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.

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  1. “Transhumanist science is undeniably exciting and fast-moving,”

    Somebody doesn’t know what ‘undeniably’ means.

    1. Either that or somebody is being obnoxiously literal.

    2. Honestly, the thought strikes me that I don’t think they know what ‘transhumanism’ is either since they didn’t automatically attack it for being insane.

  2. Calling for the immediate abolition of nuclear weapons is definitely insensate of the problems with implementing and enforcing such a scheme.

    And I love Riggs condescension that no one eould actually want to be a long haul trucker as a career. Mike Rowe needs to take Riggs out to the woodshed.

    1. My dad was a long-haul trucker for decades (including for quite a few years after I was born). So was his father and brother. It was not a terrible job according to him. Lots of dudes took speed so they could drive as long as they wanted and then forged their logs for the weigh stations (not sure how safe that was for other people on the road). My understanding is that it’s much harder to turn a profit under current regs and with current tracking tech.

      1. Oh snap! Mike Riggs is Mickey Rat’s mom, and just drove him to school in the car of pain.

        1. Don’t fuck with Riggs. Just look at his photo on his bio page. He’s not fucking around.

      2. weed, whites and wine…

        1. Cups full of cold black coffee and a pocket full of west coast turnarounds…

  3. You know who else fantasized about a better future?

    1. Karl Marx?

  4. RE: There’s No Harm in Fantasizing About a Better Future

    Of course there is.
    Dreaming about a better future will only result in counter-revolutionary actions and a possibility of destroying our socialist utopia so conveniently provided us.
    Dreaming is better done by our ruling elitist turds who are so much wiser and enlightened than all us little people.

  5. Last time science, health & technology were put at the forefront of politics, some German dude with a funny mustache took eugenics to its logical conclusion.

    Use government to take any flavor of environmentalism to its logical conclusion, and billions will die. Not millions, but billions.

  6. As technology improves life will get better and better. The problem is the Iron Age mentality of people whose obsolete cultural and religious baggage. A contest between an augmented Transhumanist and a normal person is no contest. Humans will be replaced as the apex predator with H+.

  7. What all utopian dreams, whether transhuman or otherwise remind us, are the limitations evolution has imposed upon human nature itself. And how unable mankind has been and always will be, at reaching out for that dream, until our species can find a way to stop chasing its evolutionary tail. A way that remains outside the potential of human reason to discover.

  8. “Transhumanism feels like the perfect religion for a modern, selfish age; an extension of society’s obsession with individualism, perfection and youth,” he writes.

    I can’t tell… is Bartlett a conservative Christian who thinks that our lives should consist of suffering, self-flagellation, and early deaths, or is he a progressive who thinks that we should all have generously promiscuous sex, no private property, and look like Bernie Sanders?

    You know, Mr. Bartlett, most people want a third option, and “individualism, perfection, and youth” certainly rank high on the list of desirables.

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