Today's date:
Spring 2014

Are Sergey Brin And Mark Zuckerberg God-Builders?

John Gray is emeritus professor of European thought at the London School of Economics and author of “The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death” (Penguin Books and Farrar, Strauss Giroux).

LONDON—Human knowledge is increasing today more than at any time in the past, and at an accelerating rate. But big ideas tend to come and go in cycles, and the idea that technology can defeat aging and even death is a case in point. Early last year it was announced that Google’s Sergey Brin and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, together with Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner, were joining forces to set up a nonprofit foundation that will award prizes for breakthrough research in life extension. The foundation will be headed by Art Levinson, an influential figure in Apple and the biotechnology company Genentech.

In December 2012, a few months before the life extension project was announced, the futurist Ray Kurzweil joined Google as Director of Engineering. There is nothing to suggest the two events were linked. Yet Kurzweil’s appointment is evidence of the powerful appeal to leading figures in Silicon Valley of the idea that technology can enable human beings to overcome what have in the past been accepted as natural limits. Author of many books and a charismatic lecturer, Kurzweil believes humankind is on the verge on “the Singularity,” an explosive expansion of scientific knowledge that will transform human life, and human nature itself, beyond recognition. One effect of “the Singularity” will be to enable humans not only to extend life indefinitely, but to transcend death entirely. By uploading their minds into cyberspace, humans will escape the limitations and vulnerabilities that make them mortal.

This is breathtaking stuff, but it is not new. Around a century ago, similar ideas were widely current—not in America, but Russia. We are all familiar with images of Vladimir Lenin lying in his mausoleum, where he was embalmed after his death in 1924. What is less well-known is that before the Bolshevik leader was embalmed, the possibility of reanimating his body was actively considered. Senior members of the Bolshevik party, together with prominent writers and scientists, had been interested in the possibility of overcoming death by technological means for some years.

The Soviet trade minister Leonid Krasin and the education minister Anatoly Lunacharsky were leading figures in the Immortalization Commission, the body set up to organize Lenin’s funeral. Both were “God-builders”—a section of the Bolshevik intelligentsia that believed science would enable humans to achieve god-like powers, including immortality. Drawing on the thinking of a Russian Orthodox mystic Nikolai Fedorov, the works of writer Maxim Gorki and the rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky—often described as “the grandfather of Russian astronautics”—the God-builders aimed to use the power of science to deliver humankind—or at any rate its most valuable specimens—from death.

These were not just theoretical speculations. In a primitive version of what in the US later came to be called cryonics, Krasin tried to freeze Lenin’s body by using a refrigerator imported from Germany, with the hope that the corpse could later be returned to life. Unsurprisingly, the experiment failed, with condensation actually accelerating the decay of Lenin’s body. Lenin survived the death of the state he founded, but only as a hollowed-out cadaver. Chemically preserved for 90 years, the doll-like figure that rests in the mausoleum, reopened last year after renovations, is a relic of a failed experiment in cryonic resurrection.

There are many obvious differences between the attempt to use science to cheat death that was mounted nearly a century ago in Russia and the one that is attracting support in Silicon Valley today. Human knowledge, and with it technology, has moved on greatly. Advances in neuroscience, information technology and artificial intelligence have shifted the focus from cryonics to the more radical prospect of freeing the human mind from its fleshly envelope. At the same time, genetic engineering and nanotechnology have been hailed as opening up the possibility of halting or reversing physical aging. According to some of the boldest promoters of technological immortality, there is a real prospect that these new sciences will make it possible for humans to live forever.

If the differences between the Russian pursuit of immortality a century ago and that in Silicon Valley today are clear, the similarities are no less compelling. Today, as in the past, the scientific attempt to defeat death owes a great deal to religion. The Orthodox thinker Fedorov, who inspired the God-builders, believed science would allow the physical resurrection of every human being that had ever lived—a vision that reiterates the promise of Christianity, as he freely acknowledged (Because of its debt to religion, Lenin always distanced himself from the God-builders). American techno-immortalists seem less clear as to the religious origins of their beliefs, but the links can hardly be denied. The idea of a world-changing “Singularity” is a recycled version of the apocalyptic event expected in some branches of American Christianity, while the vision of human minds ascending into cyberspace is a high-tech Rapture.

There are other similarities. While the mystic who inspired Russian techno-immortalists dreamt of resurrecting everyone, his disciples were more selective. It was exceptional human beings such as Lenin they were most interested in reviving. Any remedy for mortality would also be highly selective today. Russian prophets of a future without death imagined the advance of humanity being planned as part of a communist planned economy, while those in Silicon Valley are ardent enthusiasts for capitalism. But whatever the economic system, life extension is a costly business whose benefits will in practice be distributed very unequally.

The prospect of a society in which existing inequalities are accentuated, with the richest living several times longer than the mass of the population, is not exactly enticing. Nor would such a brutally divided society be likely to be stable. Focusing on the exponential increase in knowledge, techno-immortalists tend to forget the fragility of social order. It is as if they imagine that the institutions that prevail today are themselves immortal. A smattering of history soon dispels that delusion.

The last century included a great depression, the rise of totalitarianism, two world wars and countless social upheavals. No doubt the conflicts of the present century will be different in many ways, but there is nothing to suggest they will be less destructive. Uploading the contents of the human brain into cyberspace will not bring freedom from vulnerability and death, if only because cyberspace is already a battlefield in which the divisions of the world below are being savagely fought out. The disembodied minds of which some in Silicon Valley dream would be targets in cyberwar.

The new technologies that are stirring such interest at Google and Facebook may well bring fundamental changes in the way we live. Major advances in life extension seem likely in the fairly near future. Society may in some ways be altered beyond recognition as a result, but the recurring dream of a technological cure for death will continue to founder on the perennial realities of human conflict.