Vol. 13, No.9, Iss. 146, p. 18-19
September 1992


by Mark Plus

I discovered this book in the Tulsa, Oklahoma library system several years ago. Its authors forecast a pessimistic fate for cryonicists in the context of their idiosyncratic view of the future, which surprisingly resembles the one expressed by the pro-cryonics and pro-immortalist futurist FM-2030 (nee F. M. Esfandiary) in his books. Its date of publication corresponds with the beginnings of the cryonics movement, yet I have never seen it referenced in any of the cryonics literature with which I am familiar. It is nevertheless worth an examination today because it sheds light on the psychology of people who fear what cryonics has to offer.

Part I of" Looking Forward," titled "Things That Shape Our Future," is the authors' straightforward analysis of the world's problems from the perspective of the 1960s. It reveals some odd prejudices, seldom encountered today, such as Thorstein Veblen's and the Technocrats' view that the "price system" is a superstition which interferes with the efficient operation of the industrial economy. Keyes and Fresco also seem to promote a behavioristic view of humankind, for they blame a lot of our problems on poorly designed environments, rather than on individual irresponsibility. (As will become clear, the authors share B. F. Skinner's contempt for "Autonomous Man.")

In spite of their untenable economic and moral ideas, Keyes and Fresco do express a number of values with which few extropically-minded people could disagree: "life and liberty, economic abundance, health and longevity, love and friendship, physical pleasures, appreciation of beauty, deep levels of self-knowledge and communication of feelings, vicarious sharing of the delights of others, the challenge of life." Although the ends are generally good, the means they propose, a kind of behavioristic technocracy, leave much to be desired.

Part II of the book, "A Projection of Our Future," is a didactic science fiction story about two characters in the 21st century, Scott and Hella, who live in the antiseptic Things to Come future imagined by the authors. Among Scott and Hella's barely interesting adventures in technocratic utopia, in Chapter 15, "The New Personality," Hella gets to study a colony of cryonic suspension patients who have been resuscitated. This passage is so unintentionally amusing (and frustrating), that I shall quote it at length:

"In the latter part of the twentieth century, to avoid the finality of death many people had themselves quick-frozen immediately before or after death. They hoped that by having their bodies preserved they could be thawed out at a later date with minimal damage so the medical skill of a future civilization could bring them back to life. One of the more dubious legacies of the past was about twenty-two thousand of these frozen people.

No one knows exactly what to do with these corpses. Should an attempt be made to resurrect them? Should they simply be disposed of? Since the population of the world is maintained at a constant level, most people feel that it is preferable to create a new life that is genetically and psychologically [sic] prepared for participation in the twenty-first century. Resurrection of one of these bodies with an uncertain adjustment in the twenty-first century might be a sticky business.

Finally, a group decided they would attempt the revival of 100 of the bodies. They picked fifty males and fifty females whose records seemed to be especially promising and thawed them out. They have been successful in bringing 93% of them back to life, and replacing the defective organs that were responsible for death with synthetic organs.

The real problem arose when they found that these individuals are completely out of touch with patterns of life in the twenty-first century. You could no more leave them on their own that you could turn a baboon loose in the middle of a research center. They seem so full of hostilities and have ego motivations that are so alien to the twenty-first [sic] century that people have finally given up the task of trying to train them to fit into the new world. These "thawees" are so disruptive of the routines of life in the twenty-first century that the group that has brought them to life realizes they are saddled with a custodial problem. They are beginning to understand the types of pressures and twenty-four-hours-a-day watchfulness that burdened mothers in previous centuries.

Their reverence for human life does not permit them to refreeze these "unsane" individuals. They finally decide to set up a twentieth-century behavioral research laboratory on an isolated island and turn these people loose there. They provide the ninety-three men and women with every material resource requested and build a laboratory for psychologists and anthropologists to observe them. The thawees are free to set up their own social structure.

By means of monitoring pickups, the custodians are able to make a recording of most of the behavior of the twentieth-century thawees. One evening as Hella is watching them on the teleprojection screen, two men begin to quarrel. One man suspects that another man has attempted to obtain a sexual relationship with a woman he feels belongs to him. Although the woman protests that his suspicions are not correct, he slaps her in the face and hits her in the ribs so hard that it sends her sprawling across the room. The man with whom she has been accused of intimacy stands up and rushes toward the attacking man. A fight begins that lasts several minutes.

Neither Hella nor anyone in the group has even seen anyone strike another person in anger. They watch, spellbound, as the fight continues. They have read that twentieth-century television showed fights and murders. They know little children in that society sometimes spent from four to eight hours a day watching such vicious programs and learning these folkways.

The man who started the fight seems to be losing. Blood is streaming from his nose. Suddenly, the jealous man picks up a metal bar and brings it down with a crunching impact on the head of the man who came to the woman's rescue. His legs crumple, and he slumps to the floor. His murderer is locked in a room by two other thawees.

The next day a court is set up with a lawyer who asks for his death. A judge is appointed, and a jury is selected. Although the custodians have read of these tribal customs, they have never had the opportunity to experience them emotionally. It seems almost impossible that human beings could behave in this manner.

After several hours of verbal courtroom ritual, the jury labels the man "guilty," and the judge informs him that the group will take his life. They tie the man's hands behind his back and put a rope around his neck. They pull him several feet off the ground and watch self-righteously while he chokes to death.

Most of the custodians who observe this ritual become physically sick and vomit. They keep the recorders working, but they turn off the screen and walk outside to take deep breaths of fresh air. As they look over the vast Pacific Ocean, they manage to overcome their feelings of nausea at this strange spectacle of man's inhumanity to man."

While the above passage does have the merit of showing that cryonics can work, it also reveals the authors' misanthropy towards traditional humanity. They compare us to baboons and say we are unsuitable for life in the future because of our "hostilities" and "ego motivations" (i. e., because we profess individual autonomy). They dismiss out of hand the idea that there could be a just use of force, as in the case when the man accused of adultery comes to physically defend his alleged lover. They compare our legal traditions and ideals of justice to "tribal customs." (How would the custodians have dealt with the murder?) And they assume that future societies would lack the means to educate or otherwise accommodate large numbers of "thawees" so that they could resume their lives, even in "metaphorically Amish" communities of twentieth century people peaceably living amongst their twenty-first century neighbors. As if this view of humanity were not bad enough, Keyes and Fresco add insult to injury in the next two paragraphs:

"This strong reaction [to the murder and the ensuing trial and execution] has not been caused by a fear of death. The people in the twenty-first century regard death as a natural phenomenon and accept it when it comes. They put their energy into living fully while they are alive. Every resource of medical science is used to keep bodies functioning, but each individual calls a halt when he feels that physical deterioration has gone too far. When the torch of life has burned brightly, they do not hesitate to pass it on to another. Each individual realizes that upon his death a new baby will be permitted to enter into the world. They don't fight this natural progression beyond a certain point. In the future immortality may be possible. But until then -- no problem.

While they are breathing the fresh ocean air, Hella asks where the other frozen bodies are kept. She is informed they are in the Antarctic vault near the frozen animal specimens. Hella is sure that they will remain there for some time. Perhaps thousands of years in the future when aggressive behavior is only a vague, theoretical concept, an intrepid group might wish to thaw additional specimens to observe this phenomenon. It seems unlikely that these frozen bodies could never be functioning citizens in a contemporary society. Each year the antiquated associations locked in their frozen brains become more and more inappropriate to the rapidly changing world."

Now these passages provide some interesting insights into the mentality of people who reject cryonics. The general themes seem to be: (a) low self-esteem and lack of trust in one's competence to adapt to new situations; (b) the fear that there will be no room or place for us in the world of the future, so that we would be kept in suspension indefinitely; (c) the fear that our resuscitators will act upon a malevolent value system and treat us not as autonomous individuals, but rather as "specimens," "baboons," and such (though "children" would be a better metaphor, since that would imply we could mature some day); (d) the fear that we might be resuscitated into a world which still had not conquered aging, or even valued human life enough to make the attempt (refer to the comment above about passing on the "torch of life"), so that we would still be vulnerable to death.

Curiously these fears are similar to the reasons people today give against the practice of cryonics. In spite of being part of public awareness for over a quarter of a century, the social aspects of the cryonics argument -- why we prefer, although reluctantly, to be frozen, and what sort of society we hope will greet us when we're resuscitated--have not been effectively communicated. While we cannot guarantee that our resuscitators will treat us benevolently, or even that cryonics will work at all, it is clear that we need to set up the social framework now that will improve our chances for dealing with these foreseeable social problems. If we can demonstrate real progress in dealing with the social question, perhaps we can set at ease the minds of potential cryonicists, to the ultimate benefit of us all.