhaps you can only imagine wanting to live indefinitely due to vanity. But people are different. Curiosity, love of work, family, friends, and just the normal uncomplicated (natural) survival instinct are all motivations for living indefinitely that have not relationship to vanity at all.

            The fact is, once we can live longer or indefinitely it will become the norm quickly, as those who do not choose to weed themselves out.

            If there is any way in which an indefinite life span is bad or undesirable, it will be because of practical disadvantages, not due to “natural orders” or some personal interpretations of “vanity”. But its highly doubtful that intelligent life will be better off trying to stop itself from continuing life’s struggle to sustain itself.

        • Nevermark

          So if smart people take the plunge to another substrate, and can continue doing their smart things and having great smart discussions with each other, but you are dead, in what way should they have figured out that you are better off?

          • Rene Stein

            Here is a simple thought experiment. You are able to “upload your consciousness” into a computer, and it is actually you. Then, you can make infinite precise copies of this upload consciousness because they are just digital bits. Each one of these precise copies will have different experiences in the computer, but which one of them is you? Are they all of them? Does one consciousness span multiple separate entities that do not necessarily communicate between them?

            Your argument is not necessarily wrong. If people take the plunge into another substrate, copies of themselves will continue on talking and what not. But, they are dead, their consciousness is dead. They, the person will be dead, just like I am dead. They, the person will be no better off than I am.

          • Nevermark

            That is a very good question.

            The answer is, that each all new “you”‘s will be just as much you, as your present self is your older self. Which is to say, you are mostly the person you were.

            When there are multiple copies then identity is shared less and more between different copies depending on how they diverged.

            People get hung up on this as if it were a philosophical question, but if human’s had evolved to reproduced with full brain copies we would not think any of this was unusual. Nor do we get confused about questions of race, which obviously are inherited, but also change over time (even when without inter-racial families).

            Things change and diverge, from books, species, and in the future probably people.

      • Nevermark

        I cannot imagine why it would matter if you are human or not. “Human” is just a word. It can mean descended from a human, or a natural human only, or could even include aliens that happened to look like us (if such a coincidence happened). “Human” is not a fundamental concept its just the word we use to describe ourselves as a group despite all our significant differences.

        • klahanas

          I think our humanity is our greatest asset. When all these sensors can be algorithmically joined to let me appreciate my environment it the properly subjective and random way, to experience the world as humans do, then you could argue it doesn’t matter. Until then, it does.

    • Nevermark

      And as your atoms are all replaced continually, you quickly become a copy of yourself.

      Individual atoms do not have individuality. That is quantum mechanics. So there is no “original” you, unless you had your entire body frozen so that your metabolism stopped.

      Your future self is not made from what you are made. You might as well choose to have a more resilient body and mind if you have the opportunity. The alternative is that your final copy rots.

      The point of living on another substrate is that you are alive as apposed to dead. What is the point of not doing that? (Assuming you consider your experience, knowledge, aesthetics, relationships, etc. as having some value work keeping around.)

      • klahanas

        You make a very powerful argument. Kudos.
        I do think you neglect the synergy between matter and whatever it is constitutes “self” (whatever that is). That’s the value added.

  • obarthelemy

    Reminds of Ray Bradbury’s “The Dancers at the End of Time”, in which a handful of… transcendent ? humans amuse themselves with their total control over matter, oblivious that the universe around them is collapsing because of the energy drain.
    Anti-death ventures might make sense, anti-aging even moreso: with increasingly more wealth concentrated in very few hands, I’m guessing billing the mega-rich to keep them alive and of acceptable looks and mind for a few extra years could be mightily profitable, say if people value another 10 good years as 50% of their net worth.

  • obarthelemy

    As for the ageism of Silicon Valley, I think it is linked to a bubble effect. I’m currently arguing with my UCLA-ified niece that Spotify makes no sense, she can buy 2 used CDs/mo with that rent, and 4 when her student discount expires (that’s 50 CDs/yr), music that she’ll keep for life, as I did about 50% of mine, and that will be available even when she moves out of wireless service. It just doesn’t register. Lots of SV startups are based on the same flawed economics. you need youngins to not spot that, oldies will never get caught up in the illusion, or the dumb ones will, and you don’t want to hire those either.

    • hey, you’re the first to spot the SV ageism subtext here 😉

      • informed`

        Amen to your take, Brian.

        Now get off my lawn.

    • aardman

      When I observe my kids doing something similar, I just say to myself “I was young and stupid too once, and look how I turned out.” Then pause, think, and panic.

  • Marios_R

    Very regressive and conservative article.if people in the past were thinking like this,mankind would be stuck for ever to the Stone Age wih a life expectancy of 25 years.I expected more progressive and open-minded opinions from a technology site like Techpinions

    • aardman

      I don’t know if it’s that regressive. It’s one thing to prolong life but immortality? If humankind attained immortality many generations ago, would we have ever been born? Would people have gone on reproducing the way they did? Or would they at some point declare there are too many people and outlaw reproduction?

      And besides the main thrust of the excellent (if I may say so) article is about how silicon valley seems to regressing further and further into juvenile modes of thought in its product ideas. i.e. instant gratification, the need for unceasing praise, the need to be constantly entertained (distracted is really the appropriate term), etc.

      • SB

        So what? It’s not our right to exist. In fact, the chance of all our ancestors combining all of the right gametes to produce us was impossibly tiny. We can’t say that we are any more worthy of eternal life than the people who died before us, or that potential future people have more right to life than we do. And human immortality isn’t about instant gratification. It’s about preserving the invaluable human life already present in the world, which is a noble goal. Just because we have to accept death now doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.

  • FalKirk

    Hmm. Brian always challenges the way I think but he doesn’t always succeed in changing my stubborn ways of thinking. I read through his list of examples and applauded, rather than bemoaned, the list of man’s achievements from the mundane of ending boredom to the sublime of extending life.

    In one area in particular, I must take exception with his thesis:

    “What is Twitter but a mode for all of us, like some recent college graduate, to espouse to everyone, every single thing we think and feel the moment we think it or feel it? Isn’t all social media in fact optimized for talking without ever listening?”

    Not so. I find I’m tweeting less and less and listening more and more. For me, Twitter is a Godsend. A stream of clever insights from some of the most brilliant people in the world. What an age we live in! I’m glad to be a part of it.

  • informed`

    Hmm. Does he accept competitors’ coupons?

    • Nevermark

      No its his way or the hell way. Worst walled ecosystem ever.

    • klahanas

      Brilliant!

  • chano1

    Brian, one of your best yet. I really felt your ideas needed to be expressed.
    And I agree entirely.
    We live in an increasingly self-obsessed world and it is looking pretty sick.
    And, to paraphrase some of your words … Twitter lives up to its name. It is for the twitterati, or twits for short.
    But, Brian, when did you tire of the idea of living forever? We had a brief exchange on that topic.

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