The week of April 26, 2015

In the basement with transhumanism’s DIY cyberpunks

By Joseph L. Flatley

In a nondescript alleyway on Pittsburgh’s North Side, Nathan Kukulski arrives at a house party carrying two half-empty cases of beer. The place is called Cyberpunk Apocalypse, an experiment in communal living and imagining possible futures through science fiction. Over the last six years, it’s hosted 45 writers from across the United States and Canada and produced a zine called, appropriately enough, Cyberpunk Apocalypse. (I edited the second issue.)

When he isn’t working at a parking lot in Uptown, Kukulski publishes books under the Six Gallery imprint. A local institution, the press publishes everything from experimental fiction and poetry to essays and memoirs. (And yes, I’ve worked on a couple projects for the press in the past.) It also published its fair share of speculative fiction and science fiction, literary genres that hold a special place in Kukulski’s heart.

Tonight we’re talking transhumanism, the nebulous belief—prevalent among Silicon Valley’s monied elite, DIY body hackers, and some very well-trod zones of Reddit—that with advancing technology, humanity is inevitably going to take the reins of our own evolution and become something post-human. (Or multiple kinds of post-human.) Strains of it appear in everything from William Gibson’s early cyberpunk work to the video game Deus Ex to David Cronenberg’s adaptation of The Fly. As a method of extrapolating the present into any number of potential futures, it appeals to a particular breed of cerebral sci-fi fan.

“I have my own answer to this question,” I tell Kukulski as the party dies down. “But how do you suppose transhumanism and science fiction relate to each other?”

There’s an overlap—“the vesica piscis of the Venn diagram,” as he puts it. Science-fiction writers, he says, often take the liberty to imagine transhuman futures that completely revise and reevaluate what it might mean to be human. “And I think that that’s useful when it’s done well,” he says, “and when it’s done poorly, it’s just more shit propaganda.”

It breaks down into two questions, he seems to be saying. How might we overcome our human forms and become something greater? And, perhaps more pressingly in an age of rising sea levels and increasing turmoil: How might we persevere? Science fiction, he says, reminds us that “man might be able to manifest its greatest aspirations, or even just continue to exist on this fucking planet, into the future. And humanity can continue, whether it’s in the current physical form of these clumps of cells bunched together, or in a strange mish-mash of the digital and silicon-based whatnot.”

It’s the old trope, echoed by Philip K. Dick for one, that fiction lets the author (and the reader) slip into new worlds and try them on. And fictional worlds can be the first step to real worlds. Or as futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard once put it: “The future exists first in the imagination, then in the will, then in reality.”

Here’s what I find interesting about transhumanism as a movement and philosophy. If its global epicenter is in Silicon Valley, among all the well-heeled futurists flush with dot-com cash and high on their own supply of glittering possibilities, maybe it’s in places like Pittsburgh—in the rust belt of America’s fading industrial past—that transhumanism’s real possibilities are being put to the test. Here, the street-level transhumanists—self-styled cyberpunks and “grinders”—are already experimenting on themselves. And while they may share goals or ideals with their mainstream brethren out west, they also have reservations about the transhuman future, should it ever actually happen.

• • •

The term transhumanism was coined by Julian Huxley, the biologist, eugenicist, internationalist, and brother of Aldous, in 1957. He believed that it was mankind’s “inescapable destiny” to take a proactive stance in controlling its future evolution. “And the sooner he realizes it and starts believing in it,” he wrote, “the better for all concerned.”

It’s an old idea with a new brand. After all, humans have always looked to improve their lot, and for just as long, they have argued over the form that improvement should take. Transhumanists have given it a shiny technological gloss; generally, they believe that once mankind reaches a certain level of technological sophistication, human nature will be transformed. That might happen in a few different ways: Artificial intelligence might elevate us all to godlike geniuses (if it doesn’t kill us first). Genetic engineering might help us create future humans who don’t need sleep or live for 300 years or survive on less food. Maybe we’ll crack the riddle of consciousness, allowing us to upload ourselves into robot bodies or live forever in virtual worlds.

Maybe it’s in places like Pittsburgh—in the rust belt of America’s fading industrial past—that transhumanism’s real possibilities are being put to the test.

One of the first transhumanist projects was the invention of cryonics by Robert Ettinger, a World War II veteran who taught mathematics and physics in Michigan. He believed you could freeze a human (or animal), preserve it in sub-zero temperatures, and thaw it far in the future, when humanity has found the cure for death. For the frozen subject, it would be a kind of time travel—not unlike the plot of Austin Powers.

His inspiration, as you might have guessed, wasn’t cutting-edge science. “The Jameson Satellite,” appearing in the July 1931 issue of Amazing Stories, featured a visionary academic who had his corpse shot into orbit around Earth, where the cold vacuum of space preserved his body for millions of years. Upon his discovery by a race of cyborgs, he was revived and his brain fitted with a state-of-the-art mechanical body. Ettinger eventually went on to give cryonics a go—not with a space shot, but by establishing the Cryonics Institute in 1976.

Ettinger’s dreams presaged the birth of the modern transhumanist movement. Max More, an Oxford graduate and founder of life-extension foundation, Alcor U.K., founded Extropy: The Journal of Transhumanist Thought and the Extropy Institute alongside his wife Natasha Vita-More, after moving to Los Angeles in 1987. The extropians personified the idea that it was the professional class, not marginalized science-fiction fans and DIY tech-types, that truly owned visionary futurism.

Theirs is what I would call a “corporate transhumanism.” As opposed to the hopeful, aspirational DIY style embodied by the rust belt sci-fi authors and self-styled cyberpunks, a large part of the current scene relies on the patronage of so many big names in the tech world. Peter Thiel, the cofounder and former CEO of PayPal; Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google; Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy; and inventor Ray Kurzweil have all spent a lot of time and money on the transhumanist program over the years.

To the jaded eye, Silicon Valley transhumanism might look like a bunch of seminars and memberships and TED Talks. According to R.U. Sirius, cocreator of Mondo 2000 magazine and coauthor of Transcendence: The Disinformation Encyclopedia of Transhumanism and the Singularity, the mainstream transhumanist scene is a lot more varied and interesting than it might seem from the outside.

“There are various levels of harmony and disharmony in that world,” he told me recently. “The corporate transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil and the Googlers play their part, of course. But there are also those that he describes as outsiders: “seemingly crazed anarcho-capitalist-types,” the ones who get all the press and seem to define “transhumanist” in the minds of outsiders.

He describes the vast majority as being basically liberal, if mostly apolitical—the kind of people who fall left on the spectrum but don’t feel the need to do anything about it.

“They don’t want to bother arguing with the libertarians and anarcho-capitalists,” he said, “because they’re not that political and they know it’s a waste of time to argue with the ideologically convinced.”

• • •

The concept of technological singularity is more radical than cryonics. First popularized by Vernor Vinge in his 1981 science-fiction novella True Names, it was further developed in a paper titled “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era.” Vinge hits all the now-familiar notes, imagining a world of superior, machine-based intelligence—perhaps a global computer network that’s become super-humanly intelligent. (Hello, Skynet.) Or maybe computers will move in the other direction, becoming invisible and ubiquitous, so intertwined with humans that we’re basically the same (superhuman) entity. Or, again, maybe genetic engineering will provide new forms and new ways of human being.  Essentially, Vinge believes that human beings will soon build ourselves out of existence, the same as we’ve obviated Rio MP3 players and cassette tapes (because, hey—a human being is basically a gadget).

The singularity is speculation, a type of thought experiment. But that hasn’t stopped the snake oil salesmen from wasting my time (and yours) in an effort to sell books and expensive conference tickets discussing this vital non-issue of our times. And by far, the biggest name in the singularity scene is Ray Kurzweil.

Essentially, Vinge believes that human beings will soon build ourselves out of existence, the same as we’ve obviated Rio MP3 players and cassette tapes.

Kurzweil is the genius inventor who made a name for himself working with text-scanning technologies, text-to-speech synthesis, and building electronic pianos for Stevie Wonder. But he’s most famous for his work evangelizing the singularity. He is a self-described futurist, someone who makes predictions for a price.

Of course, success as an oracle often has less to do with the accuracy of your predictions than with your talent at self-promotion. That, Kurzweil has. And with a veritable cottage industry behind him, he’s become the singularity to a lot of people. But as R.U. Sirius and Jay Cornell write in Transcendence, while “everybody likes Ray Kurzweil in these transhumanist circles,” no one seems to agree with him completely.

He’s fine when he sticks to his core competency of predicting the near future of consumer electronics. When making safe and not-terribly-controversial predictions about wireless gadgets and computers in schools, he seems to hit the nail on the head often enough—although he may fuzz his timeline and his success may depend on a very generous interpretation. But for the sheer bulk of predictions he makes, he can’t help but come across as pretty silly at times. Viz:

By 2010 computers will disappear. They’ll be so small, they’ll be embedded in our clothing, in our environment. Images will be written directly to our retina, providing full-immersion virtual reality, augmented real reality. We’ll be interacting with virtual personalities.

This isn’t even an especially bold prediction; the only thing tripping him up is the date. His boldest prediction is that the singularity will arrive in 2045. That seems implausible, and according to his critics, Kurzweil’s techno-optimism comes from a basic misunderstanding of evolution, artificial intelligence, and the human brain.

While most corporate transhumanists will readily embrace a lovable kook like Kurzweil, many will also take a man like Zoltan Istvan seriously. Before announcing that he was running for president of the United States on the Transhumanist Party ticket (which not even the candidate thinks he has a chance of winning), Istvan was probably best known in futurist and libertarian circles for his novel The Transhumanist Wager.

In it, Jethro Knights, an ideological cut-out who fights the good fight in service of the transhumanism, establishes a high seas nation called Transhumania (of course!) and wages global revolution. The book is semi-autobiographical; both the writer and the protagonist have sailed around the world and are fans of eugenics. And it’s chock full of Istvan’s philosophy: He introduces the Three Laws of Transhumanism, Teleological Egocentric Functionalism (TEF), and the titular Transhumanist Wager.

By just about any measure (except for that of Guillaume Faye), Istvan is a lunatic. “Like Ayn Rand pushed to the nth degree,” Sirius told me. But in his bid for acceptance among the transhumanist community, he had to moderate his views—at least in public. “That pressure is there. He moved to the center politically on a lot of things.”

• • •

Tim Cannon is a programmer living in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, roughly a 15-minute drive from the city. It’s where you’d go to pick up something from IKEA on a weekend afternoon, perhaps stopping at Ruby Tuesday on the way home. Cannon’s also a “grinder”—someone who experiments on himself using often radical, DIY body modifications. The company that he cofounded, Grindhouse Wetware, is located in the unfinished basement of the home that he shares with his family.

“I kind of anticipated this sense of super-humanity, some kind of small superhero power.”

Biohacking can encompass any number of activities. On the tamer end of the spectrum, you have your quantified-self freaks who use science, pseudoscience, and mere speculation to make lifestyle changes that they hope will make them faster, stronger, happier, and smarter. On the more extreme end of biohacking, you have self-styled grinders that develop hardware implants and test them on their own bodies. Due to legal necessity, this is done without doctors and without anesthesia at places like Hot Rod Piercing in Pittsburgh’s South Side, a neighborhood that’s known more for its pub crawls and hookah bars than its proto-cyborgs.

Wiry and energetic, Cannon speaks confidently about just about everything. He gained some recognition a couple years back by installing a home-brewed implant called the Circadia v1.0. A little smaller than a deck of cards, it could measure Cannon’s body temperature and transmit the data to his phone, which could also control LED status lights under his skin.

It was a childhood love of cyberpunk novels and science fiction that first took him down this road. And like a true cyberpunk, he sees himself as the perfect mix of scientific curiosity and punk rock nihilism. “I’m not really good at suppressing my sense of curiosity,” he says, “and a lot of times it ends up trumping my sense of safety or self-preservation.”

His first implant was a neodymium iron boron alloy magnet, plated with gold and encapsulated in silicone, which he had inserted under the skin of the fingertip. Any decent grinder’s first implant, over time it lets the user “feel” magnetic fields. Cannon found his newly created sense revelatory—just not in the way he’d expected.

“I kind of anticipated this sense of super-humanity,” he says, “some kind of small superhero power.” Instead he got a sense sense of the limits of human perception.

“We can’t see anything,” he says about our “base package” of five senses. “I am blind. I am a fumbling animal.” Until then he had no way to change his perception; for the first time he had a point of contrast with his “normal” perception. “And at that point,” he says, “I realized that it was just one of these things. It became apparent that there is way more, and there’s way more that could be, and as a result of that, it kind of drove me to start to explore the possibilities there.”

The Circadia experiment was, in its own way, even more revelatory. It gave the grinders on-the-job training in the healing process, the limits of the body’s tolerance, and what it feels like to be a human guinea pig. As it turns out, it isn’t pleasant.

Cannon says that of the 90 days that he had the implant, he had regular panic attacks for the first 30. Grinding inflicts a certain amount of psychological trauma, he says, “and we’re sort of taking one for the team.”

That said, Cannon believes that grinders do serve a role, beyond being test subjects. In fact, he has done quite a bit of traveling as Grindhouse Wetware gains in notoriety, becoming a spokesperson for his organization and for the movement. There have been conferences in Amsterdam and Madrid, and a TEDx talk in Rosslyn, Va. But by far the most mind-blowing was a talk he gave in Berlin, “where I spoke at a fucking castle, [and] I stayed at the Ritz.”

Ultimately, contrary to their outsider status, Cannon thinks that grinders are making a difference where it matters most—by influencing the upper strata of the transhumanist community or, as he calls it, the “1 percent.”

Cannon says that of the 90 days that he had the implant, he had regular panic attacks for the first 30.

“I think we’re billed as these people that don’t want to play by the rules,” he says. “But the 1 percent wants to know what we have to say, the 1 percent is looking at all this sort of transhuman technology. It’s just that academia is like, ‘You didn’t have to wait to get tenure to do all your wild experiments.’ Sorry, you have a stupid system.”

• • •

Back at Cyberpunk Apocalypse, Kukulski and I were joined by the (transhu)man that began the collective, a writer/comic book artist named Daniel McCloskey. Inspiration for the project came to him while living in Japan.

“I was reading all these essays about how the future of the world could look like Tokyo,” he says, “and I was like, the future of the world could also look like Pittsburgh. Abandoned houses, people scrapping copper that gets used to make cellphones in China, robots that kill people in other countries getting designed alongside cars that aren’t driven by people.”

He might have added that down the road from the killer drone and autonomous car projects at Carnegie Mellon University, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh have been engaged in cutting-edge cryonics work, creating what the New York Times has called “zombie dogs.”

As it turned out, all three of us were rather unimpressed with the grand transhumanist project. Perhaps we didn’t have the requisite faith in technology that would allow one to get swept up in the notion of the singularity.

Kukulski probably put it best when he described transhumanism as “a bizarre racket.”

“The idea of transcending the limitations of our physical existences through digitizing consciousness or making ourselves into robot bodies is a really bad idea,” he says, with the conviction of someone who’s thought about the idea for a long time. “It might be helpful for exploring space and the cosmos and whatnot, but it seems very unlikely to help anyone with the difficulties and horrible crises engendered by capitalism, which are much worse than the idea that any human individual will eventually die.”

It’s only later, after I go home and pick up a book called In the Absence of the Sacred by Jerry Mander, that I begin to wonder if we aren’t already living in the transhuman age; if we haven’t been for 50 years, even. Perhaps Mander is right, that corporations are machines. In which case, the singularity wouldn’t be imminent, it would already be here. It’s global capitalism. Capitalism out of control, picking up speed as it spreads from the industrial world to every nook, cranny, and technological backwater on the planet.

Of course, the corporate transhumanists wouldn’t acknowledge this even if they noticed it. They’re too busy shelling out $12,000 ($1,000 down) to Kurzweil’s non-accredited singularity “University” for its week-long Executive Program workshop or, in the case of Peter Thiel, handing millions of dollars to the right-wing political action group Club for Growth. For visionaries supposed to be concentrating on an enlightened future world, they sure do spend a lot of time wallowing in the depths of the present one.

The grinders and the cyberpunks that I’ve met, they get it; they understand that the world they’ve inherited is already one where the human being is no longer at the top of the food chain. The only question, then, is: What are they going to do about it? Or perhaps the question is: What can they do about it?

Illustration by J. Longo