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Time’s Up

The bromide “age is just a number” is likely to refer with frequency to triple digits, according to David Ewing Duncan in his new TED publication, “When I’m 164: The New Science of Radical Life Extension, and What Happens If It Succeeds.” Veteran biotech journalist Duncan purposes a new e-book format, brought to us by the folks who give us the fabulous “TED Talks,” to inquire not so much into how science plans to double our life expectancies, but to wonder about whether this is a good idea or not. Duncan’s endeavor includes a summary of his survey of more than 30,000 people on the subject of whether they would like to live to 80 (60 percent would); 120 (30 percent); 150 (10 percent), or FOREVER (1 percent). What, so few delusional megalomaniacs out there?

The TED books are a new and interesting format. Most of them are 20,000 words or shorter, available on Kindles and Nooks, and most impressively as an iPad App – this version brings the user (are we still readers on these things?) illustrations, graphs, links to further research and so on. I read Duncan’s work on a Kindle, and, unused to this foreshortening of a typical book length, I kept thinking I was skipping pages. This was partly due to Duncan’s very wide-angle take on his subject, which is more like a survey of the topic than a drill-down. Which is fine. “When I’m 164” is not intended to answer the questions it raises, and much of the research Duncan references is changing so fast, it would probably be obsolete by the time a full book on the subject appeared.

Duncan muses on the memory of encountering his great-great-aunt Effie when she was 102 and he was six. She “smelled faintly like old socks.” Duncan shares with us the passions of “ageonauts” like Bill Maris, CEO of Google Ventures, who very much wants to live to age 150; Maris probably hasn’t thought about what he will smell like should he attain that goal. Duncan puts “techno optimists” in quick historical context, citing Sir Thomas More, Francis Bacon (needless to say, the philosopher, not the painter), Thomas Jefferson, and Karl Marx among those with “towering self-assurance” concerning the positive conjoining of man and machine. He sketches the counterpoint “pessimism and existential angst” that has resulted when historic machine-dreams, like the one fueling World War I, resulted in “astonishing horror.”

Duncan does a great job of lining up the “yin and yang” sides of what he might call the Frankenstein debate. He enumerates some of the reasons people want to live longer – to help their children for more years, to fulfill more dreams – and some of the reasons they don’t want to – fear that since pretty bad things happen on this Earth, a longer life might mean a longer torture. There are also huge questions around how we could possibly sustain bigger numbers of people living longer. Who could afford the health care? How would our already dwindling-to-the-breaking-point natural resources hold up?

Though I don’t quite think its publications should be called books, this TED idea is very useful and clever. In addition to downloading them for $2.99 each, you have the option of subscribing for three months at $14.99; you will get two publications a month. As Duncan has handily framed his inquiry so that we all might want to start talking about it ourselves, TED Book subscribers can join an online discussion of each title, like a ready-made book group. You can weigh in right here on how long you’d like to live:

And finally, this closing piece of observational wisdom from Ellen DeGeneres: “My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-seven now, and we don’t know where the heck she is.”

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