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LIFEMAG Original

The media’s fixation with immortality: Is it becoming a problem?

by Peter Moulding Published on 14th Oct 2015

by Peter Moulding Published on 14th October 2015

The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in the attention given to science intended to increase healthy human lifespan. Since 2013 particularly, the formation of the Google-backed Calico, and Craig Venter’s Human Longevity Inc. -  high-profile companies seeking to cure age-related disease, has precipitated a surge in mainstream coverage of the industry.

This increased coverage, as anyone would assume, should have represented a step forward. With astronomically wealthy private entities such as Google in support, many predicted a move toward a more legitimate and widely accepted status for both the industry and its advocates, investors, and experts. However, coverage of research and developments is still being taken out of context and hyped up to the point of farce. The main issue being the media’s fixation with the notion of immortality.

Key figures such as HLI’s Craig Venter and Aubrey de Grey of SENS have repeatedly reiterated the fact that their work is concerned with increasing healthy lifespan by tackling age related diseases and conditions. Radical life extension then, meaning living for well over 120 years, is a possible outcome, but not the goal itself. Granted, these aspirations are held by some, but due to a combination of overhype on the part of both the press and some within the industry itself, has become synonymous with the field as a whole.

‘Google says humans could live for 500 years’

If one is to peruse the world’s most popular online media outlets, then you will find studies focused on tackling specific age-related diseases are unequivocally linked with the notion of immortality.

To note some recent examples, The UK Daily Mail, the most read English language online news source in the world has been a repeat offender in this regard. It’s coverage of the formation of Calico, albeit eight months after the fact, held the headline: ‘Google says humans could live for 500 YEARS’, a personal quote attributed to Google Ventures’ Bill Maris, but by no means the ethos of the company itself. Calico, according to their website, will use their knowledge and research of biology ‘to devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives.’  Similarly, on the back of this year’s sci-fi film ‘Self/Less’, an interview with University of Arizona researcher Wolfgang Fink is preceded with the title:  ‘Scientists say humans really could become IMMORTAL’ even though there is no reference to immortality at all within the interview, and Fink merely discusses the possibility of ‘slowing aging.’

The Guardian, also based in the UK, and the world’s second most popular English language digital news outlet, follows the same pattern. Attributing the headline ‘Live for ever’ to a piece detailing Silicon Valley’s investments in the industry, and giving similar titles such as ‘Do you want to live forever?’ and ‘Who wants to live forever?’ to coverage of related developments. All over the world, mainstream media are choosing to focus on the concept of immortality as a means of grabbing attention. The Sydney Morning Herald report to ‘Never say die’, The US tech publication the Verge focus on ‘Google's project to 'cure death,' CNN say that ‘Google's Calico aims to fight aging and 'solve death', Tech Insider list the ‘6 billionaires who want to live forever’, and The Washington Post address the ‘Tech titans’ latest project: Defy death’. There are many, many more examples.  

‘Do you want to live forever?’

The media’s obsession with immortality is of course rooted in the need for an attention-grabbing headline. Ignoring the science and focusing on the possible fantastical outcome of living forever is an easy way to reel in readers. The problem with this coverage is that it doesn’t show any interest in the actual progress of science, and further alienates the industry, associating the bizarre with the real and critical.  

Furthermore, for readers, these attention grabbing headlines are neglecting the actual scientific processes and complexities of anti-aging research. What we are left with is a stripped down version of the industry, which doesn’t reflect the developments in healthy life extension, and withdraws from any real in depth analysis. Advocacy coming from among those who are interested in immortality will no doubt increase, but not the awareness amongst the general population, what the industry is really aiming for.

Rather than being seen as a single issue subject, life extension science wants to be seen for what it is, an important and complex area of science aiming to eradicate age-related disease. Real and, in many ways, awful diseases and conditions which blight us later in life, no matter how much our lifespan has increased. For journalists and news outlets covering life extension, instead of conceding in creating clickbait titles which attract one-time readers on the subject, why do they not engage in a debate and provide real analysis, which would more than likely, over time, establish a base of returning readers.

Life extension has been granted its place in mainstream media, which many areas of science would still love to acquire, but this elevated position is currently not doing anyone any favours. With this obsession with immortality, people who could be potential supporters and advocates of healthy life extension are put off. By asking the question ‘do you want to live forever?’ rather than ‘do you want to see more investment in cures for age-related disease?’ the media faces the reader with a fantastic and in many ways terrifying notion, instead of one which is entirely practical and more likely to be universally supported. Greater exposure then, of this kind, has a direct negative impact on advocacy.

‘He wants to live forever - with no underpants’

But in some ways, those within the industry do bring it on themselves.

Due to the effectiveness of immortality in making headlines, the last few years have seen a large number of spokespeople for the ‘anti-aging industry’ also feeling the lure of alluding to the potential of living forever when challenged on their research. Exaggerated speculation is not an anomaly in the general coverage of other sciences. Scientists have always speculated based on the evidence: a major part of science is probability and prediction.

Though, within life extension, it is clear that scientists are often pushed to speculate further, and are repeatedly asked to discuss the potential for their work leading to practical immortality. For all too many scientists, researchers, and theorists the understanding of how the mainstream media use immortality as a hook, has meant it has become all too tempting to play up to this notion in order to gain more attention and ultimately funding for their research.

Furthermore, the entire fascination with immortality between the media and the industry has led to a certain estrangement of its main characters, as they are encouraged to fill the role of the mad scientist. Both scientists and investors have been encouraged within the mainstream media to conduct themselves in a certain way, as the frenzy around immortality has gained pace.   

Aubrey de Grey for example, the Chief Science Officer at the SENS Research Foundation, has, more than anyone, had his appearance and persona projected into mainstream media headlines. Some notable instances include titles such as, ‘Aubrey de Grey: He wants to live for ever — with no underpants’, and lines such as, ‘With his beard and robust opinions, there's something of the Old Testament prophet about Aubrey de Grey.’  

The more cynical among us might contend that de Grey has used his distinguishing image to create a persona that the mainstream media love to incorporate into any stories related to developments in life extension. Regardless, this and his speculative statements about immortality such as ‘his claims about the possibilities (he has said the first person who will live to 1,000 years is probably already alive)’ create an interest in the individual, rather than the science. The consequence more often than not, is that this kind of media coverage is ultimately counterproductive, as it draws excitement and advocacy away from the scientific process and healthy life extension.

‘Never Say Die’

The overarching issue is that, for the mainstream audience, the concept of life extension has become seen as ultimately concerned with radically prolonging lifespan, when in fact this is only a possible end result, or even side-effect of the work which is being done. Whereas, in other areas of science the scientific process is the center of attention, with more details and an enthusiasm around how scientists achieved their end result.

As we have seen, some scientists and investors are drawn to comment and make claims about it because, for them and many others, nothing can surpass the end result of immortality, even the scientific process. Further, the mainstream media is forced to ask leading questions resulting in spectacular claims, for the same reason, and they are compelled to focus on immortality.

This is because immortality is a subject that to many is the ultimate insurmountable objective.

Immortality is something that for a long time hasn’t quite been in the same realm as other sciences: it is intangible, otherworldly, and metaphysical. Thus, healthy life extension research suffers because of its weak links with immortality, meaning that this entire area of science has become somewhat lost under the banner of living forever.

This is of course not to say that radically extending lifespan to the point of immortality would be a bad thing. Far from it. But important developments in combating age-related diseases, and technological advancements moving toward alleviating debilitating conditions that occur in later life, are lost amongst the media, investors and scientists speculating about immortality. It means that the movement doesn’t gain momentum, real advocacy doesn’t grow, and coverage doesn’t transfer into support.