The Transhumanist Advocacy of Zoltan Istvan

During the recent presidential election, Zoltan Istvan chose to use one of the few potentially vaguely effective opportunities for grassroots advocacy via the US political process, and put himself forward as a candidate. The goal in doing this was much the same as for the early stages of any single issue political party in a European country, which is to say to leverage the media attendant to the political process in order to put out a message, rather than to actually win anything. Istvan and I are both transhumanists, as is much of the audience here, though I'd say that he is more ready to make that a brand rather than a common sense description of philosophical leanings.

We would both agree that progress in technology will enable our species to overcome the most important limits on the human condition, particularly aging to death, and that this is both plausible and desirable. The sooner it happens the better, but there is all too little public support for such goals at present, despite a considerable growth in the awareness of transhumanist ideals. The longevity science advocacy community of today is very much the cultural descendant of the transhumanist communities twenty years past, for example. Their ideas, once niche and radical, became a portion of the mainstream, some more rapidly than others, such as those involving artificial general intelligence and molecular manufacturing. Support for the use of biotechnology to bring an end to aging is only now arriving at the same place reached by those other fields, a decade later.

It is true, as recent commenters have noted, that I do not often write about politics. Firstly, who needs yet another person doing that? Secondly, insofar as I have a position on politics, I am against it. It is a poisoned chalice that drags down people who might otherwise have been productive, ensnaring them in corruption, waste, and endless, pointless distraction from what actually matters in life. Politicking is an undertaking of no consequence in comparison to the work of building new technology. The state of technology is what determines society, determines the shape of life, offers us new possibilities. In this picture the squabbles of politicians and their devotees are little more than background noise, as demonstrated by how soon today's crises and marches are lost to memory. If we want a better future, history teaches us that the most reliable way to achieve that goal is to choose to build better medicine, better computational devices, better means of transport, and all of the other implementations of scientific knowledge that make being alive a greater thing than it was before, more rich and full of possibility. Not talk about it, not debate funding bills, not distribute stolen largess from the public purse, but to actually set out and do it, as entrepreneurs and investors.

I have the greatest of admiration for someone such as Istvan, who has certainly devoted more time and energy than I of late to set out to persuade people to support the goal of an end to aging through medical research. I just wish he'd chosen a different approach to the problem of efficient advocacy, or perhaps that he was more focused on rejuvenation biotechnology after the SENS model. We don't get to direct the preferences of our fellow travelers, of course, but still. Politics is not the place to go if you want to change the world. It is the place to go if you want to boldly declare that you no longer have any good idea as to how to change the world for the better, and that the sum of your ambitions have become a matter of forcefully rearranging what is, rather than creating new wonders and improvements for the future.

600 Miles in a Coffin-Shaped Bus, Campaigning Against Death Itself

In the autumn of 2015, a man of my acquaintance purchased a 38-foot recreational vehicle - a 1978 Blue Bird Wanderlodge - and, having made to this vehicle such modifications as would lend it the appearance of a gigantic coffin, set out to drive it eastward across the great potbellied girth of the continental United States. His reasons for doing so were, in certain respects, complex and conflicting, but for now it will suffice to inform you that this voyage was undertaken in order to raise awareness of two distinct but related matters. The first of these was the regrettable fact of human mortality and the need to do something about it; the second was that of his candidacy in the following year's presidential election.

This man's name was Zoltan Istvan, and I had known him for about a year and a half by the time he began his progress across the country, from the Bay Area, where he lived, to Florida, and thence northward to Washington, where he planned to ascend Capitol Hill and, in coy allusion to Martin Luther's delivery of his 95 Theses, affix a Transhumanist Bill of Rights to the great ornate bronze door of the Rotunda. "It will be my way of challenging the public's apathetic stance on whether dying is good or not. By engaging people with a provocative, drivable giant coffin, debate is sure to occur across the United States and hopefully around the world. I'm a firm believer that the next great civil rights debate will be on transhumanism: should we use science and technology to overcome death and become a far stronger species?" For transhumanists, this could only be conceived of as a rhetorical question, the obvious answer to which was a resounding yes. I had spent the previous 18 months immersed in this diffuse and heterogeneous movement, through which I encountered many forms of radical optimism about the potential for technology to transform the human condition, to improve our bodies and minds to the point that we become something better.

I met Istvan on a Friday morning outside an empty secondhand bookstore in Las Cruces, N.M, accompanied by Roen Horn. I asked him how he wound up volunteering for Istvan's campaign. "I just really don't want to die," he said. "I can't think of anything that would suck more than being dead. So I'm just doing what I can to ensure that life-extension science gets the funding it needs." Horn, with his Calvinist background, seemed to me now a walking illustration of the way in which scientific progress had displaced divine providence as our culture's locus of faith. Istvan, by contrast, had come to transhumanism from a more secular background. While reporting on the large number of buried land mines still remaining in Vietnam's former DMZ, Istvan himself came very close to stepping on one. In the narrative he had constructed about his life, this was the moment he became a transhumanist - the moment he became consumed by an obsession with mortality, with the unacceptable fragility of human existence. "I have to admit," I said, "I find this whole immortality thing difficult to get behind. Doesn't your obsession with living eternally actually amount to your being totally imprisoned by death?" Horn said "Maybe, but aren't we all? Isn't that kind of the whole idea?" I told him that I took his point.

At the end of the day, progress towards the future of working rejuvenation therapies is built one step at a time. There must be persuasion, philanthropy, and investment alongside the necessary work undertaken by researchers. But ultimately, this progress is a mosaic built from individual choice, a great many people each choosing of their own volition to take a step in that direction. It is all too easy for those on the outside to look at any one particular step and and feel it is insignificant in the face of the work required to reach future goals, but all efforts contribute to the whole.


odd that you don't think this blog is very political... I mean it's scattered with extreme views on economics and regulation! Even the name 'reason' is obviously a reference to the libratarien notion if they use the word reason enough it makes you so...

I mean don't get me wrong, I think it's great this blog, it pulls in some useful articles but the one thing I've always thought about this blog is, it's really quite alienating to anyone outside of the librataren grouping, it's certainly put me off at times! But to be fair, it's really only a small part of a bigger problem which is the whole movement is a bit to libertarian centric that goes round and round in circles wondering why it doesn't have a wider appeal, that's a big part...

I don't say this just to attack libratariens (even though I have... :-p) I say it because I'd sincerely want life extension to be more mainstream!

Ps: a new responsive theme for this blog would really help too :-p

Posted by: John at February 10th, 2017 12:01 PM

I've only been following you for a short while, but I am very impressed with how you're able introduce and express with such a low word count. This is my favorite article by you so far, keep up the great work!

Posted by: Brendan at February 11th, 2017 11:56 AM

Thank you.

Posted by: M Preston at February 12th, 2017 10:23 AM

With all due respect to Reason, I think his view that politics is essentially useless may be colored by his anarcho-libertarian beliefs. IMO, politics does have a significant impact on technological advancement and anti-aging research. Research budgets alone have an impact on innovation (Many applications come from govt basic research funding.) not to mention other political decisions that determine whether a country is friendly to innovation/research or not. Politics is an ugly game but that doesn't mean it should be ignored.

Posted by: kel at February 17th, 2017 2:09 PM
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