The transhumanist presidential candidate on staying optimistic about technology in a cold, practical political world.
Zoltan Istvan, Transhumanist candidate for president. Image by Endless Eye
On June 19, 2015, Zoltan Gyurko Istvan officially declared his candidacy for the presidency of the United States of America. If you don’t recognize his name, don’t sweat it—Istvan’s not one of the (countless, unmemorable) major party candidates. He’s one of the hundreds of non-mainstream candidates who’ve thrown their names into the political ring, often half-seriously and functionally anonymously. But while most of these everyday folks never manage to gain an ounce of traction for their sometimes bizarre campaigns, Istvan’s managed to build a small but loyal following, gaining a shocking amount of press for an independent candidate.
That’s not necessarily because Istvan himself, an early-40s northern Californian dude with a wife and two young kids, is the world’s most compelling human being. It’s because he’s running a campaign that promotes the ideals of transhumanism, a somewhat controversial philosophy that holds that as technology advances, it will allow humans to modify and evolve our physical and psychic selves beyond the natural constraints of our meatsack bodies. Under his presidency, Istvan says, America would redirect a massive amount of its budget to futuristic technological projects with the ultimate quest of extending human life indefinitely. A vote for Istvan, his campaign implies, is a vote for a utopian future in which you may become immortal.
Born in Los Angeles to two Hungarian immigrants in 1973 (yes, Zoltan is a typical Hungarian name; no, he is not a super-villain… probably), Istvan started out as an adventurer, sailing around the world and then became a reporter for outlets like National Geographic in his 20s. While reporting a story on still-active landmines in Vietnam in 2004, he nearly stepped on an unexploded piece of ordinance and was struck with a profound sense of his own mortality. Although he’d read about transhumanism and futurists back in college, this experience propelled him deeper into the philosophy, apparently dead set on finding a real and practical way for himself and those he loves to escape the existential menace of death.
In 2013 he published a novel, The Transhumanist Wager, about a dystopian future in which a transhumanist convert violently rebels in the name of his philosophy. Around the same time, Istvan started writing regularly in a number of national publications and taking leadership roles in futurist organizations—he announced his intention to run for the presidency in a Huffington Post column back in October 2014. Although some transhumanists bash him as an overly optimistic and simplistic dreamer with more hope than scientific knowledge, he’s become the face of the movement, with a sizable following.
Istvan says he knows that his presidential campaign can’t succeed. He’s having trouble getting on ballots. But he claims that his campaign is about spotlighting transhumanism—developing a political framework for the established philosophy, sparking debates on what he sees as often ignored technological issues, and perhaps setting the ground for a more serious presidential run in the future. And by offering reporters provocative statements about the prospect of an Artificial Intelligence president, giving all Americans robotic hearts to end cardiac disease, and making things like disability or marriage functionally obsolete via technology, he’s drawn exactly the kind of attention he wants.
At present, Istvan is on a (self-driven) bus tour of America, promoting his transhumanist beliefs. Having raised $25,375 via crowdfunding to trick out a 1978 Blue Bird Wanderlodge RV to look like a coffin, Istvan then filled it to the brim with an AI robot, drones, virtual reality demos, and every other type of futurist paraphernalia he could get his hands on. Starting with a rally in the Mojave desert where he had an RFID chip implanted in his hand (his first real act of physical transhumanist transformation), he is working his way across the nation over the next few months, eventually trying to present a Cyborg Bill of Rights to Congress.
GOOD caught up with Istvan between stops to grill him on whether his (perhaps overly) rosy view of the future can really win over the American public, why he’s so confident in transhumanism, and how a transhumanist government would run the more mundane aspects of a state, like taxation—a conversation which revealed a man whose platform is more sincerely optimistic than practical.
The Immortality Bus. Image by Zoltan Istvan
Transhumanism is a complex philosophy—some of it’s pretty heady. Did you think popularizing it would be difficult?
When I got into transhumanism, it was still pretty sci-fi-oriented because the technology just wasn’t there. When we used to talk about neural uploading, that was a dream. Now they’re experimenting with it—it’s already got a couple hundred million dollars behind it. So in the beginning it was really philosophical, but now in my opinion it’s just a lot more tangible in the sense that a lot of the stuff that we once thought was science fiction is not.
Okay, so what emerging technology do you think will convince people that your ideas about the future are realistic and attainable, not just sci-fi talk?
To anyone in a wheelchair, exoskeleton technology is by far the most interesting thing that’s happening. We now are routinely [seeing] people who never thought they’d walk again walking with exoskeleton technology...
You have the exact same thing with people that are deaf. Deafness doesn’t really [have to] exist anymore on planet earth. If you can afford the technology—and some places cannot—cochlear implants are pretty pervasive … Some of these things allow you to hear types of audio waves that you never would have heard with your natural ear. Blindness, deafness, being a handicapped person in a wheelchair—these are probably things that within five years we won’t see anymore, or if we see it it’s because they’ve chosen that or because they’re at the very extreme edges, like Stephen Hawking or something like that. But this is real, transhumaist technology.
Regarding other technologies, there are mind-reading headsets where you can think a photo on your headset and it immediately puts it on Facebook or Twitter for you, and these are things that you can buy commercially. [Note: I think Istvan means this product.] Virtual reality—there are a lot of things out there … that are paving the way for real transhumanists. Not just people who philosophically support transhumanism but people that are day-by-day trying to transform their bodies and their human experience.
You set a horizon of five years for the end of deafness. Where do you get those estimates?
The cochlear implant thing is perhaps 18 months. It’s just a physiological thing—you tie it into your nerve. I think everyone in the world that I’m aware of could use this technology to hear, so that one’s been worked out. In theory [other disabilities are also] completely cured. So when I say five years, it’s usually just the statistics of social acceptance because some people, especially if they’re religious, may believe that the body they were given was … what god wanted them to have on earth. And later in the afterlife they’ll be made whole or perfectly. It’s really [a matter of]: ‘Are you willing to have a big thing sticking into your optic nerve?’ That’s an issue for some people.
You’re pretty optimistic about cochlears, but I know some deaf folks who might argue with you, saying the technology’s still less than ideal—sounds like an electronic Daffy Duck screaming into your ear, which means spoken language may still be difficult. How do you react to people who say you might be overselling how functional these ‘total cures’ are?
Part of my job as a politician and a futurist, a techno-optimist, is to push a rosier side of things … I’m a popularizer of these concepts because generally speaking I believe they bring better good to the human race than they do wrong.
So I could be off years, probably not decades [on curing disabilities]. There certainly are problems… Certainly those people who would say that are correct and I would take a step back and say: ‘Yes. What can we do despite my over-optimism to [make the tech] work better for you?’
In general, I do think that everyone will be better helped by implementing these technologies in one way or the other. And I hope that we can eventually get it so that a blind person would have perfect vision and telescopic vision and zoom vision and all these other types of extraordinary transhuman or superhuman capabilities that will come with it. In the meantime you have futurists like myself who are certainly optimistic and we hope that our optimism doesn’t actually get in the way of the people who are dealing with the nuts and bolts of stuff.
Transhumanists sometimes worry that optimists like you might get the public excited about transhumanism, only to be rapidly disillusioned when your rosy views fall short of reality. How do you balance optimism and practicality?
This is the perennial argument in the community. How far do the cheerleaders go versus the realists, technologists, and people who are on the ground doing the science?
From a social movement perspective, I like to think of transhumanism like environmentalism was 20 years ago. You need optimists out there to push, to engage, to get everyone excited about some of the brilliant things that are actually happening in the world. I think ultimately, optimism is necessary to lead a movement forward—to get more and more people involved. I don’t think I’m turning off people by being a cheerleader of transhumanism.
I think it’s better to celebrate where technology is going even if it doesn’t go [as quickly as cheerleaders like me hope] because it leads us forward. We can be engaged in something that as a society. We can… say: “Hey, this is wonderful! Look what’s happening to the human species!”
Istvan driving the campaign bus. Image by Roen Horn
We’re running out of ways to increase battery capacity, to miniaturize computers. We have finite resources. We’re constrained by the laws of nature. Some folks argue that transhumanist faith in the advance of technology is going to hit a wall. What do you think?
It’s a totally valid concern. But I think when we first discovered sub-atomic particles or just even atoms, people though: “Oh wow, there’s no way that this can go any smaller. This is how the universe is.” Then it seems like every few decades we keep going beyond that and finding new ways. Now we’re talking about different types of materials. So I think there’s always room for growth. That doesn’t mean that there will perpetually be room for growth. But I would be very surprised with our three-pound brains [to find] that we have [hit] the wall beyond which technology can no longer keep increasing. That would be so egotistical to us to even suggest.
You mentioned that you’re trying to work out what political transhumanism means practically. I’ve seen your platform—it’s a jumble of futurist and mundane ideas. How did you develop it?
As the campaign grew I kept getting asked more difficult questions: ‘What is your idea on taxation? What is your idea on social security? What is your idea on education?’ I had to leave the futurist promotion that I was doing and come up with real, technologically-oriented or transhumanist-oriented ideologies on some of the major issues that other candidates would face.
That is one of the most difficult things to do. It’s really easy to run an entire campaign based on science and technology, but now it’s coming to where we have to develop theories and ideas. That’s why you’re seeing a mish-mash. Some of it is what the Transhumanist Party first wanted to do, and some of it is becoming much more structurally sound for a campaign that would love to get itself in the White House and would need real policies and advisors.
So what does, say, a transhumanist tax policy look like? How do you determine that?
We came up with a straightforward, flat taxation system. Everyone pays the same [rate]. It’s a little crazy to me that the IRS is one of these mega-offices and they go through all of these things to find out that everyone’s either cheating or paying their taxes on time.
But we also support the basic income, which is our loudest economic position. If we did have a basic income, everyone would have what they needed to pay basic taxes and health insurance and all of these other things, thereby avoiding a lot of this conflict that other people already have.
But what is particularly tranhsumanist about a universal basic income?
Not everything in our platform is transhumanist. But universal basic income is based on robots taking all the jobs. It’s impossible for me to imagine that any scenario can exist, as long as technology keeps developing and there’s no cataclysmic end to civilization around the world, [where] robots are not going to start taking all of these jobs. So we said we need to do something so that people don’t start lighting Molotov cocktails.
One of the main goals of my party and the campaign is to create a culture where people are more dedicated to the good things in life: art, creativity, science, technology, inventing things. Right now you have a huge amount of time going towards labor. If you had a basic income system, people would have all the time in the world to do other things they want to do, including getting multiple PhDs. That sounds pretty utopic. And it probably is. But if we give everyone universal basic income and free education … that would be something beneficial overall to the human race and to society as well. Then we could let the robots take care of all the hard work.
You’ve said that much of your campaign’s opposition comes from religious people who don’t like technologically altering our bodies. But I think secular people also have fears about Cronenberg-ian body horror and techno-dystopias. Do you see that on campaign?
Christian media has been quick to denounce the campaign. I’ve even heard the word “antichrist” thrown out. And the same thing with conspiracy theorists.
I think a lot of it comes from the fact that I support cranial implants. I also advocate for a chip that would alert people to when you experience great periods of trauma. For example, if your child is drowning, [your] phone would go off and say: ‘Hey, there’s something wrong with your child.’ This kind of implant would be useful… for the two to three million people who are abused every year. I thought that a trauma implant [could] alert authorities that this is happening.
That gets into a lot of conspiracy areas because a lot of people worry about surveillance. … Technology can help our species’ safety and health dramatically. But it is almost certainly going to interfere with our freedom. Everything that we do with our technology to some extent interferes with our freedoms. Frankly, all of our iPhones are being chipped. The point is that we are giving away some of our freedoms but we’re hoping that’s for the greater good.
That really upsets the conspiracy theorists as well as the Christian media. The normal media is very much open to this stuff.
You’ve said you hope your campaign will further transhumanist activism and politics. As you campaign, are you seeing that happen faster or slower than you’d hoped?
My campaign’s grown sharply. And the [transhumanist] movement’s grown sharply. The movement is benefiting from this growing presidential campaign and this wacky bus tour that I’m having. There’s this opportunity to take this campaign and turn it much bigger.
What media [outlets] need is a unique story. [But] do you talk about bionics or AI or living forever? The beauty of this campaign is that it unites all these things in one straight arrow. It’s an easy story to cover. It’s also able to unite the various branches of the movement.
A lot of people aren’t interested in transhumanism having a political aspect. [But] it’s great to see that transhumanism is something that people can recognize and refer to when we see something … that we recognize as radical and technologically oriented.