The Tech Industry Is Obsessed With Immortality

February 18, 2017

In October of 1994, Wired magazine ran a feature about a new Californian subculture, cheerfully titled “MEET THE EXTROPIANS.”

Extropianism, the article enthused, was a philosophy of transcendence. With technology and the right attitude—aggressive individualism, cool rationalism, and other vaguely libertarian leanings—followers of the movement would “become more than human.” They would become transhuman, possessing “drastically augmented intellects, memories, and physical powers,” or maybe even post human. They envisioned a future in which human brains would be downloaded and preserved for posterity. So, too, would the human body, through cryogenics.

These transcendental technologists took the word extropy to mean the opposite of entropy, the process by which all things eventually decay, and they imagined a way of life to match. The Extropians invented an exuberant handshake to greet each other, and referred to themselves as VEPs, or Very Extropian Persons. When they gathered, they called it an “Extropaganza.” An article from Extropy magazine, published in the mid-Nineties, laid out their vision for existence. “You can be anything you like,” Extropy promised. “You can be big or small; you can be lighter than air, and fly; you can teleport and walk through walls. You can be a lion or an antelope, a frog or a fly, a tree, a pool, the coat of paint on a ceiling.” The Extropy Institute, which shuttered in 2006, defined its work as “a symbol for continued progress.”

In their early days, the Extropians looked quaint enough: a group of technophilic counterculturists clustered in a hot tub. But they helped set the stage for a sector of the tech industry that has, of late, been flooded with money from philanthropists and venture capitalists alike. Life extension, artificial intelligence, robotics, and other posthuman ambitions are still very much a part of the techno-utopian agenda, in a way that’s more mainstream than ever.

Venture capitalist Peter Thiel is looking into blood transfusions as an anti-aging treatment. (“PETER THIEL IS VERY, VERY INTERESTED IN YOUNG PEOPLE’S BLOOD,” Inc. reported last summer.) Google co-founder Larry Page has invested $750 million in Calico, a laboratory for anti-aging technologies. And in 2012, Google appointed Ray Kurzweil, a futurist who believes artificial intelligence will soon allow humans to transcend biology, as an engineering director.

It’s easy to take these ambitions more seriously than those of the Extropians. It’s harder to know where they will lead us. In To Be a Machine, the Dublin-based writer Mark O’Connell infiltrates groups of transhumanists with the aim of discovering how they think and live. A literary critic for Slate and a former academic, O’Connell is less interested in evaluating technology than in the people who make it and its philosophical implications. As he places the quest for immortality under the microscope, he follows the individuals—tech visionaries, billionaires, and futurists—who are trying to eradicate, or dramatically postpone, death. “I wanted to know,” he writes, “what it might be like to have faith in technology sufficient to allow a belief in the prospect of your own immortality.”

This might be another way of saying that the idea of living forever is as influential as the actual possibility of living forever. Immortality is a long shot. But why is it such big business now?

The future, as a concept, has always been lucrative; the more abstract, the better. Though O’Connell doesn’t focus strictly on Silicon Valley—transhumanists dot the globe—transhumanism is a distinctly Californian project. The state has a long legacy of self-improvement programs, exercise crazes, and faddish diets, amounting to a unique brand of bourgeois spirituality. California is a pusher for freedom. Lifestyle is supreme.

These days, this utopian futurism can take the shape of New Age management philosophy, corporate wellness, or the annual conference Wisdom 2.0, which brings together tech luminaries and the spiritual leaders of industry, from Eileen Fisher and Alanis Morissette to the CEOs of Slack and Zappos. Recent years have seen an uptick in venture capital–backed products that carry the promise of not just a better, more productive you, but a better life overall. From Soylent (a meal-replacement drink) to nootropics (capsules that purportedly level-up one’s cognitive ability), investors are pursuing extended youth, neurological enhancement, and physical prowess.

Of course, much of this is less new than it feels. In Silicon Valley, there are no new ideas, only iterations. Soylent looks a lot like SlimFast, a protein drink marketed to dieting women since the 1970s. Nootropics tend to contain ingredients like l-theanine—found in green tea—and caffeine. These companies’ web design has a lot to do with this illusion of newness—sexy front-end design signals trustworthiness and hints that there is something technologically impressive happening on the back end. Their products get a boost from their association with work-addicted engineers, who turn to them as high-tech solutions to self-created high-tech problems. But this promise is bigger than Silicon Valley, and carries with it a distinctly Californian air of self-improvement, of better living through technology.

It is tempting to see transhumanism, too, as merely the latest rebranding of a very old desire. Many of O’Connell’s subjects specialize in the hypothetical. Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist who sees death as a disease to be cured. Anders Sandberg, a neuroscientist working on mind uploading, wishes literally to become an “emotional machine.” He is also an artist who creates digital scenes resembling early-web sci-fi fan art, and gives them dreamy names such as Dance of the Replicators and Air Castle.

Zoltan Istvan, a former journalist who claims to have invented the sport of “volcano-boarding,” ran a presidential campaign that saw him travel across the country in a coffin-shaped bus to raise awareness for transhumanism. He campaigned on a pro-technology platform that called for a universal basic income, and promoted a Transhumanist Bill of Rights that would assure, among other things, that “human beings, sentient artificial intelligences, cyborgs, and other advanced sapient life forms” be “entitled to universal rights of ending involuntary suffering.”

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