Contrarian: 1,000 Years of Jim Gardner?

NOW THAT THE Atkins Revolution has gone bankrupt because the food was revolting, the strangest diet book around is one put out by Rodale, the Allentown-area publisher of Prevention and other self-help magazines. It’s called Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever.

Most diet books offer helpful tips for losing your hug handles, but author-futurist Ray Kurzweil raises the stakes a bit higher. Avoid fats and sugars, he says, and if you stay off the Schuylkill at rush hour, you’ll probably never die. In 15 years or so, Kurzweil is confident, medical science will have solved the problem of human aging. By 2035, he predicts, you’ll be able to give up eating altogether. You’ll download your brain into a computer-driven robot, toss out your useless meat-sack of a body like a stack of recycled Inquirers, and then motor around from here to eternity. Immortality awaits anyone willing to subsist on Kurzweil’s diet of bland food, nutritional supplements and green tea, although one reviewer warns that Fantastic Voyage’s recipes are “potentially soul-sucking.”

So maybe Kurzweil can’t cook, but his powers of prediction are hard to quibble with. Back in the early ’90s, he foresaw with amazing accuracy the evolution of a global Internet, and chess-champion supercomputers. Now he figures that by 2030 the processing power of a cheap Dell laptop will match the computing clout of a thousand human brains. Not long after, computers will be smart enough to build post-biological robot-people, even while simultaneously engaged in their primary functions — downloading bootleg movies, computer games and porn.

Immortality. It’s an idea whose time has come, and not a moment too soon for the baby boomers, whose oldest members are just reaching the early retirement age of 60. My endlessly annoying demographic (we, the Gratingest Generation) is cruising in the E-ZPass lane toward the Final Exit. It’s time we start looking for a last-ditch detour.

We know the drill. When it comes to facing the painful experience of loss, boomers always find a way out. Every decade or so, we remake the society around us to avoid what other generations have accepted as their cruel fate. Boomers didn’t want to lose their innocence, so they discovered free love. They dodged the draft during Vietnam, dodged taxes with the Reagan Revolution, and now they’re all dodging middle age by patronizing the advertisers in Philadelphia magazine. Whatever boomers are losing these days — hair or knees, hearts or hard-ons — there’s a friendly local surgeon ready to swap out a reasonable replacement part. In coming years, as the baby boom calms to a wheezy gasp, the grand opening of Penn’s Immortality Clinic is as inevitable as death itself.

I was taught as a kid that death had a purpose. We need to make way for the next generation as a practical matter. Until the tall trees fall down and die in the forest, they steal all the sunlight from the little trees below. Immortality means Frank Rizzo would never stop running for mayor, Sam Rappaport would never stop murdering historic buildings, and Ed Bacon would never stop fighting with both of them. Take away death, and Jerry Blavat will never get off the radio. Center City will someday have to shut down for the shooting of Rocky XXXVIII. Death is good. Death works.

That’s not Ray Kurzweil’s take, though. To him and the handful of science geeks who comprise today’s immortality fan base, death is a terrible tragedy. They figure that if someone is accomplished and whip-smart at age 60, imagine what he or she could contribute to society by the age of 560, or 1,060. This notion assumes, of course, that the wise and wonderful will get to be among the first immortals, which is highly unlikely. After all, most of us are worried our retirement savings will run out before we’re 90. Who could possibly afford to live forever?

Only the rich, that’s who. Count on them to jump at the chance to use their immortal robot selves to maintain their wealth and social advantages forever. Having a few undead cyber-tycoons rolling around might be tolerable if they played with their assets in private, but that’s also highly unlikely. Instead, we’ll probably find that the rich and famous, in particular, will want to stay in the spotlight as long as inhumanly possible. Can you imagine a thousand years of Jim Gardner on Channel 6? Howard Eskin’s Great NFL Games of the Millennium? I love Terry Gross, but her girlish giggle whenever she’s around jazz musicians is bound to get old in another 300 or 400 years.

The real turds in the immortality punchbowl, however, will be the rich and powerful. It’s a pretty simple equation. You show me someone with the monomaniacal drive to live forever, and I’ll show you someone who would make a lot of people happy if he dropped dead tomorrow. It’s not like the ­power-mad can help themselves. Power demands so many sacrifices from those who wield it that only the most seriously deranged control addicts would want to lord it over others for all eternity. And that’s who’ll be running things in a post-biological future, doling out immortality licenses like patronage jobs and no-bid contracts.

If you think it’s tough maintaining a society of haves and have-nots, just wait until we have a society divided between mortals and mortal-nots. The transition from now to then won’t be pretty, either. Technology rarely advances in a clean, linear path without awkward, ugly intermediate phases. Remember your first cell phone? Now picture this: a news conference in 30 years, called by Vince Fumo’s reanimated head as it swims in a jar of urine-colored nutrients. Attorney Richard Sprague’s head floats in a jar on the same table, and it’s threatening to sue anyone who doubts Fumo’s right to purchase slaves to cart around his head in a jar.

Death? I’m a big fan. If I’m lucky enough to live another 40 years and I get news of the first experimental laptop brain-download, I know exactly how I’ll react:

“Sweet Jesus, shoot me. Shoot me now.”