There's No Harm in Fantasizing About a Better Future

In Radicals Chasing Utopia, transhumanist enthusiasm gets a bad rap.


Zoltan, courtesy of Zoltan

In Radicals for Utopia, published last month, journalist Jamie Bartlett profiles Zoltan Istvan, who ran for president under the Transhumanist Party's banner in 2016. Along with several other journalists, Bartlett traveled across the southwest on Istvan's "immortality bus" (a rickety camper shaped like a coffin-slash-log cabin), and watched Istvan preach the gospel of transhumanism to fellow futurists and skeptics alike.

"Transhumanist science is undeniably exciting and fast-moving," Bartlett writes of watching Istvan tell a half-empty auditorium in Las Vegas that humanity will conquer death within 15 to 25 years. "But the science is not almost there."

He knocks Istvan for "flit[ting] with misleading ease between science and fiction, taking any promising piece of research as proof of victory." In another scene, Bartlett channels the frustration of other futurists who have tired of the transhumanism project altogether. "Transhumanists have been promising us jetpacks and immortality," one biohacker tells Bartlett. "We're sick of [their] bullshit promises." Later, we learn that Istvan is not particularly liked by even other transhumanists, that he is terrible at leading a political party, and that the chief goal of his campaign was to get people to pay attention to him. In other words, that he is like every other person who has ever run for president.

After painting Istvan as bumbling (when the immortality bus breaks down) and unscientific (when he expresses enthusiasm for cryogenics), Bartlett describes him as something like a villain.

"Transhumanism feels like the perfect religion for a modern, selfish age; an extension of society's obsession with individualism, perfection and youth," he writes. He accuses Istvan of "ignor[ing] current problems and overlook[ing] the negative consequences of rapidly advancing technology." It's an odd claim considering Istvan's presidential platform called for "the complete dismantlement and abolition of all nuclear weapons everywhere, as rapidly as possible." Nuclear weapons were once a rapidly advancing technology, they are currently a problem, and Istvan seems to be quite concerned about their negative consequences.

It's an even odder claim considering that the people who are dedicating themselves to the problems du jour don't seem capable of actually fixing any of them. Last I checked, the Israelis and Palestinians are still at it. Al Qaeda, too. The world is less poor than it once was, but there are still three-quarters of a billion people living in extreme poverty. In the U.S., black lives still matter less than blue and white ones. Is this really transhumanism's fault? What would Bartlett have Istvan do? Go back in time and donate the money he spent on the Immortality Bus to Hillary Clinton?

Bartlett then tells us that many other technologists and intellectuals are opposed to the world Istvan hopes one day to live (forever) in. Elon Musk "declared AI to be comparable to summoning the Devil," he writes. "Stephen Hawking said 'the development of artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.'" Francis Fukuyama "called transhumanism 'the world's most dangerous idea.'" Artificial intelligence seems to worry Barlett more than Istvan's other enthusiasms. He notes that self-driving cars will likely displace human truckers and that drones will displace human warehouse workers. Apparently, no one wants to live in a world where poor little boys and girls can't realize their dreams of living out of a long-haul cab and inhaling particulates in storage facilities.

All things considered, Bartlett's treatment of Istvan the candidate is fair. Anyone who desires the powers of the presidency deserves, at the very least, to have his or her vision for the job harshly interrogated. And many aspects of Istvan's vision are pie in the sky. But the techno fear-mongering throughout the rest of the chapter feels off. Everyone can't be expected to worry about everything, and there are plenty of people in Silicon Valley worried about the ramifications of automation and sentient machines. There's Musk, and also Y Combinator, which is running a basic income experiment right now in anticipation of a world with fewer menial jobs for humans. (Bartlett also notes that AI may displace doctors and lawyers, but he reduces it to an employment problem without acknowledging that it might also mean fewer misdiagnoses and overall better care.)

Nobody in Silicon Valley, or outside it, knows which line of inquiry will prove fruitful, or when. Ascribing carelessness, or malice, to the people pursuing those experiments is a disservice to the spirit of inquiry itself. As Scott Alexander noted in May, many of these folks are working on some rather amazing, life-affirming, world-improving applications. Regardless, it is farcical to lay blame for the bad (or the good) at the feet of transhumanists, who are mostly fanboys of the next big thing, not the people making it. And it is particularly disappointing to see someone bash these people for imagining how they might enjoy a future none of us can stop.