Reception area of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Riverside, CA in April of 1987. The photos above the refreshments cart were of some of the patients in Alcor’s care at that time.
Sometimes we get defeated by technology, sometimes by cluelessness and sometimes by a most unexpected intersection of the two.
In 1981 I conceived of the idea of hanging the picture of each patient cryopreserved at Alcor on the wall of the facility. I intended the practice to start, not in the place where it might seem obvious for it to; in the patient care bay (PCB) as a memorialization of the patient for his family and friends, but rather, in the reception area and offices, where the organization’s staff dwelt on a daily basis. It was my intention that as the patients accumulated in the PCB, the photos would begin accumulating in the offices, laboratories, corridors and workspace of the Alcor staff. The intention was to provide a not so subtle reminder that there were people in those big stainless steel tanks, people who were desperate to get out of there.
Photos of Alcor patients apparently spilling off (?) the walls in the conference room at the Alcor Foundation’s facility in Scottsdale, AZ in April of 2011. Photo courtesy of Stan Lipin
My intention was that, over time, there would an inverse and very adverse relationship between “success” in terms of patient population growth and “failure” in terms of growth in the number of pictures on the wall. In time, I envisioned (with some glee) the framed photos multiplying like locusts, becoming ever more oppressive and occupying ever more wall space. I foresaw that they would likely encroach into the PCB. I also thought it likely they would be downsized. But mostly, I hoped they would serve their primary function, which was that each one was to serve as a reminder to those working at Alcor: “Hey, I’m still waiting, get me out of here! I want to get back to living, just like you are, too!”
This was not an idea which I kept secret. It was frequently discussed with other Directors, with staff, even with the officers and directors of other cryonics organizations. In fact, I now believe it is a practice which has become universal at cryonics organizations around the world. Or should I say, had become universal.
Alas, I hadn’t counted on technological advance. Technological advance is almost always a “two sided blade” and is this case, the blade cut in a way I hadn’t at all foreseen. The digital photo frame makes it possible to store essentially an “infinity” of images, and display them all in the physical space occupied by just one, over short sequences of time. In so doing, it removes the clutter, and thus the annoyance of hundreds or even thousands of actual framed, photographic images. One problem solved.
And another created. The purpose of institutions is to attempt to overcome the most damaging consequences of human mortality to civilizations: the destruction of knowledge, wisdom and the values they enable. In short, the loss of memory and accumulated experience that comes with the death of individuals.
Enter the halls of any civilization’s venerable institutions and you will see the images of the individuals they treasure on their walls and of those individuals’ ideas encoded in the books lining their shelves and engraved in the form of quotes and aphorisms on their walls. Stroll their great cities, or the corridors of their museums and you will see statues and likeness of the persons they treasure and admire cast in bronze and carved in stone; all these things are feeble attempts at conserving the ideas and values of the individuals who created the intellectual capital that sustains their civilizations. It is not just that they owe these men personally (they do) it is that these civilizations survive by remembering and living by the ideas that these men created.
Unfortunately, it turns out that ideas, standing alone and absent the context of memory, are weak things. It is one thing to know that fire burns, and another thing altogether to know that fire burns having been burnt by it. It is the power of knowledge in the context of experience that is wisdom, and it is wisdom that is destroyed by death. Knowledge contained in books, or nowadays in digital form, is but a shadow compared to that contained in the mind of a man who knows the real truth of a thing in the context of personal, hard won experience. Feeling, guided by reason over time, is the most powerful tool in the universe; and death is its ultimate enemy.
The human institution (first as oral tradition) followed by the written word, were man’s initial tools against death. Poor instruments that they were, they were used to fight valiantly in an attempt to conserve the memory of what was – a story of people, places and events over time. They were, to a remarkable degree, successful. The Royal Society is almost unbelievable in this regard, with every scrap of correspondence and every minor triumph and squabble being recorded and preserved. So are many neighborhood British garden societies – many going back hundreds of years. This will be true of every successful human institution from enduring religious institutions such as St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai, to the fraternal organizations such as the Masons in the US.
Robert Ettinger (left).
With the advent of scientific medicine and Ettinger’s book in 1964, it has become scientifically credible for human beings to reach for personal biological immortality and thus, for the first time, for a credible and a definitive “end to death.” Because what death really is, is the destruction of human knowledge and wisdom, and that is always and necessarily rooted in the destruction of individual humans. Wisdom, in particular, is uniquely a property of individual persons, and so is creativity. Neither of these fantastical properties which create and drive civilization can be distilled into books, carved into stone, or molded into bronze or plastic.
To achieve immortality for individuals it will be necessary to utilize the structure of institutions. It should be abundantly evident that such institutions will necessarily have to be the most stable and durable of those which human beings have so far managed to engineer. As such, they will have to most emulate that property which human institutions were created for in the first place: the conservation of memory of persons, places and events in order to conserve values over time. This why institutions incessantly speak of things like “grand old traditions” and “institutional memory.” Admittedly, it is a hard thing to do. And it is a perilous thing to do, because it relies upon successful prognostication of the future; that the ideas and values selected for conservation and propagation over the ages are the ones essential for success; and that the ones not essential, do not discredit those that are.
Inherent in cryonics is a terrible arrogance and optimism which attracts a kind of people who seem to possess an inborn contempt for, or incomprehension of the value of the past. This is evident in their own disregard for it. There is a shocking lack of historical conservation at both CI and Alcor. In fact, it is so shocking and all pervasive that I know that my words here will have virtually no impact on almost all who read them, because no one, at either place has any idea of what I’m talking about. It is, literally, the equivalent of talking to people who have never seen books, about how shocking it is that they don’t have libraries.
Organizations that are clueless about their own (recent) historical past should, not surprisingly, also be clueless about the deeper reasons for things like pictures of patients hanging on the walls. A few years ago, I was talking with one of the (many) former Presidents of Alcor who had a question for me about something in a member’s paperwork. This President wanted to know what “BACS” was? Now, I am old. In fact, I’m a little older than cryonics (by about 9 years). But that still only makes me 56, not 156. I felt a little like I do when I see anyone in the US being stopped on the street and asked questions like, “Who is the Secretary of State?” or “Who was Abraham Lincoln?” and the response is an utterly clueless answer.
If you’re an average reader here, and you don’t have a clue, that’s OK, because there really is no cryonics community to get acculturated in. The answer is that the Bay Area Cryonics Society (BACS, they changed their named to the American Cryonics Society, ACS, in 1985) was the dominant cryonics organization in the world from ~1974-1984! That’s a third of all of cryonics history and it’s not that long ago. To not know that and to be running the world’s largest cryonics organization seemed wrong to me. Not because it was wrong per se, but because it was inevitably a marker for what had to be a veritable iceberg of other missing information that was of far greater import. And even that isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw. Realizing a deficiency of knowledge or character or resources, even a spectacular one, and working hard to remedy it is the oldest heroes’ tale in the world.
Of course, it isn’t really practical to keep putting up pictures of Alcor’s patients on its walls. At some point, I’d have expected that they would have started to spill out, rather indecently, onto the grounds. And perhaps, if the problem persisted far enough into the future, they might start turning up, well, who knows where? And continue to do so until the problem was solved.
The problem to be solved being not the clutter, nor the barrier to tasteful decorating, nor to efficient housekeeping, but rather, the problem of how to make their number start decreasing, rather than increasing. That is, decreasing by some expedient other than by gathering them up into a digital dustbin where they are granted increasingly smaller and smaller and smaller access to the living human eye, as time goes by.
How terribly (horribly) convenient.
After writing this piece it occurred to me that many might dismiss it as a case of “sour grapes;” of an “old man” failing to keep pace with the times. I don’t believe this is so and I think a good analogy is the AIDS Quilt. Imagine if the AIDS Quilt had, because of its bulk, logistical inconvenience, and in your face anguish effect, had been replaced with a single (or several) flat screen “quilt display” monitors?
The effect would hardly have been the same. At issue here is not the technology, per se. I can imagine a number of ways to use digital technology far more pervasively, far more more subversively, and potentially even more durably than analog photographs, or stitched pieces of fabric. I’m not an analog Luddite. Indeed, I’m using digital technology in just such a”creative-subversive” way right now.
The point is that it must be used in such a manner – transformatively, transcendently and creatively – not as a band-aid convenience to assist with interior decorating to “reduce clutter” or “ease housekeeping.”
That is the clueless failure of vision, understanding and institutional memory I’m addressing here.
 Dr. Mike Perry is one exception that I know of.