In 2019, euthanasia activist Philip Nitschke launched “Sarco”, a high-concept ‘euthanasia pod’ designed to enable users to administer their own death in a matter of minutes. After entering the pod, the user presses a button which floods the capsule with liquid nitrogen, lowering the oxygen levels before inducing unconsciousness and death. The pod then detaches to serve as a coffin.
Nitschke features heavily in The Inevitable: Despatches on the Right to Die, Katie Engelhart’s recent book on assisted suicide. Here, Engelhart describes how for the majority of people seeking euthanasia, pain isn’t their fear. Rather, “losing autonomy” is “their primary end-of-life concern”. Others, she reports, “worry about ‘loss of dignity,’ loss of the ability to engage in enjoyable activities, and ‘losing control of bodily functions’”.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
This is a growing problem for the generation perhaps most closely associated with the push for autonomy and self-determination: the one that came of age around the Sixties. In other words, the boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. Philip Nitschke (b.1947) is, as his partner puts it to Engelhart, a “child of the Sixties”.
How to stay in control of something – death – that can’t be controlled? This is a generation who grew up amid boundless optimism about the seemingly limitless potential of technology to extend human freedom and potential infinitely, and smash every seemingly natural constraint – even that of biological sex.
The invention of the Pill enabled women to defy a previously irreducible difference between the freedom of men and women to pursue risk-free sexual self-expression. And it was arguably that extension of sexual freedom to women that kicked off the “swinging” Sixties, and informed much of the boomerism that has followed.
A generation marinaded in the positive nature of cultural, political and bodily freedom is thus now confronting, in every ageing boomer body, its own Boomerdämmerung. According to Engelhart, Nitschke himself sees his movement as boomer-driven: “Boomers getting into their twilight years,” he says to Engelhart, “just want access to lethal drugs.”
Not every person born during this period rages thus boomerishly against the dying of the light. Some want to evade it altogether. Late-era boomer Jeff Bezos (b.1964), now the richest man in history, is reported to be funding a new venture to research eternal life. Elsewhere, boomers are seeking to greet the Boomerämmerung not with a heroic last stand, but a form of ascension into virtual realms.
The latest news story to dress this response to Boomerdämmerung in feel-good clothing comes from Seventies pop sensations ABBA, who announced last week that they’re releasing a new album for the first time in four decades.
Two new tracks – the ballad I Still Have Faith In You and the upbeat Don’t Shut Me Down – are already available, making the band the hottest trending search in YouTube’s music category at the time of writing. Both tracks are recognisably ABBA-ish. But the most arresting thing about the band’s relaunch is not its surprise appearance after so many years saying “never”. It’s the way the new venture combines classic ABBA energy with a very 21st-century boomerism.
For ABBA aren’t coming back in person, like Led Zep frontman Robert Plant did in all his craggy glory alongside Alison Krauss, for the superb 2007 country album, Raising Sand. No; they’re embracing the tech-enabled boomer fightback against ageing. But though Björn Ulvaeus is an outspoken advocate of assisted suicide, ABBA are not shopping for a ‘Sarco’. Instead, they’re coming back as holograms.
In this, they have extensive boomer precedent. Biotech entrepreneur and boomer transhumanist Martine Rothblatt (b. 1954) talks in From Transgender to Transhuman (2011)about how, in the future, “people of flesh will upload into software the contents and processes of their minds”, resulting in the emergence of a new species, homo creatus. Rothblatt makes heavy use of another futurist (and boomer of the same vintage as ABBA): the inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil argued in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology that the pace of technological innovation is accelerating, propelling us toward an event he calls “the singularity”.
In this event, Kurzweil argues, aggregate machine intelligence will surpass the human kind, triggering a fusion between human and machine. In turn, the fusion of human and machine intelligence will enable people to upload their consciousness to the cloud, escaping the constraints of flesh and mortality entirely, for a new world of infinite possibility.
What such a singularity might mean for those parts of human experience given shape by embodiment, loss, limitation or adversity is rarely made clear in such optimistic accounts of human/machine fusion. Those experiences, though, do form a vital part of what’s lovable about ABBA’s classic oeuvre: their improbable ability to set human complexity, fallibility and pain to a sing-along disco beat.
The theme of Mamma Mia, for example, is a woman who keeps going back to a serial cheater. In some hands this would be dark material for a misery-fest. In ABBA’s hands, it’s a jolly wedding-disco classic. One wonders: would homo creatus be capable of such paradoxes?
Regardless, this bittersweet-disco energy has made ABBA irresistible for every decade since they first hit megastardom. And ABBA’s two new releases have the age-old mix of human complexity with sing-along cheese that’s most endearing about their music. They’re as catchy and human as ever, with lyrics about love and friendship that feel like they’re written by people too far past the flush of youth to be dizzied by sex or easy promises of ‘forever’.
Tickets have just gone on sale for a tour in which ABBA updates this Seventies paradox with one that couldn’t be more 2021: the “Voyage” experience, where the band will appear as digital versions of their younger selves, called “ABBAtars”, created by George Lucas’ studio Industrial Light & Magic.
Ray Kurzweil premiered the precursor to the “ABBAtars” two decades ago, at a TED talk in which he appeared in the guise of “Ramona”, his “female” digital alter ego. “Ramona”, a kind of holographic puppet, was operated remotely via sensors on Kurzweil’s body, combined with voice-change technology that reformatted his voice in more feminine tones. The result is, as you can see, unsettling to say the least.
But CGI has got better since then, as the rise of “deepfake” footage (and even deepfake pornography) attests. The ‘ABBAtar’ footage that appears toward the end of the I Still Have Faith In You video looks convincingly on a continuum with the video’s many clips of their 1970s footage. Inasmuch as there’s a difference, it’s no more so than the gap between someone today posting on Instagram with and without filters. In other words, comfortably within the acceptable envelope of digitally-enhanced reality as we’re accustomed to it today.
“Virtual reality…you can be someone else” Kurzweil claimed two decades ago, in the guise of Ramona. We’re now waist-deep into our mass experiment in what happens when the boomer generation encourages its offspring to believe that this is (at least online) literally true. But regardless of the effect such claims may have on those who’ve never known a world without internet, the boomer race to create a de-corporealised haven from the Grim Reaper is growing ever more urgent as the boomers themselves become, corporeally, more haggard.
It’s not clear whether the band will perform as themselves at their ‘Voyage’ events. But why should they? They’ve arguably just come closer than Ray Kurzweil has managed yet to achieving boomer apotheosis: eternally perky, fresh, un-dying versions of their youthful selves, able to continue indefinitely doing what those younger selves did, without ever getting tired, ill or divorced.
Thus, once again, ABBA are the kings and queens of paradox. In the Seventies they stretched the tension between upbeat music and tragic lyrics to breaking-point. And their musical relaunch offers songs about the scars left by time’s passage, in digital avatars that spare the band any unflattering contrast between their dewy youthful public image and craggy, ageing contemporary selves.
The ‘trad’ in me wonders whether any of this is even necessary. My mum gave me her ABBA compilation when I was a tween in the early Nineties, and the same compilation is now my primary-age daughter’s favourite. I can’t think of another band that could unite three generations of women in singing at the tops of our voices in the car. Surely having fostered that kind of intergenerational love of cheesy pop is immortality enough?
Regardless, it’s clear that ABBA weren’t just a key sound of the Seventies, and (in revival) the Nineties. They’ve also captured a key 2020s boomer zeitgeist: the wisdom of age, with a glossy coat of high-tech optimism, over a howling abyss of memento mori.