IN THE FUTURE, MARTIN AMIS HAS WRITTEN, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes -- but only inside their own heads.
Listening to the self-proclaimed "transhumanist" and "extropic" artist Natasha Vita-More, I am inclined to say that the future has arrived. But that can't be right. First, I only know about Natasha because she is already, to some extent, famous -- being dubbed "a superhuman object of desire" by the Atlantic Monthly online and featured on a "Great Thinkers" Web site doesn't happen to just anyone. Second, there's a TV crew in her living room. The interviewer, an English woman from the Discovery Channel, is earnestly asking Natasha questions about life extension. Crouched on a small carpeted staircase, I sit and watch, feeling vaguely ashamed of my profession. It's an irony of the age: You show up to cover a story, wondering if it really deserves to be written about, and someone else from the media is already there.
But who knows? Perhaps this is an important story. Southern California has brought us bodybuilders, joggers, Ronald Reagan, Mickey Mouse, the Internet and alfalfa-sprout salads. Now there are transhumans among us.
Natasha with her Transfelines, Quasar and Quark
Natasha Vita-More is a pretty, petite, extremely fit and youthful 50-year-old artist and writer whose philosophy of "transhumanism" appears to consist of a boosterish vision of technology and the future combined with a taste for space exploration, genetic engineering, body sculpting, plastic surgery, a greatly extended life span and, if all else fails, cryonics. The basic idea behind transhumanism is this: Humans are destined to evolve beyond their current earthbound, biology-based condition. Right now we are entering a transhuman phase of history, and transhumanists can be defined as people who understand and welcome this change. People with pacemakers, handicapped athletes with robotic limbs, to take just two examples, are already in some sense transhuman, since they have been technologically "augmented." Posthumans (which we are destined to become) will be almost entirely augmented -- human minds in artificial, eternally upgradable bodies with built-in sex and gender options.
A frank adversary of death ("I have no tolerance for it, no time for it. It just makes me angry. It's the cruelest thing to happen to any human being"), Natasha has managed to look like a woman who, though clearly not 30 or even 40, doesn't look 50, either. Thanks to good bone structure, weightlifting and a brother who is a plastic surgeon, in Natasha's case age seems to have become blurred, confused, to some extent even vanquished. Though not entirely: One has only to look at the long legs of the interviewer's 20-something assistant, languorously stretched out on the other side of the living room, to see that age is not so easily conquered as that. The 50-year-old may not look like a 50-year-old, but the 25-year-old does look 25. To erase the obvious signs of age is not to recapture the bloom of youth.
A journalist who visits a woman with as rosy a vision of the future as Natasha is perhaps bound to focus on the more humdrum -- not to mention mortal -- aspects of her existence. To notice, for instance, the everyday sadness that clings to the somewhat sterile furnishings of the compact Marina del Rey apartment she shares with her 36-year-old husband, fellow transhumanist Max More; the absence of light on the cramped, dark balcony; the sense that, whatever claims are being made for the future, the present is being financed by routine freelance office work.
Still, Natasha remains optimistic. For her, the effort to live a long time is a kind of performance art. She's a life artist, and she plans on having a longer career than most. A former girlfriend of film director Volker Schlöndorff, she was once a stringer for The Hollywood Reporter and appears to have spent much of the 1970s and '80s on the fringes of the film and performance-art communities. In person, she laughs a great deal and has a brittle vivaciousness that is alternately charming and unnerving. On another visit, I ask her exactly how she thinks we'll get from the human to the "posthuman." We're sitting in her "studio," which turns out to be no more than a small split-level office space decorated with posters of her futuristic artwork and arranged around a desktop computer with a model of a human brain resting on top of it.
"How will we get to the posthuman? It sounds strange, it sounds like an oxymoron, but it will probably be a natural process," she says, laughing and showing her pearly teeth. "We're at the early transhuman stage now. Then we'll get to mid-transhuman stage, where we start shedding more and more of our biology, start interfacing more and more with machines, prosthetics, implants, transplants. It's a process, and it's becoming more rapid all the time. As we start extending life span, what seems absurd today will no longer seem absurd 30 years from now, because our values change over time."
Just as the art of the Futurists in the early part of the 20th century was always pushing a Futurist viewpoint, transhumanist or "extropic" art (the neologism "extropy" denotes the opposite of entropy) functions as a series of advertisements for the transhumanist vision of the future. If extropic art is a reliable indicator, the future will be pretty chilly, not to mention cheesy. Anders Sandberg, one of the movement's better-known artists, gives his comix-visionary images names like Air Castle, Dance of the Replicators and Metastep, and the images are about as beguiling as the titles. Perhaps posthumans would like them, but for now they are almost entirely lacking in interest. Without the Internet, one suspects, the extropic art movement would barely exist at all.
As for Natasha's art, her images have titles such as DNA Breakout! and The Automorpher. One of her better pieces (Ad for the Future Body) is a satirical take on a car ad, only in this case what is being advertised is the new trans- or posthuman body. Over a picture of a bionically enhanced Natasha in a crouching, feline pose is inscribed the slogan "Primo 3M+ Has Arrived!" And under that, "The days of worrying about mileage are gone forever! Our odometer measures years of experience not depreciation." In her self-published book, Create/Recreate: The Third Millennial Culture, Natasha provides a gloss for this image. In one column are a list of attributes of the "20th Century Human Body" ("Limited life span, inherited genes, gender-restricted, corrosion by irritability, envy, depression," etc.), and in another the attributes of the "21st Century Primo 3M+" ("Ageless, replaceable genes, upgrades, gender changeability, turbocharged optimism," etc.).
Natasha calls herself an artist, but she might more accurately be viewed as a symptom. She wants to live forever, and if not forever, then for a very long time -- 120 years minimum. The desire is as old as mankind, but now science is catching up with desire. Most people are still reluctant to look this desire in the face. Death is awful, but an endlessly prolonged life span seems unimaginable, even monstrous. Thus we avert our eyes from the grave while turning a deaf ear to the increasingly insistent whispers (in magazines, television programs and the like) that there will come a day when a 70-year-old will look and feel like a 30-year-old. And now here is Natasha (along with other people like her) saying, But I want to live forever, and I will gladly make use of any scientific breakthroughs that allow me to do so!
Thus, what once looked like fate -- aging, death -- may one day begin to look more and more like choice: The choice not to prolong one's life span, the choice to be human rather than trans- or even posthuman. On a grander scale, it's not so very different from the choice mildly depressed people face now: Do I take myself as I am, or do I get some happy pills? And the choices will continue to pile up, with those who are willing to put hours of research into their "options" (genetic, medical, pharmaceutical, etc.) coming out on top. Sometimes the future looks like a place in which only people who enjoy reading manuals will thrive.
IF SO, MAX MORE SHOULD DO PRETTY WELL. Max, who studied philosophy at Oxford and works as a consultant for technology firms, looks like he could inhale a manual for breakfast. Max is from Bristol, England, and has lived in the States since 1987. He has a trim, weight-trained body and wears his reddish-blond hair in a ponytail. According to Natasha, his philosophy of extropianism is "the only new philosophy created in the late 20th century."
"Extropians," as Natasha explains in her slightly feverish fashion, "are very advanced transhumanists who are in the business of taking action and working progressively. The extropian is a transhumanist, but not all transhumanists are extropian. The extropians are the largest group of transhumanists -- actually, most transhumanists are extropians, but not exclusively. Extropy is a philosophy. Transhumanism is just a belief, an understanding, a way of looking at the world. I wrote the first transhumanist declaration -- well, [novelist and futurist] FM-2030 actually did. I'm the first female transhumanist. Max is the creator of extropian philosophy, but that philosophy is based in part on transhuman ideas. I'm the author of the transhuman art statement and manifesto."
Extropy, as noted, is designed to do battle with entropy -- the law of thermodynamics that suggests that, in this universe at any rate, it is in the nature of things to slowly wind down. Slowly winding down is not an option as far as extropians are concerned. Max's first extropian principle is Perpetual Progress: "Seeking more intelligence, wisdom and effectiveness, an indefinite life span, and the removal of political, cultural, biological and psychological limits to self-actualization and self-realization. Perpetually overcoming constraints on our progress and possibilities. Expanding into the universe and advancing without end." Other extropian principles include Practical Optimism, Intelligent Technology, Open Society and Rational Thinking.
Max's birth name is Max O'Connor. (Natasha's is Nancie Clark -- adopting a new name seems to be a transhumanist rite of passage.) He chose the name More, he says, as a reminder "that I'm a process, to become more than I am, and to continue to improve." (Someone once suggested that he call himself Max Most, but Max thought that would be going too far.) The extropian viewpoint, he explains, "is very Aristotelian in a way. It's all about being vigorous, making use of your capabilities. It's all about excellence, about self-improvement, about not being satisfied with who you are." It is also very Nietzschean -- the German philosopher's notion of "self-overcoming" appears to have been a big influence on extropian thinking. Other intellectual forebears include Leonardo da Vinci, Julian Huxley (Aldous' brother), Teilhard de Chardin, Abraham Maslow and the aforementioned FM-2030, whose book Are You a Transhuman? was published in 1989. "I have no age. Am born and reborn every day. I intend to live forever," FM-2030 is quoted as saying in Natasha's book. Unfortunately, he died last year.
For Max, interest in testing human limitations started early. He watched the Apollo 11 moon landing when he was 5, and continued to watch all the other moon landings after everyone else had lost interest. At the age of 12, he was already â gobbling vitamins and working out with weights. When he was 18, he read Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw's best-selling book Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach. At Oxford -- a Libertarian fitness freak in a sea of chain-smoking Marxists -- he started a life-extension organization and made headlines by becoming the first person in England to sign up for cryonic suspension. Shortly before leaving England to do his Ph.D. at USC -- he had always wanted to live in California, he explains -- he was interviewed about his ideas on television.
Fourteen years later, Max feels good about transhumanism. "It's really an exploding movement," he tells me when I visit him at the Marina del Rey apartment. "More and more people are discussing these ideas, whether pro or con. Both Natasha and I independently have been interested in this stuff for a long, long time, back before anyone was discussing it. That's what brought Natasha and I together, really. We were both involved in these ideas on separate development paths, and we came together at one point at a life-extension event, spoke to each other and found a meeting of the minds as well as the attractions."
Max's major concern right now is longevity. He doesn't seem fanatical about it, but he's doing everything he can to make sure he's still around when a major breakthrough in life extension occurs. What surprises him is how little other people seem to care about it.
"I think people will look back on the 20th century and think, 'Why didn't more people see that there was a possibility now of actually doing something about aging and death, and why didn't people do something?'" he says, sounding slightly indignant. "'Why wasn't there a massive interest in this? Why did it take people so long to catch up?' I think it's because most people don't want to think about it, they're not sure. So long as it's uncertain, they'd rather not deal with it."
That human life will be extended Max has no doubt. The future he envisions is one in which humans gradually merge with machines and few new lives come into being. Children will become "very rare and very prized," he says, and 200-year-old grownups will be as common as teens at the mall. "You have to be careful not to think in terms of just one change, because everything will be different," he advises. "The whole society and economy will be different, with older vigorous people running things. It may be that very young people may need to have some sort of apprenticeship before they can really be part of the society. If people are 200 years old, then 30 or 40 may be thought of as rather adolescent and irresponsible."
I suggest that for the 30- and 40-year-olds, this could be a bit irritating.
"It kind of makes sense, though," Max replies. "People who commit crimes tend to be younger people. You do generally learn things as you get a little older. You can get set in your ways in other ways. I think what we'll have is what I call 'ultramature' people, who've learned a lot through life by paying attention, and by not having lost their vitality. They'll be very different people. They certainly won't be people who want wars, and conflicts, because they'll have a very long-range view. They'll be people who think long-term, who think about the environment and plan ahead."
Much of what Max and Natasha anticipate in the near future -- glasses that beam the Internet directly onto our eyeballs, for instance, or expanded working memory and the "rewiring" of the brain -- can now be read about in newspapers and magazines every day. But Max goes further. He foresees a time when "we finally migrate off the biological hardware onto a different platform" and describes himself as being only "accidentally" a human. "That's what I happen to be right now," he says, "but I'm really a process, a personality that exists through time changing, that may or may not have the same hardware x many years from now." What makes us human, he insists, is not our fleshly packaging, but what we value and believe.
"I think we'll gradually augment our brains with computer power, and the brain will increasingly become a vestigial organ, less and less useful to us," he says. "We'll be doing more and more thinking and feeling with synthetic organs, if you like. We'll no longer be bound to the tyranny of our biological bodies."
EXTROPIAN PRINCIPLE NO. 3: "FUELING ACTION With Positive Expectations. Adopting a rational, action-based optimism, in place of both blind faith and stagnant pessimism." When you listen to Max and Natasha for a while, it occurs to you that transhumanism is as much a religion as a philosophy, however "rational" its adherents may wish to appear. Floating around transhumanist circles is a vision they call "The Singularity": a time when technological progress attains maximum velocity and transhumans graduate to a godlike, posthuman status: Nietzschean supermen with prosthetic limbs and gigantic brains.
"Transhumanism," as Natasha tells me one day over the phone, "is a particular belief system" for people who want to actively "pursue superlongevity, human interface with technology, enhancing their mental and physical capabilities, and it gets much more detailed than that. People who want to go out into space, who want to live fully. The opposite of that would be the Luddites, people who are afraid of technology."
But there are times when Luddism seems comparatively realistic -- at least for now. Try living to be 200 years old, for instance. Just try. Or try going out into space. How on Earth -- ha ha -- would you go about it? Speculating about the future is fascinating in its way, but most of us would just as soon wait until we get there. If someone had told a late-19th-century peasant that soon people would be able to fly in gigantic winged steel tubes with numbered seats in them, he'd have been right, but so what? A lot of good it was going to do the peasant, who would have probably hit him over the head with a pitchfork. Perhaps one day we'll all be transhumans, or posthuman cyborgs, but since we're not cyborgs now, it's hard to get too worked up about it.
Still, only a hypocrite would deny the temptation is there -- particularly when it comes to longevity. One night, during a workout at the gym, I pick up a magazine someone has left on a table, Benning's Health & Fitness Journal. In it is an article entitled "Get Lean, Boost Your Energy, Sex Drive and More." Essentially, it's an ad for Regenesis, a repackaged form of growth hormone (GH), which is naturally secreted by the pituitary gland. As we age, the secretions diminish significantly. GH is available only through prescription, must be administered by a doctor and costs $800 to $1,000 a month. As a result (according to the author of the article), its exposure has been limited to the medical profession, the wealthy and celebrities. But now . . . thanks to Regenesis, all that has changed. Repackaging GH as an oral spray, Regenesis is retailing at an affordable $89 for a month's supply.
The benefits of taking GH seem extraordinary. In a section of the article entitled "A Guide to What Most People Experience," I learn that during the first month alone I can expect to sleep more deeply, have more energy and feel better, both physically and psychologically, than I have in years. But that's just the beginning. By the second month I'll be losing fat and gaining muscle even if I do nothing but sit around reading Proust in the original French. My hair and nails will grow faster, my sex drive will return to adolescent levels and my vision will improve. By the third month, with my body now in pantherlike fettle, improvement in the old brain pan will kick in too. And so it will continue: greater flexibility, diminished sensitivity to pain, muscles that literally grow in my sleep, vastly improved memory, skin tone, resistance to viruses, etc. The old saw that youth is wasted on the young will finally be overturned. I will be young again, only with all the resources of a vast, canny, and sly experience at my disposal.
It sounds, I have to say, pretty damn good. But, obviously, there's a catch. At its dosage, Regenesis isn't likely to have the desired effect -- or so my next-door neighbor, a personal trainer who knows about these things, suggests. If you want the real thing, you'll have to pay the real price. (And one suspects that, in the long term, that won't work either -- otherwise we'd all be standing in line for it anyway.) I ask Max if he's taken GH, and he says no, he's just been through an extensive program of physiological testing at the Kronos Clinic, an "age management" institute in Arizona, and he doesn't need it. (He doesn't rule out taking it in the future, however.) But he's still taking plenty of supplements. "When I was an undergraduate at Oxford, I had several shelves of bottles and pills, and people would come to my room and goggle-eye at them," he says. "To me, it's very important to live by your principles, so if I believe in life extension, I shouldn't just be reading the articles on stem-cell research, I should be exercising and eating well, and taking whatever supplements there's good evidence for and so on."
Max certainly looks very fit -- with his black T-shirt, jeans and ponytail, he could pass for a character in a cop show on the USA Network -- and his gray matter seems to be functioning nicely, too. I ask him if his hope for longevity makes him particularly fearful of dying in a car crash or being run over as he crosses the street.
"These are things you can't control, so there's no point in worrying about them," he replies. "I don't think about those things."
A FEW WEEKS LATER, MAX NEARLY HAS an accident in his car. He's just retrieved it from the auto shop, where he took it for a tune-up. When he lifts his foot off the accelerator, the car won't slow down. According to Natasha, he's pretty shaken up -- not to mention furious at his mechanic.
Still, he certainly isn't hysterical -- just a little paler than usual. We're at the MGM building in Santa Monica, where Natasha has just addressed a meeting of the Space Tourism Society, when Max pulls up in his defective Ford Focus. The three of us have arranged to eat lunch together in Beachwood Canyon, after which we'll go up to the house of the film director Matthew Patrick. A friend of Natasha, he has agreed to photograph her for a multimedia art piece she'll release on the Internet on February 1 (www.natasha.cc/primo.htm).
Since his car is too dangerous to drive, Max rides with me as we follow Natasha from Santa Monica to Beachwood Canyon. It's a Saturday afternoon shortly before Christmas, and traffic is heavy. I say something about the traffic to Max, but he seems unperturbed. Twenty years from now, he says, the problem will no longer exist. Our cars and road systems will all be automated -- we'll just sit there reading or playing games while our cars do the driving. To me, 20 years seems quite a long way off, but to Max, it's right around the corner. The mere thought of the future seems to have a mantralike ability to soothe him: Come the Singularity, everything will be fine.
Max is a quiet, ruminative type. He's happy to talk but seems equally comfortable with silence. Natasha is the reverse: She's a performer at heart. This was clear at the Space Tourism meeting. The gathering had been organized by a friend of hers, a "space architect" named John Spencer, and without a friend running it I doubt she would have been invited to take part. Most of the people there were earnest space-program types: dreamers of a sort, but practical ones. They talked about presenting an award to the first woman to walk on the moon, and discussed the rehabilitation of the Mir space station in detail. But they weren't particularly concerned about their own bodies, which was what Natasha was there to talk to them about.
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Her basic message was sensible enough: If you're going to think seriously about extending human life through space, you might as well consider extending it through time as well. After all, it might take years just to reach some of those planets. And who was to say that our bodies, as currently formulated, would adapt to space, anyway? We might suffer from some form of solar sickness, or even a debilitating nostalgia for Mother Earth. If we're going to enter new habitats, we'll need new bodies to travel in -- that, more or less, was her brief. But something about the manner in which she delivered it ("Death is not an option" . . . "I am a conceptual artist and I am a visionary" . . .) jarred. And when she began to talk about her Primo 3M+ concept, and passed around photographs of herself in lush gymnastic poses, a few audience members snickered.
As a result of the traffic, by the time we reach Beachwood Canyon it's too late for us to have lunch. So we order some takeout at a restaurant. While waiting, I ask Max how many transhumanists there are. He estimates between 5,000 and 7,000 -- the exact figure doesn't seem to interest him very much -- and tells me that he and Natasha receive e-mails from them on a daily basis. (A look at the Web site shows organized groups in various European countries, as well as the e-mail addresses of individuals from Saskatchewan to Argentina searching for fellow extropians.) There are some particularly illustrious extropians/transhumanists, like the author and inventor Ray Kurzweil or the artificial-intelligence expert Marvin Minsky, but Max doesn't seem to care about that very much, either. He and Natasha are doing this for their own reasons, not because it's cool or trendy or because someone else is doing it. It's their own journey. People will either pick up on the idea or they won't.
When our sandwiches are ready, we head up to the photographer's house. Natasha has brought some extra clothes with her, including a backless black top that goes well with her faux-leather trousers. ("Natasha would never wear real leather," Max informs me.) Both muscular and voluptuous, Natasha's body certainly makes an impressive advertisement for longevity. After spraying herself lightly with water for the "wet" look, she strikes a back-twisting pose. "That shows your spine in a good light," Max notes approvingly. "It's a good groove, like a communications highway."