Implications of Immortality: Truncat by Cory Doctorow

I just read Cory Doctorow’s short story Truncat – a sequel to the excellent Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. The full text of this story is available online here.

I loved Down and Out, so I was thrilled to find this little gem. I was really pleased to see that Cory was willing to explore some of the implications of immortality in Bitchun society. The most logical of those is of course the end of the human reproductive cycle. If no one ever dies, people can’t continue to have children whenever they feel like it. Thus the world of Truncat is chronically overcrowded, and having children is a social no-no. Being a parent = poor whoofie, so there are only about a million of teenagers worldwide in total.

Second question is, how would immortality impact human psychology? This was somewhat touched upon both in the novel and in the story. Most of the truly ancient members of the immortal society suffer from severe disillusionment and depression – they just get tired, and bored with life. Some of them choose to cryo-freeze themselves and deadhead for few centuries hoping to wake up in more interesting times. Others restore themselves from earlier backup effectively erasing large parts of their memory.

Cory suggests a possible solution – creating shared consciousness via flashbaking. He hints at a new possible revolution which may replace Bitchun society with something different. To cope with immortality, humans must adapt and evolve into something different, that can no longer be considered human.

Reading this story got me thinking about few things. First of all, what is the storage capacity of the human brain? What happens when you reach that capacity? Does your brain start overwriting old memories? Is that even physically possible?

Sure, we forget things all the time, even within our current short lifespan. But then again, most of the time we work under assumption that almost all the input processed is stored somewhere down there. This is why people use hypnosis to recover repressed memories, or talk about subliminal messages that bypass conscious mind but get stored in long term data bank.

So whether we want it or not, our brain is collecting all this junk. Is it possible to reclaim it? Is it possible for a human brain to work indefinitely, provided that aging is not a factor?

Another interesting question is, how will everlasting life impact our growth as human beings. Our brains do constant maintenance. Unused neural connections are scaled down, and pruned out while other ones are reinforced. The brain rewires itself continuously. When you are 40, you are not really the same person you were at 20. We call it growing up, or growing old.

Now let’s say you live for 300-400 years. How much do you think you would change in that time? Can you still be considered the same person as your 20 year old self? Or are you someone else entirely? Would you even remember your childhood? Or would you have to “flash-bake” your own backups in order to recall some events that happened ages ago?

What are the genetic implications of immortality? If we no longer reproduce as a species, we loose the ability to physically adapt to environmental changes. Perhaps in the Bitchun like age of bio-engineering and nano-tech this will not be a problem. The backup clones can be appropriately upgraded and improved over time simulating natural selection and evolution. If we get hit by a scary virus or a disease everyone backs up, and gets restored in a immunized clone…

The question is, can we really compete with natural selection this way? Or would the stagnation of genetic material eventually kill us off as a species in one way or another?

I think Cory is right – humans will never gain true immortality. Our species will be completely superseded by an off-shot race – the post-humans/transhumans. Can we speculate on the nature of this new species that will replace us? Sure, but we are bound to be wrong. The act of becoming or creating something that is more than human is the singularity moment. All our speculations beyond the singularity, are from definition futile.

The only thing we can be sure of, is that this moment will come sooner or later unless we fuck it up, and we either manage to destroy the life on earth, or we allow our civilization collapse (peak oil may set us back but we will overcome it I hope).

hReviewAug 17, 2006 by Terminally Incoherent

Truncat by Cory Doctorow


Anyways, go read Truncat – it’s a good short story. Cory has likely captured the pre-singularity moment here. The dusk of post-scarcity Bitchun society, and down of something new.

[tags]truncat, cory doctorow, down and out in the magic kingdom, bitchun, whoofie, singularity, transhumanism[/tags]

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3 Responses to Implications of Immortality: Truncat by Cory Doctorow

  1. ZeWrestler UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    ah, immortality.a good topic for discussion.

    there is a line from Interview with the Vampire that says many immortals simply do not have the stamina to live forever.

    highlander, (one of my favorite series/movies) ussually made sure to show the curse of being immortal as well as it being a gift. while you can live forever, what is the price you have to pay? are your loved ones mortal? do you have to watch them grow old and die, only to live eternity without them. how would a constant cyle of watching loved ones die affect you?

    if your immortal, how will that affect your sense of danger? are you more willing to for instance, jump off a cliff knowing you’ll live? or get into a fight, knowing that you’ll come out in one piece?

    the whole no children thing will change then. if you can’t have kids, then there will be no abortion/stem cell issues anymore. if your immortal, murder wont affect people either. life sentences will take on a whole new meaning.

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  2. Luke UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Very interesting… However vampires and immortals in highlander show a slightly different aspect of everlasting life. These are stories about immortal individuals living in a mortal society.

    What we may possibly face in the future is a society in which everyone (or at least everyone who chooses to) is immortal. So the whole “watching your love ones die” thing will not apply to us.

    But it is a very good point about the morality. In “Down and Out” murder is really not a huge deal, as the person can always be restored from backup. So while it is still a crime, and is still morally wrong it does not as reprehensive as in current times.

    Another good question is – how do you stay motivated after living for 400, 500 or even 100 years? What reason can you have for getting out of bed in the morning if you already did everything you can thing off in your life?

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