Zoltan Istvan is launching his campaign to become Libertarian governor of the American state of California with two signature policies. First, he’ll eliminate poverty with a universal basic income that will guarantee US$5,000 per month for every Californian household for ever. (He’ll do this without raising taxes, he promises.)
The next item in his in-tray is eliminating death. He intends to divert trillions of dollars into life-extending technologies – robotic hearts, artificial exoskeletons, genetic editing, bionic limbs and so on – in the hope that each Californian man, woman and AI (artificial intelligence) will eventually be able to upload their consciousness to the Cloud and experience digital eternity.
I meet Istvan at the home he shares with his wife, Lisa – an obstetrician and gynaecologist with Planned Parenthood – and their two daughters, six-year-old Eva, and Isla, who is three.
During his unsuccessful bid for the presidency last year – he stood as the Transhumanist Party candidate and scored zero per cent – a section of the religious right identified him as the Antichrist. This, combined with Lisa’s work providing abortions, means they get a couple of death threats a week and have had to report to the FBI.
“Christians in America have made transhumanism as popular as it’s become,” says Istvan. “They really need something that they can point their finger at that fulfils Revelations.”
Istvan hopes to install microchips in his daughters before long – for security purposes – and recently argued with his wife about whether it was even worth saving for a university fund for them, since by the time they reach university age, advances in artificial intelligence will mean they can just upload all the learning they need. Lisa won that argument. But he’s inclined not to freeze his sperm and Lisa’s eggs, since if they decide to have a third child, 10 or 20 or 30 years hence, they’ll be able to combine their DNA.
Certainly, life extension is a hot investment in Silicon Valley, whose elites have a hard time with the idea that their billions will not protect them from an earthly death. Google was an early investor in the secretive biotech start-up Calico, the California Life Company, which aims to “devise interventions that slow aging and counteract age-related diseases”. Billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel has invested millions in parabiosis: the process of “curing” aging with transfusions of young people’s blood.
Another biotech firm, United Therapeutics, has unveiled plans to grow fresh organs from DNA. “Clearly, it is possible, through technology, to make death optional,” the firm’s founder, Martine Rothblatt, told a recent gathering of the National Academy of Medicine in Los Angeles.
In attendance were Google co-founder Sergey Brin, vegan pop star Moby and numerous venture capitalists. Istvan fears that unless we develop policies to regulate this transition, the Thiels of this world will soon be hoarding all the young blood for themselves.
Istvan was born in Oregon in 1973, the son of Hungarian immigrants who fled Stalin’s tanks in 1968. He had a comfortable middle-class upbringing – his mother was a devout Catholic and sent him to Catholic school – and an eye for a story. After graduating from Columbia University, he embarked on a solo round-the-world yachting expedition, during which, he says, he read 500 works of classic literature. He spent his early career reporting for the National Geographic channel from more than 100 countries, many of them conflict zones, claiming to have invented the extreme sport of volcano boarding along the way.
Istvan can’t think of any particular incident that prompted his interest in eternal life, other than perhaps a rejection of Catholicism.
After a near-death experience in Vietnam – he came close to stepping on a landmine – Istvan decided to return to America and make good on this vow. “I was nearing 30 and I’d done some great work, but after all that time I’d spent in conflict zones, seeing dead bodies, stuff like that, I thought it would be a good time to dedicate myself to conquering death.”
He spent four years writing his novel, which he proudly claims was rejected by more than 600 agents and publishers. It’s a dystopian story that imagines a Christian nation outlawing transhumanism, prompting all the billionaires to retreat to an offshore sea-
But isn’t it the ultimate narcissism to want to live forever? Istvan does concede that transhumanism is “a very selfish philosophy”. However, he has an answer for questions of overpopulation.
“I’m a believer in overpopulation – I’ve been to Delhi and it’s overcrowded,” he says. “But if we did a better job of governing, the planet could hold 15 billion people comfortably. It’s really a question of better rules and regulations.”
Didn’t the political developments of 2016 persuade him that progress can be slow – and sometimes go backwards? Actually, Istvan argues that what we’re witnessing are the death throes of conservatism, Christianity, even capitalism.
“Everyone says the current pope is the best one we’ve had for ages, that he’s so progressive and whatever. Actually, Catholicism is dying,” says Istvan. “Nobody’s giving it any money any more, so the pope had better moderate its message. As for capitalism, all of this nationalism and populism are just the dying moments.
“It’s a system that goes against the very core of humanitarian urges. And while it’s brought us many wonderful material gains, at some point we can say, ‘That’s enough.’ In the transhumanist age, we will reach utopia.”
Full story at Post Magazine.