Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, journalist, and author of the novel The Transhumanist Wager. He writes an occasional column for Motherboard in which he ruminates on the future beyond natural human ability.
Strange as it may be, I can't help but be attracted to conspiracy theories. After all, are not all philosophers, artists, and scientists constantly searching for brave new ideas? Are not the most innovative thinkers often the most fringe? So why then do conspiracy theorists hate transhumanism?
Conspiracy theorist guru Alex Jones, for instance, frequently bashes transhumanism and the movement's major advocates—he calls the prospect of a transhumanism "The New Dark Age." Why?
First, some background. Two years ago, I began actively promoting transhumanism to the public. While the international transhumanist movement has existed for decades, it's been growing like wildfire in the last 18 months. Media coverage of transhumanism has tripled in the last year according to the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Transhumanism is featured in a number of recent blockbuster Hollywood movies, including Transcendence, Lucy, and Oscar-winning Her. And a younger generation—many in high school and college—appear to be embracing it.
As with all radical social movements, there is bound to be resistance. After all, transhumanists are interested in some pretty bizarre things: mind uploading, living indefinitely through life extension science, biohacking themselves to install cyborg body parts, and creating artificial general intelligence. Each of these areas of research will radically change the lives of people—and some, such as cyborg body parts, are already doing so.
Yet conspiracy theorists have begun throwing cold water on the transhumanist movement. In the last few years, just about every major conspiracy show, celebrity, and website has criticized transhumanism.
Alex Jones, the most influential conspiracy theorist going, leads the pack. In "Transhumanism: The New Dark Age," he outlines his thinking. He describes Ray Kurzweil's efforts to achieve immortality and usher in artificial intelligence, and his popularity among executives and celebrities, as evidence of a rising techno-elite that wants to enslave humanity with global government.
The proof is right there in public meetings and tech conferences, he says.
"It's all global government—accept nanotech. Accept wirehead. Accept interfaces, everything's fine," he raves. "All of our modern technologies—created by eugenicists. Or farmed out by scientists owned by scientists owned by eugenicists robber barons. The entire society, the whole technotronic plan; robotics, future not needing us, phasing out humanity, all of this, a hellish future, while they've been poisoning us and dumbing us down, so we can't resist their takeover, and then saying we deserve it because all we want to do is watch Dancing with the Stars."
A search on Google for "Alex Jones and transhumanism" yields over a 100,000 results.
Meanwhile, the website Neon Nettle recently ran an article with an embedded video that suggests transhumanists are insane scientists trying to combine human DNA with animals to create a hybrid species. The YouTube video in the story, posted by "u2bheavenbound" (whose profile picture is a starry-eyed image of Jesus wearing a thorny crown) has almost a quarter million hits. Tom Horn, who works at conspiracy site Raiders News Updates, is a filmmaker focusing on the "end times." He frequently covers transhumanism topics. A radio interview on YouTube where he discusses his work is called: Satan's New Lie: Transhumanism.
Some of the bashing of transhumanists comes from other types of sites, like controversial alternative medicine hub Natural News, which has almost 1.4 million likes on its Facebook page. Editor Mike Adams, known widely as the Health Ranger, ran the story: 'Transhumanism Debunked: Why Drinking the Kurzweil Kool-Aid Will Only Make You Dead, Not Immortal.'
Other sites, like UFO Digest, suggest that transhumanism might be something spawned by aliens.
You might be thinking like I did originally: Who cares what conspiracy theorists think?They're just some fringe group with crazy ideas.
Crazy ideas or not, conspiracy theorists likely number in the tens of millions of people around the world. A recent study out of the University of Chicago found that 49 percent of Americans believe in at least one medical conspiracy theory. This isn't surprising. Conspiracy theory leaders and their fear-mongering perspectives are regularly discussed in major media and in the public.
In fact, many popular conspiracy websites rival major lifestyle and science sites in web traffic. Alex Jones' InfoWars is more popular than Salon or National Geographic.com. Natural News is more trafficked thanPopular Science or Scientific American's website. And the RT television show Desde la Sombra (From the Shadow) is an extremely popular global Spanish program with millions of viewers, host Daniel Estulin told me in an email. The large popularity of conspiracy theorists is exactly what makes them threatening to the transhumanist movement. In my opinion, people that regularly subscribe to conspiracy theories probably outnumber transhumanists 100 to 1.
Of course, to characterize conspiracy groups and believers into one big melting pot isn't really fair. There are lots of different types of conspiracy ideologies, perspectives, and communities. Many focus on tyrannical government plots against citizens while others focus on aliens and UFOs. Some focus on creatures like Big Foot while others focus on paranormal phenomenon and spirituality. However, one central theme that often emerges for nearly all conspiracy theorists is New World Order (NWO) fears. This is the idea that a tiny elite group of people, such as the Bilderberg Group, is planning on controlling—and possibly enslaving or even eliminating—the rest of the world with their power.
Enter transhumanism: the perfect vehicle, according to conspiracy theorists, to make that dreaded NWO control occur.
Naturally, those holding power with access to mega-resources—the Bill Gates's, Al Gores, and Peter Thiels of the world—are excited about how radical technology and science are changing and improving the world. Instead of thinking how to control the masses, they're probably celebrating how technology is allowing the handicapped to walk via exoskeletons. Or the infirm to be cured via biotechnology. Or the dead to live via suspended animation.
Despite the obvious successes of 21st Century science and technology—all which can be considered transhumanist in design—many conspiracy theorists do not easily see the benefits. Instead, they choose to focus on the negative side of things; they choose to hate transhumanism. If you tell them the Alzheimer sufferer can remember more via a brain implant, they'll tell you it's also a tracking device. If you tell them artificial hearts are coming and will help eliminate heart disease, they tell you only the elite will be able to afford it. If you tell them a vaccine may thwart Ebola, they tell you it will make children who get it autistic.
To be fair, conspiracy theorists have a couple valid points. Some implants can be tracked. And the best robotic heart on the market is priced at $200,000, making it currently unaffordable to everyone but the rich.
The good news is that history seems to favor the transhumanist perspective. Transhumanists don't want to be tracked either, and will certainly push to create non-tracking brain implants. In 20 years time, artificial hearts will likely be affordable, just like cell phones—which were once unaffordable to almost everyone in the 1980s—can now even be found in some poor villages in Africa. And reliable studies have shows that vaccines have saved millions of lives by overcoming various diseases sabotaging the human race.
"New technology trickles down slowly in society," says Mike Lorrey, a futurist, candidate for office in the New Hampshire legislature, and cofounder of the Facebook group Technolibertarians. "Eventually, market forces make the price of everything come down cheaper. Those that can't afford certain technology right away often get upset and cry wolf."
Crying wolf seems to be the case with New World Order fears. Conspiracy theorists perhaps don't see transhumanist technology being readily available, affordable, or desirable to them—and therefore they are critical of it. However, common sense and history show they're likely wrong. For all our sakes, though, let's hope common sense and history remain accurate guides. After all, the future really is going to be a bizarre place.