The Immortality Hustle

Silicon Valley’s quest to achieve eternal life is pure quackery. But it reveals much about the antidemocratic pathologies of the global superrich.

Illustration by Gaurab Thakali

In 2017, writer and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff received an unusual invitation to speak at a luxury resort. Offered a generous commission and a vague but innocuous-sounding prompt — “the future of technology” — Rushkoff arrived at the appointed time expecting to find a Davos-esque gathering of a few hundred investment bankers ready to pick his brain about predictable subjects like 3D printing or the blockchain. Instead, the author was ushered into a space so small and unassuming he initially mistook it for a green room.

As it turned out, no audience of expectant financiers awaited him, just a small roundtable and five exorbitantly wealthy men drawn from the most elite niches of the hedge fund world, whose questions quickly took on a strangely sinister air.

In place of the techno-optimism that so often characterizes the public-facing rhetoric of the superrich, this coterie of plutocrats had a much grimmer and more dystopian set of concerns. Channeling Elon Musk’s fantasies of interstellar colonization, Peter Thiel’s quest to reverse the aging process, and the reveries of transhumanists who one day hope to upload themselves to computers, all were less interested in wielding technology to solve collective problems than in using it to escape them. They were, in Rushkoff’s words, “preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than  . . . transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from [the] very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion.”

“Death is sort of an affront to American life,” as novelist Zadie Smith put it. “It’s so anti-aspirational.” In an era defined by existential crises, political paralysis, and raging inequality, the idea of escaping death itself is now a booming business. According to one estimate, the antiaging industry alone generates more than $80 billion a year despite having yielded no tangible results when it comes to actually extending the human life span. Last year, a single “Longevity Investors Conference” held in the Swiss Alps attracted more than one hundred millionaires and billionaires, each of whom paid $4,500 for admission while pledging to contribute at least $1 million to the cause. The Saudi royal family is also getting in on the action, planning to spend $1 billion a year through a newly created nonprofit, the Hevolution Foundation, on research to reverse aging. Silicon Valley’s Altos Labs, billed as a “rejuvenation startup,” counts the likes of Jeff Bezos — whose farewell letter to Amazon shareholders included the words “Staving off death is a thing that you have to work at” — among its most prominent investors.

Amusingly, or perhaps alarmingly, these cases probably represent the saner and more plausible end of the plutocratic imagination when it comes to the pursuit of immortality. Not content with the idea of simply living longer, a second faction is investing its hopes in the digital realm and seeking to transcend biology altogether. Drawing inspiration from futurist Ray Kurzweil, for example, Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov’s 2045 Initiative aims to “create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced nonbiological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality” — an objective its founder is “100 percent certain” can be achieved within a few decades. Silicon Valley’s Sam Altman, meanwhile, has already paid a hefty sum to join the waiting list of a start-up company that promises to digitally preserve human consciousness after death. “I assume my brain will be uploaded to the cloud,” Altman told the MIT Technology Review in 2018.

Whether biologically or cybernetically oriented, the whole enterprise raises a number of obvious political and moral questions, to say nothing of the many glaring scientific and philosophical ones. On its face, there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of using medical science to help people live longer. The current immortality craze, however, is less a democratic quest for collective human betterment than an expression of various pathologies that now predominate among the global superwealthy.

Every ruling class in history has seen itself as exceptional. But as Rushkoff observes in his 2022 book Survival of the Richest, ours is the first that has “assumed that the primary impact” of its own activities will be to “render the world itself unlivable for everyone else” and consequently look for ways to escape from it. On a more basic level, many of the planet’s wealthiest people — accustomed to having their every whim satisfied in the material world — are evidently frustrated by the reality that even boundless riches have their limits. “If you buy a yacht, you can always get a bigger yacht; if you buy a plane, you can always get a bigger plane,” billionaire Christian Angermayer told last year’s Longevity Investors Conference in Gstaad, Switzerland. “But,” he continued, making a pitch for big investments in longevity science, “the [extent to which] your life is changing with more money is actually very minimal.”

Viewed this way, the superrich’s quest for immortality is merely the logical end point of its visceral lust for power and desire to operate without regulation or constraint. Markets — not representative democracy — increasingly rule the world, and twenty-first-century capitalism has allowed their greatest bene-ficiaries to accrue more freedom and influence than anyone in human history. Rich or poor, however, existence is finite, and mortality, by definition, democratic. In this sense, death is one of the few frontiers of democracy the planet’s plutocrats have yet to overcome.

“This is as self-serving as the Medici building a Renaissance chapel in Italy, but with a little extra Silicon Valley narcissism thrown in,” remarked one skeptical scientist in 2017 of the ultra-wealthy’s quest for eternal life. “It’s based on the frustration of many successful rich people that life is too short: ‘We have all this money, but we only get to live a normal life span.’”

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Luke Savage is a staff writer at Jacobin. He is the author of The Dead Center: Reflections on Liberalism and Democracy After the End of History.

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