Secular Immortality and Cinema

Two films recently have been very similar (and this afternoon I saw the second, even though it’s been out for some time). Elysium and In Time are very similar. Both feature a totalitarian control on magically efficient health care. In both access to this is highly restricted. In both of them health (or immortality) access is highly restricted. Why? Population pressure is explicitly mentioned on one, but it is not clear that this is the problem they might pretend. As an extreme, Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time are all immortal by a technology long lost and long forgotten. Our hero in that story is unusual, he’s the only person alive who was “born”.  

In the second film, In Time, basically immortality is a consequence of solvency and the consequences of bankruptcy are instantaneous and fatal. When you reach 25, bang, you stop aging, your “clock” (wealth) is set to 1 year. If your clock ever reaches 0, boom. You are dead. The second economic stricture is that there is no post-mortem inheritance. If you die with “wealth” (time) then access to those funds are lost forever. No reason is given for the second issue, which is somewhat odd, because protection of inheritance is a feature that is held today as a feature in place which in-trenches the wealthy (so you’d think the wealthy would have implemented a mechanism for that). The “reason” for the first (bankruptcy kills) is that this is necessary for a Darwinian culling, selection of the fittest (and fitness is measured by wealth alone).

In both of these dystopian communities our hero is drawn from the bottom of the economic slice, from the slums. In both of these, there is little evidence of any positive governmental organs, no social services, no welfare, nothing. Killers and crooks are used in clumsy efforts to keep the order.

The wealthy in the In Time movie suffer from a lack of purpose and ennui. They are eternally 25. They have nothing to do but protect their wealth and avoid any sort of physical risk. The main character is spurred to action after a humanitarian effort saves the life of one of the wealthy, who decides to gift his wealth and die because he’s lived too long and he has no reason to continue.

In Elysium medicine is all automated and there is no indication that the medical resources required to heal people is limited for any actual reason. Our hero liberates access to super-medicine to everyone and the film ends. In In Time, the film ends with market (currency) disruption and a sense that the instability may signal change.

Somewhere, or someday, a fictional dystopian (or utopian?) future story will investigate immortality and almost perfect medical technology, without Malthusian fears and/or the mistaken notion that monetary exchange is zero-sum.

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21 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    I thought the best take on this was the Q from Star Trek Voyager. Always great fun as a godlike ‘bad boy’ who sarcastically mocked all the pompous characters on the show but usually wasn’t too bad. One of the best episodes, though, was on Voyager where a member of Q had escaped and his ‘crime’ was after an infinite lifetime and infinite power (the Q can move about in time and space so even though they started as a normal species in our finite universe they were essentially infinite) had decided it was time to die.

    The humans were selected to judge a ‘trial’ where one Q argued for the merits of mortality and his ‘right to die’. while the other argued horrible things would happen to the Q society if such a disruption was allowed.

    In contrast, I think the two movies you cited just had mortality as a plot device. In Elysium they have what seems to be a combination 3-D printer and MRI machine. Begs the question why not just make more of those machines? In Time you could have saved the device by setting up some plausible scarce resource to account for such a radical artificial policy. For example if maintaining age 25 required some type of difficult to produce energy (and like a drug once you start, stopping is rapid death rather than simply beginning to age beyond 25), then the mechanism of the movie could make some sense. Another option might be a ‘Hunger Games’ case where the artificial constraint is a game element in the entertainment industry of some larger society.

  2. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    In the second film, the action is kicked off because a character tells us he is bored with immortality. He gives our hero a “century” in an economic zone where people typically have less than a day on their clock. The reverse of immortality, incipient mortality is a recurring threat. It isn’t just a plot device it is central to the plot.

    The owner of the “time” bank, has a hero as Darwin, sees culling the herd of the unfit (social darwinism made literal). He is seen to be directly influencing price and interest rates with the express purpose of keeping population “down”.

    One of the other holes is how they get universal buy in. Let’s put it this way, if you were told you wouldn’t age as long as you didn’t go broke. Would you go for it?

  3. Boonton says:

    The owner of the “time” bank, has a hero as Darwin, sees culling the herd of the unfit (social darwinism made literal). He is seen to be directly influencing price and interest rates with the express purpose of keeping population “down”.

    To what end? Darwinism works because some traits provide reproductive advantages versus others. The traits, in themselves, have no inherent value or meaning. Hairy elephants are an advantage if climate is cold, a disadvantage if it is warm, for example. Darwinism is often misunderstood as having fixed measures of good and bad. It doesn’t, what works today (being a big dinosaur) could end up being your downfall tomorrow (meteor impact, 10 years of darkness…90% less plant life etc.). Probably the closest you can get to an objectively ideal species wouldn’t be humans but bacteria and some insects like ants. They are the only living things that you can pretty much safely bet will survive just about anything other than the sun swallowing up the earth.

    So the man behind the scenes here is ‘culling the herd’ of the unfit by adjusting prices. That would make sense if the traits that lead to the production or acquiring of wealth are the same as the traits he wants to promote. But to make those traits more common in the population you’d need those with the traits to reproduce more than those without the traits. Yet the threat of incipient mortality would seem to work against that. Would the ‘wealthy’ have more kids or just use their wealth to get more and more time? More kids would just mean you’d have more ‘mouths’ to literally feed with your wealth. Better to have fewer kids an enjoy more time with them.

    The other problem with Social Darwinistic schemes is that the planner himself needs immortality to enjoy the fruits of the exercise. Multiple generations is fine if you’re breeding dogs but if you are doing it with humans you’re going to need probably at least 100 years before you’ll see serious results. What traits is this planner seeking? It would probably cost a lot less in time to use a non-Darwinistic mechanism to achieve them.

    I would say if you really want a Darwinistic system it would have be redesigned as a sort of Amway scheme. The ‘cost’ you face of additional years would go up exponentially the older you get. However you would have the right to claim ‘dividends’ on your offspring. Say you get to have a 10% ‘tax’ on your direct kids, 1% tax on your grandkids, 1/10% tax on their kids etc.

    Some might approach the game by being super earners but since the cost of additional time keeps growing that strategy will only work for a brief period. To really be immortal would require you to have an ever expanding # of offspring that allows your tax revenue to grow no slower than the price of additional time increases.

  4. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    For the purposes of the film “ability to make money” was the fitness selection (which in social darwinism itself was interpreted as a moral (worth/societal) superiority).

    There was apparently in the movie/universe as given no cost of extending a 100 y/old by a year as compared to extending the life of a 30 y/old (everyone’s body was “fixed” at age 25). So there would be no material reason for an increase in cost for older people.

  5. Boonton says:

    You may want to compare to an older movie, Logan’s Run. In that move everyone lived inside a huge domed city. When people turned 35, they were destroyed in a ritual which they believed would allow them to be reborn as babies.

    The truth ends up being revealed later that the city is run by computers. After a nuclear war, the city was self-sustaining but only for a finite population. The computer program ensured the city was full of young, happy people who partied all the time under the “noble lie” of reincarnation at 35. It seems to me population control is an issue if you’re dealing with limited resources and your primary goal is to protect them from overconsumption. Darwinistic ‘breeding’, on the other hand, needn’t worry about population control…in fact the more the merrier since larger litters mean a larger chance of offspring with exceptionally good traits.

    For the purposes of the film “ability to make money” was the fitness selection…

    this begs the question, in that world how does one make money? In our world it is by meeting demand…producing something other people want. That doesn’t seem like a trait in the Darwinian sense to me. “What people want” is subject to drastic change at a moment’s notice. Consider, say the people in the society want to see very thin tall women. Such women will make lots of money as actresses and models and (assuming the offspring problem is solved by the system’s incentive design), will increate the trait of thin and tall among women. But in a moment curvy can become in style and all those generations of selecting for tall and thinness are now wasted. Nature changes the incentives all the time and since nature has no mind it is essentially random. But here you supposedly have an evil social planner at the center of the whole operation so what exactly is *his* goal? What would he define as a success for all the energy he is putting into creating such a convoluted system?

    IMO it would make more sense then if he was, for whatever crazy reason, trying to reward a very specific trait…like being tall and thin. The Nazis had a much simplier solution…lavish subsidies and rewards on those with ‘Aryan’ traits, harass and persecute all others. If they ended up having their 1000 year Reich I’m sure they would have succeeded in establishing a Germany populated by almost 100% blue-eyed blondes. And in evolutionary terms that would have been totally irrelevant.

    There was apparently in the movie/universe as given no cost of extending a 100 y/old by a year as compared to extending the life of a 30 y/old (everyone’s body was “fixed” at age 25). So there would be no material reason for an increase in cost for older people

    I think the biggest problem then would be that people would pirate the technology to give themselves ‘free’ life extensions. The plot doesn’t really work if you give it some thought unless the technology required some scarce material or labor meaning there would be a limited amount to go around so some system would have to be implemented to allocate it.

    Simply being ‘fit’ though, is not good enough since fitness is relative and unstable.

  6. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    this begs the question, in that world how does one make money? In our world it is by meeting demand…producing something other people want.

    I’m unclear on your question. Time is the currency. You have an amount you carry on your person. You can “bank” time on devices, which you can put in a bank, or safe deposit, or whatever. The poor we see, typically carry all the money they have on their person (arm display). If you had a job you’d be paid in time. You spend time for all of your purchases.

    The “evil” planner just manages the monetary supply.

    Simply being ‘fit’ though, is not good enough since fitness is relative and unstable.

    As described, “fitness” is just solvency. You need to function in the economy well enough to avoid bankruptcy (which is instantaneously fatal). Actually, not just bankruptcy. You have to always have “cash” on your person. If you are caught without money, even if you control money in the bank, if you don’t have any (time/money) on your person, you die.

    I guess the buy in question is would you trade a chance for immortality at the cost of always always (!) having money on your person. Liquidity or death.

  7. Mark says:

    The point is the fitness function is money.

  8. Boonton says:

    I’m unclear on your question. Time is the currency….The “evil” planner just manages the monetary supply.

    Let me try to follow this through…. Currency itself is usually worthless, whether it is paper or gold it has nearly no actual use to you in itself. It works as a medium of trade. I grow wheat, you raise cows, money allows me to trade my whate for your milk without the complicated mess of us actually having to happen to know each other. Money is created simply to faciliate that trade. Too much money and you cease to increase trade and just end up with prices increasing. Too little money and you start inhibiting trade.

    I’m not sure what the planner is up too in the plot you described. It seems to me having people who are 25 creates goods and services while having people who are dead causes less goods and services to be created. So the whole system doesn’t seem to work if the idea of ‘fitness’ in the planners mind is a society full of really productive people.

    As described, “fitness” is just solvency. You need to function in the economy well enough to avoid bankruptcy (which is instantaneously fatal).

    But how is that a Darwinian trait? Consider the Jamestown ‘law’, ‘don’t work don’t eat’. John Smith had a pretty sensible reason for that, work had to be done in Spring so there’d be a harvest in Summer and Fall so there’d be food to survive through the winter. Sounds like a steampunk version of your sci-fi story. The moment you stop eating you start starving. Don’t work and your clock starts running down. Sure sure, it isn’t really immortality since you’ll eventually die but still a lot like it. Except here the ‘money supply’ is created by essentially creating food. Is this what the evil planner is doing? If so why the need to kill everyone at 25 since we already have the tech to get most people well above 50 without anything too crazy.

  9. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    But how is that a Darwinian trait?

    As presented in the film, it is the leading cause of death.

    I’m not sure what the planner is up too in the plot you described.

    Neither am I.

    Currency itself is usually worthless, whether it is paper or gold it has nearly no actual use to you in itself.

    Actually gold (silver) were used as currency because they had intrinsic value. And managing the money supply was a more difficult thing because it was a limited resource in and of itself. I’m not unclear on your confusion here, before paper currency became the norm (19/20th centuries), currency normally had intrinsic value, in fact much paper currency was “backed” by actual gold or valuables. Your statement “Money is created simply to faciliate that trade” is to say economics didn’t exist in a way you can think about it prior to the 20th century. That isn’t very useful.

    I think a better way of thinking about this currency is that it has no intrinsic value either, but that there is a high (mortal) penalty for having no cash on hand.

  10. Boonton says:

    Gold has no intrinsic value. It has engineering value, but that is not stable as it depends upon the cost of substitutes, workarounds and the value performed by the applications themselves. It has value as jewelry and art, but it changes as tastes are inherently unstable.

    “Money is created simply to faciliate that trade” is to say economics didn’t exist in a way you can think about it prior to the 20th century.

    Paper was a big factor even before the 20th century. But even under an ideal gold standard, this statement would be true. The only difference is that instead of money supply creation being managed by printers or central bankers it is managed by mine owners and prospectors.

  11. Boonton says:

    I think the gist of what I’m saying is that both movies seem like they are premised on a plot gimmick. Not really a plausible sketch of what society may look like if certain technologies or events came to pass.

  12. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    Gold has no intrinsic value. It has engineering value

    I disagree, in fact as you continue you disagree with that as well. Gold (and to a lesser extent other valuable metals) are valued because of their ability to resist tarnishing, their ductility and their luster. That stability of the value is not relevant. If you want to consider the “in time” currency as based in “lifespan” the “value” of life has varies quite a bit by age, person, taste.

    The only difference is that instead of money supply creation being managed by printers or central bankers it is managed by mine owners and prospectors.

    Which was usually in antiquity controlled in turn by the state, to manage the money supply. Only, often you had shortages of specie driven which were unavoidable because the mines were not as fungible as paper.

    I think the gist of what I’m saying is that both movies seem like they are premised on a plot gimmick. Not really a plausible sketch of what society may look like if certain technologies or events came to pass.

    Well, I did end my essay with a request for instances of a realistic portrayal of dystypian (or utopian) societies.

  13. Boonton says:

    I disagree, in fact as you continue you disagree with that as well. Gold (and to a lesser extent other valuable metals) are valued because of their ability to resist tarnishing, their ductility and their luster.

    These are traits. Atoms are electrically neutral. Is that valuable? Depends. If you need something electrically neutral, that’s valuable, if you don’t, it isn’t. Water is wet, air is breatheable, ice is solid below freezing. These are things that may be valuable to you or may be a problem for you depending upon what you are trying to accomplish.

    Well, I did end my essay with a request for instances of a realistic portrayal of dystypian (or utopian) societies.

    Tricky, isn’t it.

  14. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    These are traits. Atoms are electrically neutral. Is that valuable? Depends. If you need something electrically neutral, that’s valuable, if you don’t, it isn’t. Water is wet, air is breathable, ice is solid below freezing. These are things that may be valuable to you or may be a problem for you depending upon what you are trying to accomplish.

    What culture has not valued gold highly? I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here. You seem to be taking a position that gold backed currency does not in fact depend on value of gold absent its use as currency. If that was the case, why did not those who used gold-backed paper currency as “backing” use something like dirt or rocks as the “backing” for it? Why gold?

  15. Boonton says:

    So money is usually viewed as having several functions:

    1. Store of value – I can leave it aside today and if I come back to it in the future it will be worth something.

    2. Medium of exchange – It can be used easily as the substance where exchanges take place

    3. Unit of Account – It’s easy to use it as a way to define the base unit to measure value.

    Gold can be used for all of those things so it has made good money, esp. in places lacking a government. You could use anything, for example you can define your money as a gram of water, but on earth at least water is not very rare and you’d need serious technology to be able to measure its purity on the fly, store it in your wallet etc.

    You seem to be taking a position that gold backed currency does not in fact depend on value of gold absent its use as currency.

    of course if currency is backed by gold, then currency’s value will be gold’s value. If currency is backed by ketchup, it’s value will be ketchup’s value. But gold itself has no intrinsic value just like ketchup. It is only as valuable as supply and demand make it at any moment.

  16. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    It is only as valuable as supply and demand make it at any moment.

    I disagree. Paper money, only has the value that supply demand make it. Gold, has an intrinsic value outside it’s use as money (as does “the time left in your life”.

  17. Boonton says:

    I’m unclear what exactly you mean by ‘intrinsic value’? The value gold has is still driven by demand and supply for its non-monetary services.

  18. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Perhaps I used the wrong term. What I meant is that if you didn’t use gold for money, it would still be quite valuable, unlike paper currency.

  19. Boonton says:

    OK I agree, but keep in mind when it comes to discussions about money there is an old and loud group of ‘gold bugs’ who have argued for ages that gold has ‘intrinsic value’ by which they mean there is something magically different about gold as a backing for money. What you seem to be saying is that stuff that isn’t used as money nonetheless has value. For example, old Nintendo game cartridges…not used as money but do have a value and I suppose it is possible to fashion them into a money system.

  20. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    You do realize gold is not used as currency and is currently valued at $1200 an ounce?

    What you seem to be saying is that stuff that isn’t used as money nonetheless has value.

    No. I’m making a distinction between using knots on string or paper currency (which outside it’s currency usage has no value) and using gold (precious metals) or lifespan as currency, which has value outside of its use as specie.

  21. Boonton says:

    Well paper does have value, at least if you are talking about tons of it which can be sold for recycling or burned for energy. In contrast less than an ounce of gold buys you a pretty cool night on the town. If tomorrow, though, someone discovers a solid gold asteroid with a wormhole to make for easy transport the ‘intrinsic’ value of gold may suddenly drop to less than paper.