This is Episode 5 of Real Future, Fusion’s new documentary series about technology and society. Previous episodes available at realfuture.tv.
If you were going to invent a human being to run for President of the United States as the first-ever candidate from the Transhumanist Party, his name would probably be Zoltan.
He would be tall and broad, with blondish hair like a Ken doll. He would be well-read, but not so snooty and intellectual as to hurt his credibility as an everyman. And he’d probably live in an idyllic place in the proximity of Silicon Valley, where he could stew in the techno-utopianism of the region. You’d want a person, in short, who could be a vessel for messages about the future, an unassuming but comforting container for radical ideas about life, death, and what it is to be human.
Unbelievably, this man, Zoltan Istvan, actually exists. He’s an author and futurist who lives in Mill Valley, California, a wealthy suburb of San Francisco that still manages to exude leafy small-town charm. And yes, he is actually running for president this November. Zoltan believes that his ragtag party of technologists, body-hackers, and would-be philosophers should be given control of the United States of America.
In this episode of Real Future, I hit the campaign trail with Zoltan, and took a close look at his strange, fledgling candidacy.
Zoltan’s campaign has some of the trappings of a legitimate political campaign—door-to-door canvassing, bus tours, overblown rhetoric. But if it were a real campaign, it would be absurd. The number of real transhumanists, people who believe we should use technology to transcend current human abilities, is still tiny.
And for good reason: the Transhumanist philosophy is a strange grab bag of people who are united mostly by the fact that they are very excited about technology. “Like many upstart, ad hoc philosophies, transhumanism is fractured and diffuse and publicly at war with itself almost all of the time,” wrote Elmo Keep in a feature on the transhumanist movement. “Depending who you ask, there are anywhere from 10,000 to 2 million transhumanists in the world.”
No one expects Zoltan Istvan to beat Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or any of the other major party candidates this November. Rather, Zoltan’s campaign is an awareness-raising exercise. It’s a way of saying: technology is changing human lives so much faster than politics, so let’s take it just as seriously.
Zoltan, of course, is a true believer. He believes our current Silicon Valley moguls have only the best intentions for the world. He told me he believes that new technologies pretty much always net out positive for society. He told me that he’d genetically alter his own children to make them superintelligent.
I certainly have a much more complicated view of the impact of technology on our world. But what I do love is that someone like Zoltan has helped create a forum for people to start thinking about what the world could be like in 10, 20, or 30 years, and what politics might be necessary to meet those challenges. What if we can edit our children’s genomes for more desirable traits? What if robots do eliminate vast numbers of jobs? What would Social Security or Medicare look like if we can radically extend the human lifespan?
Winning, for Zoltan Istvan, would mean putting some of these issues on the nation’s political agenda. That may take a different kind of Transhumanist Party, or a different leader. But I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that, in the next decade, the issues Zoltan cares most about will end up on the national stage.
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