Today we travel to a future where it’s possible to know exactly when you will die. Do you chose to find out?
Now, this is, impossible. Totally impossible. And I’m not even going to try and come up with some strange pseudoscientific explanation for how this might happen. It’s not a thing. Just go with me here. Some people asked for more weird episodes this season, so, here you go!
We start the episode talking to Chanel Reynolds, the founder of a site called Get Your Shit Together which helps people get their shit together around death and dying. Stuff like: writing a living will, getting it executed, getting disability insurance, putting together an emergency plan, all that shit that, if you’re like me, you do not have together. Chanel started Get Your Shit Together a few years after losing her husband to a sudden accident, and realizing that she really didn’t know what to do, and didn’t have any of her own shit together.
And she tells us about all the reasons it’s good to think about your own death, even if it’s really far away. You never know what might happen, and you don’t want to leave your family, pets and loved ones without a good sense for how you want the end of your life managed.
Then we talk to Sheldon Solomon a professor of psychology at Skidmore College and one of the leading researchers in a field called terror management theory. Terror management theory basically says that we live, all of us, all the time, with this underlying rumble of terror beneath the surface. Terror that we are going to die. Which, we are, at some point. And when we’re reminded of death, that terror bubbles up and impacts our behavior in some not so good ways.
Sheldon has done tons of experiments that show that when you remind someone of their own death, just for a fleeting moment, a tiny reminder, it can make you more racist, xenophobic, hateful, war mongering and rude. They’ve done experiments where they’ve asked people to evaluate ideas or other people after seeing a death reminder. And in tons of experiments they’ve found that death reminders make us worse people. They make Christians dislike Jews more, they make Germans more likely to sit next to other people who look German and away from folks who look not-German, they make Iranians more supportive of suicide bombers and they make Americans more supportive of Trump (seriously).
So, in this future, if we know exactly when we’re going to die, and we think about it all the time, we might turn into horrible people.
There is other research that says that for some people, these effects aren’t as strong, and for some they’re actually positive. But researchers don’t really know what makes someone more likely to become better or worse after being reminded of their own death.
Next we talked to Ryan North, the creator of Dinosaur Comics. Back in 2005, Ryan published an episode of Dinosaur Comics that outlined the premise of the machine of death: you go to the machine, it takes a blood sample, and it spits out a card that sells you how you’re going to die. Maybe it says “poisoned apple,” or “drowned,” or “old age.” Ryan thought it would just be a one off joke, but his friends Matthew Bennardo and David Malki started exploring little short stories based on the premise, and eventually they opened up the idea to general submissions. So far there have been two Machine of Death anthologies, each full of stories about what happens when the machine of death comes to town. They’re really fun, I highly recommend them.
Ryan and I talked about all the weird ways that the option to know your death date might change the world. Does health insurance even make sense anymore? Can you get your kids tested? Should you get your kids tested? Could you make armies of people you knew wouldn’t die that day?
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