By Mike Darwin
The principal reason that I have told the story here of the latter day Laputa’s is not because it so technologically amazing, but rather because it so fundamentally prosaic. The story of the Cold War is not just the story of people behaving dangerously, indeed insanely badly; it is the story of people behaving in perfectly pedestrian ways. It is the story of people behaving as they always have, except in this instance doing so with technology that has the capacity to end human civilization indefinitely. Thirty six years ago, when Fred and Linda Chamberlain and I made the long trek up to Yuba City to explore Titan Missile Site 1, we did so motivated by the understanding that our species is dangerously immature and that a streak of the irrational, territorial and reflexively violent beast is in all of us – cryonicist and non-cryonicist alike. If we cryonicists can fairly say that we are stuck here on this planet with 6,775,235,700 suicidal madmen, then we must add to that number the 1,000 or so cryonicists who unarguably behave only a little better. 
We were, of course, also mindful of what have now come to be called “existential risks.” An existential risk is a risk one that “is both global (affects all of humanity, present and future) and terminal (destroys or irreversibly cripples the target).” Bostrom and Tuchin define such risks as those “where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.”[2, 3]
Figure 1: The sweep of human wealth production is nicely summarized in this graph of the gross domestic product over the course of the lat 5,000 of civilization. Because of the large time frame and the (necessary) use of a logarithmic scale, global disasters which severely impacted the wellbeing of then extant civilizations are not readily apparent.
The history of humanity is littered with great calamities that do not appear on most graphs charting our species’ progress. Consider the graphs that appear above and below this paragraph. The one above shows global gross domestic product from 5,000 BCE to 2,000 CE in 1990 US dollars. The graph below shows milestones in evolution from 1011 years ago through 2005. Where is the Toba super volcanic eruption that occurred 50,000 to 70,000 years ago and plunged the earth into a volcanic winter that lasted 6-to-10-years and that resulted in the global human population being reduced to ~ 10,000, the Ice Age (12000-8000 BCE), the Global Drought Starting in ~ 2200 BCE, it lasted the entire 22nd century BCE. It is very likely to have caused the collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt as well as the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia, the catastrophic eruption of the Thera volcano in 1628 BCE, The Little Ice Age (1300-1500 CE),  the Black Death (1134 to 1348 CE), the “Dark Ages” of Europe (500 to 1000 CE), World War I (1914 to 1918) and the 1918 Flu Pandemic and World War II (1939-1945) on these graphs?
Figure 2: This even longer time line of biological and human technological evolution similarly fails to show truly massive setbacks in the course of biological and cultural evolution, such as the Permian extinction, which destroyed ~ 90% of all life on the planet, the Holocene Ice Age, or the century long global drought which began in 2200 BCE.
Because of the scale of these graphs and the relatively brief of these events they are invisible – but not insignificant. While the character of exponential progress and increase in human wealth and knowledge is well represented on these graphs and on other like them, they fail to show the comparatively brief but nevertheless catastrophic events that are equally inescapable parts of human history. In the early 1980s, as I became more aware of the details of human history, I began to realize that quite apart from existential events that pose a threat to humanity, cryonics was in an even more sensitive position. Human life is resilient. Some paleoanthropologists estimate that Toba Catastrophe may have reduced human numbers to as few as 2,000 breeding pairs – this on the basis of the huge loss of genetic variety in humans that can be traced to this time period. Self-replicating life forms can withstand tremendous insults and still recover.
Cryopatient Destroying Events
Cryonics, however, depends upon highly sophisticated industrial technology in order to maintain uninterrupted cryogenic refrigeration for many decades, or even centuries. A quick glance at the recent historical past would suggest that the odds of success in such a venture are not very good. Perhaps the most recent example of global disruption that would have almost certainly resulted in destruction of any cryopatients in storage at the time is World War II (WWII). WWII was truly a planet-wide conflict. The United Kingdom, Europe, Russia, China and Japan were the sites of active, infrastructure-destroying combat. While the US, Canada and Great Britain did not experience ground invasion, or the wholesale destruction of infrastructure that Europe, Russia and China did, their economies were completely engaged in provisioning the prosecution of the war.
Figure 3: Virtually every consumer item from meat to fuel was rationed in the US and Canada during World War II. Virtually the entire manufacturing capacity of both nations was focused on war production which included subsistence production for the populations of both nations. http://www.ameshistoricalsociety.org/exhibits/events/rationing.htm
The US and Canada were under strict rationing of fuel, food, and virtually every other industrial commodity that comes to mind. For the duration of US involvement in the war not a single civilian vehicle, automobile tire, or pair of nylon stockings was manufactured. Petrol was tightly rationed and the penalties for black market activity were swift, severe, and surprisingly certain. The situation is Australia and South America were little different. WWII consumed essentially all of the energy and materiel of the global civilization for a period of at least 5 years. Any careful assessment of the conditions in Great Britain, Europe, Russia, China, and Japan for some years after the war would have disclosed a similarly dire and impoverished economic state for at least 5-10 years more. It is ludicrous to think that and energy intensive commodity such as liquid nitrogen would have been available, let alone allocated for the purpose of “cryogenically storing corpses for possible future reanimation.”
WWII thus constitutes a recent and prototypical “cryopatient destroying event” (CPE). It would by no means have destroyed either humanity or cryonics – recovery is clearly possible in both instances. However, it would have destroyed any patients in storage at that time. Larger catastrophes, on the scale of existential events risks (ERs) would no doubt have destroyed cryonics as well. Cryonics is a novel, opened-ended undertaking which must endure indefinitely. That is something which has never been attempted by our species before: even the ancient Egyptians employed a protected, “hidden cache approach” in attempting to secure long-term survival for their mummified remains. Thus, at the very least, it behoves us as cryonicists to understand the historical risk of CPEs, as well as to have a reasonable assessment of the risk of ERs.
Mathematician and writer Alexi Turchin has noted that when humans undertake fundamentally new kinds of engineering or technological endeavors they consistently underestimate the amount of risk involved. In the case of the Space Shuttle, the risk of a catastrophic failure was estimated to be no greater than 1 in 1,000 Shuttle flights. However, the first failure occurred on the 25th flight, meaning that the real risks were on the order of 1 in 25, rather than 1 in 1,000. Similarly, nuclear power plants of the Chernobyl design were calculated to have a failure rate of one in one million years. The Chernobyl failure occurred after less than 10 000 stations-years of operation demonstrating the real failure rate was 100 times greater than specified in the engineering risk assessment projections. Tuchin concludes that when humans undertake such novel endeavors they tend to underestimate the risks by factors of ten.
The practical reasons for such failures are well surveyed by Tenner and Savage and the psychological and cognitive reasons by Yudkowsky. Both authors note that not only are estimates of failure much greater than initially projected, the confidence level (calibration) of the engineers, scientists and mathematicians who generate these risk assessments is also excessively optimistic. As a consequence, risk assessment estimates for new technologies are plagued not only by inaccuracy, but also by an unjustified high degree of confidence their accuracy. The history of cryonics suggests a similar degree of underestimating the risks of failure; as well as excessive optimism about the nature and rate and progress in the field.[17-19]
Figure 4: Fifty years on, cryonicists have yet to rigorously study these questions.
One of the most common (and accurate) statements made by critics of cryonics and by the journalists is that “cryonics depend upon, or counts upon faith in the future for its success.” Implied in that statement is not just faith that the enabling technologies will eventually be developed to rescue today’s cryopatients, but also that the patients will remain secure against a wide range of risks, including but not limited to natural disasters, pandemic disease, anti-cryonics Luddite violence, technological Armageddon and last but not least, financial ruin. People adopt or reject a novel technology in large measure because it passes or fails their “credibility sniff test.”
The credibility sniff test is the sum of many factors in a person’s mind that changes the estimation of a technology from interesting, desirable and even possible, to “I think this will work for me.” Implied in that favorable summing up are many complex and subtle factors, some of which are in the province of what is known as “marketing.” Marketing addresses issues such as “Is this technology socially desirable or at least socially acceptable? Can I afford it? Why should I want it? Will it improve my status, make me richer, grant me that sweetest of boons; revenge on my enemies?” In short, ”Is it cool and is it something I just can’t live without out?” Most of the frenzied focus over the past half century on “fixing” cryonics has been on these “marketing” issues and on trying to find away to tweak the message, or to reconfigure it altogether in order make cryonics a “success.” Alas, it doesn’t work that way.
Cardiac surgery is a painful and terrifying ordeal. The idea of having your breastbone sawed in half, your blood pumped through a machine and your heart stilled is viscerally revolting. And yet there are few reading this (in the West) who do not know at least one, and often several people who have had this done to them. No advertising campaign was necessary to get the population to suspend their disbelief, or to overcome uncertainty about where their souls would be residing during the minutes of chilled cardiac arrest. This technology became a commonplace because people understood, despite their deep and natural fear, that there was a reasonable chance it would work for them. Seeing a good outcome in others was no doubt critical to a decision to undergo such a procedure. But so was the enormous and hidden infrastructure of protections and safeguards which gives people confidence in their surgeon, the medical staff, and the hospital that will care for them.
Few would elect to undergo cardiac surgery if, after the last suture was thrown, the surgeon inquired, “Where is this patient’s family? They need to come get him out of my operating room so I can proceed to the next case.” An integral part of the credibility of a complex and dangerous procedure like heart surgery are the largely unseen bulwarks of institutional and professional infrastructure that are designed to shepherd the patient not just through the surgical procedure, but onto the best possible recovery he can achieve.
Figure 5: Optimism about the ability of existing cryonics organizations and their respective facilities to endure the test of time – of the passage of many decades, or even centuries – seems confined almost exclusively to cryonicists. To understand why this should be so it is only necessary to contemplate the cartoon above.
Underlying that infrastructure is a vast body of experience, risk assessment and protective procedures and equipment the purpose of which is to eliminate risk wherever possible, and minimize it where it is unavoidable. Nowhere is such risk aversion and minimization technology more highly developed than in the airline industry. The vast majority of people are terrified of extreme heights. The fear of falling is a biologically inborn trait (the Moro reflex) which can be interestingly (if sadistically) demonstrated by placing a human infant atop a glass-topped table. Terror and vocalizations of distress are the immediate result. Because heavier than air flight evokes a primal fear in humans, the airline industry has been compelled to develop safety systems that are so remarkable that they border on the unbelievable, especially when closely examined.
People are afraid of flying and this fear is greatly exacerbated when their perceived ability to control their personal situation is removed and handed off to others; namely the pilots, the flight crew, the myriads of technicians and engineers and the air traffic controllers. And yet, millions of people fly each year. The fundamental reason for this is that the airline industry has figured out how to pass the credibility sniff test. Cryonics has not. No doubt, a significant part of the reason that flying has passed the credibility sniff test is that planes do indeed fly reliably, and roughly 75% of adult Americans have flown (word wide estimates are in the range of 2-5% of the population). However, reality isn’t everything and perception can be incredibly important. Nor is perception the same thing as a delusion. As Freud remarked: “An illusion is not the same thing as an error; nor is it necessarily an error… In the case of delusions, we emphasize as essential their being in contradiction with reality. Illusions need not be necessarily false – that is to say, unrealizable or in contradiction to reality.” 
Figure 6: Timeship: a viable cryonics research and patient storage complex. or an impractical edifice complex?
Ostensibly, the idea of Timeship was created to address the shortcomings cryonics has historically suffered from in terms of failing to project an image of solidity and durability. Timeship is to be a “six-acre structure that will be the world’s largest facility for life extension research and for the cryopreservation of DNA, biological tissues, human organs and patients…the “Fort Knox” of biological materials. DNA, tissue samples and cryopreserved patients will be housed in Timeship, and their safety and security against all threats, both natural and human-made, will have to be maintained for hundreds of years. Timeship has been designed to provide that security at every level, from defense against terrorist attack, to sea level changes due to global warming, to interruption of energy supplies due to any catastrophe.”.
Cryonics commentator Mark Plus derisively refers to Timeship as the “Saulsoleum,” after the originator of the idea, long-time cryonics activist and co-founder of the Life Extension Foundation, Saul Kent. Viewed from above the Timeship concept, a design product of award winning architect Steven Valentine, looks like nothing so much as a large bull’s-eye inviting aerial assault. It is a structure that is all walls and no roof – something Mezoamerican – a structure conceived before a time when even catapults had been invented, let alone flying machines. I believe that Timeship is sadly best understood not as viable mechanism to protect cryonics patients, but rather through the lens of the “edifice complex.”
In his ponderous but nevertheless worthwhile book, The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World, the Director of the Design Museum in London, Deyan Sudjic explores the psychology of why the wealthy so often embark upon lavish construction projects that typically make no economic or practical sense, and which are almost invariably triumphs of form over function. Sudjic argues that such structures are an egoistic attempt to compensate for looming mortality. As such, they needn’t be practical; indeed their only raison d’être is to impress and to endure. To the extent that a man is synonymous with his name, as the ancient Egyptians believed, then Kufu (2613-2498 BCE) has indeed outwitted the passage of time, so far. The Great pyramid stands battered but triumphant on the plains of Giza even now. Whatever else Timeship may be it is neither a rational nor a practical haven for cryonics patients.
If cryonicists wish to be taken seriously, then they should have at their disposal a voluminous corpus of detailed evaluations of probability and risk; and also have at hand credible infrastructure to mitigate those risks, if not obviate them completely. Fanciful talk of an imminent singularity and of Mesoamerican mirages in the desert outside of San Antonio, Texas are not going to be sufficient to achieve this end for cryonics. These things are fantasies and they are recognized as such by most thinking people and as such, they fail to pass the credibility sniff test.
End of Part 4
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