“I’m currently arguing with my wife. She wants our daughters to take piano lessons but I don’t see the point when they’ll just be downloading them one day.’
In a modest, wooden house, situated at the edge of the John Muir Woods in California, Zoltan Istvan sits opposite me.
Blink and you’d miss the small tell tale signs that this isn’t your usual home. The children’s drawings, the family portraits and the unwashed dishes are all what you’d expect to find. What you perhaps wouldn’t expect to find is that the front door can only be opened using a microchip embedded in Zoltan’s hand.
If you hadn’t realised already - despite appearances - Zoltan isn’t your typical American dad.
The belief in a better life
Zoltan Istvan is a Transhumanist. This means his choices and actions are guided by the belief that we can, and most importantly should, use science and technology to change the basic facts of the human condition - even if it means changing the inherent biology of the human body.
For some Transhumanists, it’s our limited ‘meat machine’ brains that hold us back, for others, our mortality.
To date, this philosophy has resulted in a myriad of interesting implications: some are researching the possibility of the human body using photosynthesis to generate energy. A company is making money out of cryonics (the low-temperature freezing of the human corpse with the hope that resuscitation may be possible in the future) and various proponents are talking of a not-too-far off future where we can download information into the brain at the click of a button.
But while the implications of such a philosophy can stretch to every corner of the imagination, at its core, Transhumanism is a movement predicated on two key assumptions:
Humans are inherently flawed; needing improving beyond what evolution has done for us to date
Science and technology is the way to save us from this condition
The movement has, unsurprisingly, sparked lively debate. It’s a big pill (or implant) to swallow. Who enjoys being told that they, and their loved ones, are fundamentally flawed?
From the fringes to the mainstream: a lesson in shifting the context of what is ‘rational’
Yet in recent years, the movement has seen a change from a niche set of ideals resigned to the shadowy corners of science fiction to one that has permeated the media, politics and businesses.
Zoltan Istvan has been a key figure in rebranding the movement - raising awareness by running for Governor of California in 2018.
So how did one man rebrand a whole movement? How did he make the unpalatable so palatable?
This can tell us more than just why Istvan is so impressive; it reveals the very way fringe ideas can, and continue to, find the cracks in what is considered the ‘norm’ and slowly infiltrate their way into the mainstream.
1. Right place, right time
Istvan’s home is the Bay Area. Home to Apple, Facebook and most notably, Microsoft. Look a bit deeper and you find usual conventions don’t quite apply.
To start with, unlike the buzzing metropolis of its many larger city US counterparts, in Silicon Valley (the beating heart of new tech businesses) there are no skyscrapers brandishing company names, nor is there a Hollywood-like sign in the hills announcing “tech town”.
While many cities celebrate their provenance, the Bay area is a place continually fleeing into the future - developing new ideas for problems that people don’t yet know they even have.
If Transhumanism could have had any heartland, it would be here.
Unlike other areas of the world, the underlying cultural rules in this area encourages a unique kind of thinking that punishes the traditional. Millions aren’t made through careful strategic vision, but a “Move Fast and Break Things” mentality*. Those who dare to think out of the box, even to the extent of what would normally be considered ‘irrational’ or ’radical’, are the ones who thrive.
So what does this teach us on a broader level about fringe ideas?
To positively disrupt, every fringe group must find a place where the traditional rules that would usually keep them on the ‘outside’, don’t stifle their point of difference, rather allow them the freedom to thrive. In this safe space, they are able to gain traction and spread the word before breaking the mainstream, stronger than ever before.
Take any sub cult and put it under the lens and you’ll see this same humble story told over and over again: From Comic-Con, the once niche 100 person convention that now sees 130,000 people pass through its door every year, to skateboarding - the once dangerous sub cult that is now being integrated into the design of public parks - they all found a place where they could thrive and grow in opinion.
2. Pick a common enemy and your allies will fall into place
Whether they are motivated by immortality, super strength, or photosynthesising the body, the one thing that unites all transhumanists is a frustration with established institutions.
From the government to pharma companies, these institutions are seen as blockers - hindering progression through slow-moving box ticking and long-standing rigid regulations.
In opposing such institutions, they don’t necessarily believe they can actually beat them, rather they use it as an opportunity to unite the ‘others’ holding equal frustrations with the system.
On his campaign trail, Zoltan had his enemy in sight and his allies in place: the archaic government vs the entrepreneurial tech-heavy industries of Silicon Valley. The old vs the plucky, younger, challenger. With them at his side, suddenly the notion that science and technology is a way to save us from the current perils doesn’t quite seem so radical.
“I’m sick of political candidates not talking about Science and Technology. Even though it so dramatically affects our lives”
3. The Stickiness Factor - the right people and the right message
As the world of advertising and politics shows us over and over again, just because an idea resonates with an audience, it doesn’t necessarily mean it gains traction. For a fringe idea to truly get momentum, it must be communicated in the right way and, most importantly, by the right person.
When we look at Istvan, what’s so interesting is not his controversial views, but how uncontroversial he is in person. He challenges exactly what culture says a Transhumanist should be: he’s not some science-fiction nerd, nor is he a crazy scientist wanting to chop and change the human body. Really, he’s just like you or me and he’s reaching out to global audiences through his open, relatable demeanour.
And when you’re relatable, people are more prepared to give your point of view a listen and consider it.
“Don’t look at it like we’re leaving behind humanity. We’re taking the best parts of humanity - love, honesty, integrity - and merging it with something that is brand new and even better than humanity.”
Today’s defeat is tomorrow’s win
For now Istvan is rolling up his campaign posters and planning well-earnt time off with his daughters and wife. His campaign run is over. Time is the last factor he needs on his side.
This might not have been his year, but I’m confident this isn’t the last time we see him.
The world needs radical thinkers like him who are able to reshape perspectives. Without them, we’d never have our shaky beliefs challenged. Without that, we’d never see culture shift and change.
And what kind of a world would that be to live in?