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Extropian Trash

By Annalee Newitz

I HATE the extropians. I just can't say enough bad things about their whole stupid, late-1980s Los Angeles robot cult philosophy, which I'm convinced was inspired by a combination of Christianity, transactional analysis and (perhaps worst of all) the science fiction of Robert Heinlein.

Picture this: It's 1985, and a bunch of people, too young to have been hippies, too old to understand yet that MIT's Media Lab is doomed to be irrelevant, are still recovering from having grown up during the 1960s "rocket age." Now they're living in California doing boring jobs or going to stupid private universities, and the flying cars they were promised on The Jetsons are nowhere to be seen. Plus, nobody has cured cancer, the light-filled aliens haven't arrived to impart wisdom and there still isn't an anti-aging drug they can take to preserve their wrinkle-free, preternatural tans.

So they get into self-improvement, but with a high-tech twist. They call their movement "extropy"—you know, like the opposite of "entropy," which is the process of slowing down and descending into chaos. Extropy is supposedly a way of always progressing, growing and transforming oneself—particularly by using science. The extropians decide that science is going to save them from everything, especially growing old and dying. It will be just like heaven, only with a lot more tantric sex and smart drugs.

Some of them start theorizing that in the future they'll be able to upload their brains into computers. Others request that their bodies or heads be cryogenically frozen after they die so that they can be revived, Futurama-style, in a far-distant future where everything is perfect and glorious and subject only to the laws of extropy.

You think I'm kidding, don't you? But I'm not. The extropian thing only got more popular all through the 1990s, riding the wave of dotcom psychosis into a mire of self-help delusions. Calling themselves "transhumanists" or "posthumanists," the extropians continue to preach longevity and technorapture and, occasionally, hedonism. Most of all, they proselytize for rampant individualism—it's all about achieving your dreams, making real life into science fiction so you can be whatever you want.

It's precisely the kind of pseudoreligion that would appeal to people whose lifelong devotion to high-tech capitalism leaves them with no value system other than personal accumulation. After all, extropian heaven is automatically within reach if you can afford all the life-extending gadgets and pills that will supposedly hit the marketplace any day now. I suppose that's why various stripes of extropianism have flowered among professional geeks who want to believe there is something more to existence than coding all day. Of course, that something is just more of the very same life you're already leading—which means that you'll outlive your retirement on all that Google stock money.

Although not yet as powerful as other annoying cults like evangelical Christianity and Scientology, transhumanism definitely has the potential to catch on big time. First of all, it's already fairly popular among members of the nerd elite, who've got money and control the blogosphere (I have a sudden urge to invent extropian blog conspiracy theories!). Maybe some of them can create an ExtroPAC that funds politicians if they agree to support foolish longevity research. Plus the extropians are a perfect fit for the U.S. political system because they appear to offer an alternative way of thinking while actually reinforcing the status quo.

Extropians, for all their future worship, are part of the same cultural bent toward superstition that has led George W. Bush and other right-wingers to proclaim that stem cells are full of little souls, abortion is murder, global warming is a myth and peer-to-peer networks are used primarily to disseminate child pornography. The only difference between a Bush conservative and a transhumanist is that conservatives project their fears onto technologies that they don't understand, while transhumanists project their hopes. Either way, you've got a magical interpretation of science being advanced as a creepy political agenda.

And let there be no doubt about it: the extropian agenda is creepy. Who wants to live forever in a world where only the richest people in developed countries will become immortal? It's not as if there's going to be a special cryogenics fund for everybody in Kenya and Chile. In order for people to live forever in the transhumanist future, some people will still have to live like trash. Sounds sort of like entropy to me.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd and spazhumanist who would rather die than be an extropian.

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From the September 8-14, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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