Through A Glass Darkly: Obstacles to Envisioning the Future of Cryonics


By Mike Darwin

I think every cryonicist carries in his head his own unique model of the “future of cryonics.” Furthermore, I think that each individual cryonicist carries around a largely arbitrary and unique set of standards, rules and regulations concerning what constitutes “proper,” “moral,” “ethical,” or even “reasonable” behavior for both “rank and file” and “professional” cryonicists.

We cryonicists often use the words “movement” or “industry” to describe our undertaking. However, it is a commonplace to all real movements, industries (and, I would add professions) that they share at least a broad world view and a basic, common vision of the future; as well a reasonably well developed set of rules, regulations, guidelines and ethics for carrying out day to day operations. A corollary of such a basic self-regulatory framework is a “judiciary” to enforce these obligations and injunctions.

Medicine, the law,  other professions, and even academia, the trades and trade unions have such value-driven enforcement mechanisms in place. In all these examples, senior and respected members of the profession, trade, or ideological movement[i] serve as appointed adjudicators to both fairly and responsibly enforce both the objective and subjective codes of behavior that have been put in place over time.

In the case of medicine, there are both private, professional organizations and state-sponsored, or state-informed organizations, such as the state medical boards, whose job it is to set and enforce a minimum standard of “right” conduct, which is understood to include moral, ethical and legal behavior. These entities do not function in a “black or white,” “all or none,” “guilty or innocent” manner. Rather, they consider the totality of the cases that come before them and attempt to reach a just resolution. For instance, under most conditions, it is unethical for a physician to engage in sexual congress with a patient. However, depending upon the circumstances, including the prior professional history of the physician, such a transgression may be handled by a simple reprimand, or alternatively, by being struck out of the profession for life.

In any mature ideological movement, religious, political, social, or otherwise, there are similar “rules and regulations” and a well defined world view and vision of the future. There may well be (and usually are) both conservatives and radicals in any given organization with respect to this world view and vision (and usually many more who are “moderates”). However, this does not prevent or preclude there being clearly and objectively stated rules. There are members of the American Medical Association who support active euthanasia and more than a few Roman Catholics who support (and use) birth control.

What does this have to do with the “future of cryonics”? Quite a lot, really, because the expectations of members and leaders within cryonics organizations will shape the actions taken by the cryonics organization as a whole – even if that “shaping” is to effectively preclude coordinated action.


For instance, cryonicists who envision rapid and largely unimpeded technological progress sufficient to make cryonics “successful” (i.e., to achieve perfected suspended animation, or to resuscitate today’s cryopatients) will likely find conflict in the brass tacks of dealing with cryonicists who have a contrary view of the future – who see the future as a difficult and dangerous place and believe that cryonics must largely make its own way and forge its own advances – and if necessary, alter the course and values of the global culture to facilitate the survival of cryonicists (both living and cryopreserved).

It is also the case that any enterprise operating completely sans written minimum standards, rules, regulations, obligations and moral and ethical expectations for its leadership and its membership will function chaotically and ultimately, will fail.

This is most evident in the case of Alcor, where the proof of such a standard-less or “lawless” operation can be found in the high turnover of management and staff.[ii] Some years ago, I was riding in a car with then Alcor President Steven Van Sickle. He remarked that he wanted to have T-shirts made up for all the Alcor Presidents, past and present, with a bull’s eye printed on them along with words to the effect of “shoot here” and “invite them to attend the next Alcor Conference to wear the shirts.” The sentiment he was expressing was that no matter what you do, you will eventually be found summarily guilty and shot. That is a true and sure sign of an organization without standards that lurches from decision to decision based on the expediency of the moment, whether it be cash flow, number of cryopreservations per year, membership growth, or avoiding a “catastrophe” of one sort or another (justified or unjustified).

Even where there are standards that are well known and written down (somewhere), such as the conditions under which at-need cases should be accepted, they are violated (as in the case of Ted Williams) – usually because those making the decisions had no mentoring and no inculturation in such rules. People do not learn “right” or “proper” behavior by being once “told the rules,” or by being given a stack of papers where they are written down (or engraved on stone, for that matter); any more than they learn moral or ethical behavior in daily life in that fashion. Such behavior, and the values that underlie them, are inculcated more than educated. No one even learns the mechanics of driving a car from reading the state-provided operator’s manual – sans lots of practice and mentoring during the actual business of operating a motor vehicle. And this is doubly true for the large body of mostly unwritten behavior that constitutes being a courteous driver! That can only be acquired from mentoring and from repetition and observation of the good conduct of others who are vastly more experienced, and for whom there is genuine respect.

The fatal flaw in Ettinger’s vision of cryonics was that cryonics itself was to come from them and not from us. In his world view, large corporations and the government would become involved almost from the beginning, as well as the trades and professions, and  they would then work out all the details of what constituted right and proper conduct in every sphere of action – from rescue – through storage and “reanimation.” Clearly, that didn’t happen. And, by the way, there was no great sin in imagining that it might. The world is a wild, crazy and unpredictable place and it seems eminently possible to me that in some universe somewhere there is indeed the “freezer centered society” that Ettinger envisioned in 1962-4.

Rather, the sin is that 50+ years later, we still have not awakened to the reality that this culture and this civilization are, at best, monumentally indifferent to our undertaking and worst in deadly opposition to it.

We have a profound responsibility to arrive at a world view, a morality and code of conduct of for cryonics. That these should be reasonably inclusive and flexible there can be no doubt.

And there can be no doubt that we will neither survive as individuals nor endure as organizations if we fail to take these most basic and necessary of steps.


[i] Organizations as diverse as the Communist Party, GreenPeace , the Catholic Church and the Tea Party all have such mechanisms as well a written ideology and accompanying rules and regulations.

[ii] The Cryonics Institute (CI) has historically operated on a the “strong leader” paradigm wherein a single individual, or at most a few individuals, determine the proper course for the organization and make decisions about what is just, ethical and moral on case by case or ad hoc basis.

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7 Responses to Through A Glass Darkly: Obstacles to Envisioning the Future of Cryonics

  1. Mark Plus says:

    I’ve said for a few months now that cryonics organizations need to rewrite their expository literature to bring it up to the 21st Century because much of it sounds increasingly paleofuturistic and out of touch with the experiences of people who grew up admiring, say, Steve Jobs instead of “Wernher von who?” Ettinger’s book belongs on the fictional Don Draper’s bookshelf, perhaps, but not in our ebook readers in 2012 unless you need to refer to it for historical reasons. People born after 1970 or so can’t relate to the idea of “the space age” or understand what the moon landings meant to us, when manned space travel stopped with no follow up before their births. (If we had a moon base, like a certain presidential candidate has advocated, then those foolish moon landing denialists would shut up and go away.)

    Yet these experiences provide the context for the world views of many older cryonicists, as we can see from the current issue of Long Life magazine:

    I could say the same for our tastes in science fiction literature and movies. Give a young person a copy of Heinlein’s Door Into Summer to experience Heinlein’s vision of life in those far-future years of 1970 and 2000, and he might laugh at it.

    I would also have to put “nanotechnology” into the paleofuture box, which makes me unpopular with some cryonicists. Consider that 30 years ago, two ideas would have sounded like science fiction: The “nanoassembler,” and getting your genome sequenced in exchange for less than a month’s income, at at time when you couldn’t have gotten that done for any amount of money.

    Fast forward to 2012. We still don’t have “nanoassemblers,” yet the price of having a lab sequence your genome shows signs of breaking through $1000 and heading downwards, if it hasn’t already. Why do we see the latter as a reality, but not the former?

    As for problems with the culture of cryonics, I suspect that they derive in part from cognitive limits to our ability to process time. I have to laugh at conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones who claim that secret societies have existed for generations to carry out plans for world domination formulated centuries ago, when we can see in the here and now that even intelligent people don’t function that way. Cryonics organizations have articulated goals which will require centuries of continuous commitment and effort to accomplish, yet the people who have run Alcor recently seem to lack the attention span to stick to a course of action for more than a few months. I don’t know what we can do about this, however. Can we find prostheses to keep our minds from wandering from the cryonics movement’s mission?

    • chronopause says:

      Mark, as usual, you make a number of important and interesting points.

      One area where I think I disagree with you is over what constitutes the real “paleofuture.” It’s true that the 1950s vision of the future with lunar colonies, manned missions to Mars and atomic trains didn’t happen. It is also true that universal nanoassemblers are not on-line today, in 2012. And it is surely the case that many, if not most of the imagined future technology from the 1940s, such as “flying flivers” replacing automobiles, have not materialized and are almost certainly not going to… However, it’s not fair or wise to lump all past visions of the future together and more or less concede that they are discredited, incredible, or impossibly dated. There is a difference between sound and essential ideas which the culture fucked over, and naive or ridiculous ones which the culture justifiably ignored.

      For many commonsense, practical reasons, flying flivers were never in the cards – indeed, those reasons were raised at the time and only a lot of uninformed hand waving about the “wonders of tomorrow” made them seem even remotely credible. Ditto atomic trains and much of the imagined nuclear infrastructure that has not come to be, such as using hydrogen bombs to carve out new harbors, or another, deeper Panama Canal. The point here, and it is a critically important one, is that some things that didn’t come about, really should have, and in fact really must do, because without them we are lost – not just as individuals – but as a species. Extraterrestrial “colonization” or mastery of the universe outside of earth is not a luxury, and idle dream, or an option. It is an absolute prerequisite for our survival. This is so obviously true on so many levels that it still astounds me when otherwise reasonable people ridicule it, or deny its central importance to our long term survival. So, the fact that the culture regards this technology as part of a “paleofuture” is their problem more than ours. In fact, it is incumbent upon us to rub their noses in that “past future” until they acknowledge the error of their ways. So, if some hip young guy today says that a lunar colony or an L5 colony is “That’s so retro, so last century and we should forget about it, dude,” my response is going to be some version (polite, or not so polite) of “You’re a fucking idiot!” The fact is, THEY are the ones stuck in a paleofuture, whether they know it or not.

      Having said that, I would not advertise the undertaking as fast, cheap or easy. It’s a really long term proposition with mostly long term payoffs. So was Europe’s colonization of the New World. In fact, I’d argue the payoff there was slower in coming that has been the payoff from our space exploration ventures so far. And yes, I agree that the business of getting a foothold off earth will require repackaging, yet again, and it might require further repackaging to make or keep it relevant further down the line. That’s marketing.

      Why didn’t technologies such as space travel and suspended animation receive sustained support? Well, there are a million ancillary reasons, but the big one is that the culture, indeed the whole civilization, had and have no value system and no philosophy that makes these technologies an imperative. Most of the value structure in all extant civilizations comes from religion and from the residue of communism. That kind of ideological conditioning is incredibly powerful and it achieves more control over capital, people and the course of history in one hour, or one minute, than cryonics has in 50 years. Christian missionaries operating in Africa or in Haiti today require and obtain more effort, commitment and resources than cryonics has ever had its its disposal. And they gain this bounty of committed labor and capital from people who are subjected to dreadful conditions in executing their missioins. In the secular sphere I could cite GreenPeace, Habitat for Humanity and many similar organizations, so it isn’t all about religion. What it is about is having a coherent and appropriately demanding ideology with a well defined world view and the practical behavioral infrastructure with which to try to implement it. Hell, it might reasonably argued that fans of any successful major league football franchise, or the fans of any UK or European soccer team have more energy and commitment than does the “entire” cryonics movement.

      And that would be fine if cryonics were a uni-dimensional, fully developed product like a candy bar or a light bulb. But it isn’t. As you point out, it is an endeavor that will take a very long time – so long that it is out of the timescale perception of most of humanity. And while I agree with you that conspiracy theorists who posit millenia-long efforts to rule the world are nuts – I would also point out what Thomas Donaldson did many years ago; namely that there are institutions with centuries long, or even indefinitely long goals that are chugging along just fine – Oxford and Cambridge being two examples. The Vatican and Westminster Abbey are also impressive examples. These institutions expect to endure and they plan accordingly. Thomas used the example of planting trees to replace the ceiling beams in the refectory at Cambridge a century before they would be needed (the time required to grow to maturity) as an example. The specifics of how these institutions operate are not important in this context, but the fact they exist and that they planned to exist over such long spans of time is very material, because it proves that it is possible and that despite our “temporal cognitive limits” we can, in fact, pull off really long term projects without failure or interruption, over a period of centuries. That doesn’t mean that cryonicists can do it, or that the odds are very good for any such effort. But it is a proof of principle, and an important one.

      The cost of genome sequencing got cheaper because the task itself was based upon “modest” extensions of then extant and proven science and technology. It did not depend upon the development of some fundamentally new and untried way of manipulating matter to come into existence, be debugged and be made robust and widespread. Also, the undertaking itself was an incremental advance, not a fundamentally new thing. We knew how to read the genome, we knew the value of doing so, and we were already slogging along in decoding it. What Ventner and others did, was to greatly speed up that process by developing novel, but nevertheless incremental technologies. That is a radically different proposition than inventing itsy bitsy machines which even most educated people cannot understand, let alone think of an immediate practical use for.

      You ask: “Can we find prostheses to keep our minds from wandering from the cryonics movement’s mission?”

      Sure we can. The proof of that is all around us in the form of institutions and movements that have endured over such timescales and continued in their mission. Some are smallish affairs, like the Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God Trodden Mount of Sinai (St. Catherine’s) in Egypt which I visited many years ago. It has been in continuous operation for 1,200 years and its library contains books that date back to the 4th century. In fact, very recently, a copy of the Codex Sinaiticus was found tucked away in its library by a visiting academic. Twelve hundred years is a fantastical length of time in human history given that history extends back only ~8,000 years or so. And I saw no signs that the monks there were about to be distracted from their mission.

      Finally, I want to address the question of DOING rather than talking. Failure analysis is critically important; it is necessary but not sufficient. When I returned to Indiana from California in 1975 I did a lot of talking and a lot of failure analysis. But I also began constructing equipment and acquiring supplies to do cryonics (everything I had previously worked to assemble remained behind in California). Still, it took Steve Bridge to say, “Okay, let’s DO something.”

      Doing something ids what is required to get traction. Absent action, we will just sit here in Arizona and spin our wheels. — Mike Darwin

    • chronopause says:

      The comment you made about THE PROSPECT OF IMMORTALITY belonging on Don Draper’s bookshelf has stuck with me. It struck me as dissonant, because I can’t imagine Don Draper as a cryonicist, and yet right on the money, because the book does belong on a bookshelf in that show. To me, Draper doesn’t fir the bill because he doesn’t know who he is and he hasn’t figured out what life and death “mean” – he’s still in the puzzled stage. I could more easily see the book on the shelf of Bertram Cooper (next to his copy of ATLAS SHRUGGED), Roger Sterling, or perhaps the self-absorbed and narcissistic Peter Campbell. Roger Sterling and Bertram Cooper both remind of actual cryonicists from that era – a bit of Curtis Henderson in his Gray Flannel Suit days and/or Bob Krueger a la the RAND corporation.

  2. Shannon Vyff says:

    Dystopic futures have always been popular, as a warning but also to make people feel better about the time they live in. Cryonicists are faulted for pointing towards a “better” future, because they are not appreciating the time and lives they have. I personally don’t think we will see great developments in space travel or medicine until it becomes profitable to invest in them, the costs are too high currently. It is hard to be optimistic about the future, I think it is more realistic to think it will have the same sort of problems we have today. I’ve always wondered why there aren’t more science fiction writers signed up for cryonics, but of course many wouldn’t want to live in the future they envision.

  3. Brian says:

    I suppose we all have future visions. Especially Cryonicists. I have them and as some one preparing to preserve my CNS hope something reasonable happens. History, however, has shown that no one has got it right for long. All the so-called authorities, professors, students and experts have been off the mark, at least in most areas. When it comes to predicting the future we are are all idiots and even more so if we fail to acknowledge it. I am going to play the cryonics long shot because it relies on known finances, known behavior models and continued learning. Maybe surviving is better than certainty not.

    My body is slowly being paralysed by MS so I have little regard for the physical. Download my being (brain) when a dog is downloaded into a virtual world indistinguishable from a nice current reality and he remembers commands he learned in the real world.

    My dumb-ass prediction. The skeptical culture changes quickly as soon as a person comes back with an intact personality that can live in a virtual world as if it were real. Of course in my virtual world both mental and (virtual) physical growth can procede in an off-the-chart fashion. Wouldn’t it be nice?

    My prediction:

    • chronopause says:

      Brian, I am sorry to hear of your illness. Hopefully the fact that you are male is working in your favor, since both the rate of progression and severity of MS are less in males. I’d also point out that, for the first time since the steroids were discovered, there are novel and, for some, reasonably effective treatments. More are in the pipeline – and if they don’t become available here first – they will be elsewhere.

      Your predictions are welcome. Thoughtful predictions are always welcome here, because they constitute part of responsible science. Once you write it down, well it’s there, and even if no one else cares, you can go back and see how well you did. That’s valuable, because it helps you see how your model of how the world works needs refinement (or replacement).

      For what its worth, my own take on how quickly the culture will adopt successful cryonics, downloading/uploading, or any other comparable paradigm changing biomedical advance is different. I agree that any given “validating” advance will increase the ranks of people who choose cryopreservation, or any other biomedical technology. But I’m skeptical of an overwhelming groundswell. Many years ago I had the idea that the discovery of penicillin and its rapid, widespread adoption was a nearly instantaneous thing in medicine. I later learned that it really wasn’t, but that’s another story…

      What I would like to see done, just for the fun of it, is the creation of an Advances vs. Benefit (Acceptance) table for cryonics. In other words, how much would cryopreservation (CP) membership increase if a mammalian organ such as the kidney were robustly demonstrated to be cryopreservable? How much more if cryobanking of an organ like the kidney or heart became routine for transplant purposes? How much more if a mammalian brain were reversibly cryopreserved with a normal or near normal EEG – with the demonstration of consciousness and memory? And so on, right through to reversible suspended animation? It would be even more fascinating, and arguably useful, to then go out into the community (via the web, or personally) and ask people in different cohorts of society what THEIR answers are to those questions. That’s actually pretty easy thing to do theses days, because there are SIGs for medicine, gaming, just about any cohort in society. Whether the answers would truly be predictive of the benefit to be accrued from a given technological advance is anybody’s guess. But at the least it is entertaining, and at the best it might just give us an idea of where the “money shot” may be in terms of maximum return on efforts.

      Finally, there is no such thing as a permanent virtual world. There is no place where you can go and stay forever and where you get to make the rules and be happy. This is impossible given our current understanding of physics/reality. The reason for this is simple: any construct you or anyone else makes will (unless otherwise stated) reside here in this (multi)universe and reality. The problem with reality is that it is REAL. It exists and it is enormously complex. As you so rightly state at the outset: “History, however, has shown that no one has got it right for long. All the so-called authorities, professors, students and experts have been off the mark, at least in most areas. When it comes to predicting the future we are are all idiots and even more so if we fail to acknowledge it, and therein lies the rub. Because sooner, rather than later, any VR system will collide with the complexity of an ever (and rapidly) changing external reality and it will be disrupted or destroyed.

      Life itself here on earth is a VR experiment that keeps getting kicked in the ass by “unforeseen” external events ranging from volcanic eruptions to celestial collisions. Any closed system inside the dynamic universe will ultimately confront disruption (and sometimes from unforeseen things WITHIN it). What that disruption might be, I can’t say, but I do predict with a very high degree of certainty that it will come, until such time as the universe and all its threats are mastered. — Mike Darwin

      • Taurus Londono says:

        “Any closed system inside the dynamic universe will ultimately confront disruption”

        Black dwarfs.

        The universe is large.
        The vast majority of it is comprised of what is essentially empty space. The proportions often tossed around in the typical pop-science bullshit media stream (and the egotistical astrophysicists who so often enjoying engaging it) about such-and-such “percentage” of visible matter or dark matter or dark energy; these are not *actually* descriptive of the *universe as a whole* only the *mass of its contents* (yes, dark energy = mass).

        Again, the vast (vast, vast) overwhelming majority of the universe is *empty*.

        Even quantum vacuum fluctuations significant enough to disrupt a system as sophisticated as, say, the whole of life on earth (virtual or “real”) would unfold across timescales longer than the span in which such a sophisticated thing as life could exist at all.

        When it’s (rightly) said that much of the Milky Way (or any galaxy) is hostile to life, that environments preclude the existence of complex (but delicate) carbon-based snowflakes like DNA, it’s in reference to the stars (and their daughter planets) that give the galaxy its form (nevermind the dull nebulous gases, molecular clouds, etc).

        Yes, there is colossal (perhaps you could even say voracious) hostility throughout the universe; *by comparison*, civilization is as miserably pathetic as a housefly.

        But the universe is a big place.
        It’s mostly empty.
        And thanks to dark energy, the further along in time *you* happen to be from *now*, the emptier space will be.

        Track any random star from now until forever; the vast majority will be undisturbed throughout their time on the main sequence, becoming white dwarfs, ultimately changing from white to black as uneventful eons pass, oblivious to the magnetars and supermassive black holes that dot the universe here and there, everything receding further and further away.

        That a group of intelligent beings (ten, a trillion, what does it matter) might stake out some empty corner among the endless continuum of empty corners for their Terasem-esque VR utopia, their mindfiles cyber-frolicking and cyber-fucking in Second Life 2.0, unmolested by and oblivious to the “reality” around them for eons thereafter is not inconceivable.

        Indeed, the vast gulf between any galaxies might be chocked full of ‘em. Why not? The human race reduced to a little floating Xbox (hell maybe even a nano Xbox) programmed to avoid anything and everything, as inscrutable and as dead to the external “reality” as a sealed tomb.

        It seems to me that this is at least a plausible fate for humanity. Whether it is a pitiable one or not…well, the universe knows no pity but our own.

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