The headline in Time magazine is certainly bold enough: “Google vs. DeathHow CEO Larry Page has transformed the search giant into a factory for moonshots. Our exclusive look at his boldest bet yet--to extend human life.”
Yes, this is very interesting, and exciting, what Google/Calico has in mind. It’s great to see someone focusing on what really matters most in healthcare, which is medical cures. Insurance for sickness is great, but getting and staying healthy is greater.
And the G/C folks may be so smart, so rich, and so focused that they can simply blow past all the obstacles that have stymied others.
But if G/C doesn't deal with public policy concerns about equity and economy, then it could well, too, end up stymied. For example, Gregory Ferenstein and Rip Epson of TechCrunch raised some sharp questions in a piece bluntly titled “WTF Is Calico, And Why Does Google Think Its Mysterious New Company Can Defy Aging?”
The authors made it clear that they support, say, curing cancer, but at the same time, they questioned the use of resources, including fiscal resources (entitlement costs, for example), ignoring the poor, and the general perception of elitism, if not James Bond villain-ism. If those perceptions are not dealt with, then this effort will never achieve broad political support, except among a few eccentrics. And if it doesn't achieve broad political support, then I'm skeptical that it will never achieve its potential. The NGOs, trial lawyers, Naderites, and bureaucrats will all be lying in wait, waiting to ambush.
Right now, G/C is being positioned as what it, in fact, seems to be: A few billionaires wanting to live forever. That’s all great--progress in the world often depends on visionaries, and egocentrism is a part of vision. One could only wish that the late Steve Jobs, for example, had devoted more of his energy to the issue of longevity. Not only did Jobs himself have much to offer, but as Apple the company demonstrated, it’s perfectly possible to translate bold innovations and mass-distribute them into the larger consumer arena. Then we are all better off.
Yet questions of life-and-death are so important that they have to be answered in ways that don’t shock the conscience of the public. Otherwise, the public/human instincts of egalitarianism, jealousy, suspicion, paranoia, and crab-bucketism will kick in, as countervailing forces. And they will be powerful countervailing forces.
After all, perhaps the last form of human solidarity left is the equality of the grave. So yes, if the “peasants” sense a huge rupture in the social-moral order, they could once again grab their pitchforks, light their torches, and head up the hill to Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Once again, if they can do this all on their own, then the lack of political cover won't matter. But in this hyper-pluralistic world, it's hard to pull off a big project without a lot of political involvement.
Indeed, ever since Hamilton, big projects--from the canals to the railroads to the telephone network to Apollo to the Internet--have always needed political support.
And I suspect, in the end, G/C will be no different. Just as Google found itself deeply entwined with the government within a decade of its creation, so G/C will find itself entwined, too. The difference is that G/C has gotten off on the wrong foot.
So it will still need what every other big project has needed: a political shield, which can be described as the “Hamiltonian Framework.” That is, the system of political acceptance that allows the project to go forward. G/C will need that Framework eventually; it’s just that now it will have have to work harder to get it.