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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Back on the East Coast, summer turned into fall, and I took another shot at reading Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter fanfic. It’s not what I would call a novel, exactly, rather an unending, self-satisfied parable about rationality and transhumanism, with jokes. Still, I kept swiping the pages on my Kindle, hundreds then thousands of times, imagining a much younger, nerd-snipeable me:

[Harry Potter] said, “I’d like you to help me take over the universe.”

Hermione finished her drink and lowered the soda. “No thank you, I’m not evil.”

The boy looked at her in surprise, as though he’d been expecting some other answer. “Well, I was speaking a bit rhetorically,” he said. “In the sense of the Baconian project, you know, not political power. ‘The effecting of all things possible’ and so on. I want to conduct experimental studies of spells, figure out the underlying laws, bring magic into the domain of science, merge the wizarding and Muggle worlds, raise the entire planet’s standard of living, move humanity centuries ahead, discover the secret of immortality, colonize the Solar System, explore the galaxy, and most importantly, figure out what the heck is really going on here because all of this is blatantly impossible.”

On October 1, 2013, Republicans in Congress shut down the government. The venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya made news for crowing about how great the stagnation was for Silicon Valley. “It’s becoming excruciatingly, obviously clear to everyone else that where value is created is no longer in New York, it’s no longer in Washington, it’s no longer in L.A.,” he said. “It’s in San Francisco and the Bay Area. . . . Companies are transcending power now. We are becoming the eminent vehicles for change and influence and capital structures that matter. If companies shut down, the stock market would collapse. If the government shuts down, nothing happens and we all move on, because it just doesn’t matter.”

Balaji Srinivasan, a cofounder of the genetics start-up Counsyl, gave a talk at the start-up incubator YCombinator that got him branded the “Silicon Valley secessionist.” He clarified and amplified his argument in a November 2013 Wired essay called “Software Is Reorganizing the World”:

What we can say for certain is this: from Occupy Wall Street and YCombinator to co-living in San Francisco and co-housing in the UK, something important is happening. People are meeting like minds in the cloud and traveling to meet each other offline, in the process building community — and tools for community — where none existed before. Those cloud networks where people poke each other, share photos, and find their missing communities are beginning to catalyze waves of physical migration . . . as cloud formations take physical shape at steadily greater scales and durations, it shall become ever more feasible to create a new nation of emigrants.

In early December, I was checking Facebook when an event showed up in my news feed. “On 1/4/14, a handful of selected high perfomers [sic] will gather in a mansion in Silicon Valley to set their course for the new year,” read the copy for the Day of the Idealist. “To get a future that includes nice things like healthy lifespans, spaceships, and world peace, we need to pull together and help everyone do what they’re great at.”

I flew back to San Francisco, and my friend Courtney and I drove to a cul-de-sac in Atherton, at the end of which sat the promised mansion. It had been repurposed as cohousing for children who were trying to build the future: start-up founders, singularitarians, a teenage venture capitalist. The woman who coined the term “open source” was there, along with a Less Wronger and Thiel Capital employee who had renamed himself Eden. The Day of the Idealist was a day for self-actualization and networking, like the CFAR workshop without the rigor. We were to set “mega goals” and pick a “core good” to build on in the coming year. Everyone was a capitalist; everyone was postpolitical. I squabbled with a young man in a Tesla jacket about anti-Google activism. No one has a right to housing, he said; programmers are the people who matter; the protesters’ antagonistic tactics had totally discredited them.

It was refreshing to be there with Courtney, who had grown up nearby but since lived in New York, Los Angeles, and India. She told me she had started a fight during a discussion about time management and how mathematicians have a hard time getting laid. Someone proposed a solution: Employers should hire prostitutes so the mathematicians wouldn’t waste precious hours at bars. That was incredibly sexist, Courtney had said, and a shirtless man had replied, “But the heuristic is that mathematicians are male!” “Aren’t we here to think about radically different futures,” she’d said, “and, um, is it inconceivable that there might be female mathematicians?”

Great, even better, was the response. They could be the prostitutes, and the bedrooms could be mic’d with baby monitors, in case of productive pillow talk.

“So I said, ‘You think a great thing about women’s increased presence in math and science is that they can be fluffers to genius?’ ”

At the after-party I met Andrés Gómez Emilsson, a twenty-three-year-old computational-psychology Ph.D. student and the head of the Stanford Transhumanist Association. Half-Mexican and half-Icelandic, Emilsson had a twinkling, leprechaunish quality, and he returned to the bar for wheat beer after wheat beer as I nursed a cup of cheap wine. He told me that he had started thinking systematically on his own at seventeen. He loved HPMoR and saw himself in the tradition of the late chemist and psychedelic explorer Alexander Shulgin and the philosopher David Pearce, who has written of the search for “an authentically post-Galilean science of physical consciousness.” Emilsson had an idea for “consciousness engineering” — building a brain dashboard, more profound than any drug, on which one could “play different permutations of keys, and that instantiates different states of consciousness.” He was also a panpsychist, which meant that he thought consciousness was a universal property of matter, and a negative hedonic utilitarian: he wanted to minimize the world’s suffering before maximizing its pleasure. “Once that’s done we then can go on and actually party really hard.”

Of course he was a vegan, he said, but he went further. “If you think it through, actually, when a zebra is being eaten alive by a lion, that’s one of the worst experiences that you could possibly have. And if we are compassionate toward our pets and our kids, and we see a squirrel suffering in our backyard and we try to help it, why wouldn’t we actually want to help the zebra?” We could genetically engineer lions into herbivores, he suggested, or drone-drop in-vitro meat whenever artificial intelligence detects a carnivore’s hunger, or reengineer “ecosystems from the ground up, so that all the evolutionarily stable equilibriums that happen within an ecosystem are actually things that we consider ethical.”

A world in which the lion might lie down with the zebra. What about hubris? I asked. Emilsson demurred. “Food chains are not as complex as, say, quantum systems and a lot of other things we’re trying to get a handle on.”

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