Suppose you saw that science and technology had the potential to significantly extend healthy lifespans, but that very few scientists or technologists were working on these projects.
Suppose you disagreed with the government spending huge sums of public money on the military – on the capability to kill – and wished for more spending instead on the defeat of aging (and all the terrible diseases that accelerate with aging).
Suppose you felt that too many leadership decisions in society were influenced by out-dated ideologies – for example, by belief systems that regard as literal many of the apocalyptic statements in millennia-old religious scriptures – and that you preferred decisions to be determined by cool reason and scientific evidence.
What might you do?
If you were Zoltan Istvan, in October 2014, you might decide on an audacious project. You might decide to announce your candidacy for becoming the President of the United States, as a representative of a newly conceived “Transhumanist Party”. You might decide that the resulting media attention would raise the public understanding of the possibility and desirability of using science and technology in favour of transhumanist goals. You might decide the project had a fair chance of making a dent in the universe – of accelerating humanity’s trajectory onwards and upwards.
Here’s what Istvan wrote at the time, in the Huffington Post:
Should a Transhumanist Run for US President?
I’m in the very early stages of preparing a campaign to try to run in the 2016 election for US President. I’ll be doing it as a transhumanist for the Transhumanist Party, a political organization I recently founded that seeks to use science and technology to radically improve the human being and the society we live in.
In addition to upholding American values, prosperity, and security, the three primary goals of my political agenda are as follows:
1) Attempt to do everything possible to make it so this country’s amazing scientists and technologists have resources to overcome human death and aging within 15-20 years—a goal an increasing number of leading scientists think is reachable.
2) Create a cultural mindset in America that embracing and producing radical technology and science is in the best interest of our nation and species.
3) Create national and global safeguards and programs that protect people against abusive technology and other possible planetary perils we might face as we transition into the transhumanist era.
In line with his confident personality, Istvan went on, in the very next paragraph, to issue a challenge to the status quo:
These three goals are so simple and obvious, you’d think every politician in the 21st Century would be publicly and passionately pursuing them. But they’re not. They’re more interested in landing your votes, in making you slave away at low-paying jobs, in keeping you addicted to shopping for Chinese-made trinkets, in forcing you to accept bandage medicine and its death culture, and in getting you to pay as much tax as possible for far-off wars (places where most of us will never step foot in).
In later months, Istvan decided to add two more ingredients to the project, to increase its potential impact:
- A declaration of a “Transhumanist Bill of Rights” in Washington DC
- The journey of a huge coffin-shaped “Immortality Bus” across the USA, to reach Washington DC.
What happened next has already been the subject of chapters in at least two books:
- “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” by Jamie Bartlett (note: Bartlett covered this chapter of his book in a meeting of London Futurists in May 2017)
- “To Be a Machine : Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death” by Mark O’Connell.
After the books, the film.
“Immortality or bust” has its first public showing tomorrow (Jan 26th), at the historic United Artists Theatre in Los Angeles, as part of the Raw Science Film Festival. The film has already received the “Raw Breakthrough Award” associated with this festival. In view of the public interest, I expect people will have the chance to see it on Netflix and/or HBO in due course.
I had the opportunity to view a preview copy earlier this week. The film stirred a range of different emotions in me, particularly towards the end. (Spoilers are omitted from this blogpost!)
The producer, Daniel Sollinger, cleverly weaves together several different strands throughout the film:
- The sheer audacity of the venture
- The reactions of Istvan’s family – his wife, his mother, and his father – and how these reactions evolve over time
- The various journalists who are shown interviewing Istvan, sometimes expressing sympathy, and sometimes expressing bemusement
- Istvan’s interactions with the other transhumanists, futurists and life-extensionists who he meets on his journey across the USA
- The struggles of the bus itself – the problems experienced in its “plumbing” (oil), as a kind of counterpoint to Istvan’s wishes for radical improvements in human biology
- Encounters with members of different political parties.
There were a couple of times I wanted to yell at the screen, when I thought that Istvan’s interlocutors were making indefensible claims:
- When John McAfee (yes, that John McAfee) was giving his interpretation of Darwinian evolutionary theory
- When John Horgan of the Scientific American effectively labelled transhumanism as a kind of cult that posed a problem for the good reputation of science.
How will history ultimately assess the Immortality Bus and the Transhumanist Bill of Rights? In my view, it’s too early to say. In the meantime, the film Immortality or Bust provides a refreshing birds-eye view of both the struggles and the (minor) triumphs of the adventure so far.
Those who would criticise Istvan for his endeavours – and there are many – need to say what they would do instead.
Some choose to work on the technology itself. That’s something I respect and admire. My own assessment, however, is that the community of transhumanists needs to do more than contributing personal efforts to the science, technology, and/or entrepreneurial development of pro-health startups. We need to change the public conversation – something that Istvan has persistently tried to do.
In particular, we need to find the best ways to raise public awareness of the possibility and desirability of many more people getting involved in science and technology projects in support of significantly increased human flourishing. We need to answer the naysaying objections of bioconservatives and other opponents of transhumanism. We need to affirm that humanity can transcend the limitations which have held us back so many times in the past – the limitations in our bodies, our intellects, our emotions, and our social structures. We need to proclaim (as on the opening page of my own newly published book) that a new era is at hand: the era of sustainable superabundance – an era in which the positive potential of humanity can develop in truly profound ways.
We also need to transform the political environment in which we are all operating – a political environment that, if anything, has grown more dysfunctional over the last few years. That takes us back to the subject of the Transhumanist Party.
The Transhumanist Party which Istvan conjured into existence back in October 2014 has travelled a long way since then. Under the capable stewardship of Gennady Stolyarov (who took over as Chair of the party in November 2016), the U.S. Transhumanist Party has grown a leadership team of many talents, a website with rich content, and a platform with multiple policy proposals in various stages of readiness for adoption as legislation. It has revised, twice, the Transhumanist Bill of Rights, with version 3.0 being agreed by the party’s internal democratic processes on Dec 2-9 last year.
So far as I’m aware, there’s no v3.0 (or even v2.0) of the immortality bus. Yet.
What about overseas? Well, most of the Transhumanist Party organisations set up in other countries, from 2015 onwards, have long since faded from view. In the UK, however, a number of us feel it’s time to reboot that party. Watch out for more news! Or come to the London Futurists event on the 2nd of February, “Politics for profoundly enhanced human wellbeing”, where you will hear announcements from the UK party’s new joint leaders.