Reading Jane Austen on the Eve of the Singularity

Right now, we're in a Jane Austen golden age - a brief window of history in which we have the time and resources to form good marriages (or marriage-like arrangements) and before the science fiction future makes relationships fantastically baroque.
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Just finished Sense and Sensibility (the Marvel Comics version). Though writing about love, Austen is all business - how to get properly wed within one's small window of beauty and fertility. Making a good match is essential because, in Jane's world, there's very little time for do-overs.

During Austen's time, a third of all people died as children. Those who did make it to adulthood lived on average until their late 50s. Jane herself didn't make it to her 42nd birthday.

People got married, they pumped out kids, they stayed married until death intervened. (In the early 19th century, there was an average of three divorces a year in all of England.)

A century later, life had expanded...slightly. For those who made to adulthood, average lifespan reached the mid-60s. Then there were two world wars followed by years of semi-bleak deprivation.

But now, in England and other developed countries, life expectancy is more than 80 and increasing by three months a year. We have 60 percent more years of adult life than Jane's people had. Within a generation, we'll have twice the adult lifespan of the Georgian era. Within another generation, it could be triple, and a generation after that, lifespans could become effectively limitless.

We have time and health. We have fewer kids and have them later in life. We have time for multiple shots at marriage.

In our era, death is somewhat shocking. In Jane's era, death constantly lurked. The action in Sense and Sensibility is set up by the deaths of eight relatives or spouses who are dead before the story begins or by the end of chapter one.

The happiness to be found in Austen's books is that with luck and insight, one might make a congenial match despite the constraints on whom one might marry. Of course there's a fairy tale aspect to this. Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy, in addition to being an ideal intellectual soulmate who looks like Colin Firth, heads one of the 400 richest families in England. Austen, of course, wasn't lucky enough to find a suitor who could both earn her affection and meet the material requirements of marriage.

Today, we're better situated to implement the Austen Program for successful courtship and marriage. (Author Karen Swallow Prior has distilled Jane's rules for you.) Women aren't exclusively dependent on their husbands or the generosity of relatives for income. We can cast our nets wider in search of partners. (In 1800, England had only the population of Los Angeles today, and most people married someone who lived within ten miles.) We can road test sex and relationships. We have more information - unlike Jane's people, we've seen hundreds of rom coms.

But while we have increasing resources for forming happy unions, we're nearing the end of the era of traditional marriage. Our relationships, already much different from our parents', will soon turn bizarrely science fictional. Our children or their children will have active adult lifespans of more than a century. In the US, just 6 percent of marriages last for 50 years. In the future, almost no marriages will be "'til death do us part" when that means staying together for 120 years.

By century's end, people will appear to be in their 30s and 40s for 50 years or more. Middle-aged grandchildren could end up looking like the parents of their still-youthful grandparents. People will put off having children until their 50s or 60s, if at all; why carry on your legacy through your children when you can carry on your legacy by not dying?

Some people believe we're on the verge of the Singularity, a time, 30 or 40 years from now, when artificial intelligence will be powerful enough to answer all human questions and grant all our wishes. Even if you find that ridiculously optimistic, it's increasingly apparent that things will get weird.

Gender roles and relationships will become more fluid as we gain more control over our brains and biology. We already augment our brains via our devices - for the first time in history, we pretty much have instantaneous access to all of human knowledge. This access will become more intimate as we begin wearing and implanting our devices. We probably won't have a robot apocalypse, but we'll become half-robots ourselves.

Right now, we're in a Jane Austen golden age - a brief window of history in which we have the time and resources to form good marriages (or marriage-like arrangements) and before the science fiction future makes relationships fantastically baroque. Jane would be both appalled and guardedly hopeful about our era, as the Jane Austen 2.0 AI will be, when she's cyber-resurrected in 2026.

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