March 26 1995 UK Observer Cover Story

The Tomorrow People

Max More and the Extropians say it is time to stop fretting about the future. Forget eco-panic, limits to growth, even death. Extropians want to be immortal and travel through space and time. They are also libertarians who want to privatise the oceans and the air.

Jim McClellan on a boundlessly optimistic Californian cult

Just another LA Sunday at the end of the millenium. Outside, it's pouring down. It's been like this for the past two days. Upstate, things are getting bad: floods, mud slides, deaths, million of dollar's worth of property damage. I'm sitting in a comfy suburban apartment talking to a charming young man called Jay Prime Positive about the sort of body he wants to inhabit after he "uploads" his consciousness to a computer. "I'd probably want to spend most of my time in dataspace, but I do want to interact with the real stuff some of the time," says Jay. "But really, I imagine having multiple bodies and multiple copies of myself. I have problems with gender identification, so I'd definitely have a female body in there somewhere." As I said, just another LA Sunday at the end of the millenium.

You may not feel in great physical shape, but you've perhaps never thought of ditching your body altogether and uploading your consciousness to a computer. Or making multiple copies of yourself so that when the inevitable Big Systems Crash happens, you can re-boot another and you can start again. You perhaps never pondered the benefits of setting loose molecule-sized robots in your body to clean your arteries. Or thought about how the principles of quantum mechanics could be used to knock up a parallel universe in your garden shed. Or sat down and planned the creation of a whole new country, a floating free state banged together out of old oil tankers, a place where freedom and unbounded intellect could reign and you could finally get the damn government - and the taxman - off your back. You may perhaps have dreamed of living forever, but have you signed up to put your brain on ice when you die?

Extropians like Jay and the other people crammed into the Culver City apartment have given these matters a lot of thought. A loose association, a science faction, if you like, of computer programmers, philosophy graduates, researchers, scientists, and libertarians, they're devoted to fighting entropy and all that doomy stuff about finite resources and the inevitable heat death of the universe. Instead they're dedicated to promoting the forces of Extropy (the opposite of entropy). They celebrate possibility, freedom and boundless growth, the appliance of science and sexy, high-powered technology. They want to go beyond the limits of nature and biology and move on up to the stars. Though mainly made up of Americans, the prime mover behind the Extropian Institute, one Max More, is a pony-tailed 30-year-old born and brought up in Bristol, England.

Max and his fellow Extropians feel it is time to stop feeling bad about the future. Forget eco panic, limits to growth, death even. The hole in the ozone layer? Don't worry. We'll fix it. A New Age of Reason is about to dawn in which the sky's the limit. Space travel, immortality, huge pectoral muscles, and and end to the evils of big government and cellulite. "No mysteries are sacrosanct, no limits unquestionable. The unknown will yield to the ingenious mind," says Max.

Extropianism may seem to have its face set firmly to the future but actually its roots are in ideas and fads from the p]ast three decades. It mixes the "every day in every way I'm getting better and better" pop therapies of the 1970s, the self-help neo-conservative economic individualism and work-out culture of the 1980s, and the neo-biological opti[mis]m of the digital 1990s with a belief that computers have kick-started a new stage in human evolution.

Also in the theoretical mix are the libertarian ideas and economics of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek, complexity and chaos theory, Nietszche, comic books and science fiction, digitial technology, cryonics, nanotechnology, and assorted weird sciences. Extropianism isn't just a philosophical programme, however. It is also a kind of lifestyle futurism. There are Extropian T-shirts, greetings ("Upward and Outward!") and handshakes (a cross between a high five and something out of Star Trek in which you sort of link hands and reach on up together). There's a whole mini-dictionary of new Extropian words (smart-faced,cryocrastination, extropia). There are Extropian names. An upbeat new name, after all, is the the first step towards self-transformation. Max More was born Max O'Connor. Other notable Extropians include Mark Plus and Simon! D Levy - a name, you suspect, which needs a little more boundless optimism.

Extropianism seems more American than America itself - almost a parody of the American Dream - so it shouldn't come as a surprise that Max is English, someone who's left the old world behind and reinvented himself on the edge of the Pacific. "A late accident" as far as his builder father and secretary mother were concerned, Max grew up disconnected from his older brothers, who are fundamentalist Christians, much to Max's bemused horror.

As a child, Max read comic books. "My favourites were the X Men, perhaps because I felt like a bit of a mutant myself. I didn't fit in. I used to sketch rocket boots when I was a kid. I just loved the idea of having supernormal abilities. I used to invent my own. I had a whole book of them." After dabbling briefly in the occult in his early teens, Max discovered science fiction, anarchy, libertarianism, right-wing economics, and life extension.

"They seemed to share a common theme of overcoming limits and increasing freedom - individual freedom, freedom from gravity, freedom from death." Just what he needed in gloomy 1970's Britain, which was when he first started to think about going to the United States. "It was a miserable decade. Everyone thought the world was going to end, the economy was in a terrible state and no one was thinking about the future. I couldn't seem to talk to people about the things I wanted to. They thought I was too weird."

Things didn't change when Max went to Oxford to study philosophy, politics, and economics in the mid-1980s. While doing his degree, Max became the first person in Europe to sign up for cryonic suspension with US firm Alcor. Later Max headed off to do a philosophy PhD (on personal identity) at Los Angeles University. It was there he hooked up with Tom Morrow and the pair began to develop their Extropian ideas, incorporating new technologies like virtual reality, on-line communities, and smart drugs.

Max may be a long way from his old home, but he plans on going a lot further than America. Extropianism is a "rational transhumanism", he explains. There may not be any supernatural force in the universe, but pretty soon, suggests More, once we get our brain implants and robot bodies working, we will be as gods. In short, it's time to evolve beyond "the merely human".

Making this kind of fantastic voyage will entail considering some pretty radical ideas. For example, privatising the air, Max's answer to worries about the environment advanced by eco-activists (great enemies of the Extropian struggle who, he says, often deliberately exaggerate visions of doom for their own purposes). "We do need to be concerned about environmental issues. Especially as Extropians, because we plan on living a long time, and though we will go off into space, we plan on coming back here, so we need to preserve this place. It's not our children and grandchildren we're worried about. It's ourselves." Things might be helped, he adds, if resources were privately owned. "The oceans and the air - anybody can pollute them without having to pay for it. Turn those commons into privately-owned resources and there'd be more rational economic use of them."

Privatising the air is a typically Extropian solution to ecological damage. They believe in a free-market future. In fact, Max tells me, his economic ideas - currently enjoying a revival in the on-line world - are in some ways being underwritten by new discoveries about self-organizing systems and spontaneous order being made by researchers into complexity theory. "It all suggests that we need a dynamic system that can keep reconfiguring itself, a system without people in the middle telling everybody else what prices to set or how to allocate resources or coming up with a national medical plan."

It's these sort of ideas that crop up in the Extropian magazine, which covers things like the physics of immortality, time travel, and "traversable wormholes and interstellar travel". Chief among the thinkers is Robin Hanson. Flicking through Robin's thoughts on speeding up the development of human thought by borrowing tricks from the stock market and creating an ideas futures market, reading his theories on what would happen if uploading human consciousness became a reality, you start to feel the ground shifting beneath you. But Extropians like Robin never look down. Down isn't an Extropian direction. Down isn't in their dictionary, or if it is, it's probably been turned into something more Extropian, like "anti-up", just as death tends to be talked of as "de-animation".

This is why Extropians are most at home in the gravity-free world of cyberspace, where it sometimes appears that the only limit to your imagination is the size of your hard disk. But, argues Max: "Everything I publish in Extropy has to seem to me that it is within the bounds of scientific possibility. I think the problem is that people don't distinguish different kinds of far-outedness. In some senses, we're not very far out at all. Our ideas don't require any new physics to work. We're not far out in that sense. It's just that we follow chains of thinking muchfurther along than most people are prepared to go."

Although there is an Extropian Institute, actually an office upstairs at Max More's Marina Del Rey apartment, the real Extropian meeting place is the on-line mailing list, where the most committed of the movement's members upload vast transhumanist tracts on a nightly basis. It's a sign of the times. In the past, avant-garde groups met up toexchange philosophical theories and various resentments in pubs and cafes. They toiled in isolation on pamphlets and novels. Now they hook up in cyberspace, where people of like minds from all round the world can join the party, which means before you know where you have a mini-movement.

That's the theory anyway. With Extropians, the stress would be on "mini". There are about 360 paid-up members, with another 500 checking the mailing list. The Extropian Institute is just scraping by, Max admits. What to do ab]out this is the subject up for discussion at a meeting of LA Extropians, the reason why Jay Prime Positive, Max More, Max's girlfriend Nancie Clark and others are spending a wet Sunday afternoon crammed into Tim Freeman's Culver City apartment.

I chat with an Extropian regular, Regina Pancake, whose day job actually involves building the future, or rather versions of the future. She works for a company that makes props for SF movies and TV, things like Star Trek. Regina got involved in Extropianism about four years ago. Like a lot of movement members, she came via cryonics, which she was drawn to after a car crash. Shaken up, she signed up to be frozen. "With that," she explains, "you're immediately hands-on with the attitude to incorporate the future directly into your life."

The Extropians talk up plans for an Extropian book, courses in Future Studies run by the Extropian Institute, even an Extropian cable news programme, which would forget the "disasturbation" of regular news and tell it like it really is, emphasise the advances in knowledge, recount new genes we discovered since last week, or the new super-powered computer chip just developed. It all sounds vaguely familiar, like a techno-obsessed version of the tractor production reports once so popular in the Soviet Union. But everyone seems so up, I don't want to rain on their parade.

Jay wants to bid goodbye to everyone with his own version of the Extropian handshake, which ends with a leap to the stars. Unfortunately, the low ceiling in Tim's lounge gets in the way. I go back to Max and Nancie's apartment, which is dominated by his sizable collection of science-fiction paperbacks - which runs from Robert Heinlein, the high-flying libertarian of Golden Age SF, to William Gibson, who Max doesn't like much (too down-beat, too many lowlifes in his books) - and her vast paintingsx. One wall is taken up with a primary-colored vision of Nancie and her best friend kitted out in leotards, hair streaming out in best shampoo-ad style, doing what seem to be zero-gravity aerobics just south of the rings of Saturn. Nancie talks me through another work upstairs which features a satellite, photos of herself crawling along with wet hair, two friends making love in zero g, and the Moon. "It's an allegory about evolution and communication, about humanity crawling up out of the mud," she explains. Nancie's pictures are big but she hankers after something on a grander scale. She wants to boundlessly expand her art. Let's face it - paint and canvas aren't very Extropian. What she has in mind is a sort of astral performance art, projecting things on the face of the moon, deep space ballet. "Wouldn't that be incredible," she murmurs, as she and Max embrace and beam at the wonderment of it all.

The morning after the Extropian meeting, I visit Max'sx office. I confess that I have a few problems with Extropy and Max calmly does his best to help me work through them. It may seem, he explains, that Extropians [have] too much faith in the power of technology, that they've got way too high on the freedoms and the possibilities you find on the Net, but all they're doing is trying out ideas, testing theories. They're aware that there may be problems. Max insists that they aren't really elitists, that they're open to everybody and that the future they imagine won't just benefit the rich few in the West. Instead, over the long run, in the Thatcherite tradition, it will trickle down to everyone.

The funny thing about Max is that while his ideas are wild, he argues them so calmly and rationally you find yourself being drawn in. Cryonics is not irrational, he tells me, the objections to it are. He recalls how his American [philo]sophy teacher dismissed it as ghastly but had to admit in the end that she had no rational arguments against it. "Cryonics just seems so rational to me. Which seems more ghastly? You're kept in pristine condition, in a nice clean container, or you're thrown into the ground where you decompose and the worms eat you. Or you're put into a big burner and you're heated up until the pressure builds up in your skull and your brain explodes."

Max disagrees that the Extropian obsession with uploading reveals a hatred of the body - a trend that seems rife within techno-culture in general. "Well, I like my body a great deal," he says. "I don't have any problems with it. I'm not looking forward to getting rid of it. But uploading isn't about getting rid of your body. People are going to want new bodies. They'll just want their brains replaced with something more effective."

Effective is a word you could use to describe Romana Machado. When her name comes up, Max says he'd rather I didn't interview her, that she's more into self-promotion than Extropy. "I think she thinks she's the Madonna of Extropianism."

Romana laughs at this suggestion. "How about the Camille Paglia of Extropy? I like that too. Maybe I'm a cross between Ayn Rand and Betty Page." Though her name sounds distinctly Extropian, it predates her interest in Max's theories. She changed her original a while back, taking her new name from a sidekick of Doctor Who. "On the Extropian mailing list I'm called Mistress Romana, but only because of my rather dominant attitude in argument."

Romana works at Apple, ironing out the bugs in the Newton PDA, but also subsidizes her Extropian lifestyle with a spot of glamour modeling - lingerie catalogues, adverts for fetish clothing stores. She's just set up The Exclave, an Extropian base camp in Sunnyvale, California, where she and two Extropian partners, Dave Krieger and Geoff Dale, have decided to shack up together in order to "increase each other's productivity." Max had told me that experimenting with your lifestyle - trying smart drugs, visualization techniques, on-line identity play, non-traditional modes of living - was a very Extropian thing to do. The posse at the Exclave are taking him at his word. Romana especially.

"I'm non-monogamous, but that doesn't mean I'm promiscuous," she tells me. "I'm bisexual, but that doesn't mean I'm promiscuous either. What it means is that I have the relationships I want with the people I want without being stuck in this one form of sanctioned relationship, which in this culture is marriage,serial monogamy, whatever. There's more than one person that I'm serious about at any one given time and I'm happy with that. It really works for me."

Romana is best described as a hands-on Extropian. Along with her housemates, she's a regular guest on a local talk radio station. The group are also working on a book about Extropy, titled Frequently Questioned Answers. Romana also released Stego, a free encryption programme which works by hiding your information in the lower bits of seemingly insignificant information. A very Extropian thing to do. "To me the basic activity is practically living according to my ideas," she says, directing me to an essay on her World Wide Web page - "Five Things You Can Do To Fight Entropy Now". "It's my action plan for what you can do in your life right now in order to limit the incursions of entropy in your life, since we can all have to deal with that. The five are: care for your mind, your body, have a plan for your financial future, learn to defend yourself, and get a cryonics contract."

So how is the fight against entropy going? How post human is she? "I'm not even thinking about being post human at this point. I'm just thinking about being transhuman or pursuing my potential as a human. When we get to posthuman, what that means is we'll have technically transcended the meat bodies we have now and we'll be able to have the godlike powers and a post-scarcity economy and any one of a number of things and powers. That's not where I'm at now." So where does she think she'll be in the future? "I want to be the world's most beautiful 83-year-old woman," she laughs. "Actually, I hope that I've preserved myself so well that I'm a testament to my own ideas."

Back on Planet Earth, it may be hard not to dismiss the Extropians as techno-nuts, as fanboys who have confused science fiction for science fact, as cyberspace cadets who've got way carried away in the digital playpen of the Internet. They, in turn, would argue that they're too avant-garde for the conservative mind-set. I'm not so sure. Hang out in respectable American research labs and you hear scientists batting around the same ideas. In fact, their extremism actually functions as a revealing mirror to modern American techno-culture.

And the future More dreams about - post-human transcendence, visiting other galaxies, meeting copies of yourself - sounds like more fun than the 500-channel multi-media SuperHypeWay on offer from Bill Gates. Maybe the Extropian's wildly rational speculations are a challenge to corporate America to live up to its digital hype. Maybe.

Perhaps if you never do look down, gravity and reality never take hold. Perhaps you just keep on going, upwards and outwards. And if you keep on going, who knows where you might end up? Somewhere, perhaps, like the Far Edge Party, which Jay Prime Positive tells me about. When we'vefigured out how to travel the galaxies and live forever, Extropians will set out to explore the universe. The plan is to meet up on the far edge of the universe and swap traveller's tales, show slides, and the like. "That's kind of why I'm involved in Extropianism," Jay says. "I think they'll throw the best parties in the future."