Strung up by Struldbrugs

I knew it was going to be bad pretty much as soon as I got into the cab. If you’re picking up a middle-aged woman, from the Computer Science building at a major university, do you assume she wants to talk about the minutiae of team selection for the weekend’s football? I know a bit about football: there are three sorts – footbrawl, thugby and Australian Fools. Unfortunately, I’m also polite. On my day, anyway. It was a very long short trip.
Followed by an uneventful flight in an awful seat. Somehow I no longer find silently muttering ‘Qantas never crashes, Qantas never crashes’ to myself all that reassuring. And I do have the urge to save the in-flight nibbles as evidence for when someone dies of food-poisoning.
The Melbourne cabbie had no interest in banging on about sport. He was actually a pleasure to talk to – I got a short history of El Salvadoran politics and the football war, which I now know to be a gross over-simplification of a far more complex event. There should be more cabbies like him. Ride and learn. It has a nice ring to it.
Then the hotel. Oh, the hotel. I arrived at ten past nine. Restaurant closes at nine. As does room service. Nowhere nearby to eat. Glumly ordered a revolting pizza delivery. Then sat back and listened to the trains passing, because the bloody place backs onto the rail line. Melbourne trains go all night. I live in a country village, where a kangaroo farting is considered a breach of the peace.
Up, thoroughly un-rested, the next morning and off to the Humanity Plus event. I arrived early – they were still setting up. Well, setting up might be too strong a term. There wasn’t a lot to do – the whole thing, ironically given the subject matter, was resolutely low-tech. But I did notice the star turn – Aubrey de Grey – helping to lump the banners around.
I’ve always been suspicious of de Grey – he appears far too messianic for my liking – and I was torn about whether I should regard this as basic decency or as the act of a man desperate to get out his (somewhat alarming) message. I opted for the latter, but as the hours wore on I came to a different, third, conclusion.
It was also hard not to notice the number of shuffling dotards there to learn about living forever or dying in the attempt. I suppose there are a lot of people who’ll grasp the flimsiest of straws when death is staring them in the face. One of them gave a constant running commentary – to no-one in particular – about what he was doing as he was doing it. I couldn’t help but think he was trying to keep his mind on the task at hand, for fear of forgetting what it was.
The atmosphere was alarmingly respectful towards the whole living forever thing. Really quite extraordinarily uncritical. I got the distinct impression that if I uttered a sceptical comment, I’d be strung up by Struldbrugs. Slowly, of course.
That impression was confirmed by the crusty old hippie who invaded my personal space and announced – about 20 seconds into the unwelcome conversation – that nanotechnology could be used for weapons. Biting down the urge to say ‘No shit Sherlock. So could your socks’, I countered with affordable clean water supplies for third world countries. That confused him, and he left. Thank Cthulu.
And away we go. With the wi-fi not yet working. First up was a futurist (and Reiki practitioner, which chilled my bones to the marrow), who gave us a rousing – and almost totally content-free – session called Humanity+ – or -?
We were asked to give a word to describe the planet. All the usual suspects were trotted out. ‘Rocky’ wasn’t one of them. Neither was ‘helio-orbital’. No, this was pure motherhood. Look, I’m all for a rant about excess consumption. I buy my clothes from Vinnies, get my shoes repaired, refuse to use tissues or drink bottled water and I still own a turntable. But when I hear stuff like ‘We’ve turned the planet into a brand’ I get a tad impatient. It’s emotive language, it’s factually wrong and it’s just lazy.
From there we range to David Beckham’s gold iPhone. And obesity is a problem. Apparently we consume stuff and there are poor people. Thank you. I’d hitherto failed to notice that. Then we got asked how many of us have young children. Given the age of the audience, he’d have been better asking how many had young great-grandchildren. No matter, a little thing like that wasn’t going to deter him. He contrasted our precious little poppets (probably in their 60s by now, but …) with kids in developing countries, announcing ‘It’s illegal, let alone immoral, to let these children starve’.
No. It’s certainly immoral. But it is NOT illegal for me, or you, to let them starve. The world’s a shocking poor place, and we have a moral duty to look out for others, but this can’t be translated into a legal duty. It’s absurd.
No surprises, we get onto population control. At this stage the sermonising is becoming so blatant that I start to imagine I hear the faint tones of an organ and a chorus of Shall We Gather at the River. We are told we live on a finite planet. Astonishing. Then he does it – he refers to Planet Earth. I honestly don’t know why this particular locution shits me so much, but I feel the urge to poke out the eyes of anyone who utters it.
Next, we get to do a little role-play, called Two Suspects in a Crime. Golly Moses, it’s the Prisoners’ Dilemma, but I suppose that wasn’t a catchy-enough title. He tells us this is all about trust. I had assumed (and I admit I may be wrong) that it was more about enlightened self-interest forcing actors to trust that others also acted from a similar motive.
Apparently we all have to be open, honest and transparent to create a better world. Does your bum look big in that? Gargantuan. Just go and hide yourself away, you look awful.
I always love it when the intolerant prescriptivism of this sort of speech pokes its ugly little head out. In this case the head belongs to ‘There should be no such product as Coke with the planet in the state it’s in’. So there. I haven’t had a Coke since I was 17, and I can’t say I’ve missed it, but this still strikes me as maybe the tiniest bit rhetorically overblown.
You may be getting the impression this address lurched wildly around from non sequitur to irrelevance. You’re right. Next we had a show of hands about how many of us wanted to live beyond 100. An awful lot of them. Honestly, wouldn’t you get bored?
So where are we going to put these people? A good question, at last. We’re not going to get many people into space to found new worlds. Well, that’s true. So getting into space will only benefit the rich and powerful. I sort of see where he’s going with this reasoning, but frankly, I don’t think it’s worth making the point. And he can’t see direct control of gravity happening any time soon. Nor indeed can I, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to try it. He seems to.
So, the focuses for the future, in a breathtaking (not in a good way) logical leap are:

  • Electric power not derived from fossil fuels
  • Cheap modular technology
  • Local, seasonal, organic, sustainable, preservative-free food (We have a Buzzword Bingo winner)
  • Recycling
  • Quality, energy-efficient medium cost housing without deforestation

None of these are objectionable. They’re even desirable. It’s just the muddled logic that got him there that offends me.
Should I go into the questions from the audience? No. They were too depressing. There was one who announced that he has ‘no doubt’ there are super-viruses waiting to be used by a country wanting to protect its own food supply. I love apocalypticists and millenarians. But not enough to take them seriously.
Here endeth the first session. Back with more tomorrow.

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