When John Lennon released “Imagine” in 1971, his lyrics about a brotherhood of man living life in peace struck many people as a simple, even anodyne, response to the Vietnam War. Although politically liberal, Lennon was no doctrinal Marxist — only three years earlier, his song “Revolution” had shrugged off people who “go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao.” But the song struck many evangelical Christians as ghoulish, and for some, “Imagine” eventually came to be a sort of national anthem for the repressively secular, globalist state that was thought to be emerging: the anti-Christian New World Order that later became talk-radio conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' fever dream.
Left Behind, a series of 16 books written between 1995 and 2007 that details a possible end-of-the-world scenario, starting from when all good Christians go to heaven in an instant (the Rapture) until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, specifically calls out “Imagine” as a weapon in Satan's arsenal of seductive propaganda. The Antichrist in Left Behind is a suave, cosmopolitan Romanian named Nicolae Carpathia — the product of the fused sperm of two gay atheist academics, as it happens — who uses the global confusion in the aftermath of the Rapture to become Secretary General of the U.N. and eventually dictator of a world government that tattoos its citizens with the Mark of the Beast, damning them for eternity.
However clumsily written, Left Behind was for a time the best-selling adult fiction in the United States — partly because megachurches bought copies in bulk to distribute among their congregations — and a major cultural artifact whose high-water mark coincided with the 2004 election. Muscular, evangelical-inflected Republicanism has declined somewhat, as libertarians and later xenophobic populists gained ground in the party, but the anxieties that Left Behind played off of are very real: secularization, cultural dissolution, and the loss of something innately human to encroaching technology.
Zoltan Istvan of the Transhumanist Party is the closest thing to the Antichrist — as imagined in Left Behind, anyway — whom I've ever met. Telegenic, articulate, and blond, the 43-year-old Marin technologist who formerly worked in real estate now cheerfully advocates for a post-capitalist future of artificial intelligence, DIY genetic modification, and the eventual demise of death itself. And to put science and technology to the fore of the national agenda, he's running for president.
Istvan has updated the U.N.'s 1948 Declaration of Human Rights with a six-point Transhumanist Bill of Rights that calls for the legal recognition of sentient robots and the codification of our right to grow freakishly strong third arms if we want to. He is open about his own drug use; solving inequality among humans is one of his passions; and his wife is a doctor who works for Planned Parenthood. (Even his name — he's of Hungarian descent — sounds like the Left Behind character.) He is, in short, virtually everything that would horrify Pat Robertson, and like the wistful, one-world lyrics to “Imagine” in the early '70s, the future his political campaign envisions feels achingly close.
“Transhumanists are big substance people,” Istvan says. “We're always trying stuff.”
We're in his yellow, Formica-filled kitchen, where he's making us coffee, the delivery system for America's favorite drug. It's a sunny morning in early April, and he's recently received a package of nootropics, or cognitive-enhancement supplements, from a Bay Area startup that's looking to develop ways to make the human brain more creative and more attentive.
“They're all transhumanists, and they say it works, so I've been messing around with it a little bit,” he says, admitting, “I haven't actually noticed huge effects yet.”
At this point in the presidential race, most of the Republicans have already flamed out, yet in spite of some legitimate media traction — much of which he's written himself, for outlets like Slate, Gizmodo, and the Huffington Post — Zoltan Istvan's quixotic quest has not yet translated into a burgeoning political movement. There are many structural reasons for that, such as how he's not accepting contributions, or how it's still only primary season and there's no one else in the Transhumanist Party to primary. (Thus, he won't appear on the June 7 ballot.) Still, he has the ability to get the word out in ways that might not be available to someone leading the Prohibition Party or the United States Pirate Party ticket. He's been to 102 countries, occasionally covering things like Bolivian witch doctors for National Geographic, and claims to have single-handedly invented the sport of volcano-boarding on the slopes of Mt. Yasur in Vanuatu, by necessity; his escape from an eruption was captured on film. He's financially comfortable, too — enough to tour the U.S. last year in a coffin-shaped Immortality Bus, raising awareness about life-extension issues (although a crowdfunding campaign helped). Then again, it's not really about him sitting in the White House in January 2017.
“It's hard to get attention when you know I have no chance of winning,” he says. But really, the difficulty is getting editors to give the nod to stories that don't relate to Trump, Clinton, or Sanders in any discernible way. “They're like, 'Well then, why is he a presidential candidate?' And you have to explain that this is a perfect vehicle for spreading the message, and you can see this happening maybe in 10 or 15 years, someone running on a science platform because science at that point is all around us. You come in a driverless car, we have a robot that makes us coffee, and it might make much more sense to have someone talking technology all day long to fix the world or be a part of the world, because it's astonishing to me that they're still debating immigration.”
This general impatience with the sordid grind of politics is not uncommon among entrepreneurial types, particularly in the Bay Area, where techno-utopianism (or maybe anarcho-capitalism) runs deep. No doubt a full transhumanist revolution would remove power from squabbling, error-prone, and corruptible humans and delegate decisions to artificial intelligence, streamlining the operations of government to make it more responsive to ever-accelerating technological change.
But Istvan's worldview does not seem motivated by disgust with democracy. Rather, his vision is profoundly egalitarian. He wants a drastically lengthened human lifespan for all, automation on a scale that phases out most human labor, massive federal funding for research into nanobots, and grain-of-rice-sized chips implanted in our hands that let everyone pay for Starbucks. (Right now, his own chip — which cost $60 and was inserted virtually bloodlessly via syringe at the hacker conference GrindFest — is mostly a tribal totem, although it could theoretically be used to start his car.)
It is a lot to take in, and Istvan's apparently bottomless zest for discussing these topics has us rocketing from idea to idea in under a minute: the end of taxation, the federal government's limitless resources in the American West, acquaintances of his who hope to cultivate tissue in their arms that allows them to photosynthesize food from sunlight like a tree. I bat back seemingly obvious questions, for which he has ready answers. Wouldn't the end of death mean a global population of 20 billion within a century? (Not necessarily, he says. If you knew you were going to live for 1,000 years, would you have children at age 100?) How would we provide for even 8 or 9 billion humans at an American standard of living? (Istvan advocates lab-grown meatless meat and fishless fish, trusting that sufficient time and funding can make virtually anything possible.)
Just as postmodernism — insofar as it can be defined — is not the opposite of modernism, but a cultural phenomenon that engages with modernism in complex ways, transhumanism is actually quite humanist, and tinged with the tragedy that we who live today might be among the final Homo sapiens to die. Fundamentally, its two pillars are environmentalism and political equality. The Transhumanist Bill of Rights calls for “morphological freedom” and the achievement of “an indefinite lifespan via science and technology” for all “human beings, sentient artificial intelligences, cyborgs, and other advanced sapient life forms.”
Perhaps the best-known term that's filtered out of transhumanism into the culture at large is the concept of the Singularity. Popularized by futurist inventor (and Googler) Ray Kurzweil, it's the theoretical date — frequently put somewhere in the 2040s, although it's been pushed back several times — at which artificial intelligence surpasses its human creators' capabilities, and nudges Homo sapiens toward an unknowable, glorious future. (That's Kurzweil's contention, anyway; skeptics include Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, who once posited that A.I. might solve a mundane problem like email spam by extinguishing all of humanity.) But some variant of this future is coming whether we like it or not, Istvan believes, so we'd better adjust our cultural and legal frameworks now, before the unknown catches us.
I admit I'm intrigued most by the photosynthesis bit.
“We have people through CRISPR” — the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or chunks of our DNA that we can manipulate, allowing us to edit genes at will — “trying to grow tails,” he says. “When I was in Virginia, I talked to some bio-hackers trying to splice photosynthesis. I talked to really good scientists who said, 'Zolt, that's five years away at best to have any type of success, and it's not going to happen on a human first. It's going to be a snail.' But the fact that they're trying is very important. They're trying to stop world hunger and make it so that we could walk out in the sun and be charging up. That's pretty cool.”
I agree, it's cool — and then in my next thought I realize we are talking breezily about a possible end of food, the pleasures and rituals of which constitute an enormous portion of human culture.
What would he do if he could?
“I'd grow wings right now and I'd just go for a fly,” he says. “I'd grow dinosaur legs so I could run 100 miles per hour. I don't know; I guess I'd change back. It sounds totally crazy, and it probably is for the next 10 years, but in 30 or 40 years, I wouldn't be surprised if some of us try to stick in double hearts or additional arms.”
Then we're off on a discussion of 3-D printed hearts, cranial implant technology, and DARPA funding for putting the internet — itself a DARPA project dating from 1969 — in our heads.
“Beyond biological beings, there's this whole cyborg union,” he says. “I personally think that the idea of a robot just being a biological brain is fascinating. I would certainly want to be that and try that.”
We've now arrived at the part that scares the shit out of everybody except the true believers and immediately loses presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan about 40 states in the electoral college. Even if such changes were technologically feasible, the cultural disruption would be enormous. How would he ensure a smooth gradient toward a future of abundance and self-determination for all?
“Let me begin by saying I'm a techno-optimist,” he says. “Some of what I say will never come to fruition, and if it does come to fruition, it won't be as beautiful as I'm painting it. Futurists have that habit of being happy about the future when technology is a dangerous thing in so many ways. One of the reasons I'm trying to run and create a science policy is to establish some basic ground rules. Equality is a must. That's why we lean sort of pretty hardcore left. I've been telling more and more people I'm a left-leaning libertarian. I'm actually for limited government, but I've realized that more important to me is taking care of the people. Here's my horror: that I've promoted all this transhumanism for 20 or 30 years, and all of a sudden the rich take off and suddenly become gods, and the poor people are left.”
The 2013 film Elysium depicts a close analog to that vision of hell: a techno-utopia for the wealthy to remain free of disease that orbits high above a ravaged, heavily surveilled Earth. (William Gibson's Neuromancer uses a similar plotline, too.) But apart from outright dystopias, a lot of what Istvan calls for already appears in the science-fiction canon, with ambiguous results. Samuel R. Delany's novel Triton imagines a moon of Neptune as a sort of anarcho-libertarian paradise where citizens can change their genders at will or choose to live in a designated district of no laws. (It's hardly Eden, though; the protagonist finds it profoundly alienating, and the book ends with a cataclysmic war against Earth.) The British TV show Black Mirror famously conceived of a cranial implant called a “grain” that records everything, Dave Eggers' The Circle ruminates on a Google-like company that knows everything about us, and even the inane Robin Williams movie Bicentennial Man conceived of a robot petitioning for the right to be human.
If Kurt Vonnegut had lived to see an era of near-immortality, he would no doubt write novels cheerfully predicting the likelihood that we'll still fuck it all up.
Istvan is candid about all of this, and the possibility that such Skynet-like scenarios may come to pass informs the urgency of his candidacy. But it's also driven a wedge between him and some other factions of the transhumanist movement, particularly some libertarians. He supports the Second Amendment, for instance, but he's wary of drones that can be mass-produced by 3-D printing.
“If you create 100 drones and arm them each with a bullet you buy from Walmart, you have yourself an army. For a very cheap price, you have a weapon of mass destruction,” he says. “Is the Second Amendment going to cover this? I do not support a man or woman being able to have a drone army and flying it over my kid's school. So I wrote an article for Vice about this, and all the libertarians got pissed at me.”
The fact that no one running for office appears qualified to talk about the consequences of cheap 3-D printers and drone technology — or wouldn't until someone accidentally brings down an airliner — rankles Istvan to no end. (This makes sense. If we have only until 2050 to transition to a post-carbon economy and undo climate change, even a one-term Republican presidency could be a catastrophic loss of time.) So of the 2016 candidates, the one he was most afraid of was Sen. Ted Cruz, who he regards as beholden to an anti-science ideology that would strangle futurist research by executive fiat, the way George W. Bush approached stem cells. Istvan couches his counterreaction to the reaction in nationalist terms, tinged with worry over American decline. (“Do we want a generation of Chinese literally hardwired better than us?”) He has no patience for irrational cultural anxieties baked into society via its Judeo-Christian hang-ups about sin, the body, and death. In fact, he considers the suppression of life-extension technology to be tantamount to involuntary manslaughter.
I mention that his trouble might not come from the fact that he's running in 2016, but that he's running in the U.S. Wouldn't he be better off in South Korea, a high-tech society where body modification is relatively uncontroversial and (in spite of its sizeable Christian population) Judeo-Christian mores haven't permeated everything?
“When I go to the [American] South, where I spent at least a third of my bus tour,” he says, “and say I have a chip, everybody goes, 'Oh, the Mark of the Beast.' But when I go to Asia, people say, 'Can you pay with that?' “
Fears about living out the Book of Revelation notwithstanding, there is a mystical quality to the forward-facing transhumanism that can be traced back centuries. The 16th-century metaphysical poet John Donne's Sonnet X ends with the line, “And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” And even though Istvan is an atheist who's written that children should not be exposed to religious ideas until they're teenagers, his outlook resonates with a particular strain of American religiosity.
Decades before American evangelical Christianity became obsessed with the idea of Christ's imminent return to a fallen world, a belief in the perfectability of humankind pervaded. Ideas of a limitless future of progress and abundance, bound up with Manifest Destiny, show up in the utopian communities of the 19th-century Midwest and in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
And like those earlier philosophies about building paradise on this earth, transhumanism is prone to schisms. As a political movement, it may be young and it may be fringe, but it's already separated into mutually suspicious camps. (Istvan uses the neutral term “branched out.”) Futurists and transhumanists, in the broadest sense, cover a wide terrain, from people who want to save the Earth by phasing out our rapacious species altogether to racist neo-reactionaries advocating for a barbaric-sounding Dark Enlightenment. Istvan places himself toward the middle, framing the most salient inter-futurist conflict as one between an old guard composed of cryonics-obsessed Ph.D. holders hoping to stave off death and the millennial DIY bio-hackers intent on mucking about with their genes for lulz. He deliberately uses his journalism in an attempt to unite these disparate groups, which by his reckoning total somewhere around a million adherents worldwide. His main problem: They're no longer mostly white, but they're still overwhelmingly male.
“The biggest challenge I've faced as a leader in the movement is how do you actually get women interested?” he says. “There are women out there, but it's tough.” Referring to the gender ratio among transhumanists, he adds, “It's got to be one-to-five at best.”
He feels the number of fellow travelers is much higher when you account for people who may not actively situate their politics under the umbrella of transhumanism, but who are nonetheless receptive to its ideas. Again, the logical comparison is to environmentalism: There are people who sail the oceans fighting skirmishes with whaling crews, and there are people who compost their coffee grounds and call it good. Apart from broadening his reach without alienating the core devotees, the circle that Istvan must square is how to talk about issues for which the general public may not be ready without sounding like a lunatic. (Outfitting the coffin-shaped Immortality Bus has a certain Noah's Ark quality to it; when I ask if the neighbors think of him as “that wacky transhumanist down the block,” he expresses gratitude for their patience with the film crews, and for Marin's liberal political leanings.)
Still, no matter how many converts to the tenets of transhumanism there are between now and November, the fact remains: Zolt Istvan will not win. In his mind, this has profound consequences. Referring to the Vietnam War, a young John Kerry once addressed Congress, asking, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Istvan asks, “How do you ask someone to be the last human to die, period?” The priorities of a Trump, Clinton, or Sanders presidency might mean a failure to jump-start four or eight years of research that could yield a scientific breakthrough that might drastically elongate the human lifespan — a veritable genocide, from the transhumanist perspective.
A nagging feeling that these sentiments are completely delusional is hard to ignore completely, but even if he loses, Istvan is looking to run again: maybe in 2024, maybe for local office, or maybe by teaming up with a better-established third party like the Libertarians or the Greens. Someone who once escaped from a pyroclastic cloud on the slopes of a volcano in the South Pacific is not going to blink from the cause of eliminating death.
Not long after a video depicting human researchers abusing a robot to teach it how to remain upright under duress goes viral, Istvan and I speak by phone. We agree that the robot felt nothing, but that we both felt pity for it, just as we would if it were a stray puppy. And the possibility of a next-generation robot that can experience pain or feel sorry for itself is exactly what the Transhumanist Bill of Rights is set up for.
Whacking such an entity with a stick would mean that “we've crossed an ethical line that I'm not willing to cross,” he says. “I really focus on the synthesis. The invention of the robot is a wonderful tool for mankind. Me merging with machines — or the populace merging with machines — really matters with me. We're looking to live a lot longer, a lot better, and a lot more brilliantly with tech. We're going to create these AIs, and if we create them with a consciousness just as with any animal, if we're going to play God per se, then we need to have very strong ethical regulations that make us a benevolent parent.”
You may say Zoltan Istvan is a dreamer, but he's not the only one. He hopes someday we'll join him, and the world will be as one. Whether that means a species living in harmony with nature or enslaved to some silicon hive-mind is up to us.