I’m amused by how intent people are on making human beings immortal or at least extremely long-lived. One of the consolations of dying is that [you think], ‘Well, that won’t have to be my problem’. Seriously, the world is changing so quickly that if you had any more than 80 years of change I don’t see how you could stand it psychologically.”
Most of Franzen's comments on e-books and technology are pretty shallow -- he's an admitted atavist, as per his essays in How to Be Alone -- but he does touch on something worth expanding on here, even if he doesn't seem to realize it.
Vajra deals at least in part with civilizations that have the power to massively and in some cases indefinitely prolong human life. To that end, Franzen's statement made me think of several things at once:
1) First, an unapologetic sideswipe at his opinions. If he says things like "if you had any more than 80 years of change I don’t see how you could stand it psychologically, that tells me he either doesn't do a lot of wondering about how such a thing could be possible, or he doesn't think it's his business to wonder such things. Which is fine, I guess, but I do look at it this way: why cut yourself off from a whole new field of things to learn about and ponder?
Also: when he says 80 years of change, which 80 years is he talking about? The 80 years of, say, 1800 to 1880, or the 80 years from 1900 to 1980? The sheer amount of change that takes place in any ten years of our lives now dwarfs what people experienced a hundred years ago in the course of their whole existences, but somehow the vast majority of us go on with our lives anyway.
I suspect that's at least in part because we've found ways to cope with it -- either by allowing most of those changes to be filtered away from us, or by becoming that much more thick-skinned. This isn't to say those things are good or bad, just that they are part of the price we pay for living in "interesting times". (And really, when you get down to it, when have we ever not?)
Another possibility is that things actually aren't changing all that much -- that it's a matter of perspective in more ways than one, and that what Franzen thinks we can or can't stand is entirely his projection.
2) If we were to have a society of extremely long-lived people, there are only a couple of conceivable models for such a society (PIT disclaimer applies). One assumes that conventional human reproduction takes place and the other assumes it does not. In the former, the long-lived ones are essentially "diaspora seeders": the generations they bring into being are meant to leave home and go out into the universe, lest they crowd out their own parents. In the latter, the concept of a successive generation is itself dispensed with -- why would you need to do that if you are functionally immortal? No prizes, by the way, for guessing which of these two would be an inherently reactionary society.
3) There's a difference between making people functionally immortal and using science to reduce their suffering, although at some point the difference between the two does become harder to parse. Some of that is just plain human nature at work: as Stanisław Lem (a writer Franzen might well admire) once said, "It's not merely that people want to not die; they want to live." Meaning they want to enjoy it, and not simply exist in some continuum -- which, in itself, implies risk, and that risk usually also implies the risk of dying. A life without death, or death that is simply postponed indefinitely at the cost of whole social constructions, doesn't sound like much of a life to me.
That doesn't make me a fan of death -- just all the more aware that the existence we get as human beings comes with certain constraints, and that just maybe those constraints exist for good reasons.
Granted, one way to get past that is to become something other than human -- but based on everything I've seen so far, we'd just use that as another way to be the same selfish gits we've always been. We don't have the greatest track record for just being plain old humans -- although, I give us at least credit for keeping on trying.
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Other Lives Of The Mind