Sunday, June 01, 2008

Welcome to Bioland

On the new acquisitions shelf of the college library I find a little book that almost gets lost among its bigger, bulkier companions -- A Modest Proposal: A Plan for the Golden Years, by Regis Debray, the French philosopher and former sidekick of Che Guevara. The teaser on the back caught my attention: "The man of the future will be young or he will not be."

From the Jonathan Swift title you can probably guess that what you'll get is satire. And you will be correct.

The problem Debray addresses is this: We are a culture that takes youth, beauty, and instant gratification as the greatest goods. Meanwhile we are saddled with an ever-growing population of old farts who sap our energies, drain our treasure, and offend our eyes. Whereas in the past we could count on the old to expeditiously die and get out of the way, today the medical profession keeps them alive until an unseemly age, a burgeoning, top-heavy dead weight that youth must carry on its shoulders.

The respected elder of yesteryear has become the burdensome geezer, no longer producing public wealth and comsuming it at an alarming rate. Debray writes:

Our agenda is autonomy: an individual out of phase is dependent in eating, getting around, or defecating. In the face of speed and the advantages of rapid reaction, he is slow and lethargic. Of nomadic mobility, changing one's decor, he is sedentary, has lead in his ass. As for pleasure, he doesn't give any. Muscles? Doesn't have any. Beauty? Awful. Speaking of grandpa as some sort of bottleneck jammed with deficits is nonetheless a form of politeness. In so doing one neutralizes his destabilizing force by characterizing the dilapidated as merely useless.
The teeming totterers are worse than useless, says Debray; with their wrinkled skin, varicose veins and arthritic limbs, they violate our right to present perfection. But wait! What am I saying? This "our" is not me. At 71 years of age, I am in the destabilizing cohort. Just as I achieve a venerable maturity, I look behind and see a tanned, fit mass of twenty-something billionaires who drive BMWs, date beautiful blondes, and have less than zero need for the painstakingly acquired wisdom of my superannuated generation.
Ours is the first civilization in which acquired competence has become an obstacle for the competence we wish to acquire; in which the young can figure things out better than their seniors; where the younger are more knowledgeable and expert than their elders, who discreetly peer over the shoulders of their children in order to find out how the latest software works. Exit the old man of law, study, and science, with his old-fashioned garb, cap on his head, before his lectern at the fireside, with his in-folios and his astrolabes. He who inspired respect provokes derision -- and for good reason. The bearer of the passwords between the dead and the living currently finds himself the victim of a technological layoff.
Well, yes, Debray has his Swiftian tongue in cheek, and he is himself of a certain age, but surely he has shone the light of his withering wit on a problem that will grow ever more acute as science extends human lifespans by ten, twenty, thirty years. The smooth-skinned, youthful denizens of the breathless NOW will further resent an ever more populous geriatric generation with their SMTWTFS pill boxes and Depends diapers.

In the second half of his book, Debray offer his modest proposal for what to do. I will leave his solution to your imagination. Think of something between a wildlife preserve and a theme park, a Disneyesque old-age farm tucked out of sight in the bucolic countryside, Sun City behind the wire. The closest analogy I can think of is the final "Christmas in Heaven" scene from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.

Meanwhile, science is in service to The Fountain of Youth. Lasers for wrinkles and failing eyesight. Nips and tucks at the first sign of sags. Blue pills and pink pills for limp libidos. Everything one needs to know discovered in the last ten years. The man of the future will be young or he will not be. Senescence will be postponed, then abolished. The curve of longevity becomes more rectangular -- everyone in a synthetic prime until the Grim Reaper kicks down the door.

The authentically young will become even more resentful, with all those GM nonogenerians hogging tee times at the golf club, crowding the swingles bars with their Botoxed grins, strutting their chemically-enhanced pecs and abs at the fitness center -- and obstinately refusing to remove themselves to Debray's modestly-proposed antechamber of death where nature takes its course. He calls it Bioland.

Further Reading

Regis Debray, A Modest Proposal: A Plan for the Golden Years doesn't pop up on Amazon. Here is the Barnes and Noble link.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.