Immortality is big in culture right now. It's something that people in both technology and art are thinking about, in strangely yearning ways.
Don DeLillo's new novel, Zero K, concerns a brilliant billionaire tech mogul (something of a stock character in DeLillo, now – compare Cosmopolis) who is seeking a way to prolong his terminally ill wife's life. He has developed cryogenics – freezing – to preserve her and other wealthy volunteers indefinitely, until a cure for their illnesses can be found. The book contains much philosophical debate about the value of such an endeavour, and the value of death itself, set amid the mogul's remote yet futuristic compound, a Google-like place of believers in technology (similarly imagined by Jonathan Franzen in Purity and Dave Eggers in The Circle). The place is called the Convergence – a word that recalls both the exuberance of technologists and the myths of the religious. Indeed, at the Convergence, there are monk-like spiritual guides to help the patients contemplate their transition.
The super-rich who can afford to experiment with the new technology plan to be "chemically induced" to expire, and then, when they are resurrected, to have their memories and knowledge reimplanted in them – the way you put new software on a computer.
One fixation of everyone at the Convergence is apocalyptic disaster on Earth. Their only entertainment is video recreations of floods and tornadoes on massive screens. The charismatic leader of this research wants to hasten his own death, although he is perfectly healthy, at a special unit called Zero K. It's a kind of suicide cult to achieve immortality – and avoid the inevitable chaos of reality.
Meanwhile, in real life, an actual millionaire tech genius, the real Google's chief engineer, Ray Kurzweil, has just given a long interview with Playboy in which he rhapsodizes about the potential of new technology to create real human immortality and the positive value of such a development. He himself has made plans to have himself frozen, as with DeLillo's characters, at the time of his death, with a view to being resurrected when technology permits. "I regard death as the greatest tragedy," he says. "People talk about getting used to death and accepting it, but the end of each life is a terrible loss, like the Library of Alexandria burning down. All that information, all their skills, their personality, their memories are gone." Note how his vision of the human personality or soul is as an information bank, a particularly computer-influenced conception.
Kurzweil's equivalent of the Convergence is the Singularity – the moment at which technology becomes so advanced that pretty much all human problems are wiped out, and we are transfigured into radically different kinds of beings, sort of cyborg angels. It is a concept not unlike the Rapture, and it is obviously as bananas as the culty beliefs of DeLillo's characters, but this guy is so articulate and so charming – so basically content about the world – that one can allow oneself to be pleasantly lulled by such a fantasy. (Kurzweil places the coming rapture, sorry Singularity, at exactly 2045 – just like the people with sandwich boards in public squares who tell you on what day the world will end.)
A documentary film just had its premiere at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto. How To Build A Time Machine, the work of filmmaker Jay Cheel, is a strange and incoherent little document of two middle-aged men with loosely related obsessions: One of them wants to build a perfect recreation of a movie prop – the machine from the 1960 movie The Time Machine, based on the H.G. Wells novel – and the other is a theoretical physicist who thinks he may have effected a kind of time travel in a lab, on a microscopic scale, using lasers that push particles around. The weak connection between the two men is that they both regret a death in their past – a best friend, a father – and are preoccupied with what they might have done to prevent the death; they both wonder if time travel to the past might have been a remedy for death itself. (Compared to the protagonist of Zero K who seeks immortality as a way of avoiding the loss of a loved one.) The 80s synthpop song Forever Young by Alphaville booms symbolically at one point.
Why this sudden ascendancy of yearning for immortality now? Is it simply because immortality of a medical sort might be imminent, a result of technological advances, such as nanobots, that will fight disease in our bloodstream? Or is it because, as Ray Kurzweil implies, digital technology is now so advanced that we have already left our bodies behind? We already live outside them, and our digital selves will outlive them. ("I mean," says Kurzweil, "this little Android phone I'm carrying on my belt is not yet inside my physical body, but that's an arbitrary distinction.")
The frequently quoted axiom of Arthur C. Clarke – "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" – is pertinent to this current fascination with life without end. We are now perceiving technology as not just magic but as god-like, as life-giving, as representing an entirely new plane of being.
And mixed with this is a terrible sorrow – the crippling fear of saying goodbye.