European politics offers an illustration of why some people are uneasy about initiatives that seek to slow or even stop aging. At a 2010 meeting in Russia between the country’s then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi, at that time Italy’s premier, the two men were overheard discussing life-extension technologies. Berlusconi told Putin he planned to fund an institute that like Google’s Calico would investigate ways to lengthen the human span. “So we’re going to live to 120?” asked Putin, eagerly. “It seems so, yes,” replied Berlusconi. “But that would be an average age. I’m told leaders will have an even longer life.”
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Since I included that vignette in my 2011 book Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly, both men have demonstrated a fervent interest in leadership extension too. Putin, 60, exchanged the Prime Ministership for a third term as President and 76-year-old Berlusconi is fighting his expulsion from the Italian senate despite his conviction for tax fraud. It’s hard to imagine that either man, if granted extra decades of life, would choose to spend those years in quiet retirement.
But if one obvious flaw in the concept of radical life extension is that power and wealth might become concentrated in the hands of those with the power and wealth to afford the technologies, there’s another danger even in the more democratized, idealistic vision that seems to motivate Larry Page. Many of us already trust to science to fix everything including the ravages of unhealthy living and a system that makes processed food cheaper than fresh produce. A high profile initiative such as Calico reinforces the belief that immortality is just around the corner; that we just have to live long enough to live forever.
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The amortal denial of aging and death is no bad thing if it encourages us to discard outdated notions about what constitutes age-appropriate behavior and keep active and involved for as long as possible. But there’s no point chasing the dream of living longer unless we also learn to live well.