Break the mirror: Amortality

So long ago I was innocent,
It had nothing to do with age

--Stevie Nicks, Ghost


You are only as old as you feel -- a triteness, frequently bandied around by people I meet, apparently to bridge a gulf of understanding about life choices -- an incantation usually uttered while head-scratching over my apparently age-inappropriate outlook on life. Little do they know, I have rarely chosen anything about my life -- I stumbled into the future focusing on anything but. Often, the slogan comes as the epilogue to a discussion they find more disturbing: So when are you finally going to settle down?, which is presumably a tactic to shame me into an admission of guilt about preferring the company of people of the same mental rather than physical age.

I was chuffed to stumble over Catherine Mayer's book Amortality: the Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly. (Mayer is one of the lovlier personas appearing on BBC World's Dateline London which is one of my Sunday morning rituals -- catching up on a world I occasionally visit, over coffee.) The title struck an immediate chord, in view of the remarks above. Moreover, having just been confronted with a birthday where a colleague wished me well for my 47th orbit of the sun, I was looking for some measure of justification for my apparent denial of Newtonian time. Spitting out my coffee, I reflected that i) my colleague was a superfically more honest character than I am (though with a clear poverty of imagination), and ii) my brain has been stuck at 25 since whenever it was age-appropriated to concoct that particular conspiracy.

To paraphrase Stevie Nicks, some people are young and some people are old, and it has nothing to do with age. Amortality expresses this idea, and Catherine Mayer's book explores the idea with tantalizing attention to detail.


One might fall into the trap of thinking that this is just another way of `guilting' people into the tragic mouse-trap of modern youth culture. But that is not the point at all. Is it a desirable thing to be amortal? That is not the question. It is the neutrality of the idea that I find compelling -- the involuntary nature of amortality as an almost innate characteristic of `some people'.

Amortality might be a benefit or a burden depending on your nature. If you are extrovert (extravert in Jung's nomenclature) by nature and can profit from more of the same, it could be the little extra license to flourish over a long and fruitful life. If you are introvert and prone to dwelling, it could be the introit for a long and drawn out misery of loneliness and unfulfillment. Amortality is a neutral concept. As such, I find it enlightening.

Yes, Catherine Mayer, my name is Mark and I am an amortal. I have no idea how I got to where I am today. I do not feel the age I see on my documents. I experience people youger than me as older. I am genuinely disappointed by my reflection. I have many friends who feel the same, and I tend not to befriend people who do not see physical age as a complete and utter irrelevance.


It's not just about humans. Gary Hustwit's documentary Urbanized explains how towns and cities too find their amortality, by adopting functional expressions that resist the tumults of the wider world's trends and opinions about what constitutes good design. Good urban design seems to have emerged to be about forgetting the `second wave' (see below) desire to program people's lives. (His other documentaries on design and the Helvetica font express something else about timelessness.)

Programming people to think like parts in a grand machine is what society has been about since industrialization began. From birth and training, society's investment is gradually amortized (pun intended) over the `useful life' of a person. This is a particularly offensive industrial degradation. Feminists often rile against the objectification of women, but that is just one symptom of the objectification of everyone in the industrial society.

Alvin Toffler's point about `massification' in our culture (see his unparalleled trilogy Future Shock, The Third Wave and Power Shift), as a side effect of the second wave industrialization of society, illustrates how we can be brainwashed into believing in a plan that is not really something we have chosen.

Retreat then, from the public arena, into a private, more spiritual realm of unruly equilibrium with surroundings. Grounded people define themselves by their home lives, or their private spaces and use this to fend off external reality to achieve amortality rather than amortization.


Control over mortality is a subject that intrudes onto present moments when the concept of infinity seems daunting. Some years ago, I wrote The Road Ahead as an exploration of what mortality really meant to me or to others. When does someone really fade or even die? It has nothing to do with age. The answer seemed to be, when a person has ceased to truly interact with the world. Are mere consumers dead, alive, or merely sustained on some kind of life-support drip?

What is `dead' anyway? When the EKG line goes flatline and nothing changes any longer? What physicists would call the heat death of the universe, or the final equilibrium of maximal entropy from which no spark of life-giving change would be possible.

The meaning of life is an equally elusive idea, equally age neutral. Indeed science tells us that life has no meaning at all -- so, everyone is free to make something up themselves. Some imagine a grand vision, some desire to help others; worse still, some (claim at least) to give themselves to someone else, part and parcel for a life of `faithful' subservience. I never felt any of this. At every moment of my life I had days when I wanted to change the world, shape the future, and days when I just wanted to pick up girls and indulge in the physical therapy of the moment. I was never a gambler, thrill seeker, worshipping chance or trying to beat the odds. I am a control freak, an explorer who travels from reality to reality across the so-called real world and others that are in my head. The meaning of life is to master the present and enjoy the experience. Richness lies not in future avarice or past accomplishment, but more in the maximization of each of those distinct, diverse bubbles of here and now that intrude on my consciousness.

Already different avatars represent us online, and the virtuality of our lives have become a creative palette of personas. Amortality comes, I think, from living mainly in one's head. The world around me is nice to visit, but so much of what defines me comes from within. If only you could see what these eyes have seen... We talk about the internet and our virtual representations there, but I believe reality was always sort of `virtual' for me. The most real world was the one within. A complete separation of public and private.