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What the Case of Zoltan Istvan Says about the State of Transhumanist Politics
Steve Fuller   Oct 19, 2015   Ethical Technology  

Thanks to Luke Robert Mason, I’ve now got up to speed on the controversy surrounding Zoltan Istvan’s candidacy for the US Presidency in 2016. Istvan is a Columbia philosophy and religion graduate and author of the science fiction book, The Transhumanist Wager. But he is perhaps nowadays best known from driving a coffin-shaped bus across the United States to dramatize his primary policy commitment – namely, that the US government should work towards extending the life expectancy of its citizens indefinitely. 

This has serious budgetary implications, which Istvan addresses by calling for a withdrawal from America’s military entanglements, which will free up funds that can then be used to boost biomedical research and insure a basic national income—a kind of Welfare Safety Net 2.0, if you will, for a future that is likely to involve significant technologically based unemployment. Apparently Istvan plans to end his tour by doing a Martin Luther 2.0 and nailing a list of Transhumanist theses to the door of the US Capitol in Washington.

As a non-profit educational organization IEET does not endorse any political party or candidate for office. However, it is consistent with our mission, and within our legal mandate as a nonprofit organization, to facilitate the discussion about political strategies and programs for futurists and technoprogressives. We will be inviting essays representing multiple points of view on the efforts to build transhumanist parties and their policies, and on the candidacy of Zoltan Istvan in particular. – The Management

Istvan has been disowned by many key Transhumanist thinkers and has even alienated self-avowed Transhumanist groups, especially those with religious affiliations. In fact, I do not know of any self-avowed Transhumanist group which has endorsed his presidential campaign, other than his own one-man party. Yet he is sufficiently media savvy to realize that some ‘serious’ presidential candidates might pivot in the direction of his policies – especially once he abandons his own campaign (something that he has already hinted at). After all, there is a critical mass of libertarian voters who don’t naturally align with either the Democrats or the Republicans, who nevertheless find Istvan attractive because he flatters them as smarter than average ‘can do’ sort of people who aren’t afraid to let political judgement follow the lead of cutting edge science and technology. 

But at least as important, Istvan comes across as a down-to-earth, family-oriented person. This by itself is quite an achievement for someone who declares his Transhumanism loud and proud. After all, transhumanists have been lampooned for being weird, nerdy and creepy – as in this video sporting more than 1.3 million hits on YouTube.  Moreover, instead of his Ivy League education, Istvan advertises his love of extreme sports (he apparently invented ‘volcano surfing’). This too is a very good look for Transhumanists, especially in light of the proactionary principle, which elevates risk-seeking to a defining feature of the human condition. 

Of course, one doesn’t need to engage in extreme sports to be proactionary. Nevertheless, it does convey a sensibility that dovetails nicely with the sort of ‘transcendental’ style of marketing championed by Jason Silva, which would make Abraham Maslow proud.  In contrast, some signature Transhumanist projects contain such a strong dystopian dimension that they don’t come across as proactionary at all. For example, the UK is currently blighted – or blessed, depending on how you look at it – with ‘Centres for the Study of Existential Risk’, which focus exclusively on pre-empting the harms that might be caused by the success of ‘superintelligent’ machines. This strikes me as a gift to adherents of the principle exactly opposed to proactionary – namely, precautionary. 

Even the drive towards cryonics still looks a desperate effort by rich people to avoid death – perhaps just like they try to avoid taxes. Regardless of its true scientific merits and moral appeal, cryonics appears not only precautionary but also anti-democratic. Perhaps this is all just a public relations problem, but PR is a necessary component of any intelligent democratic campaign. Thus, in the spirit of Istvan, cryonics enthusiasts should devote at least as much effort to making the process affordable to ordinary people as to improving the deep-freeze techniques themselves. For his part, Istvan is focussing mainly on keeping the bodies of our birth around forever in ways that nicely segue into more politically recognizable concerns relating to healthcare.

Generally speaking, Transhumanists need to come up with ways to democratize their message, such as Istvan has done by getting a silicon chip implant and making it seem like a routine visit to the doctor. Yes, these are ‘gimmicks’ – but as gimmicks they’re memorable and they get people thinking about deeper issues. Istvan’s numerous radio and television appearances testify to the point.  Moreover, Istvan has been very responsive to journalists and members of the general public, an impression reinforced by the London Telegraph journalist and Dark Net author, Jamie Bartlett, who covered the first phase of Istvan’s ‘Immortality Bus’ tour across the United States.  Bartlett and I recently discussed Istvan’s campaign and Transhumanist politics more generally at the annual general meeting of the Transhumanist Party UK, videos of which can be found here.

Needless to say, one may substantially disagree with Istvan on matters of policy – as I myself do. For example, I regard immortality as such to be of much less immediate political concern than ensuring a legal and economic regime that fosters the sorts of advances in science and technology that are necessary for any Transhumanist utopia to be realized. Admittedly, this is not such a sexy objective but it is no less serious – and certainly more tractable—from a legislative standpoint.  But in any case, it would be disingenuous to deny that Istvan’s campaign is based on both principles and policies that are recognizably ‘Transhumanist’.  

Indeed, the great virtue of Istvan’s fixation on immortality is that it reminds us that any political movement needs a distinctive focal message or objective to which it can always return. In this respect, a great political liability of the ‘technoprogressive’ style of Transhumanism which presents itself as this movement’s ‘voice of reason’ is that it too often sounds like old-fashioned social democracy with some high-tech toys. Yet, this is a time when ‘social democracy’ as a political brand is in serious decline, even among the people previously known as ‘workers’, who in recent elections throughout the world have increasingly voted for a more neo-liberal state. While I personally believe that there is much to be salvaged in social democracy, it will need to be re-invented – and actively sold—in a changed political world where its virtues can no longer be taken for granted.

Finally, on the matter of Transhumanism and religion, although not a church-goer I believe that Transhumanism would be the most grotesque form of techno-narcissism without a grounding theological vision. And indeed, Istvan does have a pretty clear theological vision. It basically involves one or perhaps more of us becoming gods, beating all the odds and against all the naysayers. To be sure, it’s a vision that doesn’t correspond to any of the established churches – and is even inimical to them. However, without knowing about the formative role of the Abrahamic religions on the Western psyche – not least on their greatest modern opponent, Nietzsche – Istvan’s vision would be sheer fantasy, as opposed to a fantasy that might be worth turning into reality. 

In this respect, Istvan and his religious Transhumanist opponents are engaged in the sort of internal squabble familiar from the annals of Christian heresy. Whereas Istvan believes that we can become gods through sheer self-determination, his opponents believe that becoming more godlike means behaving oneself in terms laid down in, say, the Bible.  But of course, a great many other people do not believe that, one way or another, humans as a species have some special relationship with the source of all being, a faith common to theistic and atheistic Transhumanists alike. It is when dealing with these unbelievers in human potential – say, the precautionary ‘down-winging’ environmentalists who see us as just one among many species with no special gifts or entitlements – that Istvan and more religious Transhumanists will see each other as very much on the same side. 

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. From 2011-14, he published three books with Palgrave Macmillan on ‘Humanity 2.0’. His next book, due out in Autumn 2017 from Anthem Press, is on ‘post-truth’.



COMMENTS

Each week I speak with journalists, documentary filmmakers, international conference organizers, and students who are all interested in Transhumanist Thinking.  I have yet to talk to a person who has queried transhumanism with the result that Zoltan is effectively knowledgeable or influential within the realms of the science, technology, philosophy, ethics, the arts, or social currents of Transhumanism.

In that the transhumanist movement is global, diverse, and comprised of varied political and religious views that support and advocate the values and tenets of Transhumanist Thinking, Zoltan’s unique approach is not new. There have been numerous persons over the decades who have entered the social network of transhumanism as uninformed.  It is obvious when a person sincerely wants to be a part of the culture or showboating for effect.  The issue is not that either behavior has or does not have high-level value or contributions to the core of Transhumanist Thinking, but these individuals *need something* from Transhumanist Thinking.

In a world where people communicate effectively and work well together (if I can dream of such a thing) then Zoltan would have approached one of the many transhumanist organizations throughout the world, introduced himself, and asked how he could contribute. He might have taken the time to read a few books[1]. He could have come to an event, asked to give a talk at one of the many conferences, or picked up the phone.

Perhaps it is the way I was brought up, but regardless - when new to a community, one enters and meets people and then begins to find a place or position in making a contribution.

Our network has many influential entrepreneurs, innovators, philosophers, scientists, and purveyor of the future.  Some are highly successful in the public eye; some are highly successful within their own private lives. Nevertheless, each has contributed something meaningful. This is being transhumanist as a practice or way of life. 

One might never know if Zoltan has something meaningful to offer due to the flash of a hyperbolic glare. 

To form a Transhumanist Politics with a party platform that is forward thinking and actually aims to author polities, change legislation, intervene with laws and regulation on health and longevity, develop a strong presence in the political arena, engage a strong ethics commission in support of prolongevity, must function as a team.  We cannot obfuscate Transhumanist Thinking, blurred its reality, weaken or lose its definition, or dim the variance of potential and possibility that could be sought and nurtured within an informed, insightful and, beneficial political arena.

Natasha Vita-More

[1] Many choices, including _The Transhumanist Reader_.

 

Ending aging is fulfilling one of the longest running and greatest dreams and aspirations of humanity.  It is not at all about prolonging the lives of the rich alone.  What an uninspired interpretation bereft of any clear understanding of the glorious promise of ending the scourge that cuts down every single human being and so soon after the come to their adult flowering. 

How did we get to a place where even those of us that pretend to understand transhumanism would interpret it so?  How is it “democratic” to refuse even longevity and the end of this scourge because the relatively rich may have access to it sooner?  Surely this is madness and not in keeping with out best at all.  We have the power and the opportunity to within the next 20-40 years end the scourge of aging, cure all diseases and ensure such abundance that all of the needs and many of the desires of every single person are met with a small fraction of productive capacity.

That is why I am in this.  I will settle for nothing less.  I certainly will not waste valuable time and energy bickering among ourselves instead.  I certainly will not pretend that such great possibility is unreal or somehow tainted because it is not filled with our normal woe and scarcity thinking.

We need to be serious and realistic about “Transhumanist Parties” or any 3rd parties in the U.S. Greece and Israel are examples of countries with a much better entry for new parties. Party politics may just be a paradigm way of thinking about politics anyway.  That is why I and a many others have been working on a community based “manifesto” which you can find here:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1wJrXYBXAmNH9zwyfgg1-yAYN_Cda-26pFCk0u_QhyBc/edit

I am neutral to Istvan’s mission because of the reality of American politics in the first place. He can try his hardest, but the barrier to entry will keep knocking him back. The barrier to entry of third parties in America makes the U.S. look like a joke politically speaking.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_party_(United_States)

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