The story of Z was supposed to be about how biohacking had allowed her to become immortal.
She lived in the year 2040, and by most measures her life was happy. Her mother’s body had died five years prior, but her consciousness was uploaded to the global grid and they still spoke frequently. An implanted chip allowed her to order a driverless Uber car on demand. She lived in a bubble that protected her from the dangerous post-global warming environment. She had lots of friends at a community biohacking center where she hung out.
Yet, every time someone tried to talk about Z’s happy ending where she lives forever, one problem kept coming up again and again: Z was poor, and inequality prevented her from accessing many of the technologies of the future.
Z’s story is the creation of transhumanist Zoltan Istvan (who writes an occasional column for Motherboard), writer Sydette Harry, performer Fem Appeal, bio-hacker Conor Russomanno, and founder of Genspace, Ellen Joregensen. It was told last night, at a talk hosted by The Standard, High Line in NYC, called “Live Forever: Hacking Death.” Her story, and the conversation that followed, focused not on whether it’s really possible to avoid death, but instead on who would be able to, given that the technology became available. Everyone was concerned that it would only be available to the elite.
“Who wants to live forever in a place that was trying to kill you before you were born?”
The conversation reflected what may prove a problem for the growing transhumanism movement: Its inherent optimism overlooks the fact that technology is often capable of exacerbating inequality.
The story of Z came out of a prompt by host Sunny Bates, who asked the five speakers to tell the improvised story of Z, a girl living in North America in 2040, with each person telling part of the story before handing it off.
While most of the panelists told jokes or highlighted technological advancements that improved Z’s life, Harry changed the course of the narrative to introduce the idea of inequality in this transhumanist paradise.
“Z was born in Detroit, or Flint, or New Orleans, or the South Bronx,” Harry said. “Z was exposed to lead or asbestos or a low standard of living from the moment they were born. Z’s mother died of hypertension...she worked 60 hours a week at two minimum wage jobs to make sure that Z could be enrolled in the best schools to access this beautiful tech...Z owes somebody about $125,000 for an undergrad degree that she has yet to use. Z’s mother was uploaded to the global grid on the lowest tier plan,” she finished.
“Who wants to live forever in a place that was trying to kill you before you were born?” she asked the crowd. Before the audience could finish clapping and cheering, they were interrupted by the most well known speaker of the night: Istvan.
“No no no, the world is trying to kill us all, of course,” he granted. But “there’s still opportunity to rise up and become something.”
Biohacking technology will allow humans to greatly extend their lives and it will be available to everyone, Istvan said.
But it wasn’t clear by the end of Z’s story whether that would really be the case.
When inequality came up again during a question and answer session, Istvan tried to brush it aside. “The good news is that we don’t have the robber barons of the 20th century,” he started but was interrupted by protests from the crowd.
“We don’t have child labor and stuff like that in America anymore, we have a lot of better rules, and I know it’s not perfect but it’s very hard for the Bill Gates or the Mark Zuckerberg to do anything that is so against the people,” he finished. The crowd grumbled again.
Harry then shifted the conversation instead not to the individuals working in tech, but instead to the systems that support them. “How are we going to look at and examine the systems that are filtering down this technology, how are we looking at the systems that allow us to check people when they go wrong?” she asked.
When it came to discussing who will own the rights to life extension technology, Zoltan again was incredibly optimistic. “I think 100 percent it is going to be with the individual. There’s no question that within the next three to five years something like the Transhumanist Bill of Rights is going to enter into the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights,” he said. He did not think that government or corporations would play a role. The audience of around 50 people protested again.
“I think money drives everything. Corporations pretty much own our government,” Russomanno said. “I think if Facebook wanted to sway the presidential election, it could.”
Throughout the night, the anxiety felt by the crowd about immortality didn’t concern things like the logistics of becoming a cyborg or overpopulation of the planet. It concerned inequality, and the idea that these amazing technologies might fail to reach the masses before it’s too late. Everyone is afraid of being Z, and never having access to the kinds of advancements that the likes of Zuckerberg will.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the speakers.