LIFE EXTENSION CHALLENGES

I have been overwhelmed by the flood of conflicting articles on the possible impacts of extending our life spans. When I turned to Google to see what has been written recently, it came up with 245,000,000 items… quite a bit more than the few dozen articles in my files. Admittedly the subject covers multiple spheres: The genetic and bio-science challenges are enormous (even today I hear on the radio that we may be transplanting pig kidneys and hearts in three years). How to resolve the possible consequences of these fast moving developments? What is best for humans? There is strong resistance to life extension from different religious, social and political groups. The push for high profits on minor extensions by the pharmaceutical industry make controls almost unstoppable. Then there are a number of billionaires who are so concerned about the vision of being kept alive until they are decrepit, that they have launched foundations to explore more promising alternatives.

How to keep active and alert until our 90s is becoming a popular challenge which is also disputed. Ross Andersen wrote quite directly in the Atlantic: “We’ve already tacked three decades onto the average lifespan of an American, so what’s wrong with adding another few decades? So far as we know, the last hundred years have been the most radical period of life extension in all of human history. At the turn of the twentieth century, life expectancy for Americans was just over 49 years; by 2010, that number had risen to 78.5 years, mostly on account of improved sanitation and basic medicine. But life extension doesn’t always increase our well-being, especially when all that’s being extended is decrepitude. There’s a reason that Ponce de Leon went searching for the fountain of youth — if it were the fountain of prolonged dementia and arthritis he may not have bothered.1

Many articles question whether we really need the anti-ageing elixirs being offered by the pharmaceutical industry? As the population already is growing older while the global birth-rate is going down in economically advanced nations, do we really need life extension? Would we not be better focusing on youth extension medicare? Many see life extension as irresponsible, dangerous, harmful and against both nature and creation itself. And then there are critics who see anyone who opposes life extension as taking on the role of judge, jury and executioner all at the same time.

Andersen pointed out that as funding for anti-aging research has boomed over the past few decades bioethicists have expressed alarm. They contend that such longevity could have disastrous social effects. Others suggest that longer life spans will mean stiffer competition for basic resources such as water and food as well as creating a wider gap between rich and poor. However, many of those advancing life extension are also focused on improving the quality and not the quantity of life.

Another commentator, James S. Goodwin, wrote that around the year 2000, a commandment came down from the very heights of the Geriatric Olympus: “Thou Shalt Not Study Life Extension. Nay, nor shall thou speak wistfully of such a prospect. For it is written that life extension scares the bejesus out of the gods of policy.”2 The fear is that medical progress will result in longer lives without better health. A spectre haunts us with millions of empty shells in wheelchairs populating ever-expanding nursing homes.

Living longer does not necessarily mean that the fundamental process of aging has been slowed down. Joao Pedro de Magalhaes, a Professor at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Ageing & Clinical Diseases, contends that living a healthy life will lower your mortality across the entire lifespan, even if there is no impact on aging and age-related changes.3 For example, longevity increased roughly 50% over the last hundred years and yet there is no evidence people age more slowly. We live longer now mostly because deaths caused by infectious diseases have diminished. This important distinction holds true for some animal studies as well. Royal jelly and fish oil can significantly increase the average lifespan of mice, but that does not mean that aging has been delayed by such treatments for humans. All it suggests is that some nutrients promote health. Therefore, an interpretation of the results is essential when examining life extension studies and this also results in controversy over what may represent “delayed aging.”

Prof Magalhaes, who also created and directs Senescence.info, points out that the levels of many hormones go down with age. Some of the oldest and still most popular anti-aging treatments are consequently based on the premise that hormonal changes contribute to aging and therefore reversing age-related hormonal changes could be beneficial. I remember hearing about the demand for monkey testicles in the late 1930s when it was believed in Europe that this would extend virility. I was more impressed how outraged my father was by the experimental cruelty to monkeys.

The most famous of such anti-age treatments now involves human growth hormone (hGH) injections. Some results suggest hGH can have beneficial effects in the elderly. Supplements of hGH may increase muscle mass, strengthen the immune system, increase libido and even make the elderly feel younger. While hGH was hailed as a major breakthrough a few decades ago, like many other anti-aging products it failed to live up to expectations. This was because its negative side-effects might include weight gain, high blood pressure and diabetes. While hGH stimulates growth, Magalhaes points out that concerns have also been raised as to whether hGH also could stimulate cancer growth and whether it would contribute to cancer development in patients with existing malignant or pre-malignant tumors.

While there is general agreement that everyone deserves to live a more fulfilling life, how are we to decide how long humans should live? Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist now 67, takes about 100 pills a day to ward off further ageing. His ultimate goal is to live forever. To do so he must stay healthy until scientists get us to Bridge Two when the biotechnology revolution will reprogram our inherited biology. This would in turn be superseded by molecular nanotechnology which would enable the full reconstruction of our bodies. This could put a welcome end to death suggests Kurzweil.4

What is now accepted is that we are heading towards dramatic increases in the over 80s who are plagued by the loss of memory, Alzheimer’s, and dementia. The cost of their treatment is fast becoming a serious economic problem as well as a political issue. The WHO (World Health Organization) has just revealed that global obesity also has almost tripled since 1975. Feeding billions naturally has been feeding troubles. This could result in the younger generations coalescing as they became pitched against the slowly ageing who will increasingly demand care and whose needs will drain the resources of the young. This challenge will mount especially if the world’s population rises to an estimate of 9 billion by 2050.

I must admit that most adults in the 21st century now seek out aspects of that mystical Fountain of Youth. A steady flow of new treatments intended to slow the process of ageing are continually being tested. Collagen is promoted as the key to anti-ageing because by the time we have reached middle age our bodies produce half the collagen we had in our youth and now produce less with each passing year.

This debate concerning what anti-aging means is a major source of confusion often used by pharmaceutical companies, and even by a few scientists, to mislead the public. Certainly, some products pitched as anti-aging may be healthy and/or may soften the effects of aging. For example, a given anti-wrinkle cream may ameliorate one particular effect of aging (wrinkles), but it will not impact on any other aging sign. Importantly, an anti-wrinkle cream will not increase longevity much less delay the mortality acceleration with age and hence its effects on aging will be so superficial that scientifically I do not think it can be considered as anti-aging.

Today the diet of “life extensionists” often includes daily handfuls of pills directed to slow down the ageing process. Hormones and anti-ageing agents, pushed by the pharmaceutical industry, are often included without having been rigorously tested. Jim Mellon, a British extensionist millionaire, supplements his diet with masses of nootropics, or “smart drugs.” He contends “If you can stay alive for another 10 to 20 years, if you aren’t yet over 75 and if you remain in reasonable health for your age, you have an excellent chance of living to more than 110.”5

Ironically, the most praised “anti-aging” drugs, such as resveratrol, rapamycin, and metformin, are believed to mimic the effects of shifting body energy balance from storage, growth, and self-reproduction simply to self-maintenance. “Enabling women to prolong their fertility would be a scientific advance worth celebrating” writes Sonia Sodha. ”Imagine how liberating it would be to know you have 15 years of fertility left, just as many men of your age do.” Sodha concludes that we might need to use science to rethink some aspects of our biology.6

James Strole, a real-estate investor who founded the nonprofit group Coalition for Radical Life Extension, supports those sciences which may significantly prolong human life. The Coalition’s website states: ”It’s time to look beyond the past of dying to a future of unlimited living.” Strole, who is an evangelist of immortality, desires extending life by decades and even centuries so that mortality becomes optional or an end to The End.7

Aubrey de Grey, yet another British gerontologist, regards life extension as a health issue not a matter of ending death. “We’re interested in people getting sick when they get old.” Gerontologists are keen to reduce such causes of death as cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s.8

The opening of regenerative medicines, stem cell research, and mitochondrial electron adjustments are all, amongst others, opening up new potentials in life extensions. The biogerontologist Joao Pedro de Magalhaes explained in an interview that “my work integrates different strategies, its focal point is developing and applying experimental and computational methods to help decipher the genome and how it regulates complex processes like ageing. In practice, that means developing and employing modern methods for genome sequencing and also bioinformatics to analyze large amounts of data, for example networks with hundreds of genes. We now know that aging and longevity, like many other biological processes, derive from many genes interacting with each other and with the environment.”

Ending this broadly inconclusive survey of these purveyors of life extension, I must assert my fears are magnified by the threat of our ever increasing population. Areas without adequate water will slow down ageing, but that is not a humane solution. Those without adequate medical treatment or healthy food, are also unlikely to pass their sixties. Politically this could never be openly accepted.

Commentators have made it clear that ageing is so biologically complex that it encompasses innumerable different and contentious processes. Even with gene editing it is unlikely that any single technique or “breakthrough” will add decades of lives to our children. What we can strive for is to work towards a slow, incremental lengthening of our current “teen-age stage“ which has encompassed “the best years of our lives.”

The gerontocrats may be out to “cheat the reaper” but the truth is that radical life extension could produce extremely negative effects on our social structures affecting childbirth, marriage, and the ever greater burden of caring for the increasing numbers of the elderly. As it is, the extravagant consumption in the narrow areas of wealth may radically reduce this planet’s capacity for 9 billion to eat, drink and BREATHE!


1Ross Andersen, The Atlantic, May 21, 2012
2James S. Goodwin, The Fear of Life Extension, 2017
3Joao Pedro de Magahlaes, an interview by Nicola Bagala, July 30, 2018
4Ray Kurzweil, “We’re going to overcome ageing,” The Financial Times, April 11, 2015
5Jim Mellon, Juvenescence, Investing in the age of longevity , 2016
6Sonia Sodha,”…postponing the menopause,” The Observer, August 11, 2019
7Alex Moshakis, “We want to live forever,” The Observer, June 2019
8Aubrey de Grey, Ending Aging, 2007

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FROM DENIAL TO DENIALISM

“I didn’t do it!” is one of the first sentences I can remember hearing. From my earliest years I never understood why there was so much denial all around me. Denial then was about silly things like eating chocolates, hiding coins, or feeding the dog. The famous psychologist Bruno Bettelheim had a greater insight than I had into the very first stages of denial:

“The small child who denies his misbehavior does not simply lie to fool us; he is at least as anxious, or more so, to fool himself. Afraid of punishment, and convinced we will learn the truth sooner or later, what he is after is not to fool us but to convince himself that his crime never happened. Only then can he feel safe, both now and in the future.”1

Today, examining denial in this fast changing world is most challenging. Denial is extremely complex: Its scope ranges from manifestations at a personal level and extends to broad social denials. At the basic personal level not only is it a way of concealing our acts, but also our feelings and desires. It can be a way of protecting ourselves. It can enable us to cope with illness because denial allows optimism for the patient.

Being “in denial” can be a form of self-deception or a refusal to recognize different aspects of our lives, like dying. Death is just one of the life-threatening illnesses which we find difficult to confront and prefer not to recognize. In this vast field of options, denial is one easy way of avoiding a challenge. However, we seldom ask ourselves how or why we face up to such denial and putting aside the very thing we do not want to deal with.

There are indeed aspects of our personal realities that we human beings are not able to confront. Many overweight and anorexic people cannot accept how they look naked in the mirror. Their minds deny what their eyes tell them: “That’s not me!” Denial is so fundamental to their psyche because self-protection is built into the ego. Denial is thus one way we try to deceive ourselves and others because we cannot accept aspects of our desires or situations which we find threatening.

Every day denial is partially based on our response to a social climate in which mistakes, obfuscation and lies have become commonly accepted because people want to hide desires which they cannot openly acknowledge, writes sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris.2 However, there are some people who practice personal denial simply because they are fatigued trying to meet the unending demands of the truth.

Most often denial is a way of directly addressing a situation which is too difficult, unpleasant or frightening for us to face up to. Indeed, the truth may be hard to accept particularly when it comes to our desires. The fear of the exposure of our sexual mores has for centuries led to the denial of sexual violations in the Catholic Church. “Denial is a more ‘natural’ human function than reason” propose the authors in their book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us.3 Let’s face it: denial has for centuries become a simple way to avoid facing the facts of life!

Denial can involve active avoidance. The challenges presented by Lyme Disease, a tick-borne illness, were dramatically outlined by Kim Lewis, a professor of molecular microbiology, who said: “When doctors are faced with a problem they cannot solve, it is human nature to sweep it under the rug, to argue it away, to say the problem does not exist.” Lewis continued: “Because doctors have a simple choice, to tell the patient we have no treatment for your condition or to say you don’t have any condition.”4

Thus denial can dismiss situations with finality. Freud, however, also came to regard convenient forgetting as a form of denial. Such interpretation can incorporate denying with the inner significance of experience such as hatred or depression. Other psychologists have come to view delay as one of the deadliest forms of denial. Melanie Klein held that “Denial may stifle feelings of love and guilt, undermine sympathy and consideration and disturb the capacity for judgment and the sense of reality. As we know denial is a ubiquitous mechanism and is also very much used for the justification of destructiveness.”5

Despite all these perspectives on denial, there also is an unspoken expectation that the  expression of denial be respected. Denial can be personal or public, but numbers of deniers have become engaged over the past few decades into a socially collective response which is now being called “denialism.” Although we can see their different aspects socially, what these denialists have in common is their conviction that the truth is being crushed by their enemies: the prejudiced media, the hated social experts, the wide range of protected academics, and the scientists whose conclusions are so often disputed by others. We see these denialists in the collective response of Donald Trump’s followers much as it was for the majority of Germans who accepted the follies of Adolph Hitler in the 1930s.

Such denialists may have begun as personal deniers but have extended to become a public phenomenon. They are driven by the desire to make the electorate as well as the masses doubt in generally accepted ‘myths’ (as the denialists describe it) such as climate change, evolution and the Holocaust. As this denialism is so different from the personal denial on which I have focused so far, I must treat this ‘new phenomenon’ separately.

Denialism describes the preference of individuals and groups to deny reality as a way to avoid an unacceptable truth. This includes denying certain historical events and the existence of consensus arising in some fields. Keith Kahn-Harris in his book on the subject suggests that “Denialism offers a dystopian vision of a world unmoored, in which nothing can be taken for granted and no one can be trusted.”6 As a social force denialism is driven by the desire for some specific aspects to be disproved.

Although deniers are not outspoken liars, dumb or ignorant, they are pathologically stubborn and not always coherent. They depend on a public loss of faith in capitalist economics, on social and scientific advances and in progress itself. They insist on “the inescapable indeterminacy of figures and statistics.”7  Deniers float conspiracy theories which dismiss data or observations by suggesting that the experts or scientists are involved in a deep conspiracy to suppress the truth. Writer Mark Hoofnagle suggests that denialists employ “rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none.” It is amusing to note that “expert” denialists are not specialists in the field being examined. Astonishingly this is often not held as a negative factor by sectors of the media.

Denialists are obsessed with using details to create the impression that there may be multiple uncertainties in an overall proposition when doubts may have been raised in one minute aspect. Such focus on the smallest of details may not only inject doubts but may also suggest that any larger theory being disputed could be suspect.

Denialists count on public ignorance and capitalize on their ability to produce ideological obfuscation on already complex issues like global warming and governmental regulation. Their denialism is a barrier to acknowledging moral as well as ideological differences. For example, the prospects of an intolerably polluted world is so frightening that it has largely been denied (or covered up) for several decades not only by the media but even by the deniers!

I am still bewildered how Trump — who cannot really differentiate between truth and fiction — can dismiss the warnings of scientists on the environment. The evidence is that Trump simply is not interested in mankind’s future. That itself is a powerful form of denial. He is entirely focused on his own status. He tries to remake the truth for himself. Trump’s denial is not based on any careful examination of the facts. He is hooked on interpreting events according to his own desires. This is so impulsive and impetuous that psychiatrists stamp it as “wacky!” But what about all those people around the world who are liberated from coherence and still deny aspects of the Holocaust, evolution, or even our spherical planet?

Deniers seek the public validation that science delivers. They do not deny the value of scientific or scholarly methods. Indeed, they are eager to be acknowledged by scientists and university scholars. Denialists have used the money of wealthy admirers to promote research centers, internet sites, think-tanks such as the Institute for Historical Review, as well as publishing journals and promoting conferences to cast historical doubts on everything from the Holocaust to global warming. Disputes between academics as well as experts are used as ways to cast further doubts on contentious issues.

Deniers produce impressive quantities of dubious promotions on the internet, articles, books, lectures and even videos. These focus on spreading popular doubts with purported “facts” which may ultimately be uncovered as false, fake or untrue. There is an unwillingness to face up to the consequences of the denialist’s hopes, aims or desires. Global warming denialists want to preserve the world as it is. Sociologist Kahn-Harris observes that in their desire to maintain carbon-based capitalism, they refuse to acknowledge the suffering that denying action would entail.8 Denialism’s social direction is based on efforts to prevent change or to face the truth. Deniers, personal or societal, do not want to be confronted with harsh reality. They are fully aware that few of us want to face up to the impact of the dismal prospects of high levels of poisonous carbon dioxide.

Despite their bluster, deniers are often dependent on erroneous assumptions which are deeply held. Denialism cannot be breached by rational arguments. Even excluding them from academic journals and conferences does not bring reform. We are reshaping our world at such a high tech speed that it is also affecting our minds. If denialism were suddenly exposed, it soon would be replaced by “revisionism,” or some other similarly distracting expression. France has prohibited Holocaust denial by introducing strict legislation. It is not yet clear if this will drive the French deniers underground.

Denial, is a social form which could be transcended. Kari Marie Norgaard believes personal denial should be understood as a “testament to our human capacity for empathy, compassion, and an underlying sense of moral imperative to respond, even as we fail to do so.”9 Denialism, as opposed to individual denial, could be seen as an obstacle to progress which must gradually be reviewed and examined. However, even from such a generous perspective little advance can be made until the deniers themselves recognize the damaging extent of their efforts and gradually work towards a more open approach to the truth.

Alas, western societies have been all too reluctant to recognize and face up to the vast extent to which denial in its varied forms now consumes us.


1Bruno Bettelheim, The Informed Heart  (1960 ) p.281
2Keith Kahn-Harris, Denial:The Unspeakable Truth (2018) p.4
3S. E. Gormans and J.M. Gorman, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us ( 2016) p.13
4David Cox, “Lyme Disease,” The Observer, July 21, 2019
5Melanie Klein, Our Adult World, (1963) p.47
6Keith Kahn-Harris, Denial: The Unspeakable Truth(2018) p.7
7Ibid p.12
8Ibid p.158
9Kari Marie Norgaard, Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (2011) p.61

MISSION OF THE GALACTIC INSPECTORATE

THIS IS A TRANSLATION INTO ENGLISH OF THE REPORT BY GALACTIC ROBOTS MANY DECADES FROM NOW. DATES, TIMES AND LOCATIONS ARE ALL BEYOND OUR COMPREHENSION AS THEY HAVE DIFFERENT CODES FOR MEASUREMENTS IN THE MILKY WAY.

MISSION OF THE GALACTIC INSPECTORATE

REPORT FOR |||/|…/\\…|||

Rocket carefully circled Planet ||| (Earth) many times. Much metallic satellite rubbish floating in planet’s surrounding space. Satellites evidently used for communication by developed species. Mission’s extending grasper picked up larger satellite unit and examined its weird operations. Decoding imprints on titanium surface to be be done later. So would structure of hard to decipher operating system of originators.

Coming closer to surface of Planet ||| which circles its star while spinning at steady speed. Complicated by murky atmosphere. Immediately evident unusually high levels of carbon-dioxide. Also radioactivity. Our observing onboard mechanisms recorded imbalance of magnetism of poles. Same for imbalance of planetary mass.

Several flares coming from limited volcanic activity observable. Also lightening strikes in northern hemisphere. No other lights of any kind. Small fires as are often visible on other formerly prominent planets. With this affirmation there would be no trouble when/if landing made.

Expansive seas appear to be polluted. Violent storms scattered around center of hemisphere. Large crumbling structures huddle closely together in waters. Possibly may once have been ports. Large rusting floating metal forms, some having dozen levels, also visible.

Snooper launched to examine the surface. Here and there areas of vegetation amidst large tracts of sand, desert, and stringy stretches of concrete. Some cacti as well as various evergreen trees also evident. Snooper able to gather number of ants, termites and cockroaches. These only signs of life encountered on land.

Anything to learn from this planet? Carbon Dioxide levels above those of other deceased planets. Indicative of high over-populations.

Any prospects for future connections? Limited. Not in next 1,000 “light years.” Large orbiting asteroid likely to hit this planet in upcoming period.

Notable relics? Many primitive stone structures. Decaying, high steel constructions indicating consequences of over-population.

Comments: When last surveyed many light years ago there had been positive expectations from primitive species that had evolved. Tribal groups then had mastered fire. Their rapid advance led to being overwhelmed by extremes of pollution as well as technological warfare and plutonium levels from which no recovery.

II

REPORT FOR |||/|…/\\…||||

Landing on Planet |||| (Mars). Rocky and barren planet indeed. No signs of any life. Low oxygen levels. Low carbon dioxide.

Three separate groups of small structures inspected. These fitted with electronic machinery. Everything covered with ageing dust – even piles of trash. Each group had three or four parked large “winged” rockets. Most probably for travel to and from Planet |||.

Massive empty metal and plastic containers to hold water. Evidence of unsuccessful extensive drilling. Also ashes from past fires evident.

No evidence of corpses but small mounds of rubble, rocks and sand topped with plastic red emblems and small colorful flags. This suggested burials.

Connection between two planets had come to abrupt end. Due to lack of food and agricultural failures on Planet |||| Also destructive nuclear conflict on Planet |||. This ended shipment of essentials needed for survival on ||||.

As star which warmed these planets slowly cools, range of evolutions essential for genetic breakthroughs in bio spectrum. This most unlikely for currently hot planets | (Mercury) and || (Venus) or remote colder ones.

Rocket will be going past largest of planets before escaping this star’s pull. Next headed for nearest galactic star’s potentially habitable planets.

This concludes planetary report for star |||/|…/\\…

KEEPING IN TOUCH

We are living in a time when “keeping in touch” has never been more important. The dramatic advances in technology and electronics are deeply affecting the way we now regard touch. Electronics are altering our ways of feeling and being. Tapping on our mobiles and computers has begun to overtake touch as a way of communicating. The speed with which these changes are occurring is such that we hardly seem able to absorb their impact. I am not going to propose a resolution in this blog — I shall simply try to awaken readers to what is and may be happening.

The feminist #MeToo movement is declaring that men should not touch women without their consent. This revealed the depth of our current confusion as well as hypocrisy: We all touch each other every time we shake hands and our hands are among the most sensitive parts of our body.

Touch is one of the bases of social expressiveness in many cultures. In our effort to redress the long history of  unwanted aggressiveness and “touching” are we in danger of seeing indiscretion in every innocent gesture?

“I touch, therefore I am,” is integral to our being. Touch is essential in confirming our physical reality. It is also at the basis of “the common good” for both the self and our social relations. In the stories and videos of Joseph Biden, this candidate appears to be inflicted by an ignominious case of touchy-feeliness. Seven women came forward to claim that Biden had touched them in such a way as to make them feel uncomfortable. He has acknowledged that social norms have been transformed. His touching was his way of showing that he cares, but he recognized that the boundaries were being reset. Indeed, “If the thought of touching anyone in your office makes you shudder, then you will empathize with those who say hugging and kissing should be banned at work,” wrote one commentator.1

Most women in the advanced economies have experienced variations of inappropriate touching by over-familiar men. “Many women tolerate a range of creepiness from men who plead ignorance about what they are doing,” admitted Suzanne Moore.2 Touch can be an expression of intimacy but she writes that “unwanted touch is an expression of power.” Whatever the politically powerful may think they are doing, “they are actually embracing inequality. This doesn’t make women merely uncomfortable. It makes some of us rigid with anger.”

The effect on humans of touch can be so strong that even the lightest can have powerful effect. Studies have shown that waitresses “accidentally“ touching a customer while bringing the bill will receive bigger tips. Indeed, a passing touch can lift the mood of two people in a flash. Touch can release neurochemicals like endorphins and neurohormones such as oxytocin in the brain which heal feelings like anger, loneliness, and isolation. Nurturing touches, like hugs, can lift serotonin levels, elevating moods, relaxing muscles, and balance the nervous system.

How far have we moved since the expression of “Let’s keep in touch,” first came into use. Indeed some societies have entered an era of “Touch me not!” In general the role of touch in society has been demoted, according to Prof Steve Cole, of the UCLA School of Medicine. “We’re not necessarily designed for this distance,” Cole said. We should be able to touch each other without recrimination. Physical contact has been shown to help reduce stress and increase empathy.

Touch of the skin, or tactile sense, is the body’s shield and makes us aware of the environment which surrounds us, such as the temperature, pain, as well as the lightest breeze. Without this sensory system we would have no physical self-awareness. It would appear that the cognitive capacities of touch, which was among the first of the sensory systems to evolve, are only recently being appreciated. Touch leaves a memory trace that persists long after the physical experience is gone. As a consequence, memories of touch can manifest in curious ways. For example we may not be able to verbalize how something felt, but we might be able to recognize it later: a single touch can have a far greater impact on the mind than we acknowledged at the time. It was quite different in the past.

In the Middle Ages, it was believed in the Royal Kingdoms that a touch from the King could heal scrofula, a swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck caused by tuberculosis. This practice began with King Edward the Confessor in England and Philip I in France. Subsequent French and English Kings continued a practice which was supposed to demonstrate that the right to rule was God-given. In splendid ceremonies these kings touched hundreds of the afflicted who also received special gold coins called “touchpieces” which were often worn as amulets. By the late 1400s it was believed that the ill could be cured by touching coins called “Angels” which had been handled by the monarch. King Henry IV of France was said to have touched up to 1,500 at one session. Queen Anne, who died in 1714, was the last English monarch to hand out such gold embossed medallions, but in France the practice continued until Charles X ended it in 1825.

I have been deeply moved by a story in Granta magazine by “Poppy” Sebag-Monfefiore who reported on her experiences being touched in China and Asia.3 She started: “Every day I was touched. Many times, by friends, by strangers, by a lady who swept the street by the courtyard where I lived. By water sellers, restaurateurs, by old men playing chess, by people I didn’t know. Most I would never meet again. I was handled, pushed, pulled, leaned upon, stroked, my hand was held. And it was through these small, intimate, gestural moments that I began to get a hold on how macro changes imprinted themselves onto people’s relationships and inner lives.”

Poppy described the way “Touch had its own language.” I shall not repeat her extremely moving experiences of touch in public which “had a whole range of tones that were neither sexual nor violent.” (But were not neutral either). The way an elderly man used her body to help him stand is something I should like everyone to read in Granta. For Poppy usually “touch was like a lubricant that eased the day-to-day goings-on….”

How I wish this could happen in our fear-filled English speaking cultures. For all my adult life I have felt both urged and privileged to touch the stomachs of expectant mothers. Of course I ask permission and it is rare that women refuse. I consider it is an honor to be in contact with the miracle of life itself and women are proud to share one of the most important of all human experiences.

In his studies of emotional signaling  Matthew J Hertenstein suggests that humans can communicate numerous emotions with touch and can decode anger, disgust, fear, gratitude, love and sympathy via touch.4

The Collective branded as mindbodygreen believe the pillars of wellness are interconnected and are integral for our shared journey in which touching  and hugging are a powerful way of healing. Despite the resistance to touch from some quarters, there also is broad appreciation and celebration in others: the just opened “Please Touch Museum” in Philadelphia focuses on the ability of children and parents to focus on the variety of ways we can touch. So some touches are advancing us all!

“We’re post-touch, post-truth. How will society communicate now?” asks Poppy Sebag-Montefiore. Not by ever more rapid systems but only by greater appreciation and understanding of our sentient beings can we return to the open enjoyments of touching .


1Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett., The Guardian, April 25, 2019

2Suzanne Moore, “This touching is about power,” The Guardian, April

3Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, “Touch” in Granta Winter 2019, The Politics of Feeling, pp.17-28

4Matthew J.Hertenstein,  The Handbook of Touch: Neuroscience,Behavioral and Health Perspectives (2011)

Noise

Noise has become a universal environmental problem which we haven’t a clue how to tackle. Enter the streets of any major city in the world and you will be swept along by continuing noises. But do we truly need to be exposed to such uncontrolled electronic noise levels?

  • Have you ever gone into a restaurant where the noise was so disturbing that you wanted to get out?
  • Have you entered an underground train where the noise was so powerful you wished you had earplugs?
  • Have you experienced such pandemonium at a party that you went to the bathroom just to escape?

None of these were questions which would have been posed in the 19th century. The truth is that noise can be “a stench in the ear” as the wit Ambrose Bierce described back in 1906.

Until the industrial revolution, noise had seldom been regarded as a social threat. As long as noise was a natural phenomenon people were not offended: the sound of horse-drawn carriages or the rolling of beer barrels was not noxious. The ringing of bells was welcome. Everything changed with the introduction of trains, cars, airplanes and the various electrically driven machines ranging from telephones to television. Noise became intrusive as well as a threat to our well being.

In today’s world we have almost forgotten the pleasures of calm, quiet and silence.  These states of being have become harder and harder to come by.  Peace and quiet have come to be regarded as luxuries enjoyed by those living on secluded islands or in gated and walled compounds. Given such a state of affairs, a number of social scientists think peace and quiet should become a human right.

 In recent decades American and European restaurants are being overwhelmed by high decibels of background noise.  Such cacophony becomes a social killer, keeping talk and discussions down to a minimum. I often ask a waiter or manager to please lower the volume, but the result is usually unnoticeable.

The top complaint of diners in the US is noise. The typical  restaurant “background noise” is around 65 decibels . Customers begin to raise their voices at 70 db and conversation becomes difficult at 75 db.1 I would recommend restaurants with a “Three-star Quiet Award” (unknown until now)  but a few reviewers have begun to warn readers of the noise levels along with the ups and downs of the cuisine. “Quiet Restaurants” would be a good beginning. Silence on trains has also been introduced in some trains (“quiet carriages”) but without much appreciation.

It would be good to make “all the right noises “ but noise is composed of many unwanted sounds. The foundation of this problem is that in modern times unwelcome noise has spread widely, loudly and endlessly. The noises made by automobiles and airplanes generally disturb us the most. Purportedly road traffic is not defined as a noise nuisance. The courts have declared it as “subjective” because there are varying decibel levels that people can withstand. Screeching automobile brakes are horrid and arresting. Screeching infants can be highly distracting but are somehow acceptable. So one must conclude that machine noises are alien and natural noises are almost acceptable.

The World Health Organization reports that irritation with noise has led 8 million people in Europe to place traffic noise claims with their local authorities. This leads us to ask why noise levels aren’t set in law? New York was the first city in the US to enact a noise code, but unlike air pollution or water pollution, noise does not leave any traces in the environment. There are some local laws regarding noisy neighbors who defy an acceptable decibels level, but residents should have stricter statutory legal rights.

In the UK neither the Noise Act of 1996 nor the Anti-Social Behavior Act of 2014 have brought much peace and quiet. Shrill noises can trigger the release of cortisol, a stress hormone. Annually half a million people who suffer from noise nuisances make complaints to their local councils. I know from friends in London how maddening the  constant flights from Heathrow airport can be. The noise is so intrusive that it has become a raging political issue. The eardrums of close to a million Londoners are affected by the roar of jet engines.

Regrettably, noise has spread everywhere. While the rich pay for quiet, the poor have to bear the noises surrounding them. Escaping to calmer public places in the city is challenging. Antonella Radicchi , a Berlin soundscape scientist, has created an app called “Hush City” so people can find places which are quiet in their settings. She has expanded her app so that city dwellers in the US, the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain may enjoy the more secluded spots of  our congested cities.

Little has been designed by builders, architects or developers who had noise in mind. Noise absorbing pavements and soundproof building materials are rare. The extent to which inhabitants in Europe and North America go to escape into their own protected sound worlds is impressive. All those who travel and walk about with earbuds, or more massive noise cancelling headphones, do so not only to listen to music but also to cut out noise.

I have written this blog because I would like to encourage more concerted efforts towards a quieter world and not a mechanically and ever more obtrusively noisy planet.

For more insights into noise and how it affects us, listen to this podcast on Cacophony at Jared Blumenfeld’s Podship Earth.


In noisy technoville

Cars are screeching while radios, TV and loudspeakers
are merely shrill;
Saws, blenders and washing machines are
Humming and buzzing wih skill
Alas, the ringing of bells becomes rarer and rarer.

In noisy technoville
Phones are ringing, jackhammer workers drilling
while speakers are screaming, Siri is merely being
appealing.
*Yet one of the least noted of human clicks
Are those rare misadventures of dentures creaking.

*With thanks to the immortal writings of Willard R. Espy, Words at Play (1975)


1Richard Goodwin, “Why noise is killing us,” The Guardian, July 3, 2018

WHY IS THERESA MAY STILL IN OFFICE?

As an American reporter covering the scene in the UK for the past fifty years, I am astounded that such a divisive, obdurate and short-sighted figure should still be leading the Conservative Party after four years of ineptitude. How can this be? The former Minister of the Treasury had portrayed her, following her snap election as “a dead woman walking.”

I first observed Theresa as a vengeful fighter some eight years ago when, as Home Secretary, she took on the police, cutting 20,000 from its ranks without considering the consequences. The effects have been disastrous, but she has evaded being held responsible for her actions.

Immigrants — who unlike the police, have no union, no funds, and no organization — were another group whose numbers she wanted to reduce. She professed to support immigration while creating a “hostile environment” which served to erode social cohesion in the country. During her time in the Home Office, it became possible to be hostile to Jamaicans who had been formally invited to work in the UK in 1962. The treatment of “Windrush” group’s members was so embarrassingly disgraceful that even Theresa finally had to publicly apologize last year.

As Home Secretary, her general approach to civil liberties could at best be described as careless. For example, after various extended consultations with “experts” she pledged to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and was only deterred from this misguided effort by the intervention of Brexit .

Amidst the political infighting which followed the Referendum, Theresa was selected by Conservatives as the least objectionable of the contesting candidates to become their Prime Minister. Overnight she became a devout convert to Brexit after she personally had voted to remain in the European Union. She became beholden to the extremist Leavers who had become most prominent in the Conservative party. Since then, without considering the possible negative consequences, Theresa has been steadfast in pushing for the UK’s exit from the European Union.

In an extremely foolish move she called for a snap election in 2017 expecting that she would increase her majority in Parliament. Instead she nearly lost and became dependent upon the ten members of the DUP delegation to stay in power. Since that time, she has been determined to keep to her “red lines” no matter what. This has prevented her from looking after the well-being of the nation.

Teresa has continued as Prime Minister primarily because there is no prominent figure, not even within the extremists in the so-called “European Research Group”, who wants to take over the agonizing job of concluding Parliament’s Brexit nightmare.

The “ERG” succeeded last autumn to gather the 48 members of the parliamentary Conservative party necessary to trigger a challenge to the Prime Minister’s tenure. However when it came to a vote by all Tory MPs, she received an endorsement of 200 in her favor and only 117 against. Under the Party’s regulations, this meant, Theresa could not be challenged again from within for an entire year.

The absence of a truly popular leader in a divided Parliament worked in her behalf. Most politicians would have had the good sense to resign if they suffered a 432 to 202 defeat in Parliament as this stubborn Prime Minister did this year. Not Theresa! She has plodded-on with weak promises of “short delays” to be followed by further tactics to postpone conclusive Parliamentary votes for as long as possible in order to avoid defeat and cover her inability to come up with a satisfactory agreement with the European Union.

Only now are the ardent Brexiteers slowly beginning to acknowledge that her administration is a failure. However, she seems to be oblivious to what might lie ahead: If Britain does leave the European Union, the subsequent breakup of the United Kingdom might be in the cards. Theresa, who has seriously lacked vision has irresponsibly side-lined the Scots. Most likely the Scottish Nationalists would decide to hold another referendum and because of a floundering and economically desperate United Kingdom, it would most likely succeed.

We are not there yet, but Theresa (who cannot bear any talk of the extension of Article 50’s deadline) may finally have to admit that her strategy failed. This will put an end to the tenacious hold on power of an obstinate Prime Minister who never should have accepted the leadership of her party.

FACING UP TO A TROUBLED PLANET

The digital revolution could well be leading to a global breakdown of our faltering political, social and economic systems. Our increasingly populated planet is being pushed further and faster by automation and by the speed of change itself. These reckless advances go way beyond the irregularity of social developments over the past ten thousand years.

Troubling questions are being raised: Where are we headed (or beheaded)? What will be the dubious consequences of technological advance? How can we halt the growing inequality of inequalities? Are the racing advances in genetics threatening the human race? Are current robots going to be replaced by more clever bots? The questions multiply, but not always sensibly.

No one expects results from gathering elites, such as the annual sprinkled event in Davos, where the most powerful of the world’s corporate executives continue to push for the speed-up of automation. Although their overwhelming concern is profits, some intrude saying it is money. Profit is purportedly for their shareholders and the wealthy, but is essential for maintaining the status quo. The global inequalities and job losses may seem paramount to many, but as usual they were not tackled at Davos.

Yes, I too am a bit flummoxed when at breakfast I hear my wife asking questions of Siri on her mobile. Not that I am jealous, but it rattles me that she talks to Siri just as if that chat-bot were human. Later on in the day there are times I want to say to her: “Don’t ask me, I’m not Siri!” However, I am concerned that Apple may be recording such pseudo exchanges on the Internet for profit. Stolen surveillance, even of exchanges with chat-bots, is thriving globally. And that seems staggering when Tim Berners-Lee’s launch of the web was only thirty years ago. That’s real change.

Constant improvement seems like a societal pre-requisite, just like perpetual growth, but while both seem irresistible they are also cancerous. For example, do we need and do we want further and further technological advances regardless of how this may affect our lives? Do we really need more innovative gadgets? Faster computers? Crypto-coins? We see how plastics are floating with wild irresponsibility in the seven seas. We note how dangerous carbons are beginning to interfere with breathing. Around us ever-expanding soulless cities are affecting everything, even our spirits.

The advances of technology grant us incredible powers of communication which our predecessors never dreamt of, but then this has not helped dealing with matters like unwanted phone calls, cancelled flights, or computer sabotage. In my lifetime I have observed that with the advance of computers the ability of people to write, that is to even sign their names, is fast diminishing. I have also noted how our historical relationship to the horse has all but vanished, ending thousands of years of inter-dependency and inspiration. Today our sterile dependence on the automobile has absolutely no connection with nature.

And now it seems we are headed towards Artificial Intelligence with little concern for its impossible consequences. If AI becomes as popular and addictive as mobiles, this could lead to the slowing down of our minds and to a reluctance to interact socially with others. In a recent new book titled Re-Engineering Humanity it was projected that human beings could lose their self-sufficiency, their critical abilities and even their judgment. Others suggest ethics and morals might vanish like dandruff. Even our sexual behavior might be seriously undermined. Apparently, humanoid-robot bordellos are now operating for eager customers in Barcelona, Moscow, Toronto and Turin. New developments with robosexuals are unrolling as I write. Differentiating between digisexuals in the new world of Snapchat sexting is quite beyond me. A Ms Emily Witt writes that ”Digital sexuality allows for the possibility of anonymity, gender-bending, fetish play and other modes of experimentation with a degree of safety and anonymity that’s not present in the physical world.” Apparently there is great demand for ever-softer plastics.

We are faced not only with viral technologic advances but also with innovative destruction. Dozens of children’s apps (even in the friendly world of Peppa Pig for children under six) have become widely popular even though adults have little knowledge of what such viewing might mean for the dream life of these children. As a consequence of the fast speed of images on their screens, the focus of the young begins to turn off if the image lasts longer than about six seconds. The lifetime effects of this on younger generations are yet to be determined.

The wealthiest of our elites may underwrite investigations of social problems but will never institute anything which interferes with their own power. Profit comes first and the ultimate effects of the free market are tertiary. The deep transformational reforms that are essential aren’t recognized at all. For a long time I have wondered how humanity can sustain a working relationship between the confining aspects of a tired capitalism and the ideals of a steadily ageing democracy. Indeed we do not want to admit that this much maligned capitalism may be the root cause of most of our troubles.

More than a decade ago I offered an alternative to the current economic system with a new “Incentive Economy,” which stopped the use of money (to be exchanged with electronic payments) and replaced corporations with cooperatives. The reception to my radical ideas was more than hostile. Even NPR (National Public Radio) in the United States refused to review the book (on the grounds that its governmental funding might subsequently be affected.) What my daring Dollars or Democracy? advanced was simply rejected being unacceptably revolutionary.

Our digitally changing global challenges are spread so widely that just trying to list them is destabilizing: Washingtonian disinformation, mounting alpine inequalities, earthquake-like capitalist rumblings, early samplings of Artificial Intelligence, faster introduction of non-stuttering robots, plastic saturated stretches of the Pacific, mass migration of Central Americans northward, the prospects of yet another Wall Street-inspired economic fiasco, the possibilities of laboratory-cultivated plagues, the arousing underground military build-ups, never-mind the unpredictable environmental disasters, as well as our somewhat sick global liberalism — all add up to the prospect of an unstable future. I must admit that the sinister warnings of global climate change deniers on the possibly fatal costs of our ecosystems is almost as terrifying.

The frenetic Trumpian changes and dysfunctional Twitter imbalances are ever harder to digest. And that’s not all, the insecurity of the “left behind” is beginning to haunt us.
The current ineptitude of our political leaders is giving their globally forsaken, or “deplorables” the opportunity to increase their electoral numbers. Recent elections have shown that those who have no experience in government and are remarkably unfit for office are favored to win over those with experience, expertise, or ability. Aristotle suggested some 2,200 years ago that far preferable to elections, which give powers to the oligarchic, public office should be chosen through lots. In our time this would be through slot machines. That would give new political openings for those running the gambling casinos.

Citizen assemblies it is suggested could also offer an alternative to strongman politics. As has been amply demonstrated, outspoken populist figures, while staging dramatic interpretations on the challenges of our times, seldom come up with practical solutions. They contend that the plans for the meritocracy which developed over the past fifty years according to the formula “IQ + effort = merit” resulted in the devilish mechanism for the transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. The populist leaders believe “wealth – IQ = populist success.”

Production and consumption were, until recently, at the basis of our lives. Now, perhaps with tumultuous change, we shall have Artificial Intelligence and Robots in control while the richest humans (with little empathy) migrate to the Moon or Mars escaping this polluted planet. Ultimately, this would leave it for the unfit semi-bots to gradually disappear… from the Internet?

Note: Yorick’s latest book, FORWARD! is available from Amazon