What makes us alive? Moreover, what makes us dead?

When it comes to death, science is part of the problem as well as part of the solution. Deepening our understanding of the body’s processes and learning how to keep them going longer has complicated and obfuscated the end of life.

There’s a claustrophobic moment in the new film of Stephen Hawking’s life when he describes his wife being given the option to let him die. It was 1985 and A Brief History of Time was a still-unpublished manuscript. Hawking had been hospitalised with pneumonia. He was placed on a life-support machine and put into a drug-induced coma. The doctors asked Jane Hawking if she wanted them to turn off the machine.
We can all be glad she said no, otherwise the planet would have been much the poorer for the past 28 years. Nonetheless, the shadow of death hangs over the whole film. One day – and it may not be many years away – Hawking will be no more. His declaration in September that assisted suicide should be possible without fear of prosecution suggests he might be squaring up to the idea.
Death seems to be the one thing that sets human beings apart: we are aware, unlike most (if not all) other animals, of our impending demise. Worse – as Jane Hawking knows too well – in this technological age, we have to make fine decisions about death. And here the advance of science seems to offer more hindrance than help.
Death is not what it was. Until half a century ago if you couldn’t breathe, you would soon be officially dead. Then someone invented the ventilator. Is a body that needs a machine to operate its lungs still alive? For sure, we now say.
It’s no longer the case that the heart has any jurisdiction over whether you’re dead. Remember the Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba? His heart stopped for 78 minutes but then defibrillation got it started again. It’s a testimony to our scientific resourcefulness that we have learned how to choreograph the pulses of electrical current that will kick-start a long-immobile heart. Nonetheless, this, too, has complicated the notion of being “alive”.
Even what has been termed “brain death” is not enough. A lack of electrical activity inside your skull is not a sign that your brain cells are all dead. It takes up to eight hours to start dying and you can lose a lot of them before significant damage ensues. What’s more, damage to some cells makes permanent loss of consciousness inevitable. But damage to some others isn’t much of a problem.
Perhaps the most extreme technological management of death is among those who have paid to have their bodies frozen. Their hope is that future technologies will be able to defrost them and repair the damage that freezing cells full of water inevitably causes. This is not the last refuge of the frightened fool: plenty of our finest minds, including the MIT professor of artificial intelligence Marvin Minsky, have signed up to be cryo-preserved.
So, when it comes to death, science is part of the problem as well as part of the solution. Deepening our understanding of the body’s processes and learning how to keep them going longer has complicated and obfuscated the end of life. That’s why a few researchers have suggested that doctors are no longer qualified to make life-and-death decisions. Robert Veatch, a medical ethicist at Georgetown University, goes further: he thinks you should be allowed to come up with your own definition of death and inscribe it in a living will for others to respect.
It would certainly be nice to have a say – especially when you can see it coming. Long live Stephen Hawking. As long as he wants, that is.
Science has complicated death. Image: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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You are living in a Black Mirror episode and you don’t care

The Investigatory Powers Bill is likely to become law later this year, but barely anyone is resisting the dystopian surveillance it will bring.

“They’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we're clumsy,” explained Charlie Brooker when asked to describe the concept behind his science fiction series Black Mirror. When series three was released on Netflix last week, this sentiment was reiterated over and over. “Omg, it’s just like Instagram!!!!” squealed individuals in their masses after watching episode one, “Nosedive”, set in a world where everyone rates one another out of five after their interactions. The parallel with social media is easy, obvious, and intentional, but it doesn’t teach us much. The real ways in which our world is like a dystopian sci-fi are, in fact, much more boring.

There will be no suspenseful songs or dramatic jump cuts preluding the third reading of the Investigatory Powers Bill in the House of Lords next week. The “snoopers’ charter” is likely to become law after it passed through its House of Commons readings with a few amendments, with 444 MPs voting in favour and 69 against. In short, the Bill will give the government unprecedented surveillance powers, allowing them to intercept and collect your communications, collect a list of the websites you visit and search it without a warrant, and force your internet service provider to help them collect your data.

Even though this is highly comparable to the dark visions of the future offered by Black Mirror, no one cares. Though the Bill faced initial resistance when it was announced in 2015, it has passed through its readings relatively unscathed. Black Mirror should provide a prime opportunity to discuss issues around privacy, but people prefer to compare dystopias to things they already hate. Lord help us all if we take selfies or stare at a device which is simultaneously an encyclopaedia, a newspaper, a book, a map, a bank, a radio, a camera and a telephone for more than ten minutes.

Yet the Investigatory Powers Bill does hold many parallels to the last episode of Black Mirror series three, “Hated in the Nation”. In it, the government use autonomous drones shaped like bees to spy on its people, which are then hacked to murder hated public figures. “Ok! The government’s a c**t, we knew that already,” says DCI Karin Parke, moving on to the real issue – not that the government spies on its citizens, but that the spying device can be hacked by those naughty, naughty citizens themselves.

The hacker – Garrett Scholes – has programmed the bees to kill whoever gets the most votes on Twitter via the hashtag #DeathTo. Then, in a Jon-Ronson-worthy twist, he sets the bees on the people who used the hashtag in the first place. The actual, moral, wake-up-sheeple message of “Hated in the Nation”, then, is that we should be careful who we wish death upon on social media. But it is precisely this freedom that we should be protecting. Under the Investigatory Powers Bill, your emails and search history could be used to argue that you really want to kill Katie Hopkins, rather than were just blowing off steam.

Yet it’s hard to blame anyone for ignoring the Bill, which is off-putting not because it’s not an episode of Black Mirror, but because it is long and confusing. Breaking through the terminology is hard, even in the handy fact sheets provided, and the government can claim transparency while using alienating language and concepts.

“Some of the powers in the Bill are deeply intrusive, and with very little possible justification,” warned former MP Dr Julian Huppert last week, “the cost to all of our privacy is huge.” The good news is that you don’t have to worry about metal bees spying on you, and the bad news is that this is because the government will soon have permission to do it the easy way.


Now listen to a review of the new series of Black Mirror on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.