After watching the least popular Presidential candidates in modern history fight for the country’s highest office, one can’t help wondering whether the problem isn’t the political system but the species itself. Can’t we think bigger? Zoltan Istvan was in town recently, campaigning as the Presidential nominee of the Transhumanist Party. He was on track to appear on the ballot in zero states. “Politicians keep having the same old arguments about tax policy and Social Security,” he said. “Transhumanists want to talk about how science can help us radically transform the human experience, how we can cure death and disease and upload our consciousness into the cloud, things like that.” He was on a street corner in SoHo. It was raining, but he had decided to forgo an umbrella; the spokes can put an eye out, and bionic-eye implants won’t be perfected for at least five years.
He ducked into the Housing Works Bookstore Café, on Crosby Street, and ordered a coffee. Istvan is blond, Ken-doll handsome, and barrel-chested, and the paper cup looked tiny in his hand. “With some of the new robotic-arm prototypes, you get all kinds of cool functionality,” he said. “I could be warming up this cup right now, just with my fingers. Or you could add weapons, flashlights-like a Swiss Army knife. I can’t wait to cut off my arm and get a prosthetic. My wife said she’d only be O.K. with it if it looks and feels like a human arm, which is understandable, I guess.” His wife, Lisa, is an ob-gyn. When they met, on Match.com, Istvan was an entrepreneur with a small real-estate fortune, living in Marin County. After they married, he began driving across the country in a bus shaped like a coffin, protesting death, while Lisa mostly stayed in California with their two daughters. Her attitude toward transhumanism seems to be one of forbearance at best.
Istvan dragged a chair toward a wall of science-fiction novels. “I wrote a sci-fi book once,” he said. It was an Ayn Rand-esque manifesto called “The Transhumanist Wager.” He added, “I don’t talk about it much these days, because there’s so much authoritarianism in it.”
A man with a wild beard and half a dozen shopping bags got up, and Istvan moved to claim his table. “You a public speaker or something?” the man asked.
“Yeah, sort of,” Istvan said. “I’m running for President.”
“Cool,” the man said. “I’m a filmmaker.”
Istvan, who is forty-three, studied philosophy and religion at Columbia. “I lived by myself in Harlem, trying every drug imaginable,” he said. “I didn’t fit in too well.” It took him five years to finish college, because he kept leaving to sail around the world. After graduating, he worked as a journalist, and in 2003, on assignment in Vietnam, he almost stepped on a land mine. “Nobody wants to die, but our culture encourages us to accept death, or to not think about it,” he said. “Then you come close to dying, and you go, ‘Why aren’t we doing something about this?’ ” He found people on the Internet-transhumanists-who treated death as a preventable illness. “Since then, I’ve been on a mission to get our government to stop fighting wars in the Middle East and, instead, fight a war on cancer.” He also wants to prevent deaths by firearm-not by controlling access to guns but by inventing first-aid drones that can cauterize wounds.
The best way to promote such ideas, he figured, was to run for President. “I auditioned to be Gary Johnson’s running mate,” he said. “I went to New Mexico and spent twenty-four hours at his house. We cooked dinner, talked, watched a few episodes of ‘Orphan Black,’ slept, then cooked breakfast and talked some more.” Johnson didn’t pick Istvan, but they still text. “I’ll probably run as a Libertarian in 2020,” Istvan said. “I’ll just tack a bit to the right and do some apologizing.”
He took an R train downtown, to meet a few supporters inside the Oculus, the futuristic-looking shopping mall at the World Trade Center. They were easy to spot: seven young men, many of them bearded or ponytailed, in a tight circle. Istvan joined them and handed out Transhumanist Party T-shirts (“Putting science, health, and technology at the forefront of American politics”).
“I consider myself a transhumanist hip-hop artist,” a man who went by Maitreya One said.
“I’m a Catholic transhumanist,” Agustín Borrazás, from Uruguay, said. “When Jesus got his new spiritual body, that was a freaky futuristic thing.”
“Transhumanism is a way to stop wars,” Anthony Davis, a bike messenger from the Bronx, said. “Wars come from religion, and religion comes from death.”
“To anyone under forty-five, a campaign against death makes intuitive sense,” Istvan said. “It’s only someone older, like my dad, who goes, ‘Ugh, who needs to live forever?’ ” ♦