Tuesday, 10 August 2010
Death in the 21st Century - The Con Of Cryonic Preservation
One of the things that has become more common in the last century is the removal of death in society and some would say a rising fear of our own mortality. We used to be really familiar with death and it wasn’t something to fear.
Up until relatively recently death was a big family occasion that everybody was encouraged to take part in. You would try your best to try and go back to the home you were born in when you felt your time was near. People would come and visit you on your “deathbed” to try and get your last words and even the youngest children were encouraged to come and say goodbye. When you did finally die you were dressed in your Sunday best and moved to the front parlour where you would receive further visits. Often (perhaps because people were so worried about being buried alive) you would reside in the family parlour for a number of days so everyone would get a chance to pay their respects to your corpse. After a big funeral which would take most of the day including a pissup you finally put into your family plot with your ancestors.
Different countries of course had different rituals and ways of going about it but in essence this was pretty universal concept in American/European culture till the turn of the 20th century. During this time a few ladies magazines wrote articles about how the display of dead bodies in the front parlour was deemed unsightly. They suggested that they should be out of site and encouraged their readers to redecorate their parlours and perhaps as an ultimate fuck you to the dead rename them the living room! The funeral home was born shortly afterwards and coffin builders went from wooden boxes in open yards to today’s ultra modern coffin showrooms.
It could be argued that as a result of all these things we as a society have removed ourselves from the death process. Instead of being something we would deal with in an open basis it has gone behind closed doors and become enshrouded with secrecy. Nobody wants to know what happens to them when they die and the whole process of dying is something we now dread. Most people imagine that they will die alone in a hospital bed with tubes hanging out of them with no-one to witness their last ragged breath. Then perhaps a few close members will come to whatever funeral home you signed up with say a few words and then it’s into the fire for a quick cremation. Is it any wonder that people are so afraid to die and are prepared to go to extreme measures and make huge expensive mistakes when they do?
The funeral industry these days is quite shameless in its handling of the dead. One of my favourite examples of this if from the Film the Big Labowski. When the surfer dude dies he is cremated and only the Hero and his dysfunctional Vietnam vet pal are at the cremation. The surfer dudes dream is to have his ashes scattered on the pacific and they are in the funeral home office trying to buy a “receptacle” to collect his ashes in. The Funeral sales guy is trying to sell them an urn but even the cheapest is way too expensive for our hero who feels he is being taken advantage of because he is bereaved. In the end they put the ashes in a fast food container for FREE and scatter his ashes’ as he wished. Very funny especially when the Vietnam Veteran gets narky but also very true about the business of death in this century. People are often ripped off pretty hard when they die and relatives can end up paying thousands for coffins and other paraphernalia.
One thing which is really expensive and very futuristic is the rise in the interest in cryogenic preservation. This is the idea of freezing yourself down after death in the hope that one day your death can be cured and you can live again in some future era. To be able to postpone your death and live in the future has long been a dream of humanity. The Egyptians built pyramids, alchemists mixed potions and even in recent history no less than Benjamin Franklin dreamed about it. In Victorian fiction Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein dead body parts are put back together and re-animated with disastrous results. Countless science fiction writers since have written about cryonics as a suspended animation technique for space travel or as a time travel device.
The premise is simple, freeze a person and revive them again in the future. This person can then enjoy any benefits which the future may bring, be it a cure for whatever deadly illness they may have or perhaps advance life-extension techniques which we don’t know about yet. On face value it sounds great doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was possible who wouldn’t want to get the chance to join Fry (from Futurism) in the year 3000 when robots and space aliens are the norm? It sounds like sci-fi doesn’t it and it probably should be sci fi. But there are already several companies offering this “service”, for around $150,000US they will pick you up from your death-bed. Then they will freeze you down using the best techniques and store you for as long as it takes to cure you of your death. These firms will have you believe that future advances in medical technology will be able to overcome any problems you may have now including of course your death. They say that it’s better to freeze yourself down on death than be buried or cremated as you have a chance of revival by their methods.
It’s something that maybe you can imagine a desperate person close to death may entertain as a possibility but this is not the case at all. Cryonic preservation is something that some people (and intelligent people too) think is very viable. In fact my co-organiser on all things futuristic believes that with current methods the chance of revival is 10-50%! He is no wacko either — an author of books, confident public speaker and has run high-technology companies. His understanding is that advances in nana-tech and genetics will cure him of any death he may suffer from. Not only that he will be given a more robust body (perhaps even a robot body) and some form of him will be able to live on. He is of course a keen Tranhumanist who believes that the technological singularity is going to be the key to this dream and I guess that where he gets his 10-50% chance from. I am a betting man myself, cards is my game and I can tell you: I don’t like to put my money down unless I got all the info I need. I think that cryonics is a very expensive gamble and your real odds on revival are the same as hitting all six numbers in the lottery. From the bookies (cryonicists) point of view it’s a perfect bet, the punter is a high-roller, unconcerned with the odds, needs no grantees and will be legally dead when he makes his bet. It would be easy to get a few oversized Dewar flasks, some antifreeze and some scientific looking promotional literature and make a fast buck undercutting cryonics firms before emigrating to the Caymans with the profits. I suppose it’s easy for me to be cynical and make fun of cryonics, I am still far from a old age, let alone considering any funeral arrangements. I suppose I find the whole subject rather grisly, sometimes it makes me quite angry and I want cryonics companies closed down as I feel they are taking advantage of vulnerabilities. Other times I wonder why I even waste my time thinking about a silly expensive burial and why should I even let it affect me.
The reason is that Cryonic Preservation is becoming more mainstream all the time. It’s recently enjoyed a few spotlights in the media even so far as Breakfast TV with Richard and Judy. We have UK cryonics firms and of course it’s something that the transhumanist community just loves as a potential stepping stone to their imagined future. Another development is the normalisation of cryonics preservation before just something the rich eccentric could afford — now companies offer life insurance premiums to cover the costs. Self-help groups are springing up around for users of these services one boasts how even a homeless person could afford cryonic preservation. I recently read an article on the less wrong website how a mother has signed up her kids and how “it tears her heart out” that other mother don’t do the same. Is this a good or bad thing? I believe that it a bad thing; in fact I would go as far as saying I think it’s a con-trick. The cryoncists don’t believe it’s a real con, they really believe that they are onto something big and feel it’s a good cause. But in my mind it does not make it less of a con just because people are blinded by beliefs, religions have started on less and cryonics cults are something we may have to learn to live with. The problem that I can see is simple — People do not want to be told that they only have 80 years to live, so cryonics is seen by some as a solution to this age old problem. Throw in the promise of a new body or anything really as you are speculating on hypothetical technologies of the future and you have something people will be prepared to pay for. The promise of everlasting life is something alchemists offered their rulers for centuries — there is virtually no difference in the 21st century except your stereotypical alchemist is now wearing a flashy suit, has some brilliant anti-freeze and calls himself a cryonicist. One of thing I need to make clear is that to the best of my knowledge all cryonics companies are run as not-for-profit firms. This just means they don’t pay tax and don’t have to publish their accounts like a normal company. They are not normally run by groups of scientists or doctors as you may think, but generally by enthusiasts who are self educated on the subject. Most companies don’t even have any doctors on the payroll let alone any cry-biologist’s — most nitrification is done by self-trained members and its best to think of them as more like self help groups rather than a professional organisation.
They (cryonics firms) bill themselves as some kind of private hospital preserving their patients for a future cure. The high fees are due to the expensive nature of storage for a potentially very long time. After freezing costs the diseased person’s money is put into a trust fund to pay for ongoing matainence for potentially a very long time. Cryo-preservation is not illegal it’s seen by the undertakers trade as exotic cemetery and they will happily organise it for you if it is your choice.
I strongly suspect as others do that a lot of people are making some serious money out of it. As these people are (IMO) not credible (i.e. getting paid to be cryonicists) you can’t really talk to them about it as they are effectively volcano insurance salesmen. Cryo-biologist’s, doctors and sensible scientists don’t really want to talk about it either. In fact it’s rather well known that cryo-biologists are NOT allowed to prostitute their skills to cryonics firms. Now in some ways this could be seen as draconian or in other ways rather pragmatic. Cryo-biologists are pretty damned cool — they have worked out ways to make human organs transportable for transplant and have even preserved rabbit kidneys and defrosted them and got them working. But guess what — they do not use tissue from dead animals (or cadavers) they use living tissue and then preserve it. Cryoncists are well aware of this but due to the rules you can’t do experimental cryonics on living humans. So what they sell you with no guarantees and make sure you sign away any rights to them. Cryonics companies will advise you to object to autopsy on religious grounds to ensure that they can start the freezing process quickly and that your body isn’t damaged by the coroner. That fact alone is dodgy enough let alone the rest of what happens to you. On pronouncement the stand-by team will put you in an ice-water bath and attach you to a heart-lung resuscitator. The reason they do this is to attempt protect the brain any further damage by heart and lung functions stopping. Then as the body is cooled intravenous lines are attached and various protective medicines are pumped into the body. These include free radical inhibitors, anti-coagulants and anaesthetics this is to maintain blood pressure and further attempt to preserve brain tissues.
If you’re in a hospital where they don’t allow cryonic procedures you are moved to an alternate location and cooling is maintained without interruption. You are then surgically attached to a portable heart-lung machine which takes over your own heart and lungs. Within minutes a heat exchanger in the heart lung machine reduces the body temperature to a few degrees above freezing. Blood is also replaced with an organ preservation solution very similar to procedures for organ shipment for transplants and then you are packed in dry ice for air shipment to Arizona. At the Alco facility a volunteer “surgeon” connects you by the heart and pumps you through with a solution which washes away any blood that is of course if you opted for whole body preservation. A lot of cryonics enthusiasts only want their heads frozen so they are quite literally decapitated (this time by a real surgeon) before being attached to the anti-freeze tan. Reputedly baseball legend Ted William’s head was mounted on a tin of tuna so to avoid skin tissue damage during the freezing process! Cryonics firms are keen to stress that they do not “freeze” you, due to the advanced anti-freeze they use it is more like Vitrification which turns organs more like glass than ice. However they still have to be very careful with handling and monitor the freezing process with specialist equipment to help avoid fracturing. While this is going on the temperature is cooled to -125 C with nitrogen. This process takes around 3 hours and hopefully at the end the body or head is vitrified (in a stable ice free state). Then you need further cooling to -196 C which takes about 2 weeks to do, then your put into your Dewar flask upside down for long term storage. The main here is that at no point are you handled by professional morticians or medical staff. The process of freezing has been cobbled together by keen amateurs and engineers not professional cryo-biologists. Cryonics companies are keen to stress that they are “self-help” groups who offer no guarantees — buyers beware. This self-help description of themselves should be the one that sends alarm bells ringing to any potential buyers of this process. Self-help groups are bullshit organisations which offer alternative therapies for a wide range of problems. Some offer to change your life by walking on fire others gives bad relationship advice and there are literally 1000’s of books you can buy. A friend of mine is in the Self-help business and considers himself a PUA (pick up artist), based on a book called “the game”. The idea is that for a fee PUA will train you unconfident, out of shape male into attracting the most beautiful women using their “system” and NLP techniques. These guys are quite happy to charge you up to £3000 for a weekend’s intensive training and promise to get you laid. These guys are running a great little con, they know that some men are really bad at talking to women and all they actually do is try and build up your confidence a little. They are not too professional that when they get a real loser they can’t help they use some of the £3k to get a couple of high class whores.
Alcor has had to go to court on a couple of occasions already — they are well documented on the internet — just do a search for Dora Kent and everybody’s favourite — ted Williams. There have been well documented cases of the failures even on Alcors website: http://www.alcor.org/Library/html/suspensionfailures.html But they don’t stop selling this even though they know that they have made big mistakes in the past. If that all happened in living memory imagine what’s going on at Alcor and other firms now. Only very recently an ex employee came out and wrote a book about his experiences at the firm. In this book is lots of documentation of the malpractice done at that firm. Unfortunately his book is copywrited material so it cannot be scanned and reposted — but you can pick it up cheap at Amazon. I did think it had been written by a disgruntled ex-employee with an axe to grind but he has at least provided evidence to support his claims. This is the problem with unregulated cryonics — human nature pretty much guarantees that somewhere along the line going to get conned. They should see what’s really in those Dewars and close those companies down. Again it’s not being an anti-cryonicist its just being against companies selling untested alternative therapies on dead body’s with no regulations. I would (as said before) be all for letting a cryo-biologist mess around with my dead tissue in the name of science. But giving a load of fanatics 100K is not my cup of tea and it should be banned till a proven science.