How long can we live?
No one knows for sure how long they will live, but science does give us a rough idea of how long we can live. In the year 1900, life expectancy was 48 years for men and 50 years for women in the US. Thanks to surgical advances, food and water safety improvements, immunizations from diseases, and other factors, by the year 2000, life expectancy grew to 74 years for men and 79 years for women. Medical science holds the promise of raising these average ages well into the future, but what’s the age at the top of the curve?
There must be an upper limit to life expectancy. Even if we cured all diseases and perfected nutritional intake to maximize our flesh and blood selves, eventually we age and “wear out”. We will all ultimately die, although more and more of us will succumb to the scourge of old age than some other underlying condition. In fact, more of us are reaching the end because of age instead of illness now.
Yes, more people are dying of old age these days, but not necessarily because more people are growing old. The reason code for “Cause of Death” on various state and international death certificates is being updated with this cause. “Old age” has only recently become the reason code of choice in some jurisdictions, and it isn’t exactly the most specific reason you could use. If you think about it, some other event typically accompanies the onset of the end. When old age strikes, the heart may stop. It’s tired and worn out. The victim is 104. Did she die of a heart attack, or old age? Increasingly, medical professionals are opting for the more generic, non-specific “old age” code, and that decision has far-reaching impacts.
Researchers use the data collected from countries around the world on cause of death to allocate dollars towards preventable diseases. Deciding that someone passed on from old age, therefore, is not merely an academic exercise. It has real world, financial implications that affect the living. For example, if one person is listed in the records as having died of cancer, that’s a “preventable” condition, eligible for funding. This is where that one reason code on a certificate versus another has implications beyond the deceased and their grieving family.
While old age is getting more of us, either through a statistical counting anomaly or actual old age conditions, we are discovering a route to virtual immortality to circumvent Father Time. Our lives were once defined by the stuff we kept, the stuff that wore out or was thrown away, and greedy grandkids and distant relatives were left to fight over the antique lamp or the valuable coin collection that remained in the attic. In modern times, more of our creations and belongings, however, are ideas and messages and personal diaries in cyberspace. What happens to our blog posts, our YouTube videos, our Flickr photo albums, and our Facebook accounts?
Businesses are springing up to handle the expected demand for afterlife digital management. Some businesses are as simple as warehouses for our online content and passwords. Legacy Locker already provides data content and password management services for the deceased. Other businesses allow you to plan messages and virtual activities for the post-flesh years. For example, DeathSwitch.com will send messages or tweets from you to loved ones at specified times in the future when you cannot. You can plan digital confessions, or virtual revenge, because what do you care? You’re already gone!
Margaret Wertheim, author of The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, wrote that some believe that “our essence lies not in our matter but in a pattern of data.” In this belief system, we can live beyond our mortal years in the bytes we leave behind. While you may think that great writers and public figures have done this for centuries through books and paintings, the difference today is that you and I can enjoy the same immortal legacy, and our work product will never gray, fade or disappear. This represents the promise of the Internet Age – a flattening of class and station, the ultimate in democratization. We can all have our own reality shows that never end, and the living can experience us whenever they choose with the click of a mouse. While I believe that there must be an upper limit to how long a human being can go on, it does not appear that there is a limit to how long our virtual being can survive. It’s immortality, whether we like it or not.
With over 500 million users of Facebook, over 50 million Twitter messages sent daily, and countless personal bloggers out there, perhaps the question should not be “How long can we live?” The new question should be, “How long should we live?” The answer may no longer be up to us once we hit “save” or “send”, and dying of old age may become an anachronistic concept to tomorrow’s techno-generations.
Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection, and died in that very spot. I hope we do not suffer the same fate and die staring into our computers at the megabytes of our virtual selves. Yikes.