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18 November 2019

How Nick Bostrom's "Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant" is an elitist folly

I recently met Nick Bostrom's Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant via a rather charming animation by the enigmatically named CGP Grey. The moral of the fable -- and in case anyone misses it, Bostrom spells it out in his notes -- is that death is a terrible thing, and we should devote much more of society's output into researching an end to death i.e. longevity medicine.

This is initially appealing. I don't want to die; you don't want to die; nobody wants to die, and nobody wants their loved ones to die.

However if you look at Bostrom's fable as a proposal for change -- the folly becomes clear.

When a rich person dies before the age of 100, we can see that as a failure of medicine, and perhaps more R&D could help, and yes that would be good. But when a poor person dies before the age of 50 - that is more often a failure of Economics. So the greater problem by far is the economic and social challenges we face. Bostrom's Fable is a call for more R&D money and more focus on the needs of the rich, which is implicitly at the cost of the needs of the poor. The idea that R&D is not doing enough to look after the needs of the rich is, to put it simply, horseshit. What we need is more efforts directed toward the needs of everyone, and particularly economic and political change.

That is not to knock the huge value of R&D, and I speak as someone who is in the R&D field. But actually greater change could be delivered today and with greater certainty, through simply changing our emphasis to care more, for more people.

I am also concerned that longevity, especially longevity for the elite prioritised above a just society, might be a very bad thing. It could well pose an existential risk to freedom and justice.

The limit on the greedy and power-hungry has always been that, eventually, they too shall pass. To quote Death from Bill & Ted: "Whether you're a King or a street-sweeper, sooner or later, you dance with the Grim Reaper." (clip).

The transience of our lives is often cited as a reason for not being materialistic - epitomised in the phrase "You can't take it with you when you go". But what happens if you don't go? If you could live much longer -- or even think you could, given enough money? This might curb generous impulses, in favour of hoarding wealth for your own much longer and more costly needs.
Our mortality may be the source of our morality.
I don't want to die. But I'm not devoting my energy and surplus money into R&D towards an eternal Zuckerbergian Elite. In the end, the Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant is peddling visions of eternal life, in return for your money and obedience. That is and always has been a lousy deal.

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