Science & Tech

A Transhumanist Runs for President

Zoltan Istvan on The Rubin Report in October 2016. (Screengrab via YouTube)
Zoltan Istvan foresees self-perfection and immortality through technology. What could possibly go wrong?

Every now and then, our electoral system produces one of those quintessentially American characters who coopt the energy of the presidential voting cycle to become national celebrities or elevate an obscure social movement into greater popular visibility. In the current cycle, New Age guru Marianne Williamson, who popularized A Course in Miracles, fits the archetype. So does entrepreneur Andrew Yang. But for my money, the “transhumanist” proselytizer Zoltan Istvan Gyurko (professionally known as Zoltan Istvan) is the champion at harnessing the energy generated by electoral politics to both make himself a known media personality and promote his philosophical obsessions.

For those who may still be unaware, transhumanism is a futuristic social movement that (all but) worships technology as the means of attaining the long-held human dream of immortality and the more modern yearning for radical individual bodily self-transformation. Want to have the eyesight of a hawk and the superpowers of cartoon characters, and live longer than a redwood tree? Transhumanism predicts that these dreams will come true when a crescendo of unstoppable technological advances — known as “the Singularity” — unleashes the power to transform humanity into a “post-human species.”

Until recently, transhumanism advocacy was limited mostly to the high academy and the speculations of futurism conferences. But then along came Istvan. With few resources beyond the financial security earned through small-scale real-estate development and his indefatigable genius for self-promotion, in 2016 Istvan propelled himself and his movement into international notoriety by touring the United States as a candidate for president on the Transhumanist Party ticket, promising to end death as he drove across the country in the “immortality bus” designed to look like a coffin. It was a great gimmick that worked like a charm. Istvan was interviewed countless times and featured in stories in some of the world’s most prominent media, including the New York Times and The Guardian.

In 2018 he was less successful running for governor of California on the Libertarian Party ticket.  But, never one to miss a chance at elevating his prominence, in this presidential cycle Istvan is running as a Republican, challenging President Trump for the nomination under the campaign slogan “Upgrading America.”

As, respectively, a committed proponent and a persistent critic of transhumanism, Istvan and I have jousted publicly for years, but always without rancor. We finally spent some quality time over lunch recently when his campaign brought him to Washington, D.C., where, as part of his “no publicity is bad publicity” approach to advocacy and self-promotion, he agreed to an open, on-the-record interview.

Istvan first became interested in immortality in college when researching an essay on cryogenics. But his commitment to the cause became indelible in a moment of terror. In 2003, Istvan was working as a video journalist for National Geographic, covering a story about Vietnamese farmers’ dangerous harvest of metal from unexploded American ordnance. When he barely missed stepping on a landmine, he had a sudden epiphany. “I felt like a nuclear bomb went off in my head,” he recalled. “Instead of covering war stories and reporting on the suffering of humanity, I had the revelation that I should eliminate suffering altogether.” He quit working as a journalist, joined the nascent life-extension movement, and penned his novel, The Transhumanist Wager — which he describes as a “transhumanism Atlas Shrugged.”

Since those early days, Istvan has become the popular face of transhumanism. He has given thousands of media and podcast interviews and boosted transhumanism in a barrage of columns, including in mainstream publications such as the New York Times, Wired, Psychology Today, the Huffington Post, and Vice. He is also an international lecturer.

Most prominent transhumanists are atheists, as was Istvan, a lapsed Catholic, when I first met him in 2014 at a transhumanism and religion conference in Berkeley. He has since adopted a soft agnosticism, embracing what is known as “theistcideist theory,” which he describes as the belief that a super intelligence created all that is but committed suicide “to give free will to the universe.” That sounds like a distinction without much of a difference to me, since it leaves humanity wholly on our own. In any event, Istvan fervently believes that our most urgent duty as a species is to save ourselves materially from the existential obliteration of death and that government must focus on both promoting and protecting that quest.

During our long conversation, I told Istvan that his views don’t sound very conservative or “Republican.” He laughed and insisted that while he opposes “born-again fundamentalism,” he is fiscally very conservative. He believes in lower taxes, less regulation, tort reform, smaller government, a balanced-budget constitutional amendment, and providing tax incentives to induce people to live healthier lives. He is against the Green New Deal and its push to cut carbon emissions through government fiat, preferring the deployment of technological remedies such as geo-engineering and “green energy.” Moreover, he insisted, he is trying to save the transhumanist movement from what he describes as the fervent “leftwingism” of Silicon Valley and the socialistic views that he worries have come to permeate transhumanist advocacy generally.

But conservatism rejects utopianism. It rejects dangerous “superman” and eugenics theories. Believing in the equal dignity of every human being, conservatism is ultimately anti-authoritarian. Yet all these disquieting beliefs and approaches permeate transhumanist advocacy from top to bottom.

And that includes many of Istvan’s policy proposals. Beneath conservative planks such as requiring all immigrants to become proficient in English, the libertarian belief in open borders, and the less conservative idea that the government should provide a universal income funded by leasing federal lands, his policy views are radically transgressive and antithetical to human liberty. In this regard, I reminded him that when we first met at the religion seminar, he told the audience that war is justified against any government that thwarts transhumanism. He told me he is a bit embarrassed by putting it that starkly, but yes, he still believes that violence in the name of transhumanism is justified in certain circumstances. “I am sort of an authoritarian libertarian,” he laughed.

Indeed, he is. The more one digs into Istvan’s policy proposals, the wilder they become. He wants society to prepare for awarding “civil rights” for “future advanced sapient beings like AI, conscious robots, cyborgs and genetically created sapient beings.” He proposes a constitutional amendment to “prohibit laws interfering with citizens’ pursuit of health and longevity,” creating a right to genetic editing of progeny, cloning, and other forms of what he calls “radical science.” As just one example, such a right would allow parents to germline-engineer their progeny for health reasons or to fulfill their eugenic desires, creating genomic alterations that would flow down the generations.

Until very recently, he supported government licensing of parents, but hearkening to some blowback on that issue, he backed off that proposal. He would promulgate state regulatory protection over what could become a process of manufacturing humans — including custom design, special order, quality and inventory control — all of which are core goals of the transhumanist social revolution.

Istvan also wants to roll back privacy norms. This would include the government’s making massive use of high-tech surveillance, including facial-recognition cameras, “drones, robots, AI scanners, and other technology,” in public places so that “criminals are caught before they can carry out their harm” (he adds lamely that “this plan will protect gun owners while protecting those who are afraid of or dislike guns”).

Never mind that such all-encompassing surveillance would enable the effectuation of an all-encompassing tyranny. China has already demonstrated the fascistic possibilities by introducing a “social credit” system, in which facial-recognition technologies, artificial intelligence, GPS, and other means of high-tech surveillance track individual behavior and social associations. Those branded by computer algorithms with a low social-credit score face societal excommunication, including job loss, the inability to rent an abode, even exclusion from public transportation.

That isn’t all. Istvan also proposes “cerebral reconditioning” as an alternative to the death penalty, and, one presumes, other traditional forms of penal justice. Anyone who thinks these technologies would be a good idea has never read 1984 or Brave New World.

Why should we take any of this seriously? After all, transhumanism is hardly mainstream, and Istvan doubts his candidacy — which is mostly self-funded — will last much beyond Super Tuesday (although, knowing him, he will find some other way to harness the centrifugal energy of the presidential contest to boost himself and his ideas).

Here’s why. Istvan is just the popularizer; behind him, some of the world’s richest and most powerful people fund transhumanism research and advocacy, including Google’s Ray Kurzweil and Tesla’s Elon Musk. Moreover, it isn’t the unlikely coming of the Singularity that makes transhumanism a perilous social force. I truly doubt we will ever “upload” our minds into computers to live forever in the Cloud, a core eschatological transhumanist belief. Rather, it is transhumanism’s explicit utopianism and denigration of human exceptionalism that cause one’s neck hair to stand on end.

Attention must be paid. The movement is growing and often receives laudatory press. For example, Time published a fawning profile of Kurzweil’s quest to live indefinitely under the serious title “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal.”  As society secularizes and atheism grows, transhumanism’s ideology of radical self-liberation is increasingly resonating. People who have lost traditional faith are looking for new sources of meaning, purpose, and hope. Indeed, committed transhumanists believe in their ageless post-human future with a fervor that borders on fundamentalist religion.

That kind of unyielding devotion, driven in part by a terror of death, has power to profoundly corrode the core liberty values of Western society. If we are going to preserve a culture founded on the Judeo-Christian ideal of equal human dignity — and the concomitant obligation of individual behavioral restraint — transhumanism must be rejected in our public policies, spurned intellectually, and shunned in the ways we live our individual lives. And that starts with taking the movement as seriously as do its adherents.

So, as we chuckle at Istvan’s eccentric campaigns, let us not lose sight of the fact that many people are being seduced by the radical values the movement fosters. And therein lies the rub. Transhumanism will never kill death. But it could be the death knell of human freedom.

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