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The Future of Aging: Lessons From Science Fiction

Wendy Helfenbaum May 27, 2019
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Can science fiction predictions jumpstart progress in how we address our aging society?

In his high school graduation speech, engineer Robert H. Goddard—who went on to launch the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926—observed, “It’s difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”

Indeed, science fiction novels, films, comics and television shows have inspired and often predicted invention. Many of today’s gadgets—think cell phones, debit cards, wearable tech and 3D printers—originally appeared in SciFi stories.

We can learn about the future of longevity by examining SciFi worlds depicting societies where humans are immortal, and where technology and culture merge to form new, multi-generational communities.

Stories That Inspire Forward-Thinking Perspectives

SciFi has been a great way to predict the future, according to Chris Cowart, a futurist and faculty member at Singularity University in Silicon Valley. Cowart frequently speaks about design thinking tools drawn from science fiction. One popular strategic workshop focuses on Science Fiction Design Intelligence, a future-back ‘retrocast’ process that involves imagining exactly the types of stories found in SciFi.

“For somebody to forecast the future and then help create and build it, you need to be able to go back and forth: Use science fiction to catapult us forward and create a shared vision of a world we would occupy, and then backtrack to see what needs to happen and what could happen in one-, three-, 10- or 15-year chunks towards this future vision,” explains Cowart.

Because science fiction is so engaging, he adds, it captures everyone’s imagination, regardless of demographic. It allows us to suspend our disbelief long enough to open up to innovative thinking.

SciFi’s Bright and Dark Thoughts on Living Longer

To harness science fiction as a strategic tool in the longevity market, it’s useful to explore one of the genre’s oldest themes: Life extension.

Dr. Lisa Yaszek, Professor of Science Fiction Studies at Georgia Tech says views on longevity have changed over time. SciFi authors generally feared immortality—something Jonathan Swift wrote about in 1726.

“In ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ the struldbruggs are a race of people that never die so their society adapted. You were declared legally dead at age 80, even if you’re not,” explains Yaszek, a literary and cultural historian who explores SciFi as a way to understand science and society in today’s world.

“In 1883, Mary Shelley wrote about the dangers of life extension in ‘The Mortal Immortal,’ a story about someone who steals technology from his boss and is cursed to bear witness to his own wrongdoing for history.”

In science fiction from the 1920s to the 1950s, authors including George Bernard Shaw, Neil R. Jones, Eando Binder and James Blish portrayed immortality as a celebration of technology leading to permanent creativity. Others of that era, such as Aldous Huxley, Karl Capek and David Keller represented it as a dire warning about catastrophic consequences.

By the 1960s and 1970s—coinciding with the rise of cryogenics—SciFi novels and comics became more nuanced, with increasingly complex representations that embrace life extension technologies. Stories like Octavia Butler’s “Wildseed” and Tananrive Due’s “African Immortal” series are more optimistic and solutions-focused. In 1965’s “Dune,” author Frank Herbert explores both hope and fear around immortality.

“Visual science fiction still tends to remain very wary of life extension technologies. In “Doctor Who,” when anyone comes across something that extends your life past its natural cycle, we fall right back into old storytelling forms,” explains Yaszek, noting the irony that we can imagine taming space, but not time.

“One of the big issues in current science fiction that embraces life extension—whether it’s dystopian cyberpunk or space opera—is concern about equity of distribution: Who gets to have and who won’t have access to life extension technologies, and who gets to decide?

Societies Coming Together to Care for Their Elders

Because so many SciFi stories reveal worlds in which several generations live, work and learn together, the genre offers a glimpse into how we can better serve our aging communities, suggests Yaszek.

“Science fiction imagines worlds while showing us things you can do outside the boundaries of a traditional lifestyle,” says Yaszek. She notes that immortality stories show future generations interacting with each other, while portraying older characters, like Yoda from “Star Wars,” as wise mentors.

“Characters find different ways to create community because natural life patterns are changing. That’s something we face. As people live longer, we’ll interact with more generations,” she explains. “Science fiction shows us you can make connections that are often more effective.”

With the growing need for more caregivers, Cowart notes that SciFi worlds depicting experimental communities are especially intriguing.

“Whether it’s technology, entertainment, communication or extending the quality during longevity, there will absolutely need to be some innovations in that space, because we are likely to not have the same kind of companionship that we do now,” he says.

Moving From Fiction to Fact

SciFi’s forays into high-tech already have produced tools that assist aging populations, notes Cowart. For instance, Apple’s Augmented Reality developer’s kit enables us to scan a room with a smartphone and see entirely different reality.

“We can easily imagine services or experiences that might help seniors as reference points or reminders—things that will make our lives more seamless, especially as we start to have diminished senses as we age,” he says.

Cowart tries to steer people away from what he calls the ‘next quarter mindset’ towards a vision of the future by cultivating SciFi thinking.

“Look at the products and experiences that were central to Star Trek—the smartphone, the tablet, the in-ear global translator, touchscreen interfaces,” he explains. “I spent the first part of my career building products, from TiVo to image guided surgery—things basically envisioned by Gene Roddenberry.”

Cowart notes that just as we’ve migrated from science fiction to science fact, we can accelerate or at least de-risk innovation timelines. The power of science fiction, he adds, lies in contemplating multiple versions of future worlds to see which are most likely.

“We can then spend our time and energy in collective entrepreneurial investments to build those futures and create them, rather than waiting for other parties to build them,” he says.

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Wendy Helfenbaum

Wendy Helfenbaum is a Montreal-based writer and television producer whose work has appeared in Next Avenue, YouAreUNLTD.com, WomansDay.com, Costco Connection and many more. Connect with her @WendyHelfenbaum.

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