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First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Question Your Answers
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Since 1857, The Atlantic has been challenging established answers with tough questions. In this video, actor Michael K. Williams—best known as Omar Little from The Wire—wrestles with a question of his own: Is he being typecast?

What are you asking yourself about the world and its conventional wisdom? We want to hear your questions—and your thoughts on where to start finding the answers: hello@theatlantic.com. Each week, we’ll update this thread with a new question and your responses.

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Is a Long Life Really Worth It?

That’s the question that reader John Harris has been asking himself lately. He’s not alone: In 1862, one of The Atlantic’s founders, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wondered the same thing about aging. Acknowledging that “the creed of the street is, Old Age is not disgraceful, but immensely disadvantageous,” Emerson set out to explain the upsides of senescence. A common theme is the sense of serenity that comes with age and experience:

Youth suffers not only from ungratified desires, but from powers untried, and from a picture in his mind of a career which has, as yet, no outward reality. He is tormented with the want of correspondence between things and thoughts. … Every faculty new to each man thus goads him and drives him out into doleful deserts, until it finds proper vent. … One by one, day after day, he learns to coin his wishes into facts. He has his calling, homestead, social connection, and personal power, and thus, at the end of fifty years, his soul is appeased by seeing some sort of correspondence between his wish and his possession. This makes the value of age, the satisfaction it slowly offers to every craving. He is serene who does not feel himself pinched and wronged, but whose condition, in particular and in general, allows the utterance of his mind.

By 1928, advances in medicine had made it more possible to take a long lifespan for granted. In an Atlantic article titled “The Secret of Longevity” (unavailable online), Cary T. Grayson noted that “probably at no other time in the history of the human race has so much attention been paid to the problem of prolonging the span of life.” He offered a word of warning:

Any programme which has for its object the prolongation of life must also have, accompanying this increased span of life, the ability of the individual to engage actively and with some degree of effectiveness in the affairs of life. Merely to live offers little to the individual if he has lost the ability to think, to grieve, or to hope. There is perhaps no more depressing  picture than that of the person who remains on the stage after his act is over.

On the other hand, as Cullen Murphy contended in our January 1993 issue, an eternity spent with no decrease in faculties wouldn’t necessarily be desirable either:

There are a lot of characters in literature who have been endowed with immortality and who do manage to keep their youth. Unfortunately, in many cases nobody else does. Spouses and friends grow old and die. Societies change utterly. The immortals, their only constant companion a pervading loneliness, go on and on. This is the pathetic core of legends like those of the Flying Dutchman and the Wandering Jew. In Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, a fine and haunting novel for children, the Tuck family has inadvertently achieved immortality by drinking the waters of a magic spring. As the years pass, they are burdened emotionally by an unbridgeable remoteness from a world they are in but not of.

Since antiquity, Murphy wrote, literature has had a fairly united stance on immortality: “Tamper with the rhythms of nature and something inevitably goes wrong.” After all, people die to make room for more people, and pushing lifespans beyond their ordinary limits risks straining resources as well as reshaping families.

Charles C. Mann examined some of those potential consequences in his May 2005 Atlantic piece “The Coming Death Shortage,” predicting a social order increasingly stratified between “the very old and very rich on top … a mass of the ordinary old … and the diminishingly influential young.” Presciently, a few years before the collapse of the real-estate bubble that wiped out millions of Americans’ retirement savings, Mann outlined the effects of an increased proportion of older people in the workforce:

Women work together at an internet cafe in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 8, 2012. Mohammad Ismail / Reuters

Is the internet helpful or hurtful to human creativity? I posed that question to the reader discussion group known as TAD, and the consensus seems to be: It’s both. It’s complicated. And naturally, it depends a lot on what form of creativity you’re talking about. Here’s how one reader sums it up:

Because of the Internet I write more and receive feedback from people I know (on Facebook) and online strangers (on TAD and other platforms that use Disqus). I use it as a jumping-off place and resource for planning lessons for my high-school students in science.

However, I don’t practice music as often as I used to.

On a similar note, another reader confesses, “I draw less because I’m always on TAD”:

As a sketch artist, I appreciate my ability to Google things I want to draw for a reference point, but that doesn’t make me more creative. I already had the image in my head and the ability to draw. I honed my skills drawing people the old fashioned way, looking at pictures in books or live subjects and practicing till my fingers were going to fall off.

In my opinion, the internet also encourages people to copy the work of others that goes “viral” rather than creating something truly original. The fact that you can monetize that viral quality also makes it more likely that people will try to copy rather than create.

That’s the same reason a third reader worries that “the internet has become stifling for creativity”:

Maybe I am not looking in the right place, but most platforms seem to be more about reblogging/retweeting/reposting other people’s creations. Then there is the issue of having work stolen and credits removed.

As another reader notes, “This is the central conflict of fan fiction”:

It’s obviously creative. On the other hand, it is all based on blatant copying of another writer’s work. How much is this a huge expansion of a creative outlet, and how much is this actually people choosing to limit their own creativity by colonizing somebody else’s world rather than creating a new one?

The fanfic debate is fascinating, and more readers expand on it here.

For my part, I tend to think the internet has encouraged and elevated some amazing new forms of creativity based on reaction and re-creation, collaboration and synthesis. Take this delightful example:

Those creative forms are a big part of my job too: When I go to work, I’m either distilling my colleagues’ articles for our Daily newsletter or piecing together reader emails for Notes, and those curatorial tasks have been exciting and challenging in ways that I never expected. But I’ve also missed writing fiction and poetry and literary criticism, and I worry sometimes that I’m letting those creative muscles atrophy. If you’re a fanfic reader or writer (or videographer, or meme-creator, or content-aggregator) and would like to share your experience, please let us know: hello@theatlantic.com.

This next reader speaks up for creativity as “the product of synthesis”:

It’s not so much a quest for pure “originality,” as it is a quest for original perspectives or original articulations. I’d say that my creativity has been fueled by letting myself fall into occasional rabbit holes. Whether that’s plodding through artists I don’t know well on Spotify or following hyperlinks in a Wiki piece until I have forgotten about what it was that I initially wondered, that access to knowledge in a semi-random form triggers the old noggin like little else.

On the other hand: So much knowledge! So many rabbit holes! Jim is paralyzed:

What the internet does to the mind is something of an eternal question. Here at The Atlantic, in fact, we pondered that question before the internet even existed. Back in 1945, in his prophetic essay “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush outlined how technology that mimics human logic and memory could transform “the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race”:

Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.

Bush didn’t think machines could ever replace human creativity, but he did hope they could make the process of having ideas more efficient. “Whenever logical processes of thought are employed,” he wrote, “there is opportunity for the machine.”

Fast-forward six decades, and search engines had claimed that opportunity, acting as a stand-in for memory and even for association. In his October 2006 piece “Artificial Intelligentsia,” James Fallows confronted the new reality:

If omnipresent retrieval of spot data means there’s less we have to remember, and if categorization systems do some of the first-stage thinking for us, what will happen to our brains?