A probing question about death and technology

At what age would you want to die? I was somewhat startled to hear that question as the opening pitch for a student-led discussion. But as the answers rolled in, I was surprised to hear numbers in the 90s and even 100s. As for me, it was a question I had never seriously considered, certainly not as long as my students. How long, I asked myself, is too long?

We frequently think about the ways in which the world – our environment – will change in the future. Dystopic futures create blockbuster hits, and, for the most part, those futures have yet to arrive. Thinking back to the beloved “Jetsons,” created during the Space Race, we haven’t quite made it to the point of universal availability of jetpacks and flying cars. Then again, we haven’t hit the year 2062.

Nor have we reached the garbage-filled, isolated future of Wall-E in 2805. In these movies, the future is a bleak one. These futures criticize, among other things, consumerism, classism and the risk of global catastrophe. And these are just the depictions from comedy and family-friendly entertainment! But what is, in my mind, more disturbing are the human bodies. In Wall-E, like E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” the human passengers have grown accustomed to automated lifestyles and have grown morbidly obese. 

What will our bodies look like in the future? In a changing landscape, we must realize the impact of the environment upon individual lifestyles and bodies. It’s a question that came up as my college students read excerpts from the 1831 autobiographical narrative of Mary Prince, a British abolitionist, born to an enslaved family in Bermuda. Prince’s narrative recalls the changes that occur as the colonialists leave England – they become more beast-like in the British colonies, resorting to acts and behaviors never before exemplified in their mother country. This, Prince says, is slavery: the environment not only affects the individuals enslaved, but all who participate in the atrocious acts.

Prince references the loss of humanity. Is it too far of a stretch to see similarities today? We live in a world that devalues the dignity of all human life. We live in a society that values various modes of technology as intermediaries of human communication.

So, what will our bodies look like if the future entails complete automation or global catastrophe? If our current state of technological dependence tells us anything, our bodies might not be the obese, “gelatinous orbs” – as Forster so memorably described – but bodies forged by technological advancement: prosthetics no longer designed for disability but for enhancement. More sinisterly, these advancements remain focused on the individual and consumerism: Who can afford these enhancements? Facebook is currently imagining the idea of technological telepathy: “You’re going to just be able to capture a thought, what you’re thinking or feeling in kind of its ideal and perfect form in your head, and be able to share that with the world in a format where they can get that,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said recently.

To what extent does our future devolve from humanity to new industries of technological outsourcing? As my students chatted on about the technologies that would be developed by the time they reached 100, I could only imagine the sad loss of creative, inspirational humanity. How long is too long? 

Dr. Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at hbozant   witcher@clarionherald.org.

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