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I’ve started putting more birthday reminders in my Google calendar, but it feels awkward when I set such events to “repeat annually,” because the screen asks me for an end date. I certainly can’t predict that, so I conveniently choose the option marked “never.” So, my friends and loved ones have birthdays in perpetuity in my Google calendar. How audacious. Or maybe not, if Google has its way.
Last week Google founder and CEO Larry Page announced the launch of Calico, a new Google venture aimed at solving the dilemmas of aging and disease. Worthy causes, to be sure. I’d love to see cures for, say, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and ALS. But Google is throwing its lot in with a far more comprehensive, shooting-for-the-moon goal of getting us to live a really, really long time with the vigor of youth.
Aubrey DeGrey, a biomedical gerontologist, responds favorably to the news at TIME.com:
“Now is the right time for a commercial entity to get heavily involved. One of the key activities of SENS Research Foundation [his company], as a non-profit, is proof-of-concept research on key components of the anti-aging arsenal that are still too early-stage to constitute an attractive business proposition for all but the most visionary investors. But we’ve always made clear that our ultimate goal is to kick-start a real anti-aging industry: not the essentially cosmetic industry that goes by that name today, but a bona fide rejuvenation biotechnology industry, providing people with truly comprehensive restoration and preservation of youthful mental and physical function however long they live. And yes, one side-effect of this advance—a side-effect that we should all celebrate —is that most people will live a great deal longer than today, and will do so in the prime of health.”
Not surprisingly, the media response to Google’s announcement has been almost entirely portrayed as “Google tackles death!” As far as I can tell, the nice people at Google never said they were going to find a way for us to live forever, but of course it’s much more attention-grabbing to play into our ultimate fear of death and our idolatry of youthfulness. And people want to read outrageous things on the internet, after all.
Maybe a monolith like Google can soothe our anxieties around finitude in the same way it has addressed our cravings for instant access to information. What to do about aging–just one more query which we are invited to lay at the feet of Google.
While the prospect of longer, healthier lives certainly has its appeal, it would be downright silly to pretend that any innovative technology could solve the vexatious things that make human mortality so perilous. Let’s not pretend that Google’s venture capital, even if it could swiftly put Depends, Botox, and Polident out of business, can ever heal the vicissitudes of the human heart that lead to death. It would be nice if a solution to aging really did equate to a victory over death, but we as a species ought to know by now that antioxidants are of little effect in the face of violence, accidents, and natural disasters, to name a few life-squelching forces. Diet, exercise, and preventive health are no match for what ultimately ails us. Just ask the latest batch of mourners in Syria, Washington, D.C., Nairobi, Colorado, Mexico. Or those who are bereaved of a loved one who took his or her own life – can Google maybe throw some capital towards easing the despair of those who can hardly face living one more day, let alone another half-century?
Technology may make lives longer, but it will take a lot more than human ingenuity to make human lives survivable and worth living. For those ongoing tasks, there are plenty of old-fashioned approaches, fueled not by dollars but by compassion and love. So maybe today, sometime between taking our multivitamins and getting 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, we can take as much care to improve someone else’s life as we do to extend our own. Tell her you love her, tell him to stop texting while driving, tell them in the halls of power that we need to do more about gun violence, tell those who are hanging on by a thread that there is hope. Give a few dollars to help survivors recover, to meet the basic needs of the destitute, to work for peace, to care for the earth we all rely on. Don’t let the narcissists convince you that living a long, healthy, well-financed existence on your own is the chief end of the gift that is your life.