Op-Ed: Money Is Time

November 11, 2011

By Ishan Dasgupta

 

When I first saw the trailer for Andrew Niccol’s In Time, I immediately gravitated towards its conceptual framework—how would life be different if you never aged and could live indefinitely? This question, after all, is not inconceivable, given recent developments in biomedical science.

 
Just last week scientists unraveled some of the mystery behind senescent cells and found that inhibiting these inflammatory cells allowed mice to not develop cataracts, avoid the wasting of muscle with age, and maintain the energy of a younger mouse. In addition people such as biomedical gerontologist


Aubrey de Grey
have made it their life’s mission to combat the “disease” of aging. He has already proclaimed that the first one thousand year old human is already alive, insomuch as he believes the rate of biomedical progress in combating aging will surpass the rate of decline due to age.

 

After the film, however, I was disappointed to find future life might not be so different at all, if you ignore the neon luminous timestamp on your forearm, the more defined “time zones” that separate the wealthy from the poor, and the fact that people in future will somehow revert back to driving 1960’s muscle cars.

 

In Time is lacking as much in plot and character development as it is in science fiction sheen—qualities that propelled Niccol’s Gattacainto becoming the seminal bioethics film of my generation. Yet, while In Time fails to explore the consequences of new technologies on the citizens of its society in depth, it does an excellent job creating a parable for our current society.

 

This is a film about social inequities and justice as much as it is about living forever and using time as a currency. As a one hundred and eight year old man explains to Justin Timberlake’s character Will Salas, “For a few to be immortal, many must die.” This statement brings to mind the current Occupy movement and the idea of class warfare. In the film, since time is both currency and physics, the rich control both economy and autonomy in society. It is difficult to plan your future when you have to fight to live every day. But, is this so different from our current society?

 

It turns out that In Time is as much a bioethics film as Gattaca. Many studies have shown that life expectancy can be correlated well with income. A study from Finland earlier this year showed that men in the lowest quintile for income were likely to live anywhere from seven to twelve years less than the highest quintile for income.

 

Another study found that for three separate measures of morbidity (disease and disability, illness, and psychosocial health), those in the lowest income groups score much higher as compared to those in middle or high-income groups. They also found the difference in scores to be significantly less between middle and high-income groups than for low-income groups.  This perhaps shows the magnified impact of having no access to healthcare at all.

 

Finally, a study conducted by the US Social Security Administration looked at the age at which less than one half of cohorts of male populations would be alive, by year of birth and earnings group. The findings show that for the top half of the income distribution the age was roughly 86 vs. about 80 for the bottom half of the income distribution. As telling as these studies are, the frightening part is that the gap between rich and poor is growing rapidly. It seems that for all the medical progress we have achieved, many people are dying at the expense of longer life for a few. Money is, in some sense, time.

 
Does the film ultimately offer a solution to this fundamental human problem? Not exactly, but its message is one that can be valuable. Will Salas discovers, in between playing both James Bond and Robin Hood, that society has enough time available for everyone to live a relatively happy life. This is an idea that could do wonders if it were to resonate throughout our civilization. In a resource-limited world, where it is conceptually and practically impossible for everyone to be equal and live in affluence, it is hard to find a solution that offers a perfect cure-all.

 

Yet, what I found poignant about the film’s underlying message was that it does not require absolute equality for society to address social justice concerns, just some reasonable opportunity of health and potential. As the aforementioned study shows, the gap between health outcomes between middle and high-income groups was not so different. This is presumably because the poorest people in society have little or no access to healthcare or the amenities that allow for health and longevity, whereas middle-income groups have the ability to obtain healthcare that is similar to that received by the richest, just perhaps not of the highest quality.

 

Like the film, I believe there are enough resources to offer a reasonable and ethical safety net for the poorest in our society to stand on. Unlike the film, the best way to move forward probably is not to vilify the rich and take violent action in order to redistribute wealth. At any rate, the film offers a rich bioethical framework for the type of justice issues society will need to address before life-extending technologies become a reality and we face the possibility of regressing ethically while attempting to progress scientifically.

 

 

~ Ishan Dasgupta, B.A., is a research program coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. He is interested in the enhancement of human (and animal) traits and the implications this has for society

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