Don’t Die, by Bryan Johnson (Kindle and self-published paperback, 247 pages)
A few months ago, Time magazine profiled Bryan Johnson with a headline “The Man Who Thinks He Can Live Forever.” It was the latest in a spate of publicity for the 46-year-old entrepreneur who, like Moses, climbed a mountain and descended with a bunch of new rules for everyone.
Since that life-altering trek to Mt. Kilimanjaro, Johnson divorced his wife, left his religion, got un-depressed and devoted his life to what he considers humanity’s most pressing challenge: vanquishing death. His days are now spent undergoing a series of interventions and protocols intended to elude, or at least forestall, death, and recruiting others to the cause.
“Don’t Die” is both Johnson’s motto and the name of his new book, which is free on Kindle (a paperback costs around $7). That in itself is evidence that Johnson is not “normal” in any sense of the word; anyone with his following on social media could find a traditional publisher and a respectable advance if they are willing to play ball with editors. But Johnson is determined to follow his own vision, however odd it seems to the rest of the world. He has said he’s not interested in what his contemporaries think of him, but what people who live centuries from now think of him. In other words, he don’t need no stinkin’ editors and he doesn’t care about his critics.
Consequently, Don’t Die is, at times, a bewildering mess with occasional forays into brilliance.
The book begins reasonably enough, with an introduction in which Johnson describes a bit of his journey. Then it descends into a fanciful dialogue among a series of characters built on the various facets of himself that journeyed up Mt. Kilimanjaro. These characters are largely self-explanatory through their crude names: Scribe, Model Builder, Authority Seeker, Farm Boy, Cognitive Bias, Relentless, Game Play, Dark Humor, Self Critical and so forth. (Why there is no consistency among these names — e.g., Game Player — why some nouns and some adjectives, I could not tell you.)
There are two other beings in the narrative: Blueprint, a newcomer to the group (and the real-life name of Johnson’s “don’t die” initiative) and Depression, a character/state that the rest of the group left on the mountain, which some regret doing.
Conversations with these versions of himself comprise most of the book, in ways that are occasionally interesting, and in other ways that make you want to throw your phone (or alternative viewing device) out the window.
For instance, in one, the “group” discusses the growth of automation, accompanied by “a slow erosion of human decision-making.” While most people would think of this in terms of, say, a robot filling a fast-food order, Johnson wants to hasten the world to a place where “mind-off” automation governs our bodily functions, as he believes our natural processes are inefficient and poorly designed. As such, he believes we need to “demote” the conscious mind as the decision-making entity in favor of autonomous systems that get feedback from all our body’s stakeholders about what our bodies need. For example, in this manner of thinking, our liver should have more say in what we consume (and what we do all day) than our impulsive mind.
Not only will this give us longer lives, but it will magnify human potential. As the character Blueprint says in the dialogue, “a world of autonomous selves will open up a proportional step change in freed-up energy, which will then allow the upleveling of the modern human mind to whatever we will one day be. The change will be as powerful as the one from ancient to modern human. One can only dare imagine what we will do and what our experience of existence may be.” He believes that as much progress as humans have made, we could still be, right now, living in a sort of “Cognitive Paleolithic” age and that the only way out is to rise above the modern mind, which he calls “frail, ambitious, bullying, timid, and riddled with bias and error.”
OK, so what about the not dying part, and why does Johnson call himself “Zero,” going so far as to use that as his pen name and social media handle?
In all this Philosophy 101-level discussion, Johnson does insert the protocols that he says are effectively de-aging parts of his body, things like the perfectly calibrated vegan diet of 2,250 calories “spread out over optimal times during the day” and not drinking fluids after 4 p.m. so he doesn’t wake up during the night.
The foodstuff he talks about on podcasts is all there — the “nutty pudding,” the dark chocolate, the olive oil, the “super veggie.” And he is, at times, winsomely self-deprecating and even funny, as when he describes a tin of food as “a slurry of seaweed chewed up and spat out by a dying bird” and he has Self Critical say, when looking at his plate, “I feel like the color has been drained from life.”
But using the soft, patient voice that Blueprint says is necessary to win over skeptics, he convinces the team that an algorithm can and should be designed to take over the myriad manual tasks of daily existence. And over the course of the book, he addresses — and takes down — many of the criticisms directed at him over the past year.
Johnson is at his best when he derides the human tendency to let its lower faculties lead at the expense of the higher. Speaking on the miraculous nature of human consciousness, Devil May Care delivers a soliloquy about how the base need of hunger can transform “the most dynamic form of intelligence in the known universe into a simple calorie-finding machine.”
And his arguments that the best and brightest should be pushing aggressively at the boundaries of the human lifespan are convincing. Most humans who have been born over the course of our existence didn’t make it past 20, he says. Age, or “life units,” is the “scarcest and most valuable currency that has ever existed,” along with freedom of choice. And when Scribe asked the various characters that are assembled what they would do if they knew this was the last day of their life, the Blueprint character had the most sensible answer: try to figure out how to thwart death.
Put this way, it seems that this should be what all of us should be doing every day. Which of course, is the central point that Johnson wants to get across. As for the “Zero” stuff, well, it remains kind of fuzzy why he thinks this is a good idea, but it derives from his thinking about first principles.
Don’t Die is Johnson’s long-form response to people who learn a little about him and dismiss him as a sun-avoiding, supplement-chugging, blood-transfusing nut. The book does help to explain Johnson in ways an hour-long podcast cannot, and if you stick with it, the dialogue format eventually makes sense and can even seem charming by the book’s end, although it’s downright torturous at the start. For people who just want some new-year inspiration about how to be healthier and live longer, there are far better books, such as Dr. Peter Attia’s Outlive, and the basics of Johnson’s protocols are more easily learned in the many audio and print interviews he does. C+