Random finds (2017, week 13) — On Silicon Valley’s quest for immortality, true character, and the need for followers

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Fujimoto’s House NA, 2011: “a climbing frame of tiny decks, presenting its inner life to the street with near-complete transparency.” (Photograph: Iwan Baan/Katsuhisa Kida/Fototeca)

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and a reflection of my curiosity.

Silicon Valley’s quest for immortality

“I welcomed him generously and fed him, and promised to make him immortal and un-aging. But since no god can escape or deny the will of Zeus the aegis bearer, let him go, if Zeus so orders and commands it, let him sail the restless sea. But I will not convey him, having no oared ship, and no crew, to send him off over the wide sea’s back. Yet I’ll cheerfully advise him, and openly, so he may get back safe to his native land.” — Calypso to Hermes when he delivers Zeus’ request to send Odysseus swiftly on his way (Homer, The Odyssey, Bk V:92-147, Hermes explains his mission)

According to Emily Dreyfuss, Silicon Valley would rather cure death than make life worth living. “After disrupting the way we love, communicate, travel, work, and even eat, technologists believe they can solve the ultimate problem. Perennially youthful Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan announced last year a $3 billion initiative to obliterate human disease. Among his many crusades, Paypal co-founder and Trump advisor Peter Thiel aims to end mortality. (‘Basically, I’m against it,’ he has said.) Alphabet has a whole company devoted to curing this most intractable of inconveniences.” But is Silicon Valley really trying to extend everyone’s lives, or just those of people already doing great?, Dreyfuss wonders.

“Silicon Valley sells the world the idea that it wants to make things better. It exists, the rhetoric goes, not just to make products but to make progress. If that’s the case, it’s focusing on the wrong things.” Trying to innovate away death sets a cultural tone that directs attention from answers that already have proven to help prolong life, such as free access to healthcare and good education. “As surgeon and author Atul Gawande explains in Being Mortal, funding improvements in palliative care — making people in extreme pain or at the end of their life more comfortable — would much more meaningfully address the problem of death. You make death less terrible and inevitable by making life less painful. Silicon Valley’s simplistic life extension arithmetic — you improve life by adding more years — glosses over the complicated social forces eroding or hampering the quality of life for so many people.

[…]

If the titans of Mountain View and Palo Alto are serious about fixing the real problems in the world, they can’t just start a new company or make a new app. They should recognize their place as arbiters of culture and lead by example. A video game-style quest to end death may appeal to the techie imagination, but it doesn’t engage with real problems in the real world. Instead of chasing down death, Silicon Valley could try to help people whose lives are already in free fall.”

“It’s distressing sometimes to see the amount of effort — not just human effort but also the rhetoric — to develop stuff that turns out to be apps or toys for rich people. Saying ‘We’re innovating and that is by default making a world a better place,’ and then patting yourself on the back and getting in your Tesla and driving to your seaside ranch is missing the point.” — Andrew Russell, SUNY Polytechnic Institute historian and outspoken critic of the cult of innovation

In In Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever, also Tad Friend, reporter at large for The New Yorker, wonders whether billions of dollars’ worth of high-tech research will succeed in making death optional.

“Unsurprisingly, it was Google that transformed the Valley’s view of aging,” Friend writes. “Surprisingly, perhaps, it was the company’s Bill Maris who was in the vanguard. As the founder and CEO of Google Ventures, Maris led successful investments in companies such as Nest and Uber; he was amiable, admired, and financially secure — not an obvious modern-day alchemist.”

Marris decided to build a company that would solve death. The first problem was the long study time in humans. It’s hard to run clinical trials on subjects who take eighty years to die. The other problem was the immense difficulty of determining whether any seeming cause of aging was actually causal, or merely a correlative of some other, stealthier process. However, when Marris pitched his ideas to Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, they both loved it. “We should do it here!,” Page said. So in 2013, with a billion dollars in funding, Google launched Calico, short for the California Life Company.

According to the website, it’s “mission is to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan. We will use that knowledge to devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives. Executing on this mission will require an unprecedented level of interdisciplinary effort and a long-term focus for which funding is already in place.”

“This is not about Silicon Valley billionaires living forever off the blood of young people. It’s about a ‘Star Trek’ future where no one dies of preventable diseases, where life is fair.” — Bill Maris, the creator of Calico

“The reigning view among longevity scientists is that aging is a product not of evolutionary intent but of evolutionary neglect: we are designed to live long enough to pass on our genes, and what happens afterward doesn’t much matter. […] Eric Verdin, the CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, the leading nonprofit in the field, noted that ‘if you just kept aging at the rate you age between twenty and thirty, you’d live to a thousand. At thirty, everything starts to change.’ From that point, our risk of mortality doubles every seven years. We’re like salmon, only we die in slow motion.

The battle between healthspanners and immortalists is essentially a contest between the power of evolution as ordained by nature and the potential power of evolution as directed by man. The healthspanners see us as subject to linear progress: animal studies take the time that they take; life sciences move at the speed of life. Noting that median life expectancy has been increasing in developed nations by about two and a half years a decade, Verdin told me, ‘If we can keep that pace up for the next two hundred years, and increase our life spans by forty years, that would be incredible.’

The immortalists have a different view of both our history and our potential. They see centuries of wild theorizing (that aging could be reversed by heating the body, or by breathing the same air as young virgins) swiftly replaced by computer-designed drugs and gene therapies. Bill Maris said, ‘Health technology, which for five thousand years was symptomatic and episodic — Here are some leeches! — is becoming an information technology, where we can read and edit our own genomes.’

Many immortalists view aging not as a biological process but as a physical one: entropy demolishing a machine. And, if it’s a machine, couldn’t it be like a computer? Progress in computers, or anyway in semiconductors, has been subject to Moore’s Law, the exponential flywheel that has doubled capacity every two years. In linear progress, after thirty iterations you’ve advanced thirty steps; in exponential progress, you’ve advanced 1.07 billion steps. Our progress in mapping the human genome looked like it was linear, and then was revealed, once the doublings grew significant, as exponential.

[…]

Aging doesn’t seem to be a program so much as a set of rules about how we fail. Yet the conviction that it must be a program is hard to dislodge from Silicon Valley’s algorithmic minds. If it is, then reversing aging would be a mere matter of locating and troubleshooting a recursive loop of code. After all, researchers at Columbia University announced in March that they’d stored an entire computer operating system (as well as a fifty-dollar Amazon gift card) on a strand of DNA. If DNA is just a big Dropbox for all the back-office paperwork that sustains life, how hard can it be to bug-fix?”

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“If we read the poem [Homers’s The Odyssey] as the tale of a man [Odysseus] who rejects the immortality offered by the divine Calypso and instead decides to return home, to his mortal wife on rocky Ithaca, there are lessons to be learnt about what it means to be human, and the many limitations that entails.” — Barbara Graziosi, professor of Classics at Durham University, in Homer.

Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey have the same backup plan if the work doesn’t advance as quickly as they expect: when they die, they will be frozen in liquid nitrogen, with instructions left to reawaken them once science has finished paving the road to immortality. Their optimism is admirable, and perhaps the anxieties that their blueprints stir up are just the standard resentments of the late adopters and the left-behinds. ‘People are daunted when they hear of these things,’ Kurzweil told me. ‘Then they say, I don’t know if I want to live that long.’ For Kurzweil, who has two children, the acceptance of inevitable death is no saner than the acceptance of early death. ‘It’s a common philosophical position that death gives meaning to life, but death is a great robber of meaning,’ he said. ‘It robs us of love. It is a complete loss of ourselves. It is a tragedy.’”

And yet …

Last year, the geneticist Nir Barzilai hosted a screening of a documentary about longevity, and afterward he posed a question to the three hundred people in the audience. Barzilai said, “In nature, longevity and reproduction are exchangeable. So Choice One is, you are immortalized, but there is no more reproduction on Earth, no pregnancy, no first birthday, no first love — and I go on and on and on. Choice Two is you live to be eighty-five and not one day sick, everything healthy and fine, and then one morning you just don’t wake up.” The vote was decisive: Choice One got ten or fifteen people, but everyone else raised their hands for Choice Two.

This, by no means, makes us modern ‘Odysseuses.’ After all, his prospects were rather dire when he declined immortality. But it seems most of us aren’t willing to join the gods at Mount Olympus either. Apparently, the real quest in life isn’t for immortality, but ‘simply’ for living well.

“This wish to preserve life as we know it, even at the cost of dying, is profoundly human. We are encoded with the belief that death is the mother of beauty. And we are encoded, too, with the contradictory determination to remain exactly as we are, forever — or at least for just a bit longer, before we have to go.” — Tad Friend in In Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever

“There is one thing I can be sure of: I am going to die. But what am I to make of that fact? This course will examine a number of issues that arise once we begin to reflect on our mortality. The possibility that death may not actually be the end is considered. Are we, in some sense, immortal? Would immortality be desirable? Also a clearer notion of what it is to die is examined. What does it mean to say that a person has died? What kind of fact is that? And, finally, different attitudes to death are evaluated. Is death an evil? How? Why? Is suicide morally permissible? Is it rational? How should the knowledge that I am going to die affect the way I live my life?” — Description of a course on death by Yale professor Shelly Kagan

Power exposes your true character

Power exposes people’s true character, writes Matthew Hutson, a freelance science writer and the author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking. It releases inhibitions and sets your inner self free. Psychologists generally define power as control over others, by providing or withholding resources, without social interference. Tapping your true nature, though, begins with feeling powerful. Getting the corner office boosts creativity and reduces conformity.

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SELF-ACTUALIZATION: Power can release your inhibitions and set your true nature free. But how you handle power depends on who you were before you got the crown. Apparently Henry II of England, above, was an impetuous, divisive fellow (National Portrait Gallery, London).

In Animal Farm, George Orwell portrays how ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ But it’s not that simple. According to Melissa Williams, a psychologist at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, the model is more complex than that. Four main categories of traits — personality, individualism, values, and our desire for power — can guide unethical or ethical leadership.

Research shows that people’s values guide how responsibly they use power. People with a low moral identity — they didn’t consider being fair, kind, and honest core to who they were — became more selfish when primed to feel powerful; those high in moral identity became more generous.

Whether you see yourself as a lone wolf or part of a pack influences your leadership style.

“Values also guide how we prioritize competition versus cooperation versus individualism,” Hutson writes. “In one study, Dutch students performed a social dilemma task. They could take some tokens from a pool of 400, as could three other members of their group, and the remaining tokens would be doubled and split evenly. So each token taken reduced the overall benefit to the group by double that amount. In addition, some participants were told they were the group leader, and others were told they were a follower. Being named a leader increased the number of tokens taken by competitive and individualistic participants, but had no effect on cooperative ones. The competitive and individualistic leaders took more tokens because (as they reported) they felt more entitled.”

Also your desire for power can affect your use of it. In one study, students were told they could be usurped based on performance — those who had a strong desire for dominance (“I like to give orders and get things going”) tended to exclude talented group members, hampering team performance to secure their own position. Desire for prestige (“I would like an important job where people look up to me”) did not increase such selfishness.

When people obtain power, don’t expect them to behave dramatically differently from how they did before.

“There are, of course, multiple personal and contextual factors involved in most behavior. But correlations between character and power are clear. Ethical and responsible power holders tend to be agreeable, honest, humble, and cooperative. Their counterparts are narcissistic, Machiavellian, and socially dominant.”

Seeking power is not necessarily bad, Hutson argues. What really matters is whether someone craves the freedom to reap selfish rewards or feels a duty to shoulder social responsibility. “In short,” he concludes, “when people obtain power, don’t expect them to behave dramatically differently from how they behaved before. Nice people don’t suddenly become tyrants, and jerks don’t automatically become servants. How people behave when few people are watching them is a good indicator of how they’ll act when everyone is.”

And this …

But a discipline in organizational psychology, called ‘followership,’ is gaining in popularity. Robert Kelley, a professor of management and organizational behavior, defined the term in a 1988 Harvard Business Review article. In this article, he listed the qualities of a good follower, such as being committed to “a purpose, principle or person outside themselves” and being “courageous, honest and credible.”

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(Illustration: Santiago Salvador Ascui)

“Recently, other business thinkers have taken up this mantle. Some focus on the ‘romance of leadership’ theory, which causes us to inaccurately attribute all of an organization’s success and failure to its leader, ignoring its legions of followers. Adam Grant, who has written several books on what drives people to succeed, says that the most frequent question he gets from readers is how to contribute when they’re not in charge but have a suggestion and want to be heard. ‘These are not questions asked by leaders,’ he told me. ‘They’re fundamental questions of followership.’”

But “the biggest disservice done by the outsize glorification of ‘leadership skills’ is to the practice of leadership itself,” Cain argues. “It attracts those who are motivated by the spotlight rather than by the ideas and people they serve. It teaches students to be a leader for the sake of being in charge, rather than in the name of a cause or idea they care about deeply. The difference between the two states of mind is profound.” The latter belongs to transformative leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi; the former to — well, we’ve all seen examples of this kind of leadership lately.”

Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way, says Cain. “What if we said to college applicants that the qualities we’re looking for are not leadership skills, but excellence, passion and a desire to contribute beyond the self? […] What if we said to our would-be leaders, ‘Take this role only if you care desperately about the issue at hand?’ And what if we were honest with ourselves about what we value? If we’re looking for the students and citizens most likely to attain wealth and power, let’s admit it. Then we can have a frank debate about whether that is a good idea. But if instead we seek a society of caring, creative and committed people, and leaders who feel called to service rather than to stature, then we need to do a better job of making that clear.”

“The complex issues with which executives wrestle today — global supply chains, multigenerational workforces, and political polarization and instability, to name a few — are not solved through simple bifurcated choices. They require more nuanced thinking. And can provide the needed stimulus,” writes Eric J. McNulty, the director of research of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard, in The Power of And.

“The and lesson for leaders here is to again embrace the paradox and move beyond simply amassing authority. Build a leadership platform that facilitates independent yet aligned participation and connection by the nodes in your network. When you seek to involve employees and communities as well as customers, and will open more doors than but. Confronted with complex challenges, dynamic markets, and fast-changing technologies, and is not only more powerful than or — it may be the only option for dealing with the multiplicity of factors involved.

As you lead, try substituting and for but as often as possible. Note what opportunities for collaboration and novel solutions emerge. When contemplating your next strategic move, think about and instead of or. See what new perspectives this generates. And is one small word that can make a big difference in the way you think and lead.”

“We’re facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for the whole world. You got a problem with that?,” Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden wrote in 1997 in an insightful and still relevant long read for WIRED, titled The Long Boom: A History of the Future, 1980–2020.

Although well aware it was just a scenario of the future, and by no means an outright prediction of what was to come, they were “reasonably confident of the continuation of certain trends. Much of the long boom’s technology is already in motion and almost inevitably will appear within that span.”

Schwartz and Leyden have clearly missed important events, such as 9/11, the financial crisis and, of course, the election of Donald Trump. And, as often with foresight, they were too optimistic with the speed and uptake of certain developments, such as the arrival of humans on Mars, which they foresaw in 2020. It’s still possible but highly unlikely. However, The Long Boom makes for an interesting read, even, or should I say, especially after twenty years.

According to Schwartz and Leyden, there is “a radically optimistic meme: We are watching the beginnings of a global economic boom on a scale never experienced before. We have entered a period of sustained growth that could eventually double the world’s economy every dozen years and bring increasing prosperity for — quite literally — billions of people on the planet. We are riding the early waves of a 25-year run of a greatly expanding economy that will do much to solve seemingly intractable problems like poverty and to ease tensions throughout the world. And we’ll do it without blowing the lid off the environment.”

“If this holds true,” they write, “historians will look back on our era as an extraordinary moment. They will chronicle the 40-year period from 1980 to 2020 as the key years of a remarkable transformation. In the developed countries of the West, new technology will lead to big productivity increases that will cause high economic growth — actually, waves of technology will continue to roll out through the early part of the 21st century. And then the relentless process of globalization, the opening up of national economies and the integration of markets, will drive the growth through much of the rest of the world. An unprecedented alignment of an ascendent Asia, a revitalized America, and a reintegrated greater Europe — including a recovered Russia — together will create an economic juggernaut that pulls along most other regions of the planet. These two metatrends — fundamental technological change and a new ethos of openness — will transform our world into the beginnings of a global civilization, a new civilization of civilizations, that will blossom through the coming century.”

“Even more important, the United States serves as steward of the idea of an open society. The US is home to the core economic and political values that emerged from the 20th century — the free-market economy and democracy. But the idea of an open society is broader than that. Americans believe in the free flow of ideas, products, and people. Historically, this has taken the form of protecting speech, promoting trade, and welcoming immigrants. With the coming of a wired, global society, the concept of openness has never been more important. It’s the linchpin that will make the new world work.” — Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden in The Long Boom: A History of the Future, 1980–2020 (WIRED, 1997)

“In a nutshell, the key formula for the coming age is this: Open, good. Closed, bad. Tattoo it on your forehead. Apply it to technology standards, to business strategies, to philosophies of life. It’s the winning concept for individuals, for nations, for the global community in the years ahead. If the world takes the closed route, it starts a vicious circle: Nations turn inward. The world fragments into isolated blocs. This strengthens traditionalists and leads to rigidity of thought. This stagnates the economy and brings increasing poverty. This leads to conflicts and increasing intolerance, which promotes an even more closed society and a more fragmented world. If, on the other hand, the world adopts the open model, then a much different, virtuous circle begins: Open societies turn outward and strive to integrate into the world. This openness to change and exposure to new ideas leads to innovation and progress. This brings rising affluence and a decrease in poverty. This leads to growing tolerance and appreciation of diversity, which promotes a more open society and a more highly integrated world.”

“Among the oblong concrete tree trunks that occupy the centre of the Barbican art gallery, opposing structures have grown up, one a series of hard-edged, white-walled boxes, the other a rickety hut-on-stilts, possibly erected by goblins in the night, in charred timber and bumpy plaster. If nothing else they make flesh the sheer imaginative fertility that Japanese architects bring to the design of houses.”

According to Rowan Moore, the architecture critic of the Observer, in Japan, a house is considered differently from one in Europe. “It is more transient, sits more lightly on the ground, is more likely to be pulled down and started again. It perches on its place in time and space, rather than putting down roots. Traditionally they were made of materials needing tending, like paper, thatch and mud, which made architecture come close to horticulture. In modern times the fleetness of the Japanese house lends itself to treatment as an artwork, a manifesto, a fiction, sometimes a comic.”

This freedom, says Moore, has made Japan into an incubator of architectural ideas that have then spread around the world. A two-way traffic continues, that started when western architects took the spare lines and flowing space of traditional Japanese buildings as inspirations for modernism. More than that, at their best, they create three-dimensional poetry out of the business of living in modern cities.

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Fujimoto’s House NA, 2011: ‘a climbing frame of tiny decks, presenting its inner life to the street with near-complete transparency’. (Photograph: Iwan Baan/Katsuhisa Kida/Fototeca)
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Ohouse, designed by Mitsutaka Kitamura.
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The Arimaston Building, still unfinished nine years after construction began. Oke is building it himself as his home. Photograph: Ryudai Takano. (Photograph courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates, Zeit-Foto Salon)

“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.” — John Maeda in The Laws of Simplicity (Law 10, THE ONE)

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