The Silicon Valley plan for Homo sapiens: Domestication

Who can afford to live forever?

You’ll notice that’s a different question than “Do you want to live forever?” or “Is it possible to live forever?” Human mortality is the great equalizer. No matter their money, their influence, or their intellect, Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, Sheryl Sandberg, and Tim Cook will someday pass from the scene, just like the rest of us.

But what if they didn’t?

What if the dream of Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth isn’t simply an old man’s fantasy, but rather a simple engineering problem – a solvable problem – with technology (nearly) available today? Forget the drama of selecting a new headquarters location, designing a better search engine algorithm, consolidating social networks, and inventing new smartphones, the giants of tech are using their intellect and capital to tackle a much richer prize.

The next killer app is killing death.

I’m not the first to explore the topic. Popular articles written in the New York Times and multiple works from Yuval Noah Harari cast an eye toward a future of near-immortality – or at the very least, a much less painful aging process. Mortal humans watch in wonder (and hope) as these geniuses attempt to eradicate bladder cancer and osteoporosis as we once eradicated polio and smallpox. We may bristle at the intrusions to our privacy that the tech companies demand as they enrich themselves … but to cure the cancer that took my father? I’m human. Given the choice, I would make that devil’s bargain.

The bargain assumes, of course, that the tech elite would give this elixir of life to the rest of us, or that they would give it to us for a price we could afford. More on that in a moment.

With that backdrop in mind, let’s begin a thought experiment. (Be warned. You won’t like where it takes you.)

  1. Assume a small percentage of these so-called “creating death” experiments work. In the Silicon Valley ecosystem, that may mean a success rate of only two or three for every hundred startups. However, with the sheer volume of investments in play, as many as two to three dozen age-defying therapies could reach the market within the next decade.
  2. Let’s also assume that (at least in the beginning) these therapies will be prohibitively expensive. They likely will require some combination of implantable pharmacology, bionic enhancements, and genetic tinkering. Only the top 1% of all people on the planet will be able to afford them.
  3. Let’s finally assume these therapies do not eliminate death altogether in the next decade or so, but rather that they extend lifespans to two-three times what they are today. That means this new class of people who can afford the therapies (barring serious or catastrophic accidents) could live for 150 to 225 years in good health.

None of these three pre-conditions is out of the realm of possibility. The question becomes: What does it all mean?

To this point, journalists and academics have argued about the answer to this question using two major competing narratives. The first is that the tech elite will use their resources and intellect for the benefit of all humankind, creating a post-mortal utopia giving birth a new golden age of humanity. Yes, extending life will be expensive at first – the wealthy often fund early-stage progress – but these innovations will “diffuse” into the society at large as prices come down due to market forces.

The second narrative is a dystopian future in which the tech elite hoard the power of this new innovation. Cheating death isn’t simply a next-generation smartphone, after all … a greater lifespan is the ultimate competitive advantage. It’s the great unequalizer in human existence. They’ll use a combination of surveillance, incentives, and punishments to enslave the rest of us in some sort of neo-Orwellian nightmare.

I cannot predict the future. These two narratives seem like reasonable organizations of the facts as they appear today. Either may turn out to be true, partially true, false, or partially false. In that spirit of uncertainty, I would like to propose a third narrative – one that also can explain many of the facts we see at play, and one that fits a narrative that has played out successfully in the past.

The third narrative is human domestication.

Consider this: What does a healthy 180-year old (with the physical and mental fitness of today’s 40-year old) need with the rest of us?

This scenario is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Average life expectancy in the United States is declining for the first time in over one hundred years not due to a major war. However, the notion of “average” hides the reality buried in the numbers. Life expectancy is not declining, it is bifurcating. In other words, the privileged are living longer. Everyone else is dying earlier. This split in society between haves and have nots is widening psychologically and culturally as well. Elites in any society always have had a disdain (at worst) or paternalistic (at best) view of lower classes. The tech elite already view human behaviors as “data points” to be “nudged” to achieve more favorable outcomes. Within a decade, they may also live twice as long as the rest of us. Do you think that difference will make them more or less considerate of your “human” rights?

I come from a family of advertisers, refugees, immigrants, and entrepreneurs. I don’t hold a flowery view of human nature.

Now, consider this: What if those same tech elites got the idea that humans are simply another type of animal – an animal that could be manipulated with enough data into behaving in a way that suited their interests – perhaps in the same way early Homo sapiens saw wolves, wildebeest, and wild rice two millennia ago? What if just like those animals and plants, Homo sapiens were simply imperfect candidates that could be molded into something more useful and desirable over time for the benefit of a superior species?

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There is another word for that process: Domestication.

Let’s pause for a quick refresher on the process of domestication. We can all name the most popular domesticated plants and animals on the planet – dogs, cats, cattle, chickens, hogs, goats, sheep, corn, wheat, rice, and barley (plus a few others in different parts of the world). What’s important to understand is that most species cannot be domesticated (humans have tried, and they have failed with several). Also, domestication is not the same as “taming.” A tame elephant in the zoo is not domesticated. The herd of cattle in the farm down the road is.

Melinda A. Zeder, Ph.D., curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, highlights multiple conditions a species must meet in order to be a candidate for domestication. Those conditions include:

  1. Efficient Diet
  2. Quick Growth Rate
  3. Ability to Breed in Captivity
  4. Pleasant Disposition
  5. Tendency Not to Panic
  6. Social Structure

To be clear, Dr. Zeder did not consider Homo sapiens as a potential candidate for domestication. But this is my thought experiment, and I’m going to do just that. Let’s use these six criteria from the perspective of an enhanced, longer-lived new species of human: Homo technorati. If Homo sapiens are indeed a candidate, what evidence might we have that the process of domestication has already begun?

Criteria #1: Efficient Diet

Animals that eat plants are less expensive to keep in captivity. Carnivores are expensive – just ask any zookeeper. Domestication, ultimately, is an economic decision.

Many humans are moving in the direction of a plant-based diet for a variety of reasons – environmental protections, health benefits, and sustainable/local food chains. From 2014 to 2017, vegans grew from 1% to 6% of the US population. That doesn’t count people who consume less meat (a trend that also is increasing). But “diet” doesn’t mean simply “food” for Homo sapiens.

Let’s expand this narrow definition of “diet.” Homo sapiens require mental stimulation as well as physical sustenance. What’s the technical equivalent of a plant-based diet? Social media. Instead of the messy process of creating something new, Homo technorati have trained us to “farm” our own entertainment much like a farmer might tend a field. “Carnivorous” intellectual exercises (building or creating something utterly new) are rare. Plenty of people drink beer; very few brew it.

Criteria #2: Quick Growth Rate

The best domesticated animals grow quickly to maturity, ideally spawning multiple generations within a human lifespan. For example, a domesticated chicken will go from egg to dinner table in 8 to 12 weeks. The objective of much of domesticated animal husbandry is to reduce this time as much as practical.

When all humans live about the same number of years, the difference in “growth rate” isn’t relevant. But when Homo technorati begin to experience two to four generations of their Homo sapiens precursors in one lifetime, that changes the game. The more the age gap widens, the more chances Homo technorati will have to experiment.

Is this happening already? How many tech giants are sponsoring STEM programs in early childhood education? How many have started to hire for “technical skills” instead of “critical thinking” and liberal arts? Homo technorati only needs a small group of critical thinkers. By training technical skills at an earlier age, Homo technorati accelerates the time between birth and “usefulness” – much like a breeder reducing the time between “hatchling” and “egg layer.”

Criteria #3: Ability to Breed in Captivity

If you cannot get an animal (or plant) to breed in captivity, you’re stuck with “collecting” them from the wild. This adds a layer of inefficiency and difficulty that only makes sense when the animal commands an appropriate reward.

I wonder. Will Homo sapiens have a choice in breeding partners in the future? Younger people are having a difficult enough time navigating the complexities of dating in a social-media-always-connected world. Coming to their rescue are eHarmony, Match.com, Tinder, and countless others – all with the promise that “data” and “algorithms” will help you navigate complexity and find a partner. Meeting someone in a bar? Risky! Dating in college campus? Not enough time! Love with a coworker? Discouraged! A dating app will take care of that choice for you.

Criteria #4: Pleasant Disposition

This one should be self-evident: Honey badgers make lousy house pets.

Homo sapiens are different. To say most people are “nice” or most people are “mean” is an oversimplification. Our dispositions are situation dependent; our biochemistry, our experiences, and our social networks all play different roles based on ever-changing scenarios. Worse, every once in a while, you get a small number of people who will perform highly anti-social behaviors (riots, shootings, sabotage, etc.)

Homo technorati didn’t quite see this coming with the popularity of social media, but they do now. With small nudges in your “feed,” developers can adjust your mood – or at a minimum, polish off the roughest edges. And when everyone participates, AI can begin to spot anti-social (unpleasant) behavior well in advance … alerting social assistance in mild cases, and law enforcement in extreme ones.

Criteria #5: Tendency Not to Panic

There’s a reason police call it “rabbiting” when people flee the scene of a crime. Rabbits have been domesticated to a point, but their wild cousins survive so well by bolting at the first sign of danger.

The world is indeed a safer place for most people than it was a century ago. Put in more modern terms, it’s unquestionably safer to play Call of Duty than to actually heed the “call of duty” as a member of an active military. Electronic games like these (and their simpler phone-based cousins) are engineered to provide the correct dopamine boost to eliminate nervousness and boredom … as well as trigger purchase behavior. Who can stand in the security line at the airport without their Candy Crush game to amuse the children (or themselves)?

Criteria #6: Social Structure

Domesticators co-opt the natural herd mentality and social networks of the animal population to assert a new dominant member (the farmer) at the head of the group. Homo sapiens are no different in this regard, we simply haven’t had a clearly superior species (yet) to take control.

Tribes, city-states, nation-states, families, and religion where the organizing control factors for much of our history. For the past two decades, Homo technorati has been at work actively breaking down those barriers and replacing them with something new. Your tribe is who “you” decide it is. Your nation is simply a physical place, less important than your interests and affiliations. Your family could be anyone and they could be anywhere. Your religion … well, how about “spirituality” and “mindfulness” instead of an organized church? There’s an app for all those things. It seems like Homo technorati is allowing you to make your own choices, but in reality, they are simply switching your allegiance and membership from one group to their group.

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Do you feel a little less comfortable considering yourself a truly “wild” species?

The process of domestication seems so reasonable, doesn’t it? It doesn’t even seem like it’s happening. If you (Homo sapiens) cede control of your life choices the long-lived and wise technical elite (Homo technorati), they will reward you with a safer existence free from stressors and uncertainty as well as predictable resources (aka Universal Income).

But there’s a problem with that. Over time, domesticated animals lose the capacity to revert to a “wild” state. Most dogs, chickens, cattle, and corn could not live without humans. Their brains have atrophied – actually shrunk in size over many generations – because little is intellectually required of domesticated animals. If humans are simply animals, why couldn’t that happen to us? At what point are we reduced to mindless entertainment and breeding to do the jobs machines and artificial intelligence are not (yet) capable of doing? At what point do Homo technorati and Homo sapiens become distinct species on different evolutionary paths.

Let’s hope we’re not delicious, huh?

Is this thought experiment hyperbole? Perhaps. But I find the idea of human domestication at least as likely as either a tech utopia or an Orwellian dystopia. On the path to the utopian singularity, you simply buckle in and enjoy the ride. There’s not much for the average person to do unless you’re one of those select few techno-elites. Keep buying new iPhones and always renew your Prime membership. They need your money (and will do better with it) than you will. On the second path to digital slavery, humans are unlikely to go down without a fight. It may be ugly, but there are enough contrarians in the world today to sound the alarm. Resistance is not futile. Remember, tech companies need your money. That’s your superpower.

But domestication? That’s the most dangerous scenario because it happens so silently. One day, your grandchildren wake up in a world where they cannot make a decision without asking Alexa for help.

Luckily, the easiest way to prevent domestication is to refuse to live by its conditions:

  • Don’t be so eager to spend time browsing social media. Go out an create something.
  • Take language, art, theater, and literature in school. Don’t accept that “learning to code” is the only way to get a job. Don’t specialize! Chickens are specialists. Look what it got them. No matter how good your coding skills, they’ll slaughter you when you can’t lay eggs anymore. Learn to think instead.
  • Get out there and meet people in person. Learn the subtle art of approaching people and making friends with respect and dignity.
  • Mess with the algorithms. If you’re being tracked at work with your badge, purposely walk in and out of the scanner at random times. Don’t be so predictable.
  • Volunteer, sacrifice, and do real stuff. Play fewer games.
  • See a problem in your community? Get involved. Don’t like politics? Change it. Mad at your church? Go back and fix it. Define your own tribe.

Be unpredictable. Be unreasonable. Be human.

But most of all, stay wild.

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About Jason Voiovich

Jason’s arrival in marketing was doomed from birth. He was born into a family of artists, immigrants, and entrepreneurs. Frankly, it’s lucky he didn’t end up as a circus performer. He’s sure he would have fallen off the tightrope by now. His father was an advertising creative director. One grandfather manufactured the first disposable coffee filters in pre-Castro Cuba. Another grandfather invented the bazooka. Yet another invented Neapolitan ice cream (really!). He was destined to advertise the first disposable ice cream grenade launcher, but the ice cream just kept melting!

He took bizarre ideas like these into the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota, and MIT’s Sloan School of Management. It should surprise no one that they are all embarrassed to have let him in.

These days, instead of trying to invent novelty snack dispensers, Jason has dedicated his career to finding marketing’s north star, refocusing it on building healthy relationships between consumers and businesses, between patients and clinicians, and between citizens and organizations. That’s a tall order in a data-driven world. But it’s crucial, and here’s why: As technology advances, it becomes ordinary and expected. As relationships and trust expand, they become stronger and more resilient. Our next great leaps forward are just as likely to come from advances in humanity as they are advances in technology.

Thank you! Gracias! 谢谢!

Your fellow human.

Jason T Voiovich

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