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There’s been nothing like this movement nothing this wild and extravagant since way back in those bygone ages when people believed in things like progress, knowledge, and let’s all shout it out, now Growth!
The Handshake: Right hand out in front of you, fingers spread and pointing at the sky. Grasp the other person’s right hand, intertwine fingers, and close. Then shoot both hands upward, straight up, all the way up, letting go at the top, whooping “Yo!” or “Hey!” or some such thing.
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You won’t be able to do this without smiling, without laughing out loud, in fact just try it but this little ceremony, this tiny two-second ritual, pretty much sums up the general Extropian approach. This is a philosophy of boundless expansion, of upward- and outwardness, of fantastic superabundance.
It’s a doctrine of self-transformation, of extremely advanced technology, and of dedicated, immovable optimism. Most of all, it’s a philosophy of freedom from limitations of any kind. There hasn’t been anything like it nothing this wild and extravagant, no such overweening confidence in the human prospect since way back to those bygone ages when people still believed in things like progress, knowledge, and let’s all shout it out, now Growth!
Their gung-ho attitude reflects the success of digital technology, which these days allows us to create at least in cyberspace anything conceivable. You can create your own simulated universe if you want to. What’s more, you can actually get it right this time: you can start at the bottom and remake things as you’d want them to be, as they should have been made in the first place, perhaps. The Extropians take that same attitude and apply it to the real world: they extrapolate out in every dimension, along every parameter, pushing technology to its outermost limits. When you do that, and when you take the results seriously, you find that some pretty outrageous stuff becomes possible.
Just how outrageous became clear at “Extro 1,” the first formal gathering of the clan, in Sunnyvale, California, in April 1994, where there were plenty of Extropian handshakes going around not to mention the hugs and kisses. This is not a doctrine of repressing your feelings, after all, or of being embarrassed about things.
Just a few months previously, at the “Extropaganza” at Mark DeSilets’s house in nearby Boulder Creek, the invitations had read: “Bring appropriate toys and gadgets, and a playful attitude. The house has a hot tub, so come prepared; please note that some clothing will be required in the tub, so as not to shock the neighbors with the sight of our transhuman physiques!” Romana Machado aka “Mistress Romana” software engineer, author, and hot-blooded capitalist, showed up dressed as the State, in a black vinyl bustier and mini, with a chain harness top, custom-made for her at Leather Masters in San Jose, California, for whom she does modeling work. She was in all that garb, carrying a light riding crop, plus a leash, at the other end of which, finally, her Extropian companion Geoff Dale, the Taxpayer, crawled along in mock subjection. The couple embodied Extropian symbolism, the State being regarded as one of the major restrictive forces in the Milky Way galaxy. These people hate government, particularly “entropic deathworkers like the Clinton administration.”
And so later on, when you threw off your inhibitions, shackles, chains, and clothes, and splashed around in the hot tub together with the VEPs on hand the Very Extropian Persons you could actually imagine that, here in the Santa Cruz mountains, the Extropians had discovered the secret of existence. You got a further inkling of what that secret was during Extro 1, which was decidedly more refined a gathering. It was the occasion for theory and reflection, for sober discussion of Extropian ideas. Like immortality, for example.
Early in the conference, Mike Perry, overseer of the 27 frozen people (actually, 17 are frozen heads, only 10 are entire bodies) submerged in liquid nitrogen at minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit (Cold enough for you?) at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryonics outfit in Scottsdale, Arizona, gave a talk saying that, contrary to appearances, genuine immortality was physically possible.
“Immortality is mathematical, not mystical,” he said.
Perry, with a PhD in computer science from the University of Colorado, might well think so. A rather gaunt figure, a little rumpled and slightly stooped, he’d worked out a scheme whereby if you make enough backup copies of yourself, then everlasting life can be yours forever, always, and in perpetuity.
He explained: some of the more submissive immortalists non-Extropian immortalists, in other words had worried about the possibility of their lives being terminated by accident, murder, or some other such form of radical unpleasantness. The way to get around that in the future, said Perry, would be to download the entire contents of your mind into a computer your memories, knowledge, your whole personality (which is, after all, just information) you’d transfer all of it to a computer, make backup copies, and stockpile those copies all over creation. If at some point later you should happen to suffer a wee interruption of your current life cycle, then one of your many backups would be activated, and, in a miracle of electronic resurrection, you’d pop back into existence again, good as new.
Well, this was a vision entirely agreeable to the audience, some 70 or so Extropic presences now basking in immortalist cheer in the main conference room at the Sunnyvale Sheraton. An infinitely long life span is just one small part of the greater Extropian dream, a package that involves the wholesale transformation of man, culture, and even of nature. The overall goal is to become more than human to become superhuman, “transhuman,” or “posthuman,” as they like to say possessed of drastically augmented intellects, memories, and physical powers. The goal is a society based on freely chosen social arrangements, on systems of self-generating “spontaneous order,” as opposed to massive legal structures imposed from above by the State. And the goal is to gain as complete control over the physical universe as is compatible with natural law.
An impressive program by any standard. But if the Extropians are right, off in the dim mist is a grand new order of things, one that is not so much physical or political as it is metaphysical, founded upon a lavishly expanded conception of human possibility. No longer is biology destiny: with genetic engineering, biology is under human control. And with nanotechnology, smart drugs, and advances in computation and artificial intelligence, so is human psychology. Suddenly technology has given us powers with which we can manipulate not only external reality the physical world but also, and much more portentously, ourselves. We can become whatever we want to be: that is the core of the Extropian dream.
People have dreamed such dreams before, of course: they’ve wanted to fly like eagles, to run like the wind, to live forever. They’ve dreamed of becoming like the gods, of having supernatural powers. The difference is that now, suddenly, all of it is entirely possible. For the first time in history, science and technology have caught up to the wildest of human aspirations and hopes. No ambition, however extra-vagant, no fantasy, however outlandish, can any longer be dismissed as crazy or impossible. This is the age when you can finally do it all.
The Extropians are the first ones to realize this, the first to make a doctrine and a program out of it, wrap it up into a system, and offer it to the outside world which is exactly what they were doing at Extro 1. Nobody at the conference was pretending there were no problems involved; this was a highly literate technical bunch: computer scientists, rocket designers, a neurosurgeon, a Berkeley chemist, writers, researchers, and so on. From them could be heard a reservation or two.
“What about copying errors?” asked one of them about the immortality-through-backups scheme.
“Well, you can check one copy against the other,” Mike Perry said.
But how about the question of storage medium? Will a physical thing persist that long? Doesn’t proton decay put some limits on this? What about the possible ultimate contraction of the universe?
Well never mind! Stay your naysaying! We’re chasing after big quarry here! Eternal survival! Resurrection after obliteration! Unbounded happiness across infinite time!
Come on! We’re Extropians!
For all its gonzo metaphysics, the fact is that Extropianism is a carefully worked out philosophical movement, one whose rituals, symbolism, and mind-set are rooted in a deep and rich body of principles. The basic idea is to fight entropy the natural tendency of things to run down, degenerate, and die out with its polar opposite, “extropy.”
Extropy, according to the official Extropian Principles (version 2.5), is “a measure of intelligence, information, energy, vitality, experience, diversity, opportunity, and capacity for growth.” Extropianism, then, is “the philosophy that seeks to increase extropy.”
The principles themselves are five in number: Boundless Expansion, Self-Transformation, Dynamic Optimism, Intelligent Technology, and Spontaneous Order. They make up the handy Extropian acronym: BEST DO IT SO!
How well thought-out! How self-referentially interconnected! The five principles, the five fingers of the Extropian handshake, the five arrows on the Extropian logo, curving outward from the center like the points of a pinwheel or the arms of a spiral galaxy!
To the major Extropians, the principles are meant to be taken seriously: they’re meant to be practiced, they’re guides to action, not just a bunch of abstract theories. Take this business of Dynamic Optimism, for example. In 1991 Max More, co-founder of and primary intellectual force behind Extropianism, wrote an essay called “Dynamic Optimism: Epistemological Psychology for Extropians,” in which he enumerated eight separate strategies eight! by which you could acquire a properly auspicious view of yourself, life, and the universe. There was the technique of selective focus, for example, whereby you’d concentrate on the positive aspects of a given situation, on what you personally regarded as worthy and valuable. You’d adopt such a focus regularly, systematically; you’d make it a matter of personal policy.
“This need not require a denial of pain, difficulty, or frustration,” he wrote. “Rather it may be a matter of spending less time on unpleasantness and of apprehending unpleasant things in a masterful, empowering way instead of a helpless, victimizing way. Optimists attend to the downsides of life only insofar as doing so is likely to enable them to move ahead.”
And so on through seven more steps. Stoicism: optimists “don’t whine and moan about things that are past or out of their control.” Questioning of limits: “Optimists will question and probe at any entrenched limiting assumptions, especially where these appear to lack a rationally convincing basis. Only an iron-clad demonstration of impossibility (such as Goedel’s incompleteness theorem) will stop them; even then optimists will be careful not to draw unnecessarily frustrating conclusions.”
The tract was fitted out with the usual scholarly apparatus: footnotes, bibliography, and references to thinkers ranging from the church father Tertullian, circa 200, to contemporaries like Robert Nozick and Ayn Rand.
Imposing as it all was, it was merely Max More’s latest attempt to go beyond the limits, something he’d been doing since birth.
“According to my mother I was named Max because I was the heaviest baby in the hospital ward where I was born,” he said.
That cataclysmic event occurred in Bristol, England, in 1964. Later, at age 5, Max was transfixed by the moon landing and was fascinated by high technology and the future. He idolized the superheroes of various types that he read about in comic books: he craved their X-ray vision, their disintegrator guns, their ability to walk through walls.
“When I was about 10, I went through a period of real interest in the occult. I was very interested in the idea of any kind of paranormal powers, having abilities beyond the normal human ones.”
He even started a club, called Psychic Development and Research, at the school he attended, for the purpose of exploring the nether realms. But the more he actually learned about the occult, the less he was convinced that there was anything to it, and ultimately he became an all-out rationalist. The only reliable way of gaining knowledge, he decided, the only way to accomplish anything worthwhile, was through hard science and cold logic.
Later on, he attended St. Anne’s College, Oxford, where he majored in philosophy, politics, and economics. Always very big on organizing things, he started up new clubs and discussion groups, published magazines, and became, he claims, the first person in Europe to sign up for cryonic suspension the process of being frozen at death in hopes of later revival. He kept a heart-lung resuscitator in his dorm room, just in case. “People used to go in and see that, and it added to the odd impression, along with my several rows of vitamins on the shelves.” Not to mention the 3,000 science fiction books.
He got his degree and, tired of England’s dreary mood, lit out for the States.
“Going to Los Angeles was a wonderful thing. It had this glamorous feel to it, it was just a huge thrill being there. I remember going on the freeways and looking up at the sign and seeing Los Angeles and saying, ‘I’m really here! Wow!'”
This was the land where everything was possible. Sunshine! Palm trees! California girls! Minor impediments like smog and earthquakes did not figure into his personal equation. But a change of name did.
“In Southern California, everybody changes their name: actors do, writers do. I knew I wanted to be a writer and become known, so that I could spread these ideas better, so I thought I might as well change my name,” which until then had been Max O’Connor.
He spent a year thinking up a new name for himself, finally deciding on the word, More.
“It seemed to really encapsulate the essence of what my goal is: always to improve, never to be static. I was going to get better at everything, become smarter, fitter, and healthier. It would be a constant reminder to keep moving forward.”
It would also be the start of a trend among Extropians: Mark Potts became Mark Plus; Harry Shapiro became Harry Hawk.
“It’s a great expression of self-transformation,” said Tom Morrow, a Silicon Valley attorney, about renaming himself. “This is how I’m changing myself: I’m going to change the way people think of me because people think of you, in part, by the way you’re named. Also we pick descriptive names, which is a trait the Quakers also shared; they often named their kids with descriptive names like Felicity or Charity. You see that same trait in Extropians. They hold their values so dear, they want to be associated with them more than by just holding them. They want to be known by them.
“And also,” he added, “it’s a fun sort of thing.”
Fun, indeed, would be the sixth Extropian principle, if there were one. It was Tom Morrow, at any rate, who began using the term “Extropy,” invented the Extropian handshake, and, together with Max More, co-founded Extropianism, back when both of them were graduate students in philosophy at the University of Southern California.
By the time Morrow and More were getting their master’s degrees in the subject, the ideas of souped-up humans that had been percolating through Max’s head since childhood had been reinforced by certain doctrines of the Western philosophers, some of whom had advanced like-minded, or at least highly sympathetic, notions. Aristotle, who’d founded logic as a formal discipline and had done pioneering research in biology, professed an ethics of self-realization, the notion of fulfilling one’s highest potential. There were the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, thinkers like Voltaire, John Locke, and Adam Smith, who claimed that genuine knowledge was in fact possible, that nature was knowable, and that progress was desirable and good. There was Ayn Rand, who put forward the conception of “man as a heroic being,” able to perform untold feats of imagination and creation. And above all there was Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century philosopher who explicitly advocated mankind’s transforming itself into something far superior.
“All beings so far have created something beyond themselves,” wrote Nietzsche. “Do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?”
There was much that needed to be overcome, that was for sure. Human beings had almost too many flaws, chief among them being the unholy trio of sickness, aging, and death. Beyond that there were vast surfeits of human evil: wanton excesses of fraud and deceit, mindless violence, prejudice, police states, and so on and so forth. It did not make for a pretty picture, especially considering that all of it was rectifiable, totally reversible through human action.
“I teach you the overman,” Nietzsche had said. “Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”
What Max More and Tom Morrow did in 1988 was to start up the journal Extropy. By challenging culturally entrenched notions about the inherent limitations of humankind, they’d show how the species could pull itself out of the mud. Sickness could be wiped out, aging reversed, life spans lengthened, intelligence increased, states replaced by voluntary societies and all of this in the first issue! The print run was just 50 copies, but even so it was hard to get rid of them.
“We basically forced them on people,” said More. “Anybody who might be interested, anybody who was our friend, we tried to get them to take a copy. Go on, just read this!”
Which they did. It was pretty far-out, this stuff audacious, but strangely stirring in its own way. One issue proposed “a new dating system” to replace the Christian calendar. Why should Extropians mostly atheists and agnostics be forced to use a dating scheme based on the birth of Christ? Why not start from Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, the book that in 1620 set forth the modern scientific method, in which case 1990 would be 370 PNO (post Novum Organum)? Or start from Newton’s Principia, maybe. Something reasonable.
Along the way there was an attempt to create a nomenclature that lived up to Extropian doctrine. And why not? This was a total philosophy, and so it deserved its own proprietary rhetoric. Soon a whole panoply of extropically flavored neologisms had sprung into existence: Extropia (coined by Tom Morrow), a community embodying Extropian values; Extropolis (from Max More), an Extropian city located in space; extropiate (from Dave Krieger), any drug having extropic effects. There was smart-faced (from Russell Whitaker), “the condition resulting from social-use extropiates: ‘Let’s get smart-faced.'” And there was the instantly-memorable disasturbation (another Dave Krieger invention), “idly fantasizing about possible catastrophes (ecological collapse, full-blown totalitarianism) without considering their likelihood or considering their possible solutions/preventions.”
Further along there was a concerted attempt to flesh out the Extropian dream. Tom Morrow, the Extropian legal theorist, wrote articles about “privately produced law,” showing how systems of rules can and do arise spontaneously from voluntary transactions among free agents, without the assistance of Mother Government. He also wrote about “Free Oceana,” a proposed community of Extropians living on artificial islands floating around on the high seas.
Still, all of that was mere theory. Back in the real world, Morrow and More established a sort of intergalactic headquarters for Extropians, the Extropy Institute, a nonprofit California corporation. Soon there was also a bimonthly institute newsletter, the Exponent, as well as an electronic mailing list. And in a short time, Extropianism seemed to have acquired all the trappings of a major cultural phenomenon, with a succession of parties, weekly lunches, T-shirts (“Forward! Upward! Outward!”), and even an Extropian “nerd house,” called Nextropia, in Cupertino.
Operated by Romana Machado, the aforementioned “Mistress Romana” who in real life works in the Newton division of Apple Computer (she’s also the inventor of Stego, a program that compliments traditional encryption schemes see “Security Through Obscurity,” Wired 2.03, page 29), Nextropia is an Extropian boarding house, a community of friends. Just don’t call it a “commune.”
“The very term makes us shudder,” said Max More, who doesn’t even live there. “It implies common ownership. Still, for all their journals, newsletters, e-mail lists, and other forms of obsessive communication, it cannot be said that the Extropians are taking the world by storm. Although recent issues of Extropy have boasted print runs above 3,000 and are being carried by some newsstands, total membership in the Extropy Institute was only about 300 at the time of Extro 1, while roughly 350 were reading the e-mail list on a regular basis. But what the Extropians lack in numbers they make up for in sheer brains; at various times people like artificial intelligence theorist Marvin Minsky, nanotechnologist Eric Drexler, and USC professor Bart Kosko (of fuzzy logic fame) have been found lurking on email@example.com.
Drexler, indeed, is something of a patron saint among Extropians, the reason being that his books, Engines of Creation and Nanosystems, some members feel, chart the path to the Extropian future. Tiny robots working with molecules, the theory goes, will bring us extreme longevity (Drexler does not speak of “immortality”), health, wealth, and indefinite youth.
No surprise then, that at the Extropian Banquet and Extropy Awards Ceremony, at Extro 1, Drexler emerged as star of the show. This was after Hans Moravec (father of the downloading idea) gave the keynote speech; after Romana Machado, in her leather gauntlets, enumerated “five things you can do to fight entropy now”; after Tom Morrow, the attorney, talked about private legal systems; and after Max More proposed his “epistemology for Extropians,” according to which all doctrine, but especially Extropian doctrine, was to be considered forever open to inspection, criticism, and improvement.
After that it was trophy time. There at the front of the room, the banquet room of the Sunnyvale Sheraton, up on a sort of ceremonial altar-table, was a line of actual Extropian trophies. Designed by institute member Regina Pancake, they featured the Extropian starburst in a disk of clear Lucite set into a black plastic base. There was the Corporate Award, for example, “to a company engaged in extropically important activity and run in a way unusually conducive to individual incentive, ingenuity, and autonomy.” And the winner was the Xerox Corporation.
And so on for six more awards, including, eventually, the award for Technical Achievement, which went to Drexler. He, for his part, confessed to a strong bent for Extropianism.
“I agree with most of the Extropian ideas,” he said later. “Overall, it’s a forward-looking, adventurous group that is thinking about important issues of technology and human life and trying to be ethical about it. That’s a good thing, and shockingly rare.”
So are these people crazy, or what? The question has occurred to them.
“I had a very interesting conversation with a mental health professional last week,” said Dave Krieger. Krieger, director of publications for a software company, had been a technical consultant to Star Trek: The Next Generation.
“In preparation for the panel discussion, the one about warding off dogmatism, I’d given her a few issues of Extropy, including one that has the Extropian Principles in it, and I said, ‘Look this over and tell me: Are we crazy? Is this a world view that you or your colleagues would consider to be insane? Or psychologically unhealthy? Or neurotic?'”
Well, not exactly. But, in fact, she couldn’t really say one way or the other.
“She said that they encounter so many people with defeatist attitudes, the attitude that they can’t change their lives and that they can’t improve things, that she could see the benefits of Extropianism.”
That was on the one hand. On the other hand, the whole thing was still pretty outlandish. “She didn’t want to use the word ‘receptive,'” said Krieger. “She didn’t want to be quite that strong.”
Others, however, were far less restrained. “They haven’t convinced me that I’ll be resurrected a thousand years from now not that it matters” said Julian Simon, a University of Maryland economist who has written for Extropy. “But they sure are right about rejecting unimaginative and counterproductive notions of closed systems. Resources aren’t ‘finite’ in any significant sense.”
“They’re extremists,” said Marvin Minsky, about the Extropians. “But that’s the way you get good ideas.”
As it was, Minsky himself almost joined the institute. “I’d like to be a sustaining member,” he told Max More. “The trouble is that since about 1970, when we got our first ArpaNet, I became almost unable to lick a stamp. I will, if necessary, but I’d rather phone you a credit card number.” But the institute, unfortunately, had not quite gotten around to that.
It soon will, however. Extropy is an idea whose time has come.
“We see this need for transcendence deeply built into humanity,” said Max More. “That’s why we have all these religious myths. It seems to be something inherent in us that we want to move beyond what we see as our limits. In the past we haven’t had the technology to do that, and right now we’re in this difficult period where we don’t quite have the technology yet, but we can see it coming.”
And if the worst happens and you should die before the technology arrives, the plan is to put yourself on hold for the duration, which is why the major Extropians are signed up for cryonic suspension. Max More, Tom Morrow, Simon Levy, Dave Krieger, Romana Machado, Tanya Jones, Mike Perry they’re all ready to have their heads frozen when the time comes. Tanya Jones, indeed, jokes about having a dotted line tattooed around her neck, together with the words cut here.
And why not? How else to make it over the crest, over the slight hill rise, over the next little bit of technology that’s left to climb before we can rush down the other side, to the new tomorrow, when all things will be possible? Some incredible things are going to be happening, if and when we get there.
“I enjoy being human but I am not content,” said Max More.
Exactly! That was it! That was the secret, the big Extropian key to the universe: appreciate what you’ve got, but without being overly satisfied with it. There’s always something better far better! waiting in the wings. You’ve just got to get yourself out there.
Who could deny it? And who’d not want to be there, in the grand future, when the VEPs, the Very Extropian Persons, wake themselves up, shake off the dust of past ages, and fly off to the far reaches of the galaxy?
You, too, could join the party the Extropaganza Maximum! Just remember, when you get there, that it’s right hand out in front of you, fingers spread and pointing at the sky. Grasp the other person’s right hand, intertwine fingers, and close.
Then zoom your hand up, straight up, all the way up!
Upward! Outward! Reach for the stars!
For more Extropian information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally posted here:
Meet the Extropians | WIRED