Some years ago now, I saw a cartoon — in New Yorker, I think — of two old nabobs in leather armchairs at their club. One of them, frowning, says, “The thing I hate most about the sexual revolution is that I’m too old to take advantage of it.”
That pretty much expresses the way I’m feeling this week. It’s got nothing to do with sex, but everything to do with the future. Considering what’s in store for us if we can only hold the machinery of government from falling apart, I regret sorely that I won’t be around to see much of it.
I was 11 in 1946 when the United States Army Signal Corps first bounced radar beams off the moon. Some friends and I stood in our driveway that night, looking up at the moon, seriously wondering if the bombardment would fracture our familiar night light. That seems absurd today, but at the time it was a concern. We didn’t understand, either, what had happened a year earlier at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or how jet propulsion worked. We simply trusted that our military people knew what they were doing.
At present, in an atmosphere of global malaise and probably cataclysmic climate change, many of us don’t entirely trust anybody or many of our large-scale institutions anymore. It’s difficult or impossible to determine exactly what motivates or fuels them. The image of little people no brighter or more moral than ourselves operating the levers of power can be a bit frightening; for all our technological advances, human nature remains essentially Neanderthal.
So, why do I regret not being able to experience what’s in the offing? Because in the shadows, as it were, far from the daily thunder and drama of our world and national leaders, hundreds of thousands of other people (in this case probably brighter than ourselves) are plugging away at changing our lives for the better — “better,” actually, is putting it mildly — and are succeeding.
In an incredible leap forward that makes our moon-bouncing of 1946 seem laughable, scientists at NASA and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab have succeeded in sending a space probe about 4 billion miles into the Kuiper Belt of asteroids beyond Neptune and executing a planned fly-by of a space object nicknamed Ultima Thule. Aptly named for the “land beyond any known,” the barbell-shaped rock was photographed on New Year’s Eve by the probe’s cameras. The data, traveling at the speed of light, took over six minutes to reach antennae on Earth. Somehow, “Wow!” just doesn’t begin to touch that.
Other scientists, experts in the field of human health and longevity, claim with confidence that the first human being to live to 150 years of age has already been born. I can’t regret that it’s not me; but I do regret that I won’t be around to see it. A microbiologist I sometimes chat with at the gym claims that by the year 2050, most of us will be able to decide how long we want to live. That won’t happen all at once, so in case I sense I can’t make it to 115, I can begin to put patches on me here and there some years before that.
The current issue of National Geographic is dedicated to the future of medicine. Reading it, you can’t but wish the day’s news was less about Afghanistan, Syria and border walls, and more about the men and women toiling in relative obscurity to eradicate horrific life-thieves like Alzheimer’s, MS, ALS and cancer. The good news is, they’re succeeding. It’s all agonizingly slow progress, with each success standing, as Vannevar Bush once observed, upon the shoulders of those preceding it. Tiny digital transmitters will before long be implanted in our living bodies to spot problems and transmit the information to caregivers.
Digital communication and information already have become an integral part of our lives. This will increase until the user and the technology may be indistinguishable from each other. To many, this is ominous. But it’s inevitable. It seems to me better, if the horse is running away, to hang onto the reins and at least try to direct it, rather than drop them and complain about how well horses used to behave.
Unbeknownst to many of us, buried as we are in news of disasters real and impending, is how far humans have come in controlling their environment. Professor Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus, whose very title is destined to excite shouts of heresy, points out that more humans now die from obesity than starvation, from suicide than war, and from old age than infectious diseases. In this century, Harari claims, we will achieve near-immortality, access to bliss, and integration with technology. If that seems scary — and change is almost always frightening or threatening — the best response is probably to get over it. It’s happening.
Gosh, I wish I could stick around to see more of it! But tradition calls, and like you, I must go.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.