Report — From the January 2015 issue

Come With Us If You Want to Live

Among the apocalyptic libertarians of Silicon Valley

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The first day of October in 2011, two weeks into the Occupy Wall Street protests, I went down to Zuccotti Park. I was no activist; rather, a democratic-socialist introvert, fond of Antonio Gramsci’s idea that everyone is an intellectual, even if society doesn’t allow everyone to function as such. I had gone to socialist summer camp; I had spent hopeless months writing utopian fiction in the first-person plural. So, that October afternoon, I was curious and skeptical. A march began, and a chant: “We are unstoppable / Another world is possible.” It all felt preposterous, charming, and I walked along in companionable silence. Three hours later I was in zip-tie handcuffs on the Brooklyn Bridge. I spent part of the night in a holding cell with some eco-leftists, one of them a 9/11 Truther. Three quarters of their ideas were bullshit, one quarter was not. They talked; I listened while pretending to sleep.

For the first time in my adult life, something seemed to be at stake and available to anyone: how to self-organize, how to be wholly democratic, what politics meant without parties, what mutual aid and direct action could and could not accomplish, what another world might be. I kept returning to the park after my arrest. For weeks, months, it felt like my life was on hold. My head was at Zuccotti when I wasn’t, and then I would sprint over on my bike again to be alone with everyone. This was how we were supposed to live, in solidarity and disputation, full-time in a world we were making. Then Mayor Bloomberg’s cops came in and cleared the park. Talk began to wear itself out. Reality resumed its daily demands.

Illustration by Darrel Rees

Illustration by Darrel Rees

Some months later, I came across the Tumblr of Blake Masters, who was then a Stanford law student and tech entrepreneur in training. His motto — “Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.” — was taken from a science-fiction role-playing game. Masters was posting rough transcripts of Peter Thiel’s Stanford lectures on the founding of tech start-ups. I had read about Thiel, a billionaire who cofounded PayPal with Elon Musk and invested early in Facebook. His companies Palantir Technologies and Mithril Capital Management had borrowed their names from Tolkien. Thiel was a heterodox contrarian, a Manichaean libertarian, a reactionary futurist.

“I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” Thiel wrote in 2009. Freedom might be possible, he imagined, in cyberspace, in outer space, or on high-seas homesteads, where individualists could escape the “terrible arc of the political.” Lecturing in Palo Alto, California, Thiel cast self-made company founders as saviors of the world:

There is perhaps no specific time that is necessarily right to start your company or start your life. But some times and some moments seem more auspicious than others. Now is such a moment. If we don’t take charge and usher in the future — if you don’t take charge of your life — there is the sense that no one else will. So go find a frontier and go for it.

Blake Masters — the name was too perfect — had, obviously, dedicated himself to the command of self and universe. He did CrossFit and ate Bulletproof, a tech-world variant of the paleo diet. On his Tumblr’s About page, since rewritten, the anti-belief belief systems multiplied, hyperlinked to Wikipedia pages or to the confoundingly scholastic website Less Wrong: “Libertarian (and not convinced there’s irreconcilable fissure between deontological and consequentialist camps). Aspiring rationalist/Bayesian. Secularist/agnostic/ignostic . . . Hayekian. As important as what we know is what we don’t. Admittedly eccentric.” Then: “Really, really excited to be in Silicon Valley right now, working on fascinating stuff with an amazing team.”

I was startled that all these negative ideologies could be condensed so easily into a positive worldview. Thiel’s lectures posited a world in which democratic universalism had failed, and all that was left was a heroic, particularist, benevolent libertarianism. I found the rhetoric repellent but couldn’t look away; I wanted to refute it but only fell further in. I saw the utopianism latent in capitalism — that, as Bernard Mandeville had it three centuries ago, it is a system that manufactures public benefit from private vice. I started CrossFit and began tinkering with my diet. I browsed venal tech-trade publications, and tried and failed to read Less Wrong, which was written as if for aliens.

Then, in June 2013, I attended the Global Future 2045 International Congress at Lincoln Center. The gathering’s theme was “Towards a New Strategy for Human Evolution.” It was being funded by a Russian new-money type who wanted to accelerate “the realization of cybernetic immortality”; its keynote would be delivered by Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering. Kurzweil had popularized the idea of the singularity. Circa 2045, he predicts, we will blend with our machines; we will upload our consciousnesses into them. Technological development will then come entirely from artificial intelligences, beginning something new and wonderful.

After sitting through an hour of “The Transformation of Humankind — Extreme Paradigm Shifts Are Ahead of Us,” I left the auditorium of Alice Tully Hall. Bleary beside the silver coffee urn in the nearly empty lobby, I was buttonholed by a man whose name tag read michael vassar, metamed research. He wore a black-and-white paisley shirt and a jacket that was slightly too big for him. “What did you think of that talk?” he asked, without introducing himself. “Disorganized, wasn’t it?” A theory of everything followed. Heroes like Elon and Peter (did I have to ask? Musk and Thiel). The relative abilities of physicists and biologists, their standard deviations calculated out loud. How exactly Vassar would save the world. His left eyelid twitched, his full face winced with effort as he told me about his “personal war against the universe.” My brain hurt. I backed away and headed home.

But Vassar had spoken like no one I had ever met, and after Kurzweil’s keynote the next morning, I sought him out. He continued as if uninterrupted. Among the acolytes of eternal life, Vassar was an eschatologist. “There are all of these different countdowns going on,” he said. “There’s the countdown to the broad postmodern memeplex undermining our civilization and causing everything to break down, there’s the countdown to the broad modernist memeplex destroying our environment or killing everyone in a nuclear war, and there’s the countdown to the modernist civilization learning to critique itself fully and creating an artificial intelligence that it can’t control. There are so many different — on different timescales — ways in which the self-modifying intelligent processes that we are embedded in undermine themselves. I’m trying to figure out ways of disentangling all of that. . . .

“I’m not sure that what I’m trying to do is as hard as founding the Roman Empire or the Catholic Church or something. But it’s harder than people’s normal big-picture ambitions, like making a billion dollars.”

Vassar was thirty-four, one year older than I was. He had gone to college at seventeen, and had worked as an actuary, as a teacher, in nanotech, and in the Peace Corps. He’d founded a music-licensing start-up called Sir Groovy. Early in 2012, he had stepped down as president of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, now called the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI), which was created by an autodidact named Eliezer Yudkowsky, who also started Less Wrong. Vassar had left to found MetaMed, a personalized-medicine company, with Jaan Tallinn of Skype and Kazaa, $500,000 from Peter Thiel, and a staff that included young rationalists who had cut their teeth arguing on Yudkowsky’s website. The idea behind MetaMed was to apply rationality to medicine — “rationality” here defined as the ability to properly research, weight, and synthesize the flawed medical information that exists in the world. Prices ranged from $25,000 for a literature review to a few hundred thousand for a personalized study. “We can save lots and lots and lots of lives,” Vassar said (if mostly moneyed ones at first). “But it’s the signal — it’s the ‘Hey! Reason works!’ — that matters. . . . It’s not really about medicine.” Our whole society was sick — root, branch, and memeplex — and rationality was the only cure.

In the auditorium, two neuroscientists had spoken about engineering the brain, and a molecular geneticist had discussed engineering the genome. A coffee break began, and a jazz trio struck up Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.” Nearby, church bells rang noon. I asked Vassar about his friend Yudkowsky. “He has worse aesthetics than I do,” he replied, “and is actually incomprehensibly smart.” We agreed to stay in touch.

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