How would someone in today's age of documentation handle the practical aspects of immortality?
August 7, 2012 2:58 PM   Subscribe

(sci-fi filter) How would someone in today's age of documentation handle the practical aspects of immortality?

I recently found an old young adult novel I had about a family who accidentally drinks from a magic spring and becomes immortal. They describe difficulties such as having to move to a new town every decade or so because they don't age and people would get suspicious. Maybe you could fudge this in the early 20th century when the book is set, but I'm not sure how, on a theoretical level, this could actually work today. Within a decade or so, your appearance would not match the age on your passport, driver's license etc. Would you just buy a cabin in the woods, register it to dummy corporation that you could control in perpetuity under whatever name, and live off the land in isolation? Would you register a fake baby every 20 years or so and then assume its identity when it comes of age, so you'd always have a steady supply of passports, social insurance numbers etc. waiting in the wings and then you could just move cities, get regular jobs using legit ID, and not have to be a hermit? Could you set up some sort of investment, now, that within a hundred years or so would have you very well taken care of so you could never work again and just travel or do whatever? Or would you 'come out' and submit to the scientific and tabloid scrutiny, hoping that once the initial furor died down and your point was proven, you could get special never-expiring papers from the government and live like a normal citizen?

Obviously, this is not a real-world problem :) But the book has me thinking, out of curiosity, about this. I don't think it's so easy to just pack up your horse, drive it another town, say you are so and so, and establish a life for yourself. So, if you had this problem, today, what would be the best plan for covering the necessities, staying off the radar (or on it, if you chose) and living as legit a life as possible? How would you deal with the need to have proper paperwork that modern society imposes on us? What would be your 'plan' for the rest of your immortal life?
posted by JoannaC to Grab Bag (39 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You could live off the grid, or perhaps get fake identification every X years. If you live forever, you could probably throw some money into a Swiss bank account and live off the compound interest with some degree of anonymity.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:02 PM on August 7, 2012

Quick question--not everyone has access to immortality?
posted by Ironmouth at 3:06 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you google "how to register a home birth in (STATE)" you'll find that regulations vary. But taking a quick look at California, it seems that if you could borrow a baby from someone, and fake a few papers (letter from a doctor asserting that the mother was pregnant, etc) then you could get a birth certificate. And once you've got that, you could proceed, as the years progress, to Social Security card, bank account, etc. When your new identity matched your apparent age, you could get photo ID like driver's license, passport.

If you did that every few years or decades, as necessary, you could set up a stream of IDs to carry you forward.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:08 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love Tuck Everlasting! Er, forgive me for suggesting it, but the vampires in Twilight have various ways of dealing with immortality. I tried to remove everything about reading Twilight from my memory, but you might see how the Cullens fit in (or not).
posted by ChuraChura at 3:08 PM on August 7, 2012

I remember that book! I read it in fourth grade, and it has stuck with me ever since.

I think the solution is pretty much what they did- live off the grid and out in the woods, and be one of those families that doesn't get their kids social security numbers and so forth. I think it would be easier to slide through rejecting getting any papers, ever, than trying to live with fake ones.
posted by ambrosia at 3:10 PM on August 7, 2012

Ironmouth: the book JoannaC mentions is undoubtedly (the awesome) Tuck Everlasting, so no, not everyone is immortal, just one small family group (who don't reproduce) and a toad. Unless JoannaC's question is different.
posted by nicebookrack at 3:10 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is touched on in recent fiction, including (cring) Twilight, and some TV series I can't recall, and some other series I can't recall, in the same way each time.

Forged documents, with connections. Either get good enough at forging and move enough that nobody asks, or have a network of people you trust (and who fear you enough to be loyal) to make them for you. Have a reserve of $$$$$.

This is handled in future, technology-happy civilizations as well -- case in point, Minority Report, where everyone is identified by a retinal scan and the world is changed to their specs. In that world, there is a black market of extra eyes, and the indigent are often missing eyeballs because they have sold them out of necessity (or had them taken).
posted by DoubleLune at 3:10 PM on August 7, 2012

*cringe -- see what the horrid writing does to mine?
posted by DoubleLune at 3:11 PM on August 7, 2012

There was an episode of the excellent British vampire miniseries Ultraviolet in which an immortal vampire had a son from before he was turned. That son had the vampire's grandson, who died in a drug overdose and the immortal grandfather, as he was about the right age, assumed the grandson's identity.

This wouldn't be the most... friendly option, but if you're sufficiently ruthless, you could farm and nurture a replenishing crop of descendants ready to be killed and replaced as you need to.
posted by Naberius at 3:13 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Assuming you were careful and set up a web of trusts and whatnot to hide your actual identity, you'd be exceedingly wealthy due to the magic of compound interest, and able to parley that money into papering over whatever... inconsistencies arose regarding your identity.
posted by Oktober at 3:20 PM on August 7, 2012

Yes, it was Tuck Everlasting. Sorry, I should have specified. Great book, and I highly recommend it.

As for Twilight, I have not read it all the way through. I got as far as the part where he sparkles in the sunlight before I decided it was not the book for me.

I do think 'have massive piles of money' is a highly useful thing, but how would you get it? Right now, I am 30-something, paying rent and bills and such and have a good job, and have amassed about 15k in retirement savings. How would an average person like me who would find themselves suddenly in a situation like that in the book amass the funds required? I guess I'd have to turn to less legitimate means?
posted by JoannaC at 3:20 PM on August 7, 2012

Within a decade or so, your appearance would not match the age on your passport, driver's license etc

This point specifically is not a huge problem, I think. My mom has used the same picture on her driver's license for 20+ years because she likes her hair in it, and they've let her keep renewing it and transferring the picture without fuss. At some point a 120-year-old who looks 25, even matching their ID photo, will draw attention--but not nearly as quickly as they would if they let their license lapse and then tried to renew it, or transferred it to a different state.

Since allegedly the best way to fake an identity is IIRC to steal one from a dead infant, now I'm wondering over the feasability of faking a home birth + faking baby's death + taking identity of your fake dead baby, or whether that would just be an unnecessary complication.
posted by nicebookrack at 3:22 PM on August 7, 2012

Moving every ten years is a good idea, but I doubt it would be necessary to adopt a new identity every time. The government doesn't care how old you are as long as you keep paying taxes. If anyone does notice that your age is incongruous with your appearance, you can just social-engineer the situation: "Hey, yeah, there is a typo on my driver's license. I never noticed that... can you correct it?". Nobody is going to jump to the conclusion that you're immortal.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 3:28 PM on August 7, 2012

If you fake the home birth, why do you have to fake the death? There's no baby.

Having personally registered a home birth myself, it's not exactly the easiest thing to do. The county wanted serious documentation, both from my OB that I was full-term pregnant, and from the (firefighter) who actually delivered my son. The county verified my identity with my doctor's office- called them up and had them describe me. And went to check that my OB is indeed an OB and that his office is indeed an OB/GYN office. They verified *everything.*

It was not a question of just walking in with a baby and saying "I had this baby at home, birth certificate please." It took us a couple of weeks just to collect all the documentation we needed to backup our application, and we were totally legit.
posted by ambrosia at 3:31 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Even if a 30-something 'suddenly' came into it, they have 20 or so years at minimum before the discrepancy between stated age and appearance starts getting really suspicious. Devote those years to wealth accumulation and underground connections. Hell, make friends with some makeup artists and buy yourself a few more years.
posted by cobaltnine at 3:38 PM on August 7, 2012

Compound interest is the friend of immortals.

Lots of vampire books suggest that vampires kill humans and assume their legal identities. If you were a nice immortal person like the Tucks, the "assume legal identities of infants who died at the 'right' age" would probably be fairly little trouble, as people who are mortal do it all the time right now.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:52 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

These solutions appear to solve your continuation of living in first-world conditions. If you're more adventurous and, hopefully, a healthy immortal, I would venture off into different parts of the world where legal/government documents are not difficult to forge, not needed to earn some income, or an identity can be easily purchased. This also leads to a question I have for you: what is your gender and what is the color of your skin? This can reduce or enlarge parts of the world to you where you are able to operate without drawing too much attention to yourself. I would spend ten years in remote places of the earth to learn the language, the customs and their crafts then move on to the next location.

It would be terribly boring and a waste to try to keep your first-world lifestyle for as long as possible when there's a whole world full of people and places to share your life with and to hopefully gain a better understanding of this thing called the human experience.

I imagine there will come a time where you must return to the comforts the first-world has to offer and that takes finally resolving to befriend and trust someone with your secret. This in itself would be very careful process and would have to meet several conditions to make a truly effective confidant who may need to vouch for you as an uncle, a brother/best friend, a nephew, and a grandson (or as an aunt, sisters, niece, granddaughter, etc.) In these first-world vacations you would need to avoid having your photo taken by other people as much as possible. This person would have to be a rational, logical non-religious person or someone who won't be horrified by your predicament but would only want to know that when s/he needs you the most, you'll be there for her/him. That could be when s/he is old and forgotten in some retirement home somewhere, maybe that's your covenant to this person.

Again, living in the first-world as some sort of mysterious aristocrat would require too much work initially but the foundation of which can be laid with the help of your first-world confidant. Some of the details of how to manipulate the legal framework to your advantage appear to have already been touched by the previous comments. It would be a very isolated experience for you, your social circle would ideally just include you and your confidant.

When your first-world vacation is over, go back to the those remote places and continue to help/learn from them. Repeat has desired.
posted by nataaniinez at 4:07 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

You don't want your driver's license to say that you're 241 years old, so you need some way of assuming a new identity. Like ambrosia says, you can't just make up a baby and get a new birth certificate. There is, or was (I don't know how hard this is to do in the days of modern, computerized records) a form of identity theft where a 30 year old (appearing) person looks for an infant or young child that died about 30 years before. They somehow manage to get a copy of the birth certificate and use that to obtain legal identification. That way, there wouldn't be 2 people with the same name and DOB running around.

At least, that's how the Highlander did it.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 4:41 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Assuming the identity of a dead infant does happen - it happened to my husband's family a few years ago!
posted by trixie_bee at 4:49 PM on August 7, 2012

Getting a fake id is pretty easy. It won't fool everyone, but if you can fool someone then you can use it to get a real id. I don't know that I'd worry about birth certificates - I don't even know where mine is. A driver's license and/or passport is all the id I've used in years.

One big problem, I think, is going to be your social security number. The government is tracking these much more closely these days, and having the same number as someone who was born 150 years ago might raise eyebrows. Of course, these sorts of mix-ups do happen and there are ways of resolving them and getting a new number, but those might require more documentation than you can conveniently get (I wouldn't advise faking this) and would also raise your profile, which is something you are trying to avoid.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 5:10 PM on August 7, 2012

Douglas Adams wrote about Wowbagger The Infinitely Prolonged. He's kinda in the ballpark.
posted by laconic skeuomorph at 5:17 PM on August 7, 2012

Also, after 100 years or so, when you get your license renewal, which is all computerized anyway, and the new one comes with the birthdate of 1850, you go in to the DMV and say "hey - I'm guessing this is some sort of error, huh?" and you all have a good laugh and then they fix it for you because duh, of course you're not 112, amirite?

The computer may have the facts straight, but gullible people who like to be helpful are everywhere
posted by Mchelly at 5:23 PM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

People in real life acquire fraudulent Social Security numbers for a few hundred dollars. It would not be complicated for fictional immortals to do this.

Another, perhaps less appealing strategy would be to go to places where central archiving was disrupted by war or natural disaster and assume the legal identities of others. In the 1990s Lancet study of Haitian people believed by others to be zombies, at least two of the subjects were people with mental/cognitive issues who had been assigned the legal identities of people who had died. This is apparently something that is currently happening on a fairly widespread basis in Afghanistan, although in those cases people are assuming others' legal identities on purpose.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:28 PM on August 7, 2012

I do think 'have massive piles of money' is a highly useful thing, but how would you get it?

Depends on your flavor of immortality. Can you not die by disease or misadventure? Do you heal/regenerate damage or are simply invulnerable? Because if you cannot be harmed, then running up to an armored car, taking a bag of cash, then racing away to a bridge (taking a few gunshots in the back), and leaping into the watery void with the bag cuffed to your wrist can go a long way towards getting your seed money.

Of course, that risks jail time, especially if somebody gets hurt in your heist, which could take a long, long time where people will notice your condition. On a smaller scale, well, di di mau.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:44 PM on August 7, 2012

Biometrics are going to be a problem for someone looking to change identities, as the CIA is discovering.
Busy spy crossroads such as Dubai, Jordan, India and many E.U. points of entry are employing iris scanners to link eyeballs irrevocably to a particular name. Likewise, the increasing use of biometric passports, which are embedded with microchips containing a person’s face, sex, fingerprints, date and place of birth, and other personal data, are increasingly replacing the old paper ones. For a clandestine field operative, flying under a false name could be a one-way ticket to a headquarters desk, since they’re irrevocably chained to whatever name and passport they used.

“If you go to one of those countries under an alias, you can’t go again under another name,” explains a career spook, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he remains an agency consultant. ”So it’s a one-time thing — one and done. The biometric data on your passport, and maybe your iris, too, has been linked forever to whatever name was on your passport the first time. You can’t show up again under a different name with the same data.”
"Yep, retinal scan, DNA match, all point to her being A. But A was born 65 years ago, and she'd get carded going into a bar by the looks of her..."
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 6:39 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not so sure about getting rich off interest. Unless you're investing in something other than a bank your assets will grow at close to the rate of inflation. Now, _owning_ a bank is a different story. Maybe you could start a small religion based on your longevity. Most people will think you're a con artist, and so you'll have the hiding in plain sight thing working for you, and your followers can take care of your material needs.
posted by monkeymadness at 7:12 PM on August 7, 2012

I honestly think that within our lifetimes--hell, within a few years, even--this will be absolutely impossible to do. Pretty soon we're all going to be getting tracked constantly, with our own biology--or at least that seems to be where things are headed. I haven't seen Gattaca, but from what I've heard, you might have to try the techniques used by the guy in that one.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:39 PM on August 7, 2012

If you're of the eternally youthful variety of immortal, I actually don't think you'd have to burn an identity every 10-15 years just to avoid people noticing your lack of aging. Some judicious use of gray hair dye, changes in makeup and clothing, and even body language can go a fair way towards giving the appearance of aging/being older than you look. Also, there's the simple fact that people being people, anyone who does notice you look suspiciously young and well-preserved isn't going to jump to the ZOMG ETERNAL YOUTH explanation, they're going to think, "wow, they must have good genes," or "damn, they must have had some work done." Even if you run into someone you used to know 50 years on, or someone spots you in an old photograph, the simplest explanation of "you must have known my sadly now dead relative!" is the one most everyone is going to buy. This of course ignores the possibility of biometric scanning becoming more commonplace or necessary for everyday life, in which case, your best bet would be to go to a less developed country without such measures.

As for having massive piles of money, I happen to think fiction featuring suave, sophisticated immortals sitting on piles of cash vastly overuses this trope to an unrealistic degree. I know it's part of the fantasy, but there's no class on immortal wealth management. I figure a savvy and lucky enough immortal who's a couple hundred years old at least could very well have a respectable little "retirement" fund based on smart investments and strategic squirreling away of money plus the magic of compound interest, or based on (legally or illegally) acquiring and later selling property and valuables. They'll be in an even better position if they were upper class or wealthy before they became immortal. But it's equally likely for that hypothetical immortal to have lost it all (or a lot of it) in a stock market crash, or a shitty investment, or thanks to a government collapsing/war/natural disaster. If you were to suddenly become immortal today, with your stated 15K in retirement savings, I think you'd still be stuck working a 9-5 job to make a living for a good long time. If you're invulnerable, well, at least you can cut out health insurance and healthcare costs, but I don't see how immortality would make an appreciable difference in your finances in the short-term. You'd still have to wait it out or resort to illegal means to become wealthy.
posted by yasaman at 7:51 PM on August 7, 2012

If you are in good health, you've gotten educated along the way, then you're an adult with lots of skills and manageable expenses. You could write pretty good historical fiction, or do a number of jobs quite well.

Reliably computerized records, fingerprinting, retinal scan, proliferation of cameras, all will make anonymity a lot harder. But unreliably computerized records make identity theft easier, and if you have good documents, you should be able to stand there and say "Weird, your database says I'm 120 years old? Wow, what could make that happen?"
posted by theora55 at 8:11 PM on August 7, 2012

If you're immortal, you can probably survive surgery to replace retinas, hand transplants to get new fingerprints, etc.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:01 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Step 1: Go swimming in the ocean at night.
Step 2: Get picked up by local fishermen.
Step 3: Fake amnesia.
Step 4: Profit!!
posted by hot_monster at 9:09 PM on August 7, 2012

The trend over the past century or so has been toward a more concrete idea of identity, not just because improvements in technology make it easier to do so, but also because of a desire to catch terrorists, tax cheats, murderers, tax cheats, kidnappers, tax cheats, con men, and tax cheats. Now, it's possible for this trend to reverse, but unlikely until we get to a post-scarcity economy. So, that means it is now hard for you to change identity, and will only get harder. Simply having a fake ID card is not enough, since most serious things will be checked against centralized databases, so you'll need to have a way to get your identity in to the system in the first place. Making an identity out of whole cloth is very difficult, to the point where even Mossad is using identity theft to provide cover for their agents. There is and will be for some time the sort of fringes where you can live without identity. Biometrics make things a bit tricky, but biometric markers aren't unique so much as unique enough, and the more people get added to the database, the more honest collisions will start showing up that you can mask yourself behind.

But, as an immortal, there is one advantage you have that is not available to spy agencies, criminals, and illegal immigrants: Time. It is very hard to create a new identity for an adult, but new identities for babies are created all the time. Educational history would still be blank, but you could get a job in a hospital every decade or so and doctor up a fresh birth certificate, maybe open a pee-wee savings account in the new name and some other random bits to make it seem like this new person didn't show up from nowhere, then when you need it in 20 years or so you'll be ready to move on in to the new identity. Best not to run for president or anything like that, but it should stand up to some scrutiny.

For money, you'll probably want to set up a trust rather than constantly transferring money from one identity to another, otherwise you might end up looking like some sort of tax cheat. Compounding interest sure sounds like a good thing, but in reality you're not going to be able to beat interest without investing in something a little riskier, but you should still be able to save up enough to take a few long sabbaticals in there.

With any luck, we'll start getting offworld colonies sooner rather than later. This would be a good opportunity to switch identities, since the laws of physics should help you avoid people checking up on your backgrounds too much. The first few waves of colonization would be heavily scrutinized, but beyond that you should be fine, as long as you don't have to ride any generation ships.
posted by ckape at 10:34 PM on August 7, 2012

Posing as a foreigner / recent immigrant would be one way to explain why you don't have a lot of details.

If you can fake an accent and regularly obtain a new fake passport then that might help. - oh but then you have greencard issues which are probably even more difficult to get around. oops.
posted by mary8nne at 3:04 AM on August 8, 2012

yasaman: "As for having massive piles of money, I happen to think fiction featuring suave, sophisticated immortals sitting on piles of cash vastly overuses this trope to an unrealistic degree."

If you have $1000, and put it in the stock market (which has an average return over the long term of ~8%), then in 100 years you'd have 2.2 million dollars. Continue another 100 years and suddenly you'd have 4.838 billion dollars. That's not a typo, that is a B as in Billion. So no, this trope is not unrealistic at all.

Surely your immortal self has a spare $1000 lying around, no? Great! Go take a 200 year nap!
posted by Grither at 5:04 AM on August 8, 2012

You could live where it's easier to get documentation. You could live where it's easier to get by without documentation. You could start with nothing and make a lot of money along the way (any reasonable investment plan would do) and use it to buy new IDs as needed. You could make a lot of contacts and learn a lot of tricks along the way. It wouldn't be all that hard, assuming you wanted to keep it a secret. But eventually you'd be caught, because even the smallest risk of being caught is an inevitability when you live forever.

So why would you try to keep it a secret? What's the point? What are they going to do, kill you? Imprison you? If they buried you a thousand feet down, you would have enough time to wait for the earth to cough you up again. You will be alive when their monuments wear away to dust. You will be a god on earth. Entire races of people will live and die for you. You will be alive after the sun burns out, after all suns burn out. Or does immortal not mean that you'll live until the end of time?
posted by pracowity at 7:55 AM on August 8, 2012

One possible solution lies in Corporations. They are, if my non-lawyer mind recalls, an entity and virtually immortal.
posted by Jacen at 8:05 AM on August 8, 2012

pracowity, I think the main issue is that while an immortal can survive mere hundreds of years of imprisonment, torture, or medical experiments, it would still be rather unpleasant and something best avoided.
posted by ckape at 10:39 AM on August 8, 2012

pracowity: you could get locked up so people can perform medical experiments on you in order to figure out how to get immortality for themselves...or how one kills an immortal. That wouldn't be fun good times either.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:03 PM on August 8, 2012

Yes, but what I'm saying in answer to the question is that (A) over an infinity of years you will almost certainly be caught and become famously immortal unless you have something approaching a mathematically certain 100-percent sure way of going undetected, but that (B) the short-term (mortal-scale) consequences will not matter when seen in comparison to infinity. For example, any schemes to get rich are a joke because you would outlive money, outlive all places where you could spend money, outlive all people you could give money to. Anything other human beings do to you, good or bad, would be a blip on the screen for you. You would watch continents bump into one another, you would watch cosmology play out, you would roast alone for a million years if the planet roasted for a million years, freeze alone for a million years if the planet froze for a million years, watch and feel the sun burn out, and then stand alone in the dark on the cinders of the earth or just float alone in cold empty space forever or until you chanced in a billion years to bump into something else. Or maybe you'd use your immortality to finagle your way into a spaceship somewhere along the line (as a god on earth, perhaps) and find yourself going nowhere soon (like a plaque on an interstellar spacecraft) but it wouldn't matter to you because you live for fucking ever. Maybe you'd run into other sentient beings after humans are long gone and again be worshiped or tortured by them for thousands of years, but again it would be nothing on an infinite scale, because you'd watch their race also die, their sun also burn out. If the entire universe is going to collapse, you'd see and feel it firsthand. If you're truly immortal, you'd somehow outlive this universe and live through the agonies of the next big bang to see what comes next.
posted by pracowity at 4:51 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

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