The universe is not only strange but stranger than we can imagine

Death: our last safeguard against tyranny?

Remember Caesar, you too are mortal

Most of us try not to think too much about the disasters that await us somewhere in the near or far future: pandemics, nuclear terrorism, snakes on the plane — whatever spikes our personal fear meter.  No point worrying about what might happen tomorrow, or the day after. Unless, of course, you are a science fiction wonk.

Science fiction speculates about where human societies might be headed, given the technologies that could conceivably be available tomorrow or twenty thousand years from now. And where we could be going in the next few decades worries me exceedingly, for many reasons. Here’s one   –in the near future, we may actually learn how to conquer death.

But isn’t that a great thing, you say? Defeating death has been humanity’s overriding goal, ever since we became self-aware. Death is horrible, terrifying – a one-way voyage into a dark country, quite possibly into eternal night.

The upside of Death
But even death has an upside from a societal point of view.  It is the one, true leveler. Rich or poor, King of Kings or lowliest peasant, you were going to die. Death is our species’ final safeguard against tyrants. After murdering millions, after ruling through cruelty and fear, Genghis Khan died, Stalin  died — and the world breathed a sigh of relief. Now imagine a time in which the next monster in human form does not die but extends his reign of terror over centuries, thanks to advances in science. That time may not be far off.

If science does manage to find a way to confer immortality, or greatly extended lifespans to people   – who will benefit? Obviously, the rich, the powerful, the well-connected. They will be the ones who can afford the treatments that grant immortality. And they will guard their privileges   – their wealth, their power, their access to extended life  – a thousand times more jealously than before, because they can enjoy those privileges for the indefinite future. Moreover, they will be nearly impossible to oppose, because they will have the accumulated wealth, education and experience of centuries at their disposal.

No-one here gets out alive.

Far too many “ordinary folks?”
The result could be an entrenched ruling class the like of which we have never seen before   – a small group of wealthy, cunning aristocrats who see the world in an entirely different way than the seething mass of ordinary folk   – those who must die. How long before these near-immortals decide there are far too many “ordinary folk” to serve their needs? How long before they decide they would rather have parks than crime-ridden squalid cities, clean, pure rivers rather than sewers of filth? How long before they decide to cull their less-fortunate, short-lived inferiors? Roll on the Die Back, the engineered death of billions for the convenience of the new Lords of the Earth.

Is this a possible scenario? Yes. Is it likely? Who knows? The future has many paths and many windings. But in our headlong pursuit of knowledge, the thought that Death might one day have no dominion should give us pause. Because if the next Hitler or Pol Pot could live forever, then we could be looking at the tightest, most nearly unbreakable tyranny in human history, or indeed the end of human history as we knew it. “No-one here gets out alive,” as the late, great Jim Morrison observed. Odd as it seems, maybe it’s better that way.

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