“Death makes me very angry.”
—Larry Ellison, Oracle founder
I did something dumb. I tried to write about taxes. Writing about taxes is like writing about civilization itself. Have I learned nothing? In considering a toothpick, one might discover the universe, but in considering the universe… minor nervous breakdown. So I decided to write about something smaller: death.
But back to taxes for a moment. I like the lifeboat analogy in David Foster Wallace’s novel The Pale King. A Peoria IRS agent says to his co-worker that taxes are like being on lifeboat where everyone’s starving and there’s only so much food. You share because you want to be able to live with yourself afterwards.
Most of what I pay is capital gains tax, which is on profit from the sale of an asset. Compared to income tax, long-term capital gains is a bargain. So in the lifeboat analogy, I share less food than others even though I have more of it.
I learned a lot about the massive legal tax dodges involved in corporate offshore deferrals, inversions and ghost companies. I’m probably getting this wrong, but in DFW’s lifeboat analogy, an offshore corporate deferral might be like the lifeboat where the people with the most food decide to postpone sharing it until land is in sight and they’ve eaten most of it. An inversion could be when someone on the boat pulls out a life preserver and ties it to the main raft and floats hundreds of feet behind, sharing nothing but enjoying the ride. And a ghost company might be like an empty life preserver floating behind the boat with no one on it because they’ve already been flown out by helicopter. Like Apple’s subsidiary, Apple Operations International which saves it billions of dollars a year in tax transcendence.
Which brings me to the subject of death.
Actually, my subject is death avoidance or, if you prefer, “death relief” or “life-advantageous measures.”
I’m referring to the recent spate of Silicon Valley tech billionaires funding research in nanotechnology, cryopreservation, the 3-D printing of organs, neural interface with robot avatars, and the uploading of one’s consciousness to a hard drive to achieve immortality. Also vitamins.
I see before my mind’s eye the desiccated corpse of Ben Franklin enjoying a cup of tea with the powdery amalgam of bone matter that was once Daniel Defoe. Both men famously joked about death and taxes. Are they aware that their joke is in peril?
Would Franklin embrace “the singularity”? Mr. Franklin, the singularity is the name of a glorious moment, championed by futurist Ray Kurzweil, in what will be nostalgically remembered as humanity. It’s when artificial intelligence becomes sentient, at which point scientists will also have successfully “reverse engineered” the human brain. I’m telling you, it’s going to be neat. Unfortunately, by the time the singularity happens, the Social Security reserves will be dry, but no worries. Anyone wishing to opt out of the corporeal burdens of sickness, hunger and homelessness will be able to pop by community centers for uploading. If the singularity works out, Mr. Franklin, you’ll have all of eternity to conduct experiments, write books and “fart proudly”.1
And what would the great author of Robinson Crusoe think of Dmitry Itskov, founder of the 2045 Initiative? Itskov has said he’s 100% certain immortality will happen and expressed the desire to live to be 10,000. Would Defoe sympathize with Itskov’s wish to have more time for his hobbies—weight lifting, diving, and martial arts? Any comment, Mr. Defoe?
I grant that the Organick Deficiencies of our natural Condition are wanting and such aims, viz. the unimpeded hoisting of Matter, pierfing of Water and thrusting forth with the Heel do please Reason.
Paypal cofounder Peter Thiel might say I’m being “conformist” or “complacent” for making fun of the most important event ever. Of death, he has said he’s “against it.” He’s also a proponent of seasteading communities, giant floating micro-nations that would be free from territorial laws—and, incidentally, ideal tax havens. Early seasteading communities will involve the retrofitting of cruise ships, a supposedly utopian thing I think I’ll never do. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Thiel can recite memory Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.” I can’t help but feel it loses a little when it’s understood as “Do not go into that Good night.”
What’s that rustling noise I hear? It must be Denial of Death author Ernst Becker rolling in his grave. Which, by the way, is a thing that will have to be explained to immortal high school students when they first encounter Hamlet. Reading Becker was a huge relief to me. He suggested that feelings of powerlessness and depression might not always be the result of neurosis, but of being oversold on hero narratives in a culture that seems this close to putting ads on hospital gowns.
That gloomy can’t-do attitude is what radical life extension proponents might call thinking inside the box. On the other hand, there’s this uplifting message from a leading cryonics website:2
Q: If cryonics works for me, won’t all my friends and relatives be dead?
A: You can increase your chances of seeing your current friends and family in the future by interesting them in cryonics or by making friends within the cryonics community. At any rate, if cryonics works it will give you the greatest opportunity of all—the ability to make new friends (including, perhaps, with your own descendants).
At any rate, indeed.
It’s 4:56 a.m. on the day this column is due. I think I’ve achieved some sort of singularity. There’s no longer any lifeboat. There are no longer any people. A cruise ship keels to one side in a windless Caribbean dawn. It has been retrofitted as an office building. The directory lists 2,000 names. I walk down the tilted hallway feeling queasy from watching videos about liquid vitrification. I enter an office. In the corner is a leather chair shaped like a giant baseball glove. Next to it sits an IV pole holding a bag filled with dimes. I lower myself into the chair and decide to check the weather on my phone but everywhere is Cupertino, California.
1 Sorry, sorry. I know how sick of that you must be. That is, if you were alive and not bits of dried, crumbly, soil-like debris.
2 Cryonics is the vitrification of one’s body in liquid nitrogen and storage in large metal cylinders. These are housed in earthquake-free zones like Scottsdale, Arizona. For an extra charge, small boxes of one’s most precious belongings may be stored in salt mines 600 feet below Kansas. A FAQ on another cryonics website reassures potential customers that its technology is not only for “rich people” and quotes a starting price of 28K for cryopreservation at the time of death. (Head not included.)