You’re going to die. Here are some photos to get you in the mood.
How Are We Going to Die?
Illustration by John Bogan
According to history, the end has been forever nigh. If God isn’t about to destroy us, it’s our own weapons; if it’s not civil war, it’s foreign enemies or aliens. As such, it’s easy to get lost in the magnificent spectacle of uncertainty that plagues our very existence and lose sight of the things that might actually kill us all.
Stuart Armstrong is a research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, where he’s been on a mission to gauge what sort of doom might befall mankind. The FHI makes it its business to track a bunch of legitimate apocalyptic risks, and Stuart was kind enough to offer me some insight into four of the most plausible:
“It’s either going to kill us all or we’re going to cope with it. Even if we just get human-level AIs, these things can be copied and trained; we can take the best of them and then we can network them together and form supercommittees with the intelligence equivalent of, say, Edison, Einstein, George Soros, Bill Clinton, Oprah, Plato, Goebbels, Bernie Madoff, and Steve Jobs combined—each entity brilliant in its own narrow domain and then networked with one another, running millions of times faster than any normal human.”
“With the ability to program cells as one programs computers comes the ability to engineer viruses, bacteria, and animal cells for specific and potentially deadly purposes. For the moment, what we have are basically superhackers who are making genomes that express certain things and propagate themselves.”
“With nanotechnology, we can build machines for spying and for military purposes on the tiniest of scales, seeding them throughout the ecosystem. This could collapse the need for trade and allow a completely disarmed state to build an arsenal in a single day, destabilizing the world.”
“The weapons of the Cold War are still out there, and their deadliness hasn’t decreased. Recent research has demonstrated that the nuclear-winter scenario remains plausible, even for a small-scale nuclear conflict. And proliferation remains a perennial possibility, especially if technological developments allow nonstate actors to get in on the game.”
Bring a box of tissues and read more from our Hopelessness Issue:
Solving the Afterlife
In July, a philosopher named John Martin Fischer was awarded a five million dollar grant to oversee a philosophical, theological, and scientific study on the question of immortality. Fischer called the resulting venture, which will last for three years, the Immortality Project. The grant was given by a group called the John Templeton Foundation, and it breaks down like so: 2.5 million for empirical research, 1.5 million for philosophical and theological research, and 1 million for conferences and other expenses.
Fischer is highly respected in philosophical circles for his work in free will and morality. He does not believe in an afterlife, but he isn’t an asshole about it like some people. I spoke with him by phone from Germany, where he is a research fellow at the Centre for Advanced Study in Bioethics at the University of Münster. We discussed his project, some spectral hypotheticals, the potentialities associated with physical and non-physical immortality, and the meaning of Halloween.
VICE: One aim of the Immortality Project is to examine why and how people are disposed to believe in post-mortem survival. On that note, what would you say is the point of a holiday like Halloween that focuses on death?
John: Halloween, I think, is about the fear that we have of death, and that’s something that is going to be a central focus of the grant. Human beings have a fear of the unknown, a fear of death. It’s well known that a lot of what we do in our religious practices and in our lives is done in an effort to manage that fear, to manage that terror. Halloween is one of the ways we do that. We poke fun at ghosts and skeletons. We scare ourselves, but not so badly that we’re damaged. It’s kind of like we want to admit it and come to grips with it. The function of Halloween, I think, is to manage the terror of death.
You just mentioned ghosts. I’d like to pose a few thought experiments: Would ghosts, if they exist, have ethical obligations? That is to say, how would the quality of being disembodied affect ones ethics?
Well, you could first ask if in a disembodied form you would be able to affect people who still exist as psychical entities in the world. And if so, as a ghost or a disembodied form, I think you would have many of the same moral obligations as we do now. Whatever moral principals you accept would still apply. Interestingly, Plato famously asked what you would do if you had a ring that made you invisible, the Ring of Gyges. If you had that ring, you could steal things from the king, you could sleep with his wife, and no one would know. But Plato argues that you should still be just and moral, because in the long term that’s what’s going to pay for you—what’s going to be in your best interest, even if in the short term you could get away with some things. So here, this thought experiment is kind of like an extension of Plato’s Gyges Ring thought experiment, and I still think the same morals apply. Now, let’s say that as a ghost or disembodied form you wouldn’t have interactions with the world. Then you would have to ask, would you have a community of other disembodied persons? If you did, then ethics would still apply.
Let’s say a ghost is apprehended (busted) and tried for a fatal haunting, could one morally or logically sentence a ghost to “life” in prison?
[laughs] Well, that’s a hard one. One thing, let’s just say, uh… well, I don’t know exactly what to say about that.
In the final installment of One Man Metal, our introduction to the shadowy fringes of solo black metal,
we close things with Leviathan, Striborg, and Xasthur, ending on a note of isolation and despair. As Jef Whitehead (Leviathan) opens up about his suicide attempt, and his ex-girlfriend’s successful suicide, the other artists expound upon their connection with nature and their rejection of conventional society.
How to Totally Ruin a High School Reunion
Most people who bother to go to their ten-year high school reunion have an agenda. Some are looking to impress fellow graduates who tormented them. Others are hoping to have a sexual encounter on or near campus, preferably with someone who tormented them. One or two people actually want to have meaningful conversations. No matter when or where these gatherings take place, they’re all the same collection of highlights and lowlights.
Three basic types of reunion exist:
1) The Romy and Michelle Reunion
In this scenario, you lie about your success without remorse. This deceit feels good. It starts to take hold of you and you believe your own fabrications. Your recollection of events from school is colored by your own myopia and you still dress like a fucking idiot even though you are now 28.
2) The Grosse Pointe Blank Reunion
You attend your ten-year reunion begrudgingly, primarily because you are still pining over a lost love or unfulfilled attraction. Regret compels you to do something potentially embarrassing. Also, you are John Cusack and you don’t look 28 at all. You look closer to 38. Whoever thought Cusack was a good casting choice is a moron.
3) The Zack and Miri Make a Porno Reunion
You are a huge loser, and can’t afford to live an adult life. As such, you hope that your reunion will be a chance to recapture past glory. After it’s over and you’ve made a drunken fool of yourself, you forge a pact to finally achieve some measure of happiness. Instead, you end up getting penetrated on camera. You decide to never go to another reunion again.
These events don’t have to be as depressing as the ones above, but invariably, they end up being a boon to the pharmaceutical and liquor industries anyway. The cycle of shame continues without end because not enough time is spent explaining exactly why reunions suck. It’s not just because you’re shallow, self-pitying, lazy, or fat. It’s those things, plus all the mistakes made in the planning of the reunions.
If we can all just work together to stop doing the following, we might be able to make revisiting puberty pleasurable.
We asked a bunch of people in Brooklyn (including the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker!!) how long they thought we’d have until global warming kills us all. They weren’t very optimistic.
What Kids Say About Death
Sadie is 10 and best friend to Belle (10) (don’t tell Eva) and best friend to Eva (10) (don’t tell Belle) and best friend to Neighbor Girl (8) (don’t tell Belle or Eva) and sister to Wolf (17). Dora is 13 and sister to Will(15) and Bean (11).
VICE: Have you ever known anyone who died?
Sadie: My cat.
Belle: My grandpa, when I was one.
Dora: Several guys I killed.
Will: Not many people die.
Eva: My guy on Minecraft. Like 80 times.
How would you like to die?
Bean: In the most badass way possible: fighting a shark with my fists and drowning at the same time.
Neighbor Girl: A positive way. From so much money. And I’m the most popular, beautiful girl in the world.
How would you die from that?
Sadie: She’s going to drown in her money closet.
Wolf: I would like to die like my hamster is dying right now. Warm blankets and privacy. Gentle voices.
Sadie: When I’m a thousand.
Belle: I don’t ever want to die.