Silicon Valley’s Quest to Defy Death May Make Inequality Worse

Best-selling author and historian Yuval Harari sees threats to the 20th century’s egalitarian projects.

Death is the great equalizer, right? It always has been, but Silicon Valley might be changing that.

More and more tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists see the effort to extend life as the next big thing. “Death will eventually be reduced from a mystery to a solvable problem,” billionaire Peter Thiel, the Facebook director and PayPal mafia member, wrote in the foreword to a book on longevity a few years back. More recently, Bill Maris, who invests hundreds of millions of Google’s dollars, told Bloomberg Markets magazine, “I just hope to live long enough not to die.”

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists see immortality as the next big thing.
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists see immortality as the next big thing.
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

The push to keep mortality at bay could be a defining characteristic of the current era, says Yuval Harari, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

“Whereas in traditional societies, the idea was that people die because god says so or because the cosmos says so and there is nothing you can do about it, the scientific idea is that you always die because of some technical problem. Like the heart stops pumping blood or something,” Harari says in an interview. “And every technical problem, at least in theory, has a technical solution.”

As a social scientist, Harari tries to describe, rather than judge, this epochal shift in how we view death. Still, he raises a sticky question about life-extending technology: “Whether it’s going to be for everybody or only for the very rich.” He’s not reassuring as he ponders possible answers.

This story appears in the October 2015 issue of Bloomberg Markets.
This story appears in the October 2015 issue of Bloomberg Markets.

Medical science in the 20th century brought us vaccination campaigns, antibiotics, and hygiene systems that cut child mortality and virtually eliminated some diseases. “The main thing was to heal the sick,” Harari says, “and this is essentially an egalitarian project, because you try to give everybody the same normal health.”

But striving for equality as one of society’s highest ideals is an exception across human history; hierarchy and inequality are the norm. (Read Harari’s book if you doubt it.) “What you saw in the 20th century is that there were economic, military, and political reasons for countries, for societies, to invest in the health of all the population,” Harari says. Powerful nations needed healthy humans to fill their armies and navies, their factories and fields, he argues. Such needs are vanishing as drones fight wars and robots run factories.

This change colors Harari’s view of what will happen with new technologies and medicines that extend and improve lives. Such breakthroughs will be expensive, and there may be fewer incentives to make them cheaper and widely available.

“We can’t go on assuming that people will still have the military and economic importance they had in the 20th century,” Harari concludes. “So we can’t just take it for granted that any medical advancement will automatically be given to the masses.”

(This story appears in the October issue of Bloomberg Markets magazine.) 

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