The Frozen Father of Modern Transhumanism
Fereidoun M. Esfandiary or FM-2030 was preaching bionics and immortality back in the 70s.
FM-2030. Photo: Antonu/Wikimedia Commons
Transhumanism, the pursuit of using science and technology to transcend our biological limitations, is gaining momentum both as a philosophy and as a political movement.
This is largely thanks to high profile evangelists such as Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec, and Martine Rothblatt; corporate endeavors like Google's life extension project Calico; and various grassroots projects like the the DIY biohacking movement.
This trend may feel incredibly recent, but its genesis was decades ago. The roots of the modern movement can be traced back to a futurist named FM-2030, or Fereidoun M. Esfandiary.
Esfandiary was born to an Iranian diplomat in 1930, just as President Herbert Hoover was coming to realize his legacy would be irretrievably marked by the depression gripping the world.
He was educated at UCLA and UC-Berkeley, served as a diplomat on the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine from 1952-1954, and spent the next decade writing for the Nation, the New York Times, and the Saturday Review on diverse political and social issues.
Inspired by the scientific and technological changes in biology, engineering, and computer science in the last third of the twentieth century, Esfandiary began to envision an exciting new world with fundamentally new social and cultural foundations.
"Every week [or] every month—or as often as necessary, people [would] deploy their transceivers to vote directly on issues."
In 1970 at age 40, he published his first tract, Optimism One. The book spoke about moving past the outdated political, economic, and existential "isms" engendered by the Age of Industrialization: capitalism, socialism, nationalism, totalitarianism, nihilism, and fatalism. It looked to the arrival of two new brand new and totalizing "isms": optimism and universalism.
That same year, he changed his name to FM-2030, to reflect his confidence that he would be alive in the year 2030 when he turned 100. He believed that by then, most of his predictions about life, knowledge, and society would coalesce into a singularity that would forever change humanity.
FM-2030 went on to write about the democratization of knowledge, renewable resources, and what he believed was the imminent arrival of immortality and supercharging of the human brain via genetic and bio-engineering. He also had high hopes for social progress.
In 1973, he published UpWingers: A Futurist Manifesto, a theory of politics and future society. For FM-2030, the ideological left and right were dinosaurs, remnants of an industrial age that had ushered in the modern world but was being quickly replaced and whose vestiges were only holding humanity back. He proposed a new political schema populated by two groups: UpWingers and DownWingers. The former looks to the sky, and into the future. The latter down into the earth, and into the past. UpWingers see a future for humanity beyond this planet. DownWingers seek to preserve it.
FM-2030 was an unabashed UpWinger. In the new world he imagined, biology and genetics would be as open-source as the computer code of today. The nuclear family as a social unit and the city itself would disappear, he argued, replaced by mobilia; these modular social communities, powered by instant communication and the values of communitarianism, would spontaneously aggregate and persist for a few days, weeks, months, or years before, with equal facility, dissolving away.
Such a networked world would preclude violence on the horrific scales experienced by past generations, he predicted. The obliteration of age and disease would dramatically reshape our aversion to risk, allowing us to accelerate progress logarithmically. Survival economies like welfare capitalism and socialism (which seek to preserve a basic standard of living but lack the structures to engender radical scientific, technological, and social change), and their attendant politics of misinformation and fear, would blow away like so much chaff before the wind in a world of abundance for everyone.
Science and technology serve as the engine behind FM-2030's "true democracy," one he believed could chaperone humanity beyond its oppressive, hierarchical, and tribal origins and into the future it deserves. "Every week [or] every month—or as often as necessary, people [would] deploy their transceivers to vote directly on issues," he wrote in an essay, "Upwing Priorities," in the now-defunct Future Life magazine. Computers would then flash through probable consequences of each referendum and broadcast those back to voters. "By the first decade of the new century government will exist mainly in name as power will shift to the people via direct consensing," he wrote.
After UpWingers, FM-2030 published Telespheres(1977), which continued his discussion of these disrupting forces, and Are You A Transhuman? (1989), which extended it to confront individuals hesitant in the face of a new age.
Certainly at times, FM-2030's arguments seem facile, naïve, over-optimistic, or too radical for our world. That doesn't mean that they haven't been prophetic, however, and some variations on his ideas (bionic enhancements for humans, for example) are already coming to pass.
FM-2030 died just a decade and a half ago of pancreatic cancer, aged 69. He was frozen by the folks at Alcor using a new method called vitrification. But his proposed political ideas have lived on.
One scholar, Steve Fuller, a sociologist at the University of Warwick, has become one of the modern flag-bearers of transhumanism. He has (along with British philosopher Max More), reformulated the UpWinger/DownWinger dichotomy as the Proactionary Principle versus the Precautionary Principle.
Proactionaries (UpWingers) argue, most simply, that the risk inherent in any technological or policy venture is unavoidable and, further, often offset by the rewards of progress. They aver that the universe is a fundamentally perilous place.
Precautionaries, on the other hand, tend to pursue the opposite vision. Any loss—cultural, environmental, economic, biological—is irreplaceable, and so risk must be mitigated even in the face of stunting progress, particularly in the name of equality of outcome for all members of society whatever their respective abilities.
The nuclear family as a social unit and the city itself would disappear, he argued, replaced by mobilia
Fuller (a self-professed Proactionary) has discussed many times and in many places how this new schema replaces our current left-right political system, and how it actually describes the different impulses (like space exploration and colonization, geoengineering, privacy and intellectual property rights, and gene modification) that are relevant to the modern world, but which get buried in tired debates by a moribund liberal-conservative landscape.
Current political outlets for the transhumanists among us are mostly sprinkled around academia, in professional organizations, and among the occasional non-profit or policy group. But for the first time we have a Transhumanist Party in the United States with some visibly Proactionary impulses driving it. Its candidate, Zoltan Istvan, who writes an occasional column for Motherboard, is calling for a billion dollars into life-extension research to make us immortal during the next century. He advocates for a universal basic income to free humanity of the chains of labor, whatever color the collar you wear. He wants exoskeletons provided to the differently abled, to eliminate physical hardship.
FM-2030 was, of course, not the first transhumanist. Evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley coined the term in the 1957. But FM-2030's tireless thinking, teaching, writing, and speaking have made him in many ways the godfather of the current political movement. It's taken fifty years, but transhumanism is here to stay.