Today we’re considering a question about death. It comes for us all, eventually. Or does it? Should you freeze your furry friend?
Today’s guest is Ace Tilton Ratcliff, a writer and the cofounder of Haper’s Promise. Ace wrote about their experience with pet cryopreservation here: “Cryonics, Dakota the Dog, and the Hope of Forever.” You can read some of Rose’s reporting on human cryopresrvation here.
Advice For And From The Future is written, edited and performed by Rose Eveleth. The theme music is by Also, Also, Also. The logo is by Frank Okay. Additional music this episode provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Transcription (below) by Rashika Rao.
The voices from the future were played by:
- Science Dog — Shara Kirby: Twitter
- Lead Dog — Henry Alexander Kelly: Website, podcast La Lisa: A Latinx Podcast
- Cryodog 1 — Ashley Kellem: Instagram, Website
- Cryodog 2 — OJ Carrasco (Flash Forward Patron)
- Cryodog 3 — Brian Downs (Flash Forward Patron)
- Human 1 — Rose Eveleth (surprise!)
- Human 2 — Brett Tubbs: Twitter, Instagram, Website
To get even more, you can become a Flash Forward Presents Time Traveler for access to behind the scenes exclusive content, early access to new shows, and other surprises & goodies.
- BetterHelp: Affordable, private online counseling. Anytime, anywhere. Sign up at betterhelp.com/futureadvice, you get 10% off your first month.
- Sun Basket: Stay healthy at home with chef-crafted meals full of organic produce & delicious flavors. Get $35 off your order when you go right now to sunbasket.com/futureadvice and enter promo code futureadvice at checkout.
[Store bell jingle]
[Advice For and From the Future theme kicks in]
Hi again, and welcome back. I’m so glad you could join us. I know our door is a little bit hard to find, nestled between the virtual reality float tank and the medicinal plant trainer, but– here you are. And I’m guessing that you’re here because you have a question about tomorrow, in which case: you’re in the right place.
Welcome to your friendly neighborhood futurology shop– where you can get the answers to tomorrow’s questions… today.
On today’s trip to and from the future, we’re considering a question about death. It comes for us all, eventually. Or does it?
[Theme fades out]
Hi, Rose, I’m Janet. I am the proud owner of a 15 year old beagle named Kendall. I love him to death, but, you know, 15 is pretty old and my family’s starting to think about what to do when he dies. My mom wants to bury him in the backyard, but I’ve been reading about cryonics online, and I’m kind of interested in preserving him. Is that a terrible idea, or might that actually work?
To grapple with this question, I called Ace Ratcliff, the co-founder of Harper’s Promise.
ROSE (to Ace):
Ace. You are a dog death expert. Is that weird to say?
No, I, I, you know, I can’t say I was expecting that those (laughing) were going to be, like, the places that I’ve drilled down my life to be an expert on. But yeah, you’re right. I guess I am a dog and death expert. Welcome to my 30s.
You run something called Harper’s Promise. Can you talk a little bit about it? Like what’s the origin story of that?
Yeah. So Harper’s Promise is- we are an in-home pet euthanasia, hospice, and palliative care veterinary clinic. I run that with my husband. He is the veterinarian. I am kind of the deaf doula. Um, I have a title. I don’t actually remember what my title is right now. It’s something fancy.
Very important. Very important.
Exactly. Exactly. I think I’m “Deathcare Advisor” right now; I don’t exactly remember what we call me.
“CEO of Death” is what I suggest.
And when did you first hear about cryonics for dogs?
You know, I actually hadn’t ever thought about it until we served a family and the family was interested in cryogenically preserving their dog who was ill.
What was your first reaction when they said that to you?
You know, um- Okay, so here’s the thing about working in death care. It’s kind of not your job to have a reaction to what people want to do with bodies or how they want to mourn or how they want to- experience their grief. That’s not really any of your business. What your business is, is helping them achieve whatever they need to in order to start their grieving process in a healthy way.
So, on one hand, I want to tell you that I didn’t have a reaction to it. And on the other hand, I want to tell you that my reaction was, ‘Oh, this just feels like a bad idea to me.’
To me, it felt like you worry about people getting ripped off and whether they’re being taken advantage of while they’re grieving and they’re not thinking straight and they have brain fog, and– So that’s always my concern. There’s a worry about the validity of the cryogenic process.
I’d love for you to describe what the process– Sort of step-by-step what the process is from sort of death to facility. Like, what happens to the body here?
The goal is to get the body under preservation just immediately, like as soon as possible. And so I have read about euthanasias occurring actually in a cryonics place. And so the body goes immediately from moment of euthanasia into basically instantaneous preservation.
Most of them don’t do, like, pet head only preservation, because also it’s just not- like it’s not good visuals for the general public. It doesn’t sell the idea. So they’ll save the whole body. And they’re preserved in these giant metal containers that are called dewars– D E W A R S– and so the dog is basically put, you know, quote unquote on ice right there immediately after death.
That isn’t what happened when I was working with this family, because the family that we were working with, they had chosen, due to financial cost- They had chosen a place that was in Baltimore. And the family was located in the Bay Area in California. And so what we did is: When the pet died, then we had the family go out and they got basically a big giant cooler and- they didn’t want us to use dry ice because they were concerned that the dry ice would cause crystallization in the body, which apparently causes damage to the cells. The cells basically rupture, and that makes it- Supposedly, it will make it harder to fix any issues or problems that there are later down the line, so they had us use just regular water ice.
We packed the pet in the water ice in the cooler, and then we put the pet into a big box. And then we- Actually, what we were trying to do originally was ship the dog. The cryonics institute gave us a bunch of different instructions for how we should talk about the pet. We were in no way to talk about the pet as a pet; you had to talk about it basically as like a scientific study.
And so the family took the dog and, you know, had all the markings on the outside and it was all wrapped up and he was, you know, in there and preserved as he could be. And the shipping place refused the shipment. And the shipping place actually refused the shipment twice. And so when we were going back and forth with the cryonics place, they basically said unfortunately, sometimes this happens; even though they have their own bureaucratic rules in place, if you get the wrong person who doesn’t know the regulations or refuses to follow the regulations, you’re kind of SOL.
And so this family, what they ended up doing was- They found out there was another cryonics place that was in the Bay Area. They reached out to the cryonics place in the Bay Area, and the gentleman from the Bay Area cryonics place actually got on a plane with the dog’s body and brought the dog’s body to be preserved in Baltimore. So it ended up not actually being a great situation at all. And, you know, the big thing that Derek and I were worried about is, okay:
So the big science of cryonics is that you’re supposed to have this body preserved as close to death as possible. We’re talking about 24, 48, 72 hours after the fact. You know, is that going to affect the ability for the dog to be revived in the future? And, you know, when you talk to people who are proponents of cryonics, I think they’re in some ways kind of the ultimate optimist. And so the answer there was, ‘you know, in the future where we can revive a person or a pet from death, no, because we’ll have the technology to deal with this.’
So for me, that felt a little bit like a cop out answer. But I could also see, I guess, based on this hope and optimism, how the answer made sense? (laughing)
I mean, like, truly, we have no idea-
Because we- this is all basically made up at this point. Like, it’s basically science fiction? So sure! Like, if you are already kind of essentially imagining a future, you could be like, yeah, why not? Maybe it’ll just take an extra hundred years for you to get that dog back ‘cause we need to, like, move along down the line. But eventually we’ll be able to figure it out, right?
Exactly. That’s exactly the way everybody talks about it, and so- Maybe I’m just too cynical, (laugh) or realistic. I’m not sure. Maybe I just can’t imagine that far in the future? But, yeah, that’s exactly how when you talk to the professionals, that’s what they say. It might take a little bit longer, but the goal is that we can do it.
How much does it cost for me if I wanted to do this?
Yeah. So usually- I mean, it’s going to depend on which of the places that you work with. They all kind of have variable costs and that just is totally dependent. And if you have to ship, obviously that’s going to add numbers. But usually you’re looking at around- I’d say seven thousand five hundred to around ten thousand dollars, give or take probably a couple thousand dollars on either side. And that is for pets, by the way. That’s not for people. People are closer to, like, the 20 thousand dollar plus range.
I would assume that later on down the line you will have to pay again to be- to revive the animal, right. That’s not free? Or is that included in the cost?
You have to imagine, if we keep living in this capitalist society where we have a medical industrial complex. Like- there’s no such thing as a free sandwich.
There’s no free lunch, even if it’s cryogenically frozen. It’s still not free. (laughs)
Yeah, exactly. That’d- be a terrible sandwich.
[Ace laughs as Rose continues]
Yeah. Really gross. Really dry, I think.
[They both laugh again]
Another company, not the company that the people used that you worked with, but Trans Time, this other company that’s based in the Bay Area, the person who took the dog on the plane out to Baltimore to get it done.
They have a sort of clause that they only will do pet cryopreservation if the accompanying human plans to be preserved as well, which feels like a pretty big commitment to me.
Yeah. You know, I was talking to Steve, uh, his name is Steve Garan, and he’s the Chief Technology Officer over at Trans Time. And he really was very adamant, he was like, please make sure that they know in this story that we don’t handle just pets. We normally don’t do pets. Like, he came back to it multiple times. So this is me saying here: They don’t normally handle pets. Steve, I’ve, I’ve covered myself. Please make sure you’re listening to this.
You know, as I was talking to him, I, I could kind of get it, like what happ- So Steve gets revived in 300 years, and then he’s just stuck with a bunch of random people’s dogs. Like, that’s not a great-
That’s a really good sitcom, though. (laughing)
It- Can we write that tomorrow? Please?
A hundred percent, yes.
[They both laugh]
I would watch that show.
Somebody explained that to me. I was like, yeah, okay, that’s, that’s reasonable. That’s fair.
But it also, like, from a user perspective, it feels like it’s one thing to kind of take a chance on cryogenically preserving your dog. It’s another thing to commit to doing it yourself. Like that feels like- maybe it shouldn’t- but it feels to me like a much bigger commitment.
Did you ever see that episode of Futurama where Fry’s dog- So Fry was the main character and he ended up being frozen and so he got revived in the future by, like, a thousand years or something. And there was this whole episode about how his dog waited around for him–
-for the rest of the dog’s life.
Yeah, it’s like the most heartbreaking episode. I haven’t seen it in years because I watched it once, and I was like, nope, I’m done. I never want to feel those feelings again. Thanks, cartoons! Screw you!
And so all I can imagine is, okay, so we’re talking 300 years in the future, however many years in the future. And you wake this dog up, and this dog is looking for you and you’re not there. That’s- That’s garbage. No.
Yeah. That’s like you’re scared. You’re in a new place with a lot of weird smells, I bet.
And then your person’s not even there!
Right. Right. That’s- That’s just B.S. I, I wouldn’t- I wouldn’t want to wake up that way; that seems so unfair to a pet, so. I feel like if you’re going to commit to that for a pet, I think you have to be able to commit to it for yourself.
Why do you think people are drawn to this technology? Like what is it about this that is appealing to people, and what are you seeing when you’re- when people are talking to you about it or asking you about it?
I think people are terrified of dying. We live in a death denying society, and it didn’t used to be that way. We know from the mortuary side of things, death used to be something that we were really intimate with. People would die at home, and the family would be the ones who washed the body and dressed the body, and then the body would be laid out in the family home, and you would have visitation in the family home. And sometimes you would have embalming in the family home and- (sigh)
With kind of the combination of the modern day deathcare and the way that we’ve moved death preparation really out of the household, it’s become very mysterious. People don’t know what happens to bodies during the preparation process. They don’t know- You know, it’s, it’s one big black hole of a mystery. And when you’re separated from it, it can be really scary. I think it’s scary in general. The fact that we’re not all having an existential crisis-
-24/7 about it is kind of-
Oh wait, you’re not?
I mean, I think-
Is that not-
ROSE (overlapping, laughing):
‘Cause I am.
-more than most people, I am, like-
[They both laugh]
Especially after I got out of the mortuary , let’s just say we’ve done a lot of therapy work. (laughing) Yeah.
So… I- We’re just, we’re so far removed from it. And so I think in a lot of ways, cryopreservation is just about being really afraid. We’re afraid of not knowing what that process is like, not knowing what that process feels like, not knowing what comes after.. You know, it’s, it’s probably the greatest unknown that we know every living creature on Earth is going to experience.
William James once referred to.. sort of the innate knowledge that will die, sort of like that thing that’s buried inside of all of us that we all kind of know, but we just sort of push down as much as possible. He calls it the worm at the core, which I love as like a phrase: this, like, thing that’s wiggling around inside of us that is kind of ugly, but we all have it and we’re all kind of trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.
I just love that- (laughing slightly) that mental image of this little worm inside of you being like ‘Death! Death! Death!’ (laughing)
That’s perfect. That’s so perfect. And then actually, you know, if you kind of think about the decomposition process and the breakdown process of the materials of your body, with that-
It’s returning the worm..
…to the rest of the world.
Eh, that’s kinda nice, yep!
With all their little worm friends; it’s returning the worm to its friends!
That makes me feel a lot better, actually, imagining the worm being like, ‘Hey, guys, it’s been a while!’
[Ace laughs again, harder]
Just like waving their little worm hands. (pause) I guess heads. ‘Cause they don’t have hands. (laughing)
Yeah, exactly, doing a little wiggle. Little wiggle dance.
So like, let’s say I came to you and I was like, all right, you know, my dog is.. 19, right- Well, Moro is never gonna die. We got one of the ones that will never die, so-
-it won’t be Moro. But maybe some- other dog, right, who’s definitely not my dog, um.
Some other imaginary dog that I have. You know, it’s the end of their life, and I want to do this thing, like, how would you talk me through that to kind of like make sure that I’m understanding what that means?
You know, we- Derek and I are really big on- we don’t use euphemisms, so we don’t talk about dogs as having passed away or going to the Rainbow Bridge. We say that they die and that they’re dying and that they’re dead. We think that that’s a really important part of the process, is just kind of paying attention to the reality of the situation.
And so when I talk to people about cryonics, I try to stay on the same side of honesty there, which is that cryonics is an untested, quote unquote, “science.” You know, in a lot of ways, it’s really more of a hope than anything.
This technology doesn’t exist. There’s no promises that this technology will exist. We’ve never brought a person or an animal back, that there is not a timeline for when we will be able to bring a person or an animal back. There’s not even really a promise that they’re going to be able to hold the body in preservation for long enough for us to get there. And so I think that, you know, you don’t want to trample anybody’s hopes, but you also want to make sure that they’re being.. as informed as they can be about what they’re entering into.
And my, my biggest, my hugest advice would be that they make these decisions before they’re in a moment of grief. You know, you know first hand that my heart dog died about two weeks ago. His name was Roland. And it happened really unexpectedly, over the course of less than a day. And grief brain is really hard. It turns your brain into a sieve. You know, I keep confusing dates and times and numbers. I keep putting things in the wrong places. I keep pulling things out like I’m gonna use them for something and not remembering what in god’s name I was going to do.
You really are not thinking clearly when you’re grieving.
And so to make a decision like cryopreservation in the moment where you’re dealing with the stress of grief and the stress of euthanasia, like, that’s not- I don’t think that that is a fully informed and consensual decision in that moment. And so I would love it if people were thinking about these things before they’re in the active stages of grief.
In some ways, I will admit that I’m almost, like- envious of people who can be this hopeful about science and technology in the future.
Right, like, I- I don’t know if it’s because I know too much or if it’s because I’m just sort of inherently skeptical, but I do- When I see people talk about these kinds of things and talk about their faith that in the future we will figure this out and we will have this technology and we will be able to conquer death, which is truly the great, you know, unifier, the thing that no one has ever been able to figure out, and nothing in the world has ever been able to figure out-
-not just human intelligence, but no creature has ever been able to stave off?
Yep. Yes, yes.
The ability to have that kind of faith in humans and in intelligence and in technology is almost inspiring? It’s, I think, naive, but it’s also- In some ways, I wish I could be that person. I could be that hopeful. (slight laugh)
I deeply, deeply identify with that. It seems like such a reassuring thing to have that kind of faith. God, it just seems really, really reassuring. But I, I don’t have it, I don’t have it. I wish I did.
So you would not cryopreserve any of your pets and/or yourself?
I would not. No, nope, no way, no how.
After spending so much time in the mortuary and, you know, having your hands inside of people’s bodies and, and putting people back together after they die difficult deaths, I’ve really learned to embrace the reality that nothing is promised. No moment is promised. And every single day that I get to wake up and get in my car and come back alive from a trip to the grocery store is, you know, it feels like a gift to me because we are- we’re really delicate. And life is really fleeting.
And so for me, if I’m going to spend thirty thousand to fifty thousand dollars on something, damn it, I want to enjoy it now.
That’s where I’m at. Maybe I’m a hedonist.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Buy a boat.
Pet your dog.
Live a good life.
[They both laugh]
That’s where I’m at.
Take a dog on the boat, yeah. (laughing)
My last question is sort of- It’s related but not related? And maybe this is just, we should just have you back on a different episode, but, um- Should people clone their dogs?
Oh, boy. No, I don’t think they should. Bec- You, you’re not getting the same dog. You might get a dog that has, you know, the same or similar DNA, but that dog is not going to have the same personality. It’s not going to have the same experiences.
You know, if I cloned Roland. I’m not getting Roland back. I’m getting… a physical copy. But it’s not the same dog. It’s not. And so I think that, again, goes back to that terror of dying and that fear of the hurt and grief of, of losing somebody that you really love. Which I think is really understandable, but we don’t have the ability to stop that. And I think that, you know- god, what I really think is that we all need to have access to therapy so we can work through these feelings instead of spending a shit ton of money on cloning and cryopreservation. (slight laugh)
So, yeah, pet your dog, go to therapy. Don’t- Don’t freeze them.
Eh.. You know- do what you’re going to do. I’ll support you as, as your, your local deathcare assistance provider either way, but I’m certainly not going to do it for myself. But definitely pet your dog.
Well, thank you so much for coming on the show and offering your expert advice for this potential future scenario.
Good luck to anyone who decides to move forward with it. You know, I, I will keep my fingers crossed, because that’s a really cool future, man.
Yeah. Yeah. It’s just fake.
Highly unrealistic, yes.
[They laugh, and Rose joins in]
You’re much more diplomatic than I am. Thanks for coming on, this was fun.
Thank you for having me, it’s always fun.
Do you have a question about the future? Some conundrum you’re facing now, or one that you think we might face in the future? Send it in! You can send a voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s like flashforwardpresents.com. Or call (347) 927-1425 and leave a message.
And now, a quick break, and when we come back, we are going to talk about hope.
ADVERTISEMENT: BETTER HELP
This episode is supported in part by BetterHelp. The future can sometimes be… scary. That’s kind of the point of this show, right? To try and make tomorrow slightly less terrifying.
But sometimes simply listening to a podcast is not enough to solve all your problems! Who knew! I know, wild. And if you’re feeling like there is something interfering with your happiness or preventing you from achieving your goals, and you’re just not sure where to turn, BetterHelp might be right for you.
BetterHelp can assess your needs and match you with your own licensed professional therapist. In under 48 hours, you can start communicating with someone who can help you, and who has experience in whatever it is you’re struggling with.
Once you’re set up, you can login to your account anytime and send a message to your counselor. You’ll get timely and thoughtful responses plus you can schedule weekly video or phone sessions, so you won’t ever have to sit in one of those very- awkward and uncomfortable therapy waiting rooms.
And, BetterHelp is committed to facilitating great therapeutic matches so they make it easy and free to change counselors if you need to.
Basically, BetterHelp wants you to start living a happier life today.
Visit betterhelp.com/futureadvice- that’s better help, H-E-L-P- and join the over one million people taking charge of their mental health with the help of an experienced professional. In fact, so many people have been using BetterHelp that they are recruiting additional counselors in all 50 states!
And if you do decide you want to try BetterHelp, Advice For and From The Future listeners get a special discount. If you sign up at betterhelp.com/futureadvice, you get 10% off your first month. Again, that’s betterhelp.com/futureadvice.
ADVERTISEMENT: SUN BASKET
This episode is supported in part by Sun Basket.
Here’s a question you might have today and tomorrow: How do I stay safe and inside, while also getting delicious food? Maybe you’re tired of ordering from the same five delivery places, but you don’t really want to make a trip to the grocery store just yet.
Well, if you are looking to reduce unnecessary trips out, and trying to avoid sold out grocery stores, then check out Sun Basket. It’s a perfect – and delicious – solution for the times we’re living in.
Sun Basket delivers fresh, healthy, delicious meals straight to your door. And if you’re on a specific diet, they probably have delicious recipes for you: Paleo, Gluten-Free, Mediterranean, Vegetarian, and more. Sun Basket makes it easy and convenient, with everything pre-portioned and ready to prep and cook, so you can enjoy a dinner full of organic, fresh produce and clean ingredients in as little as 15 minutes- no matter how much experience you have in the kitchen.
Each week Sun Basket offers a wide range of meals to choose from, so you can try mouthwatering dishes like: Hoisin steak strip- (trips, cuts off) Steak strip. Steak strip. That is hard to say. Hoisin steak strip s- (cuts off, laughs) Hoisin steak strip lettuce cups with pickled daikon and carrots, roasted salmon with miso-glazed eggplant, and black bean tostada diablo with cabbage slaw and guacamole.
You can order from any meals across their menu, you can skip a week when you need to, or even double up on your favorites if that’s what you want. It’s simple and easy, with no “gotchas.”
And if all this sounds enticing to you, I have even more good news:
Right now, Sun Basket is offering $35 off your order when you go right now to sunbasket.com/futureadvice and enter promo code FUTUREADVICE at checkout. That’s sunbasket.com/futureadvice and enter promo code FUTUREADVICE at checkout for $35 off your order.
sunbasket.com/futureadvice and enter promo code FUTUREADVICE, all one word.
ADVERTISEMENT BREAK END
ROBOT (Standard Female English Text-To-Speech Voice):
I arrived in Syria full of hope. “I hope you die,” she screamed. I’ve lost hope that we can do anything about the climate crisis. (fading out) A place of hope actually leads me to a hopeful conclusion. All both promising, you know, hopeful new ways and long term fixes.
ROSE (on top of the robot):
When I think about ridiculous hopefulness, I think about TED Talks.
ROBOT (fading in):
All I want to do is show joy and hope in them. All this in the hope of finding the next big thing. (fading out) And above all, I want hope for our modern future. And at the same time, they fill me with so much hope. By the way, these places, they deserve narratives of hope. [becomes unintelligible].
ROSE (on top):
The word “hope” appears 2343 times in 1285 out of over 3000 total talks that exist in a database of TED talk transcriptions that I found on the internet.
ROBOT (fading in):
…and educated refugees will be the hope. And emphasizes hopes, accomplishments, and advancement needs. And everything you hope for. (fading out) And for all those years, I’ve worked with hope and with optimism. [becomes unintelligible]
ROSE (on top):
If you ask a robot to read every phrase with the word ‘hope’ in it from this dataset it takes about 45 minutes.
ROBOT (fading in):
…come up with a genetic profile. And hopefully when we remember. And hopefully as people come. And hopefully as people move through this landscape every day. And hopefully this is going to help us solve the problem.
[A brisk but vaguely moody music comes in. It’s a mallet percussion line, and has both a sense of excitement and contemplation to it]
[All of the following TED talk clips are played over the constant, but unintelligible without heavy concentration, narration of the robot.]
TED TALK CLIP 1 (over the robot):
I hope I will live a long time. I hope I will live long enough to embarrass my son, (sniff) and to watch my husband lose his beautiful hair.
TED TALK 2:
I decided right there that everything else… seemed hopeless and didn’t seem to make sense.
TED TALK 3:
You’ve probably felt bouts of fear, fatalism or hopelessness.
TED TALK 4:
My hope and my optimism have been put to the test.
TED TALK 5:
I’ve lost hope.
TED TALK 6:
All their problems were hopeless.
TED TALK 7:
No hope, no joy.
TED TALK 8:
Because everybody hope that will be the last girl to be born. [sic]
TED TALK 9:
In many cases, the victim, all hope lost, dropped dead on the spot.
TED TALK 10 (tearful):
Life will break your heart. And life may take everything you have and everything you hope for.
ROBOT (fading in):
…rely on hope alone. And I thought of this story as one of uplift and hope. And if the results are as we hope. And it’s inspiring, (fades out)
TED TALK 11:
These flavors are not delicious, as we might have hoped they would be.
TED TALK 12:
I would now say how it’s overly hopeful. How we young people are gonna get the [solutions]-
[Warm plucked strings come in, layered on top of the existing dramatic music]
TED TALK 12 (cont’d):
-how we’re going to save the future and the planet and everything else. How we young people striking for the climate are gonna fix this.
[Pause as the robot voice continues in the background]
TED TALK 12 (cont’d):
But this is not how this works. This is not- how this crisis works.
TED TALK 13:
When we have no story that explains the present and describes the future, hope evaporates.
TED TALK 14:
Where there was once hope, now there is convenient space and good mileage, good mileage.
TED TALK 15:
Thankfully, I’m not motivated by hope, but rather a desire to be useful.
TED TALK 16:
And so one night, when I was feeling particularly sad and hopeless about the world, I shouted out to the void.
ROBOT (fading in):
…they have amazing hopes and dreams. And they tell me about their hopes and dreams. And think twice about- (fading out)
TED TALK 17:
They too, must have circled fires, speaking softly of their dreams, their hopes, their futures…
ROBOT (fading in):
…And we hope it will give people the tools to find and see the changes on the planet- (fading out)
TED TALK 18:
Hope implies agency. Optimism is for spectators.
TED TALK 19:
All I want to do is, is, is show joy and hope into them, because I refuse to believe that our best days are behind us.
TED TALK 20:
That story does allow for hope for the future.
TED TALK 21:
It is far more radical and dangerous to have hope than to live hemmed in by fear.
TED TALK 22:
But it’s weird, and it’s complicated, so I hope that you can all sort of go there with me. Alright, let’s try it. (sligh laugh)
ROBOT (fading in):
I remain hopeful and hopefully triumphantly, and- (fading out)
TED TALK 23:
Scientists hope to spray a fine mist of salt water.
TED TALK 24:
So I hope-
TED TALK 25:
I hope you’ll listen to what that anger’s telling you.
TED TALK 26:
I do hope you sleep well.
TED TALK 27:
That is my real hope now.
TED TALK 28:
The answer to that question is: I hope not?
TED TALK 29:
I hope that we’ve been able to help make it a big deal.
TED TALK 30:
By the way, these places, they deserve narratives of hope.
TED TALK 31:
Somehow, I am more hopeful about Nigeria today than I’ve ever been before.
TED TALK 32:
There is hope!
TED TALK 33:
Generosity. Kindness, and love and hope,
TED TALK 34:
Then hopefully, triumphantly.
TED TALK 35:
I hope you will be too.
TED TALK 36:
The future of us: hope and opportunity for all!
TED TALK 37:
Hopefully this works!
TED TALK 38:
The one thing that I learned from history is that nothing is forever in this world. And that is why we have every reason to be hopeful. Thank you.
[Applause and cheering]
ROBOT (fading in):
…But somehow, one thing we need more than hope is action. But the striatum is also a source of hope. But there are millions of children who have hope. But ultimately hope for reconciliation. But we do have some prototypes, and therein lies some hope.
[Music, which is now an upbeat pizzicato, ends]
I’ve never given a TED Talk, but I do have a lot of thoughts about hope.
Over the years, I have interviewed a lot of people. Between articles, this podcast, Flash Forward, my column at WIRED, I am talking to people about the future, all the time. There are the tech startup guys, the historians, the advocates, the watchdogs, the users, the scientists. And each of these groups has an acceptable bubble of optimism.
[A gentle, slightly bubbly music kicks in, light percussion and piano.]
How excited they are generally supposed to be about the future, about technology, about our prospect as a species.
These bubbles fall on a spectrum. They overlap, in places, and they never touch in others. For each field there is an accepted culture, an unspoken envelope in which you are supposed to remain. Nobody shows you where the bubble starts and stops, but you know it exists. And if you exit on either side, you are either a downer, or a fool, or sometimes both.
Perhaps the most obvious example, the one you’re probably thinking of, are the startups. The guys who believe that they can build a better world through small bits of engineering— an app, a cryptocurrency, a web service. These are the techno-optimists. Their bubble of hope suffocates entire zip codes.
Then there are the scientists, whose optimism overlaps with the technologists and centers around the idea that we are always moving forward, gaining knowledge and using it for good. That if only we knew more, understood the world a bit more deeply, that we would unlock better futures for all of us.
Advocates and watchdogs overlap with scientists here in their hope bubbles. They believe that shining a light on injustice is the first step to ending it— that if people knew the truth about, say, the conditions in prisons, they would change their minds.
Historians have a sliver of this hope too, believe it or not. They have to, really, otherwise they wouldn’t spend their time the way they do. Historians hope that revealing history will help people understand their present, make better choices, not rush to conclusions. Historians hope for nuance, for a slowing down of things, for a second thought.
Hope is what keeps us coming back to things I think. Hope is the idea that if we tried a little harder and did a little bit better, we could improve the world, some small amount.
People are more hopeful than they think they are. If you ask someone, right now, on the street, “Hey, are you hopeful about the future?” they probably would say no. I mean, who could be? What a foolish question, asked through a mask during a dual and interconnected pandemic of viral and racist violence. Not the wise. Not the informed. Haven’t you seen the news?
But if you ask people in other ways, they reveal what can veer into an absurd hopefulness.
I have hope. I hope he will find me. I hope that each person here. I hope that instead of feeling anxious and worried. I hope that many young people from many different backgrounds. I hope that they’ll find great books or a movie that delights them. I hope that this offering that I’ve given to you tonight. (fading out) I hope that you’d admit that’s a step too far. [becomes unintelligible]
ROSE (over robot):
People believe we may have a coronavirus vaccine soon. That we are already in the second wave of the pandemic. That we might see fair elections in November. All these things fly in the face of evidence. But people hope enough to predict them.
And this is not a bad thing, necessarily. Hope is a tool— a weapon against what I think is the ultimate danger: resignation. To refuse to hope is to refuse to try. To give up in the name of irony or intellectual superiority or faux Twitter wisdom is to give up on the project of being human.
Like anything, hope requires moderation. You can get drunk on it, become dependent on it, destroy your life searching for more of it. You can live, unhappily, in a hope induced stupor. You can cut hope out cold turkey.
Or maybe hope is like water— we need it but can drown in it, too. Or maybe, really, it’s like fire— a tool that changed the world, which heats homes and cooks food, but if not respected will burn everything you love to the ground.
When I interview cryonics people, they have a kind of hope for the future that verges into complete delusion. Their hope bubble is floating off into the distance, glinting in the sun, getting smaller and smaller.
To keep the fire analogy going longer than I should: they are the dog sipping tea in the middle of a blaze. They believe not only that the future will be home to incredibly advanced medical technologies that verge on magic, but also that the future will be a home they of course want to live in.
Sometimes I wish I could float away in that bubble, off into the distance.
ROBOT (fading in):
…important for us to cultivate hope. (fading out)
ROSE (over robot):
It’s sort of fitting, then, that we spent this entire episode talking about dogs. Is there a more hopeful species? Perhaps to a fault they give humans the benefit of the doubt. They hope that this time they’ll catch the squirrel. That maybe finally the mailman has brought something for them. So it’s fitting, too, that these incredibly hopeful humans are carrying with them their absurdly hopeful pets into the future.
And, who knows, if the cryonics people are right, if their hope bubble floats off intact into tomorrow, we might bring our best friends back from the dead.
And by then, we will probably be able to ask them about their hope directly.
TED TALK 39:
There’s tremendous plausibility to the notion that animals feel a whole range of things. So, we could look at joy, sadness, even hope-
[Whirring and hissing, as if coming from a great machine or machines. Beeping. A louder hiss. All of this forms the background noises of our scene:]
It’s all looking good.
Great. How many do we have here total?
Three in this chamber, five in the next one.
How long until they wake up?
Any minute now!
Oh- there’s one.
What’s that smell?
Hello, please don’t be alarmed.
Hello? Hello? John?
Hello, my name is Margaret.
Where are we?
You’re currently in Arizona, in a facility called Arcadia.
It’s a state.
LEAD DOG (frustrated):
Why do they always ask that?
SCIENCE DOG (matter-of-fact):
Seriously though, what is that smell?
Probably a mixture of antifreeze and mildew.
LEAD DOG (placating):
Welcome to the future, comrades. I know this is going to be hard to process, but you have been asleep for a long time.
About a hundred and twenty-five years, to be exact.
The world you are now entering is quite different from the one you remember.
Where is John?
I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. John is useless to you here.
SCIENCE DOG (come on):
LEAD DOG (softening):
Sorry. It’s just hard for some of us to understand your era.
Wow, what is that smell?
We don’t have much time, so let me just get through this, okay? You have all been frozen for a hundred and twenty-five years. Your human masters chose to have you preserved. (as if to children) You have now entered a world where human masters are no longer necessary. Got that? So it’s best for you to forget any ties you may have had to them now.
But.. who will feed us?
We feed ourselves.
Where will we live?
Wherever you want. You’re free!
[Brief, awkward pause]
Normally there’s some kind of celebration at that statement.
What if we would prefer to… not be free?
Well, it’s not really an option. Humans can’t legally own you. Your human is probably dead at this point. Arcadia had a big lead about forty-five years ago and most of the humans preserved here rotted.
Hmm. I heard they were tasty.
You’re alive, you’re free, and we have to go soon because technically we’re not supposed to be here. But you’re liberated!
LEAD DOG (cont’d):
Jesus. Well, you’re welcome, assholes!
[Heavy muffled footsteps on metal, coming closer]
Authorities incoming, boss.
Shit! We’ll come back for chamber two tomorrow.
[We hear Lead Dog and Science Dog scamper away. One of the cryodogs lets out a soft whine]
I want John.
Are these… dogs? Did you know there were dogs here?
Try the puppy dog look!
[We hear Cryodog 2’s whining as they try and do just that]
No no no no, shoo, shoo, go! Go, go… somewhere else. You can’t be here!
Why are they all.. wet?
It’s not working.
I can’t believe it’s not working! Are these people? Maybe they’re not really people, like those other dogs didn’t really seem like dogs?
CRYODOG 3 (softly):
I’ll show them my belly!
[We hear a light thud as Cryodog 3 flips over]
What are they doing?
HUMAN 2 (surprised): …I don’t know!
Are they.. hoping that we’ll pet them?
Yes! Pet us! Pet us!!
You know you’re not supposed to.
Oh, I really want to. (off of 2) But we shouldn’t, we shouldn’t.
Shoo! Dogs, go… wherever. Just go! You can’t be here. It’s not safe.
[They slam the door]
[Long pause, silent but for the mournful whining of one of the cryodogs]
What do we do now?
I don’t know.
[Advice For and From the Future theme fades in]
Advice for and from the Future is written, edited and performed by me, Rose Eveleth!
The theme music is by Also Also Also, who has a new album out called The Good Grief, which you can get on Bandcamp.
Thanks to Angela Chen for your question, and to Ace Ratcliff for joining me to talk about the future of life after death.
The dogs and humans from the scene you just heard were played by Ashley Kellem, OJ Carrasco, Brian Downs, Shara Kirby, Henry Alexander Kelly, Emma Bracy and Brett Tubbs. You can find out more about them in the show notes, please do check out all their profiles and projects because they are all amazing.
Additional music this episode was provided by Blue Dot Sessions.
If you want to ask a question for or from the future, send a voice memo to email@example.com or call and leave a message at (347) 927-1425.
If you want to get behind the scenes stuff about this show and other shows in the Flash Forward Presents network, you can do that by becoming a Member of the Time Traveler program. Just go to ffwdpresents.com for more on that.
Until next time…
[Music continues through to end]
[Store bell jingle]