The Techno-Libertarians Praying for Dystopia

Peter Thiel. Photo: Andrew White/The New York Times/Redux

If you believed that the necessary next step in our species’ evolution was to merge with artificial superintelligence, and to thereby transcend our animal condition and become immortal, what effect might that have on your politics?

This is not an entirely abstract question. There are people who believe that the future of our species involves shedding our humanity in a marriage with AI; this is known as transhumanism, and it has not unreasonably been called a new tech religion. Though the movement has no explicit political affiliations, it tends, for reasons that are probably self-explanatory, to draw a disproportionate number of Silicon Valley libertarians. And the cluster of ideas at its center — that the progress of technology will inevitably render good ol’ Homo sapiens obsolete; that intelligence, pure computational power, is to be pursued above all other values — has exerted a powerful attraction on a small group of futurists whose extreme investment in techno-libertarianism has pushed them over an event horizon into a form of right-wing authoritarianism it might be useful to regard as Dark Transhumanism.

The English critical theorist turned far-right cult thinker Nick Land is usefully representative of this intellectual tendency. Although he has never identified as a transhumanist, his ideas are infused with the movement’s delirious faith in the coming merger of humans and machines. His current political vision, which he has given the flamboyantly portentous title the Dark Enlightenment, is one in which the programmer elite and their ingenious technologies rule the world. “Increasingly,” he wrote in 2014, “there are only two basic human types populating this planet. There are autistic nerds, who alone are capable of participating effectively in the advanced technological processes that characterize the emerging economy, and there is everybody else.” Many transhumanists would be inclined to reject the political implications of Land’s futurism, but his vision is only really a darker, more explicitly fascistic rendering of the kind of thinking you find in the work of the futurist Ray Kurzweil, or for that matter Wired founder Kevin Kelly, who believes that we humans are “the reproductive organs of technology”.

For Dark Transhumanists, as for the neo-reactionaries from whom they take their cues, egalitarianism is inherently incompatible with any posthuman future. Take Peter Thiel, the Facebook investor who in a 2009 essay for the libertarian journal Cato Unbound announced, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Asked in a 2011 New Yorker profile whether the kinds of life extension technologies he was investing in might exacerbate already grotesque levels of social inequality, Thiel’s response offered a glimpse into the ethical simple-mindedness of his techno-libertarianism: “Probably the most extreme form of inequality,” he said, “is between people who are alive and people who are dead.”

Or there’s Michael Anissimov, a former media director at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute — a think tank in Berkeley devoted to preventing superhuman AI from destroying humanity — who has in recent years basically cornered the white-supremacy–Singularity crossover market.

Anissimov, with his weird synthesis of 19th-century racist pseudoscience and fantastical futurism, is a Dark Transhumanist par excellence. In a 2013 interview, he outlined how the cultural ingraining of the notion that we’re all created equal left us unprepared for “a future of technologically enhanced beings.” There are, he insists, already significant disparities in intelligence between existing races. Transhuman technologies, he says, would mean situations in which “people could be lording over one another in a way that was never possible before in history.” It’s pretty clear that Anissimov sees nothing to fear in such a future, confident as he is that it will be people like him doing the lording. Despite being approvingly quoted in Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, Anissimov is these days something of a pariah from the transhumanist movement. But it is worth asking whether his specific mutation of transhumanist thinking is troubling not just because of its extremist right-wing implications, but because it magnifies illiberal, radically elitist tendencies that are inherent in transhumanism itself. Although its intellectual and spiritual roots can be traced back as far as the gnostics, transhumanism is a fever dream of contemporary technocapitalism, and it is naïve to suppose that the technological enhancements it conjures would do anything but exacerbate already existing social inequalities.

There is, in transhumanism itself, a strain of old-timey historical romanticism: a sense of history as an inexorable progress toward a teleological vanishing point, where all human meaning is subsumed and obliterated by a godlike technology. This belief that flesh is a dead format, and that our future — or that, at least, of a technological elect — involves a final merger with machines is one that interlocks in sinister ways with the view of democracy as a failed and outmoded institution. Transhumanists view the human body as a system in need of technological disruption and ultimate transcendence, and neo-reaction views the state, the body politic, in much the same manner. Seen in a certain way, this is a mind-set — a reductionist understanding of the world as a hackable system — inherent in the culture of computer science. The flesh is weak, and democracy is entropic; both are subject to forces of decay, to human inefficiencies and failings. As eccentric and fringe a phenomenon as Dark Transhumanism may be, it’s usefully viewed in this sense as an extrapolation of tendencies inherent in the mainstream techno-capitalism of Silicon Valley.

*A version of this article appears in the May 1, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

The Techno-Libertarians Praying for Dystopia