On July 8, 2000, a man was loaded into an ambulance, packed in with dozens of Ziploc bags of ice cubes, and rushed onto the long flight from New York City to Scottsdale, Arizona. Several hours earlier, he’d been pronounced clinically dead, but on the ground a team of technicians had rallied around his cancer-riddled cadaver with great optimism.
At the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, they laid out the body—now patient A-1261—on an operating table encased in a coffin-shaped Plexiglas box. To keep the temperature down, the technicians pumped the box full of hyper-cold nitrogen gas, maintaining A-1261 in what they believed to be a liminal state—on pause. They worked so feverishly to preserve the body because it belonged to one of their champions. A-1261 was (and, they hoped, would someday become again) one of the world’s most celebrated transhumanists, a prominent member of a loose collective of futurists working in philosophy, science, and technology to realize humankind’s full potential, with the ultimate goal of shrugging off the shackles of aging and death. At Alcor, the Holy See of cryonics, the attendants were of the same tribe, and this is how you die if you’re one of them: an impermanent death, your mind and all the radical ideas contained therein “cryopreserved” until a distant, far more evolved Future is ready to grow you a new body and embrace you as your Phase Two, cyborg self. A transhumanist’s death is merely a pit stop on the way to his inevitable resurrection.
The surgeons inserted their bright blue rubber-gloved hands through mail-slot openings in the Plexiglas to tend to the vessel. They cut deeply with the scalpel, then identified the precise spot—between the sixth and seventh vertebrae—and with a chisel and a mallet lopped off the head of Fereidoun Esfandiary.
In what he would call his “animal-human” life—his life as a “biological accident,” a “bad robot”—patient A-1261 was known by another collection of initials and numbers: FM-2030.
FM-2030 was “launched” in Brussels in 1930, under the name Fereidoun M. Esfandiary. The son of an Iranian diplomat, Esfandiary was educated in Iran, England, and Israel; spoke Arabic, Hebrew, English, and French; and had lived in seventeen countries before he turned twelve. From a young age, he was a man with wide-ranging allegiances and multiple identities. He attended high school at a multilingual Palestinian Jesuit school in Jerusalem, where he waited for something glamorous to latch on to. He filled a notebook with lists of Hollywood studios, their addresses and stars, their names written in perfect, curling penmanship: Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Hedy Lamar. At the age of seventeen, Esfandiary was propelled into an even larger world, invited to represent Iran at London’s 1948 Summer Games on the country’s first Olympic basketball team.
In a letter to a friend, he wrote of leaving Tehran for the games on “an enormous and luxurious flying machine” with “exceptionally beautiful stewardesses” and a view of the Mediterranean below. In London, he was amazed at the human specimens on display—weightlifter John Davis, basketball center Bob Kurland, swimmer Ann Curtis—and went on dates with the many English girls who made themselves available to the athletes. Even at the Olympics, Esfandiary would have stood out: barrel-chested, with stern good looks; a great, rectangular body (square jaw, squared-off shoulders); a patrician nose; dark, imposing eyebrows; thick black hair brushed straight back from his forehead; perfect, almost feminine lips; and a scar like a long slash that ran down his left cheek.
After the games, Esfandiary traveled Europe for a few months and then began his journey to the United States for college. Along the way, he stopped in New York City, which struck him as a city of the future for its sheer scale (“The first time I saw the Empire State Building I could not believe my eyes”) and its round-the-clock energy (“It is broad daylight under the moon”). Pushing farther west, he visited Los Angeles, where he toured the Warner Bros. lot and spotted some of the actors from his childhood hit list. “Hollywood is really a marvel-land,” he wrote to his friend, “very beautiful and modern, abundant dancing-halls, music-halls, and luxurious restaurants where you can meet practically all the movie stars.” His trip ended in Berkeley, where he began his studies. It was 1949, and Esfandiary had developed a taste for the good life—the wide-open sense of possibility that New York and California represented. He closed his letter by asking his friend to join him out west: “We will have a car, radio, and girls, girls, girls as many as you want. We will both stay in this gorgeous, sunny, beautiful California.” His vision of an abundant, limitless future had been born.
In the ’50s, his studies completed, Esfandiary set out on his father’s diplomatic track, serving on the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine. But by his late twenties he’d turned to writing, churning out a series of novels that dealt with the shifting, conflicted sense of individual identity against the backdrop of much larger cultural change, and what he saw as the backward strictures of Middle Eastern culture. As the ’60s unfolded, Esfandiary watched as science and technology expanded the limits of the human domain: the U.S. launched its space program, shooting John Glenn into orbit aboard the Friendship 7, while at the same time the Department of Defense had begun seriously funding research into artificial intelligence, and cryonics godfather Robert Ettinger laid out the basic concept of cryopreservation in his book The Prospect of Immortality. By the mid-’60s, “futures studies”—or “futurology” or “emerging technologies”—had entered academia, spurred on by the likes of systems theorist and RAND Corporation military strategist Herman Kahn, logician Olaf Helmer, and progressive architect Buckminster Fuller. They were grouped together by a 1966 Time magazine feature, “The Futurists: Looking Toward A.D. 2000,” which launched the term into the mainstream. This fascination with the coming millennium also spawned a number of mid-’60s government-sponsored consortiums and surveys: the Commission on the Year 2000 predicted a “post-industrial society” based on services rather than on manufacturing, as well as a “national information computer-utility system” with offices and homes “‘hooked’ into giant central computers” that would provide encyclopedic information, retailing, and banking; the Kahn-coauthored study “The Year 2000” included a prescient list of future innovations, from lasers to affordable birth control to pagers and “pocket phones.”
The ’60s also brought the arrival of middle age for the former Olympian, who continued wearing the form-fitting clothes of his younger years: slim shorts and tank tops accentuating a slight paunch, or shirts unbuttoned to reveal a lion’s share of chest hair. Perhaps it was natural that at this moment, feeling the passage of time, Esfandiary began devoting himself to the prospect of eternal life. Instead of facing the narrowing opportunities that come with age, he would explode the aging process wide open.
We have reached a stage in our evolution at which pessimism, fatalism, nihilism are no longer valid philosophical attitudes.
Ours is the first Age of Optimism. We are at Optimism One.
Human evolution, FM-2030 proposed, should be viewed in two phases: first, the “animal-human,” where we are now, determined by the “biological accidents” that produced us; and soon enough, the “post-animal,” what we will become as we continue “outgrowing our evolutionary origins,” manipulating our own biology and the boundaries of the world we live in. FM referred to those working toward the post-animal state as “transhuman,” and the movement that grew up around these goals and ideas became known as transhumanism. This was, and continues to be, a community of individuals for whom the aims of building super-human intelligent machines or living to be a million years old are not outlandish or out of reach. On the contrary, transhumanists believe these are the only sensible ambitions, part of our collective destiny, and so we might as well prepare ourselves and pitch in, take ownership of the distant-seeming future and pull it closer.
Transhumanism began to take shape in the ’70s, with progress in several branches of medicine and technology that were formerly the stuff of science fiction—from artificial intelligence and plastic surgery to organ donations and the beginnings of genetic engineering. Alcor performed its first human cryopreservation in 1976. FM wrote his first book-length transhumanist manifesto, Optimism One: The Emerging Radicalism, in 1970, followed by another, Up-Wingers: A Futurist Manifesto, in 1973. He began lecturing in futures studies at the New School for Social Research, and published a series of op-ed articles in the New York Times on the rise of “interactive telecommunications,” the looming “age of intelligent machines,” and life extension. Breakthroughs in new areas of science inspired broad speculation in futurist theory—a vast divide persists to this day between necessarily slow, hyper-specialized tech research on the one hand, and the grand pronouncements of theorists on the other. But both sides of the futurist conversation have always shared a radical optimism about the future.
This optimism is FM-2030’s un-derlying contribution to the history of futurism—an outlook that would take the place of what he saw as the Western sad-sack nostalgia for a catalog of “golden ages” gone by, civilizations whose every long-ago cultural move has been romanticized all out of proportion. “A silly earthen pot found at an excavation site is drooled over and passed around from one dingy European museum to another gloomy American museum,” he wrote. “In Asia peasants piss in these pots.”
In falling so hard for the past, FM believed, these intellectuals were glossing over the true suffering and widespread ignorance of preindustrial times. “No civilization of the past was great,” he wrote in his often-cavalier style. “They were all primitive and persecutory, founded on mass subjugation and mass murder.” By constantly looking backward at some “illustrious” past that existed only for the few, Western romantics were committing the ultimate cultural crime in FM’s view: undercutting the raw possibility of today, and undermining humankind’s progress through science. “Science and Technology have become the whipping boy of Westerners,” he wrote. “Americans in particular enjoy lacerating themselves,” condemning their own useful advancements with societal prognoses of “alienation,” “dehumanization,” and “estrangement from nature.” All these conditions are bogus, FM contended. For those mourning the loss of some simpler, sunlit, bucolic past, FM prescribed a trip to the jungle. “This is where they will find the rule of force at work… the terrorized cries of an animal being pursued, the agonized shrieks of an animal being devoured,” he wrote. “This is nature at its most natural.”
Used correctly, technology should make humankind tower over, rather than cower under. FM took technology personally—as in this typically orgasmic passage from Optimism One:
When I see a skyscraper I do not feel dwarfed by it. I feel enormously extended. I feel I am the skyscraper or that it is a part of me… When I feel the power of a giant jet engine I am exhilarated because I know that the formidable thrust and power essentially issue out of me—its human creator.
Even if FM had no hand in its design and construction, each new machine, each breakthrough, somehow amplified his own place in the universe.
This narcissistic take on technology—however much of a rush it provided—was also irresponsible. While Herman Kahn outlined the horror-show effects of nuclear fallout, and Fuller laid out pioneering arguments in favor of environmental awareness and sustainable design, FM refused to be bogged down by the fine points. He remained a cheerleader for progress in the broadest strokes, spurring us on—and leaving it to others to sort out the consequences. The ethical conflicts wrapped up in our uses of technology are only more glaring decades later: the human cost of globalization, the rise of drone warfare, the constant monitoring and marketing that attends our every move online. But there was no room for pessimism in FM’s universe. That was for the “losers,” the “messengers of doom.”
His role instead was that of the passionate eccentric, the Antonin Artaud of futurism: a writer whose substance lay in his high-pitched manifestos rather than his carefully researched forecasts. FM was a man of Large Thoughts—he wrote in a Germanic, capital-letter-heavy, comma-free style, with no time for hard scientific data. (As with many movements, those who write the most high-flying calls to action are often not the thinkers you’d turn to for the information necessary to actually move things forward.) Absolutely high on possibility—the New York Times dubbed him “a prophet of boom”—FM called for “a visionary new image of ourselves… for our emerging situation in an exploding expanding universe.” As he outlined in Up-Wingers, we were entering another dimension—the “Up-dimension”—in which the progressives would be neither left nor right but “up”: “Up-Wingers.” The Up-Winger “accept[s] no human predicament as permanent no tragedy as irreversible no goals as unattainable”; he embraces change, and sings-the-body-electric of each new development. We should no longer presume that nature rules human life, or that we are bound by the laws of evolution, or that we are confined to our biological bodies and restricted to this one planet. And we should no longer presume that our existence is constrained by death.
Some of FM’s prophecies, his biggest conceptual leaps, actually paid off. He was one of the first to write about solar energy, 3-D printing, and globalization. He foresaw, forty years ago, a worldwide web of technology that would enable us all to remain constantly connected through “global telecommunication”—what he would later call “UniCom.” Technology was radically connecting us, blurring boundaries in unprecedented ways: “Our very psyches are enmeshing… Can there be any doubt that a universal conscience is rapidly developing?” The individual was loosening his grip on the social categories that historically defined him, “gladly disencumbering himself” of his culturally sanctioned identity. The Up-Winger vision of the not-so-distant future was one of wide-ranging socialand beyond a massive, immortal human commonwealth.
FM was an unquestioning, gung-ho proponent of selective reproduction and genetic engineering. “We must jointly decide how many new lives the world can accommodate every week every month every year. We must jointly participate in procreation by using our healthiest sex cells,” he wrote. “Let every newborn have the best available genetic foundation. Let every newborn belong biologically and socially to the whole world.” How this would be organized, and how we would determine what was “healthiest,” seemed beyond him. In one lecture he referred to genetic engineering as an area of research “which for no reason at all seems to really frighten people.” Perhaps the memory of World War II could not be reconciled with his relentlessly positive world view.
In spite of his dodgy relationship to the nuts and bolts of technological progress, FM considered it his calling, as a pioneering futurologist and self-described “long-range planner,” to help smooth the transition into the Brave New World for less-future-oriented mainstream folk. He did this through a series of university courses—first at the New School, and then at UCLA Extension. These included such topics as “Cosmic Activism,” “new post-family Universal Life-styles,” “Space-Age Communities,” “the planetization of humanity,” and “the drive to physical immortality.” His courses were capped off with a one-day session in which FM helped his students develop strategies for such new challenges as “coping with breakdowns in family and exclusivity. Easing and minimizing pain and conflict while shifting to new lifestyles… Transcending rootedness. Evolving into a fluid universal person.” In the bold tones of a self-help guru, he promised, “With intelligent planning and commitment we can now resolve all our age-old problems, attain all our boldest visions.” As a traveling lecturer, he brought that message to a bizarrely diverse audience: he gave talks at the Smithsonian Institute and at architecture and design conventions; he lunched with the president of Cornell University; he consulted with the Institute of Life Insurance, the Committee for Elimination of Death, and New Jersey’s Society for the Investigation of Recurring Events, even appearing alongside tarot-card readers.
In the ’80s, transhumanism gained a modest hold on the West Coast. It was during this period, while teaching at UCLA, that Esfandiary made the florid gesture of shedding his hereditary name and christening himself “FM-2030,” in honor of the year in which he looked forward to completing his first century. He published Are You a Transhuman?, packed with questionnaires to determine whether the reader maintained a sufficiently futurist lifestyle, and made a series of TV appearances selling his brand of transhumanism on the Today show, Good Morning America, and Larry King Live. But a new injection of energy came with the ’90s internet boom and its flood of tech start-ups. Online, transhumanism was able to develop into a true cultural movement. Max More cofounded the first dedicated transhumanist organization, the Extropy Institute, whose early email list included the likes of nanotechnology godfather Eric Drexler and AI gurus Hans Moravec and Marvin Minsky. Extropy went on to organize the first major transhumanist conferences, in the mid-’90s, and began to more carefully define the movement’s terms: FM’s unbridled Optimism was tempered into “practical optimism,” for instance, and all transhumanists were declared to be pro-choice regarding the right to transform yourself through technology. Outposts developed in Sweden, Germany, and the Netherlands, and soon the World Transhumanist Association (now known as Humanity+) was established. The concept of a “technological singularity”—a moment in the future when artificial intelligence will surpass our own—entered the popular imagination through Ray Kurzweil’s 1999 best seller, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, eventually making Kurzweil the movement’s biggest celebrity. (Late last year he was named director of engineering at Google.)
It became increasingly clear that FM was one of those who’d rushed through the gate, and now more rigorous, pragmatic intellectuals were following to create something lasting out of the enthusiastic futurist mess. The first Transhumanist Reader, a thoroughly academic collection published last month, gives a sense of the movement’s breadth and depth. FM’s writings are not included. Instead, he is name-checked in More’s introductory essay as “one of the most comprehensively (if sometimes idiosyncratic) transhumanist thinkers,” “more literary than academic,” with a notably “personal nature” to his brand of futurism.
In spite of its grandiose proclamations about limitless human potential, transhumanism is a movement that is perhaps equally about human loneliness, dissatisfaction, and longing. As he wrote in Up-Wingers, FM believed that loneliness had long been misunderstood as a psychological issue, when it is actually rooted in the biology of our isolated bodies. “So long as we are separate biological entities,” he wrote, we will be lonely. To break through our wet-and-fleshy bio-boundaries, he suggested that we find a way to plug minicomputers and electrodes into ourselves that would allow us to tap directly into other people’s consciousness whenever we wanted to feel more connected. We would have the ability, whenever we chose, to merge deeply: “To plug in directly without words or gestures… To plug in to fuse and defuse to merge and separate. To be one and to be many. To be alone and to be unalone.” And in an even more advanced incarnation we would become “telehumans”: “people whose brains and bodies are at all times teleconnected to other brains, systems and technologies for the sake of instant, direct communication, bypassing all the walls, inhibitions and fears that have separated us through the eons.”
This idea of “merging” is related to the concept of “mind uploading”—or “whole brain emulation” or “mind transfer”—which first emerged in ’50s science-fiction stories. A hypothetical scenario, much talked about in transhumanism today, mind uploading presupposes that we’ll someday have the ability to scan an individual human brain with such clarity and accuracy that we could then copy and back it up, like a hard drive, perhaps uploading its information to a kind of cloud. That “backup” brain could then be accessed or shared or simply used as a safety measure.
“I am no longer my body,” FM wrote. “This body is simply a physical extension of me. The organs in my body the flesh the liquid the waste the limbs and bones—all these are becoming incidental to my existence.” Our flesh is on the verge of becoming the cast-off of our primitive self, less and less necessary for survival, the part of us that functions like “a bad robot.” He put it even more bluntly: “What is so sacrosanct about this so-called natural body that we should leave it untouched? What is so beautiful about our animal liver or kidney—or any blob of flesh or piece of skin? A horse’s ass is also skin. What is so romantic about defecating?”
FM believed that nothing was “artificial,” that anything we can conjure up on Earth is “natural” enough. What we make of ourselves, being human-made, will be more human than what we are today. In this way, the post-human is ultra-human.
We did not choose our body. We had nothing to say about it. It has been imposed on us by evolution itself influenced by the hostile environment.
But we can now remake the human body into something beautiful varied fluid durable. Into something expressing our new visions.
And how do we become more human than human? FM ran through a litany of possibilities. He suggested we implant “micro-lasers and micro-radars and sonars” in our eyes to see through objects and across long distances, antennas in our ears to “tune into voices and sounds from anywhere on this planet and from far away in outer space,” and maybe even gills and wings for more versatile travel. After all, even in the ’70s, the body was being redone, tinkered with, adapted. Jumping forward thirty years, when South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius first began competing in the Paralympics in 2004 (and before he became the subject of macabre headlines), we were introduced to the sight of a champion with carbon-fiber scythes in place of human limbs. It looked to many as if a new cyborg species had been born, in no way trying to mimic the body of a man but instead to improve upon it for a highly specialized skill.
But Pistorius, whose lower legs were amputated when he was eleven months old, had a need, a clear physical disability, that was addressed with his nonhuman limbs. It would be a different proposition entirely—and closer to what FM proposed—for a man to request that his functioning legs be surgically amputated and replaced with, say, a set of attachments for navigating different terrains. Because while one might argue that someone like Pistorius is, physically, transhuman or post-human, the larger transhumanist picture is about choice—actively embracing a new definition of what we call “healthy” or “normal” or “human.” At least for now—until we are all racing against the apocalypse, shoving our way into space capsules in an evacuation to Mars—there is still an element of play to all this. While a transgendered person, for instance, might have surgery out of a deeply rooted need to live in a body other than that in which they were born, the vast majority of human beings do not wake up in the morning with a hard-wired desire to have their parts replaced with advanced machinery.
This is where a sort of compulsive desire for control creeps in. Transhumanism—at least FM’s flavor of transhumanism—has as its farthest end goal infinite choice. When we can genetically engineer and surgically modify every element of our biological self, and cryonically delay every step in the aging process, what then are we left with but a designer animal? A creature whose narrative has been made completely open-ended? And if we are built from choices—stackable, interlocking parts that form a container for our brains—then what is left of our bodies that is essentially human? Minus the pathos of bodily distress and deterioration, what will become the defining truth of being human?
The ultimate goal for transhumanists has never been merely to improve mankind, but to defeat our greatest opponent: death. Of course, not all champions of Progress make the titanic leap to Immortality—the jump is so vast, so wildly immodest and presumptuous as to cross over into the realm of the kind of uncomfortably eccentric. But as FM would put it, “No one today can be too optimistic.” Transhumanists, in their crusade against time, have begun to buy themselves some of it, at the cost of a pricey life-insurance policy. With some cryoprotectants and a lot of liquid nitrogen, humanity—or at least the one-thousand-ish people affiliated with Alcor, currently the largest cryonics group in the country—has been gifted with the semi-scientific semi-possibility of radically extended life. Die a clinical “death,” go to sleep, wake up eons later, when existence is a whole new ball game. So when will immortality come? FM’s call, from the distant viewpoint of the early ’70s, was a no-big-deal thirty or forty years away—which would be right about now. While this has yet to happen, in the interim Alcor has cryopreserved 117 people, both whole-body and head-only (or “neuro”). And as of this March, it had 985 active members waiting for their turn to be carefully lowered into an aluminum tank.
When the end came for FM-2030’s animal-human life, it came as a surprise. Sixty-nine years old, still far from the century on Earth his adopted name was meant to mark, he had been suffering from pancreatic cancer—often a death sentence—but did not believe his condition was terminal. Perhaps for this reason, in spite of years of campaigning for cryopreservation, he had made no arrangements for his body after its clinical death. No Alcor members were on hand to jump-start the cooling process and pump him full of the drugs in their travel kit of “cryoprotectants.” Instead, FM’s biological self was taken to a mortuary, where precious pre-cryo minutes were lost in an argument over how to process a deceased man whose name was a series of initials and numbers. Thirty hours had already passed by the time FM’s body was received at Alcor headquarters, in Arizona.
Once his neck was separated from his shoulders, the body was carted off for cremation, leaving his head, and all its complex contents, on its own. Two small holes were bored into the skull through which to monitor the brain as the surgeons rinsed out the remaining blood and replaced it with a cocktail of chemical preservatives. The head, its stump now punched through with a neck bolt for easier lifting, was placed inside a tank that spilled over with white curls of smoky gas. And so, placed upside down into an aluminum box, it was lowered—ever so carefully, by crane—into a shiny silver capsule: a ten-and-a-half-foot-tall, high-sheen aluminum tank. There the head was stacked, one of five other neuro patients within a ring of whole-body patients, all submerged in liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees.
That is how it began: the indefinite wait. It continues today, thirteen years later.
Without the larger ideas, the jumbo-size dream, A-1261 is no more than a severed head waiting for a body that may never come, a brain that may never have a chance to reconnect its millions of neurons to the outside world. This is the face of hope—little more than a face, suspended upside down in liquid nitrogen.