If you want to live forever, you need a money fit for purpose. Bitcoin, for many, is the ticket. It’s the first, largest and most decentralized cryptocurrency. It’s widely adopted – from retail investors to pension funds to nation-states. It has a durable brand. There’s a case to be made that it’s the most recent Lindy invention, the idea that ancient phenomena are less perishable by virtue of being around the longest.
But who would want to live forever? As a historical fact, it turns out, many early adopters of cryptocurrency, that’s who! How fitting! Transhumanists, a broad category of people who want to improve the human condition – extending life or extinguishing death, spreading happiness and eradicating suffering through technology – looked at bitcoin as a powerful tool in their arsenal.
This article, part of CoinDesk’s Future of Money Week, is excerpted from The Node newsletter, CoinDesk’s daily roundup of blockchain and crypto news. You can subscribe to get the full newsletter here.
It’s not necessary to name names here, but many of crypto’s earliest advocates had ties to the transhumanist movement. Many influential crypto natives still do. There are many flavors of transhumanism: Posthuman, cyborgism, immoralism, biohackers, the singularity are all close cognates. The overriding idea is simply that individual human potential isn’t constrained by our bodies, our biology or even the evolutionary process of natural selection. There’s a pill for that!
Nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science – sometimes abbreviated NBIC – are at the frontier of scientific advancement, pushing the limits of what’s physically and mentally possible. One day, we might have brain-computer interfaces, blending artificial and natural intelligence, perfecting our memories and infinitely expanding the scope of our knowledge. We might have pills to induce a state of bliss. Who knows?
The purely technical obstacles to transhumanism I’d say are diminishing, David Pearce, co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association (WTA), now known as Humanity+, has said. He’s right, to an extent. Using a mix of technologies, human beings are already overcoming their natural limits. Death may be a condition for all living beings now, but maybe not for the creatures we may become – or create.
Already, there are several for-profit corporations and nonprofit organizations that freeze human cadavers, of once-living people who hope to rise again in the near future when science has found a solution for disease, depression and death. New York University scholar of digital culture Finn Brunton called these people extropians, and chronicled the associations between cryptogenics and crypto.
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Not able to know the state of the world they’d be born into, the temporarily dead need money that could outlast banks and even governments. Many were of a libertarian bent and thought the U.S. dollar was due to collapse. But you don’t need to be a futurist to think bitcoin will persist as long as the internet does. Sufficiently decentralized, bitcoin isn’t a hedge against inflation but societal collapse (in theory).
All of this seems like a gamble. But stay with me, and hold the ethical phone.
Transhumanism – literally beyond human – is as focused on setting artificial limits around the human condition as it is about additive technologies. Pearce, for one, looks to genetics as the realm for creating perfect human subjects. He notes that when he founded the WTA, the human genome wasn’t even decoded. Every year since then we’ve learned more about the basic building blocks of life – and eventually will be able to arrange them how we please. And why wouldn’t we choose perfection?
The morphological freedom to design babies to have favorable traits – to be smarter, more athletic, more outgoing than their peers – means identifying and dismantling bad genes. It’s literally artificial selection. In a similar way, Bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakamoto imposed an arbitrary limit around his monetary creation – 21 million BTC.
Some maximalists envision a world where all economic activity flows through the Bitcoin network, which would outcompete other currencies. Bitcoin has some advantages over the fiat system: It’s borderless, censorship-resistant and has settlement finality. It’s only grown in value since being released to the world. And, more importantly, it’s bigger than any government can control.
In both instances of transhumanism and hyperbitcoinization, a tiny elite would rule. Bitcoin scarcity means that not everyone can share equally in the wealth, and its deflationary attributes reward the earliest adopters. Meanwhile, although Pearce and many transhumanists are broadly utilitarian and advocate for whatever would create the happiest humans (sometimes animals) in the future, he’s not a redistributionist.
In his book, The Hedonistic Imperative, Pearce argues that the world would be better if everyone was more like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, rich and blessed with good genes. Whatever Gates-like post-human comes next, which we will create using the most transformative technologies, would mean the rest of humanity is obsolete – unable to compete.
Not every bitcoiner is a transhumanist, and not every transhumanist is a eugenicist, but it’s worth looking at how the movements relate and speak to each other. One lesson from a decade of crypto innovation isn’t whether something is technologically possible – but whether there is the social and cultural will. What might be most Lindy of all is knowing that technology – always an extension of the self – may always escape our control.