Age-ism, Transhumanism, and Silicon Valley’s Cognitive Dissonance

Adam Ierymenko on 2013-10-01

If you’re irrelevant at thirty, why live forever?

“I want to stress the importance of being young and technical,” Facebook’s CEO (now 28) told a Y Combinator Startup event at Stanford University in 2007. “Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30? I don’t know. Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.” — In Silicon Valley, Age Can Be a Curse

Silicon Valley is home to gaggles of young techies struggling to strike it rich. It’s a place where being over 35 can be a curse, where being up on the most recent and the most hip is far more important than long-honed skills or experience.

It’s also home to Singularity University, to Ray Kurzweil, and now to a Larry Page startup called Calico. Calico is about “tackling aging and illness,” as Page puts it, and it represents a more polished public facade to the Valley’s near-religious belief in the possibility of improving every aspect of human life through technology.

High on that list of potential improvements is the idea of doing away with death, or at least putting it off for a long while.

Silicon Valley is a place where ideas like cryogenic suspension, genetic engineering to switch off aging, or even uploading your brain into an emulator are taken seriously by a surprisingly large number of very bright, very “in” folks.

See it yet? It’s big, folks, one of the biggest voids of cognitive dissonance I’ve personally ever spotted. For the real boots-on-the-ground culture of the Valley seems like it’s all about youth and only youth and accelerating obsolescence.

Live fast, die young.

I’m a programmer, and I like to think I’m a fairly skilled one. Here’s a current big project of mine. I’ve been doing this since I was about five or six years old, and I owe that to my grandfather. A former Air Force pilot and ham radio operator who used tube sets so old they probably spiked the whole power grid when he switched them on, he nevertheless taught himself to program at about age sixty. Then he taught me, a kid fifty years his junior. We started with BASIC and progressed all the way to 6502 assembler on the Commodore 64.

The more we learn about the brain, the more we learn that it can continue to form new connections all through one’s life. My wife’s grandfather was into old languages, taught himself ancient Greek so he could read old religious texts in their native tongues. I met a woman recently who went back to school and taught herself software engineering in her fifties. She’d been an artist of some sort in her youth, then stayed home with her kids for most of her thirties. She got bored when they grew up, wanted to try something new, so she learned to code in C, Java, and C++ and nurtured an interest in distributed computing. She worked for Hewlett Packard until retiring at seventy-something.

Granted it may get a bit harder to learn as we age, and certain forms of creativity or the ability to learn fundamentally new paradigms might peak in one’s teens and twenties. But are those immutable laws or might there be ways of cheating those limitations? Could there be practices, treatments, pharmacologies, and so forth that could keep the mind more open and plastic? Stuff that could — you know — extend life?

Seems like the sort of thing the Valley’s life extension gurus ought to be interested in, and maybe they are. If you’re going to try to live longer, you’ve got to actually live longer. The alternative is what I call the extended hospice care model of life extension. Clinging to life out of nothing more than the fear of death is not life worth living.

But if they are interested in quality-of-life extension, they’re operating within a culture that seems like it has the opposite philosophy. If people become fossils when they turn thirty, why not just cut off healthcare at 40? Hell, why not reenact one of those dystopian sci-fi stories where people have “age clocks” and get euthanized when their value to society no longer outweighs their cost?

Why doesn’t Mark Zuckerberg just live it up for a few more years and then opt for a nice humane form of euthanasia, perhaps leaving his billions to an angel investment fund to help younger entrants into the tech economy? According to the values he’s perpetuating, he is no longer relevant.

Big nasty contradictions usually point to some deeper misalignment. Based on what I know of the Valley, the culture it exports, and the nature of the winner-take-all New Economy it’s building, the only thing I can come up with is this:

All the Valley’s talk about transhumanism, human potential, life extension, and generally “changing the world” is a bunch of hooey. It’s a myth — in the pejorative sense of that term. It’s a fluffy religion meant to snooker young professionals into giving their employers everything they have and working their brains down to the myelin until they become too old to be relevant anymore.

No, it’s worse than that.

They don’t get too old to be relevant. They get too old to be cheap.

Programming is a skill. Like any other skill it gets better with practice. Older programmers — provided they’ve kept their skills up to date and kept learning — are generally likely to be better at their craft. They’ve “been there and done that” so many times they know how to avoid past mistakes. A lot of the common things a programmer finds themselves building they’ve built so many times they can practically type it in from memory. They know how to architect systems from the ground up to be maintainable, scalable, and extensible. They know how to spot a fad vs. a genuine improvement in language, tooling, or technique, and they know how to avoid the former so as not to waste time re-inventing wheels. Last but not least: if they’ve stayed in the game this long it’s because they enjoy it, and that’s when people get really great at things. To really get awesome at something, you’ve got to love it. It’s the only way.

But they also usually have families. They might have a house they want to pay off. They’ve got a kid or two and they’re saving for their college fund. They’re also past the age when it’s cool to live in a shoebox. Maybe they want a yard or a nice condo in the city with more than one room.

They’ve also been around the block enough to be business-savvy.

All that boils down to higher salaries and negotiating ability.

Look at the costs for any computer or Internet company and it becomes quickly apparent that HR is the big one. So if you want to cut costs, that’s where you want to cut.

This, not “edge,” seems the most plausible reason Silicon Valley doesn’t like older talent.

Not only do companies want to trim the most expensive employees, but investors have similar incentives to play ball with younger entrepreneurs. Younger entrepreneurs are going to be less experienced, especially at business. An older entrepreneur is going to read the fine print, and they’re probably going to understand it.

That’s economics you might say, and it’s very common for economic systems to produce paradoxes and perverse incentives. That’s certainly true, and the simple economic explanation goes a long way toward explaining this rift of intention. But I personally don’t think it crosses the finish line.

The deeper economic question I have to ask is this: why isn’t there more headroom?

I mean, I can grasp why one would not hire a forty-something or fifty-something six-figure developer to hack on database driven web sites. I probably wouldn’t. Not only is it too expensive, but I’d peg someone in that age bracket who’s still coding as overqualified. They’d be bored. They’d probably much rather work on AI or brain emulation or immersive “metaverse” VR or something.

… which in turn makes me ask: then how much of that stuff is really going on?

I have a confession to make: I don’t live in the Valley. That means I’m writing a cultural critique from a distance and that’s a dangerous thing to do. My vision of the Valley comes from Hacker News, the tech scene in general (of which I am a part), and the products that emerge from San Francisco and its long suburban beard. But when I look at those things… well… I see a lot of academic interest in far-out topics like AI and uploading brains and life extension, but I don’t see much beef in that burrito.

Take one little related topic for example: tDCS. I scan that scene and see lots of universities all over the place. I see New York City. I see Boston. I see lots of places, including a few things in the Valley, but it’s not like this sort of research or DIY hacking is emanating from the orbit of the Bay Area in any disproportionate concentration.

Blue Brain is a little closer to the kind of thing that might lead toward some of Kurzweil’s wild dreams, and it’s mostly in Europe.

When I observe Silicon Valley by its cultural and technical output, what I see is a tweaked-up greedy optimization algorithm converging hard and fast on a local maximum that involves using web sites and mobile devices to sell ads. I see a place where $3000/month will get you a “crack den” apartment and where people who want to start families leave. I see a disproportionate number of mobile startups and webby things, but not a lot of work tackling the brutal soul-crushingly hard problems that stand between us and any kind of post-human anything.

Maybe that’s why there’s no headroom, nowhere for these older laid off experts to go. There’s not all that much being done that demands thirty years of experience, not much where the job ad might say “if you can’t code a parallel Bayesian pattern recognition algorithm in vector processor assembly language, don’t apply.”

My intent isn’t just to rag on the Valley. Well okay maybe it is, but it’s not out of hate. The fact is that I love what Silicon Valley and the larger Bay Area is supposed to represent.

I don’t want those crazy dreams to be bullshit. I want to see humanity be smarter, wiser, better, to see me or my kids or their grandkids live the equivalent of ten lifetimes and watch while first contact is made with an alien intelligence. I want to go outside when I’m a hundred and sixty four and look through a telescope and note the color change, finally visible to the naked eye, as Mars turns from red to a soft hue of blue-green.

If you’re going to make humanity better and you’re going to make the world better, you can’t have a culture that’s pointed in the opposite direction. Because what I see now — mythology aside — is a culture tending toward what William Gibson described so well in Neuromancer:

Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button. Stop hustling and you sank without a trace, but move a little too swiftly and you’d break the fragile surface tension of the black market; either way, you were gone, with nothing left of you but some vague memory in the mind of a fixture like Ratz…

That’s not a world I want to live in, and it’s certainly not a world compatible with radical life extension or any of that other transhumanist blah-blah. It’s a world of the opposite. Stop hustling and you die— young.

In Gibson’s cyberpunk dystopias there is life extension, but it’s only for the super-rich. Maybe that’s what all this is headed toward. But if that’s the case then you — and statistically you’re probably not one of “them” — should ask yourself what it is that you’re doing as you work sixty hour weeks to level up in the high-tech MMORPG. Why aspire to nothing? Why level up if there’s nothing but obsolescence at the end of the game?

If you want life extension and all the rest, it’s time to start thinking about the way your own life is going to look as it’s extended long into the future.