- Vita Longa, Ars Longa:Aging, Longevity Extension Technology and the Arts
Historically, artists have patrolled the borders of culture, alerting us to emerging developments and their cultural implications. Leonardo's 40-year history has been full of artists engaging technologies on the horizon that were only faintly grasped by the public. Here I focus on a development that promises to profoundly reshape our world and that cries out for more artistic attention: aging. While this is not a particular technology, it is an issue that emerges out of the interplay of many technologies and social structures.
My awareness of the urgency of this trend was stimulated by participation in the World Technology Network . Believing in the power of serendipitous encounters, James Clarke, the director of this organization, brings together innovators in diverse fields such as medicine, business, biology, materials science, government, art, venture capital and academia in a yearly conference. One of the most recent conference's speakers, Ziv Navoth, director of the Verve futurist think tank , identified several themes as critical for business and government to consider in long-term planning, one of which was the changing demographics of aging . It struck me that the arts have been strangely quiet on this theme.
In our change-oriented culture novelty and technological innovation are highly valued and the knowledge of the aged is often viewed as obsolescent.
Navoth noted that the combination of birth control and medical advances was radically altering the demographics of the developed world. For example, Italy and Japan's birthrates have shrunk below replacement rates, and Italy now has more people above the age of 65 than below the age of 20. Other countries will soon follow. Many countries face social-welfare crises because their systems are based on pay-as-you-go principles, with the shrinking younger generations expected to support the old. Many countries in the developing world still have the historical demographics of a high ratio of children to older people and relatively short life expectancy, although this begins to change as they develop.
Biological aging and longevity research will accelerate these trends even further. Researchers are making progress on several fronts to understand and perhaps slow basic processes of aging. For example, they have discovered that cells seem to have a natural limit to the number of divisions they can undergo. Investigators have had some success in delaying the aging and death that seems programmed into the cells. In one study, worms were made to live (healthily) 5 times their normal expectancy-the equivalent of 400 human years! Another line of inquiry has studied peoples who enjoy extraordinary longevity, such as mountain peoples of Peru and Asia. A key factor was found to be chronic under-nourishment, [End Page 109] and researchers are trying to understand the molecular processes sufficiently so that they can bring about the longevity without the caloric restriction. These techniques do not just elongate life; they seem to slow aging, with corresponding delay in disease and decay of capabilities.
How should the arts respond to these trends? Here are some questions to start thinking about:
• The length and productivity of artists' life spans will be extended. What kind of art will 60-90 year-old artists produce? In traditional societies, elders were valued for their experience and wisdom. Often the old were the ones who dealt with spiritual matters. Historically, there are examples in art history of painters and sculptors remaining productive well into old age. In our change-oriented culture, however, novelty and technological innovation are highly valued and the knowledge of the aged is often viewed as obsolescent. Media and technological art is often valued for its attention to the most current technologies and cultural issues. Historically artists have drawn on the freshness of their youth as an engine of artistic response. Will aging artists function as they did in their youth, or in new ways that respond to age and experience?
• New practitioners may become active in the arts later in life. Early in life people often make career decisions based on economic security concerns and forgo pursuits in areas such as the arts or philosophy...