The term “radical” has been thrown around a lot in this election cycle. Whether it is being used to disparage Bernie Sanders’ policies or Donald Trump’s rhetoric, it is almost always an insult. So it’s certainly out of the ordinary to find a candidate who describes himself as “radically pro-science.” But Zoltan Istvan, presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party, is anything but an ordinary candidate.
“What’s happening is science is becoming radical,” Istvan said, explaining his chosen self-descriptor. “There’s no question about it, it’s starting to affect our daily lives in ways we never could have imagined 20, 30 years ago.”
A veteran journalist who has reported for National Geographic, the San Francisco Chronicle and Outside Magazine, as well as the author of the International Book Award-winning novel The Transhumanist Wager, Istvan announced the formation of the Transhumanist Party and his intentions to run for the presidency in late 2014. The 43-year-old California native harbors no illusions about his chances of winning the general election — ”I’m not as big a fish as I’d like to be,” he admits — but hopes to use his campaign as a platform to raise awareness of transhumanist philosophy and to increase his own profile enough to potentially be considered for an advisory or cabinet position.
Zoltan Istvan is perhaps the most visible figure in the growing but still largely unheard-of transhumanist movement. “Transhumanism” encompasses a wide variety of beliefs, but the baseline principle is a belief in the power of technology to solve basic human problems such as sickness and aging and a commitment to pursuing future technologies for the betterment of human life. Its adherents include atheists who seek to use technology to achieve immortality, devout Mormons who see a connection between the promises of technology and traditional doctrines of exaltation and individuals of every political persuasion.
Transhumanists point to Julius Huxley, brother of the famous speculative fiction writer Aldous Huxley, as laying the groundwork for the movement in his 1957 essay “Transhumanism,” in which he argued that “the human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself.” In the 1970s and 1980s individuals with an eye towards the potential of technology to alter the human condition began to come together in various organizations and groups under the leadership of individuals like F.M. Esfandiary, a professor at UCLA who later legally changed his name to FM-2030. While there are loosely-affiliated Transhumanist parties around the globe (in 2012 Italy elected a transhumanist named Giuseppe Vatinno to their Parliament), Istvan is the first transhumanist to run for the United States’ highest elected office.
For his part, Istvan wants to “put science, health and technology at the forefront of American politics.” A self-described “futurist,” Istvan spoke enthusiastically of the capacity of scientific discoveries to alter human life for the better — and potentially to extend it indefinitely.
He noted the way that smartphones have revolutionized communication and predicted that similar technology “will probably be in our heads or at least attached to our heads in the next 15 or 20 years.”
Driverless cars are another technological advancement that Istvan singles out as being potentially revolutionary. “One of the largest nonprofits in America is MADD or Mothers Against Drunk Driving; well, drunk driving is going to go the way of the dinosaurs because no one is going to be driving in 15 or 20 years,” Istvan said. “This is kind of a classic example of how such radical science, such radical technology, is changing the world we live in for the better, and I just wish that more politicians would talk about it.”
It’s easy to see why Istvan would be particularly excited about the prospect of never having to drive again; most of his campaigning over the last two years has consisted of his driving his “Immortality Bus,” tailored to look like a giant coffin, around the country to raise awareness of transhumanist notions of extending and enhancing human life through technology. Last fall, Istvan and his campaign drove the bus to 13 states and the District of Columbia, including a stop in Birmingham where he visited the Church of the Highlands. Istvan, who said he had never been to the Deep South before his campaign tour, spoke highly of the people he met in Alabama, noting that even the people who disagreed with transhumanist beliefs were respectful and “incredibly friendly.”
Though the Immortality Bus tours have ended for the moment, Istvan is not out of the game yet. Earlier this month, Istvan revealed that he had been approached by one of the remaining major party candidates about interviewing for the vice presidential slot on their ticket. Istvan declined to reveal the identity of the candidate, but said that he is still in ongoing communications with the candidate’s team.
“I was on the bottom of a list of many people, they told me that up front,” Istvan said. “But it was an honor to be considered, and they were picking my brain about how technology and science are affecting the world.” However, Istvan believes that even if these talks do not result in a vice presidential offer, he might still be offered an advisory position: “the way this works is you get interviewed for a VP role and it [potentially] turns into a cabinet position or an advisory position.”
Istvan also noted that becoming attached to a major party’s campaign would require him to change his image somewhat. The Immortality Bus would probably be the first thing to go. “The bus is really weird, and I love it, and transhumanists love it,” Istvan said, “but at the same time it certainly would not go well with a mainstream campaign.”
Outside of his campaign, Istvan has several other projects in the air. He said he is working on two projects for HBO: a piece on his Immortality Bus tour and a documentary for the Emmy-Award winning series VICE on technological body modification, or “biohacking,” though he stressed that both are very early in the production stage.
Istvan was asked to contribute to the VICE episode on biohacking because he is an early adopter of “chip” technology, having already had a microchip implanted in his ear. Istvan said his chip can do “basic things” like start his car without keys and send his business card to someone else’s smartphone. The chip is a key example of the transhumanist philosophy, Istvan noted, because it represents the advancement of the human body through technology.
None of this is to say that Istvan is naïve about the effects of technology or the ethical and practical dangers scientific advances can hold. In fact Istvan says he has advised the military on the potential risks posed by chip technology. “I had four officers from the U.S. Navy at my house the other day,” said Istvan, “They said there are some biohackers that are new recruits, biohackers that are coming on bases that have chips but the chips are not military-based chips, they’re just chips that they found on the black market. They said, ‘Well, do we allow a soldier who has a black market chip onto a nuclear base?’ That was their question. And ‘What is the policy we need to create around this?’
“In the past everyone could come in with their tattoos and there was no discrimination, but now, chip technology is a little more challenging. It’s like, ‘Wow, this guy has something embedded in his hand and he’s walking around a nuclear silo,’” Istvan continued. “I got a very nice letter from the vice admiral of the U.S. Navy thanking me for some of my consultation because we were working on developing policy on whether that’s something that going be allowed or not.”