Techno-futurists are selling an interplanetary paradise for the posthuman generation—they just forgot about the rest of us

Inside the cult of TESCREALism and the dangerous fantasies of Silicon Valley’s self-appointed demigods, for Document’s Spring/Summer 2024 issue

As legend has it, Steve Jobs once asked Larry Kenyon, an engineer tasked with developing the Mac computer, to reduce its boot time by 10 seconds. Kenyon said that was impossible. “What if it would save a person’s life?” Jobs asked. Then, he went to a whiteboard and laid out an equation: If 5 million users spent an additional 10 seconds waiting for the computer to start, the total hours wasted would be equivalent to 100 human lifetimes every year. Kenyon shaved 28 seconds off the boot time in a matter of weeks.

Often cited as an example of the late CEO’s “reality distortion field,” this anecdote illustrates the combination of charisma, hyperbole, and marketing with which Jobs convinced his disciples to believe almost anything—elevating himself to divine status and creating “a cult of personality for capitalists,” as Mark Cohen put it in an article about his death for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In helping to push the myth of the genius tech founder into the cultural mainstream, Jobs laid the groundwork for future generations of Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs who have, amid the global decline of organized religion, become our secular messiahs. They preach from the mounts of Google and Meta, selling the public on digital technology’s saving grace, its righteous ability to reshape the world.

But while many heeded the call in the early Web 1.0 and 2.0 days, this next generation of larger-than-life figures has failed to deliver the better future they promised. Instead of connecting the world, social media led to new forms of surveillance, increased isolation, and massive disinformation campaigns—lining the pockets of the wealthy few while the rest of us grow increasingly reliant on platforms we no longer believe in. But as public faith in the tech sector plummets, its evangelists are selling a grander dream: a posthuman future in which we achieve immortality, meld our minds and bodies with machines, plunder the cosmos, and develop a thriving civilization on Mars, where people can experience untold pleasures inside massive The Matrix-style computer simulations.

This is the prophecy of the techno-optimists, a cabal of Silicon Valley elites who “believe that there is no material problem—whether created by nature or by technology—that cannot be solved with more technology,” as Marc Andreessen—a businessman and venture capitalist with an estimated net worth of $1.9 billion—put it in a 2023 essay titled “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto.” Across 5,000 words, Andreessen lays out his vision for a future in which the “techno-capital machine”—the meeting of technology and the free market—allows entrepreneurs to “continuously create new goods and services to satisfy endless human wants,” resulting in an “upward spiral” of infinite economic growth. Without interference by “enemies” like “social responsibility,” “trust and safety,” “tech ethics,” and “risk management,” he argues, technology would advance at an exponential rate, producing material abundance and allowing Earth’s population to expand to 50 billion—and that’s before settling other planets. “We believe the ultimate mission of technology is to advance life both on Earth and in the stars,” he writes. “We believe in exploring and claiming the technological frontier.” Later, Andreessen quotes the Italian poet and fascist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: “‘Technology must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.’”

Andreessen is a self-identified “TESCREAList,” an acronym for a cluster of interlocking ideologies—transhumanism, extropianism, singularitarianism, cosmism, rationalism, effective altruism, and longtermism—popular in Silicon Valley. Taken together, these philosophies encourage believers to shift attention away from solving humanitarian issues in the present and toward the supreme potential of our posthuman future. The resulting worldview has been called technological utopianism, technocracy, techno-authoritarianism, or simply, “the mindset.”

“Providing a resurrection narrative cloaked in the language of science, transhumanism offers up a salve to the existential friction of modernity.”

To understand what lies at the core of this belief system, one must trace its roots to the T in TESCREAL: Transhumanism, the ideological wellspring all these -isms emanate from. Popularized in 1957, the term was introduced to scientific literature by the evolutionary biologist (and eugenicist) Julian Huxley, who used it to describe a utopian future in which humankind leverages technology to transcend the natural limits of body and mind.

In conceiving transhumanism as the next phase of man’s evolution, Huxley was following in the footsteps of his grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley, an English biologist who was nicknamed “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his ardent support of scientific naturalism. The elder Huxley—who founded the X Club, a 19th-century society that enlisted influential scientists to ensure evolutionary theory was accepted by the public—approached science with all the fervor of religious worship. He even delivered lay sermons, preaching the gospel of evolution to rapt audiences who converted to “the Church Scientific” by the thousands.

Much as Thomas Henry Huxley repurposed the structure of religion to sell the public on science, one of his grandsons used the human desire for divinity to promote transhumanism as “religion without revelation”—imbuing technological advancement with the power to achieve the resurrection prophecies previously espoused by Christian theologians. The other—the countercultural icon and author Aldous Huxley—also went on to pose existential questions about man, morality, nature, and religion, penning Brave New World: a dystopian novel set in a distant future, where the human population is genetically engineered into an intelligence-based caste system and brainwashed to be happy with their place within society. Warning against the perils of unchecked technological advancement, the novel depicts a civilization in which conformity is prized, emotions are suppressed, and artificially induced pleasures reign supreme. Humans are altered to maintain their youth throughout their lives, and, without the fear of aging and decay, religion is all but irrelevant (“You can only be independent of God while you’ve got youth and prosperity,” the World Controller declares).

The Huxley family tree isn’t the only place where religion and transhumanism intertwine. Before its popularization by Julian Huxley, the word “transhumanism” was first used to describe the realization of divine life in Dante’s Paradiso, the third installment of The Divine Comedy. “Words cannot tell of this transhuman change,” reads Henry Francis Cary’s 1814 translation of the poem, an allegory for the soul’s journey toward God. Though one philosophy is secular and the other theistic, both are concerned with transcending the body to attain eternal life—except for transhumanists, immortality is achieved not through supernatural ends but through advances in science and technology.

The philosopher Émile P. Torres—an erstwhile transhumanist who defected from the movement, went on to become one of its greatest critics, and coined the term TESCREAL together with computer scientist Timnit Gebru—recalls being seduced by the similarities between transhumanism and the deeply religious community they had been raised in. “After leaving the faith, transhumanism filled the void that was left behind. It gives you a sense of purpose and meaning; there’s a promise of paradise; there’s this idea that if you don’t believe God exists, you can just create Him via artificial superintelligence,” they reflect during our interview. “Or, there’s the idea that we can just re-engineer humanity to become gods in our own right. There’s the possibility that we can achieve immortality, and if you don’t live long enough to see that happen, you can have your body cryogenically frozen and resurrected.”

In Silicon Valley, these aren’t fringe beliefs. Among today’s most prominent transhumanist prophets is Ray Kurzweil, an entrepreneur and author who has registered over 100 patents and currently serves as director of engineering at Google. Like many transhumanist scholars, Kurzweil doesn’t believe in the soul, but rather sees consciousness as a set of patterns that could, theoretically, be transferred from the vulnerable hardware of the body onto supercomputers or servers. This is transhumanism’s enduring allure: In arguing that the “self” can exist beyond the body, the movement “promises to restore, through science, the transcendent—and essentially religious—hopes that science itself obliterated,” as Meghan O’Gieblyn writes in her book God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning. It’s no coincidence, then, that its supporters are also among the key investors in life-extension and anti-aging initiatives, with Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Alphabet’s Larry Page, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, and Palantir’s Peter Thiel (who has made headlines for soliciting infusions of “youthful blood”) leading the charge.

Providing a resurrection narrative cloaked in the language of science, transhumanism offers up a salve to the existential friction of modernity—maintaining the respectable trappings of materialism, all the while overriding the most distressing verdicts of that theory: “that the body is a system of rote mechanics, that the mind does not exist, that human identity is finite and mortal,” in O’Gieblyn’s words. And, like religion, TESCREALism encourages mankind to anticipate the day when those who are worthy—in this case, the rich—can ascend to the heavens, where they will enjoy a posthuman paradise among the stars.

At first glance, many of the philosophies that underpin TESCREALism sound harmless or even positive—but through their unwavering commitment to reason and logic, the movements arrive at increasingly contradictory conclusions. Effective altruism—which is supposedly dedicated to helping people—actually persuades adherents not to pursue local organizing and volunteer work, instead favoring a probabilistic approach to creating the greatest possible impact by, for instance, earning massive amounts of money in tech and finance and then giving some of it to charity. Longtermism emphasizes the importance of humanity’s future, but rather than focusing on policy solutions that could improve our odds of surviving the next century, it sets its sights on the development of new technologies that might improve the lives of those born billions of years from now—arguing that because our population could grow exponentially, actions taken to affect our very distant future have a greater moral impact. Why lift a billion people out of poverty today, the thinking goes, if your efforts could instead enable trillions more to thrive in the glorious posthuman civilization of tomorrow?

Just as Jobs used a math equation to convince Kenyon that reducing the Mac’s boot time was the ethical equivalent of saving multiple lives, longtermism relies on a complex series of statistics to calculate the value of any given action. It’s a system fundamentally alienated from human experience, transforming morality into an optimization problem that can be solved on whiteboards and in boardrooms. This is, in a sense, the inevitable outcome of a world-building project propelled by the wealthy elite: people who are so insulated by their privilege that the suffering of one’s fellow man registers as an abstraction. And with effective altruism’s focus on helping others not through grassroots organizing and direct action but through accruing and donating personal wealth, there is no reason for believers to step out of their ivory towers and into the streets.

In justifying a callous disregard for human suffering for the sake of the “greater good,” these movements follow in the footsteps of philosophies that have been used to rationalize mass murder and genocide. It’s not reassuring, then, that they grew out of the work of Nick Bostrom, a former Oxford University professor and transhumanist who was recently revealed to have sent straightforwardly racist, eugenicist emails in a 1996 extropian listserv. In one email, Bostrom proposed the strategic use of language to control how ideas are received, stating that while he thinks “Blacks are more stupid than whites,” he has “begun to believe that I won’t have much success with most people if I speak like that.”

A similar tactic is being used today by the Silicon Valley elite, who—in packaging their mission in the language of altruism and efficacy—have slyly obfuscated their real aims, allowing dangerous ideas to slip inconspicuously into the mainstream. Take effective altruism, a movement which, in the context of a headline, conjures images of do-gooders providing aid to vulnerable communities—but whose logic is being used to channel resources away from present-day humanitarian issues and toward causes like longtermism, which now boasts $46 billion in confirmed funding.

Defined as “the ethical view that positively influences the long-term future is a key moral priority of our time,” longtermism sounds like a much-needed counterpoint to the ruthless pursuit of short-term gains that has led us to the brink of climate catastrophe—but in actuality, it encourages its wealthy and powerful advocates to more or less ignore the consequences of their actions for the next 100 or even 1,000 years. In a particularly impressive marketing flourish, longtermists have even rebranded the meaning of humanity itself, using the word “human” to reference not just Homo sapiens but our potential posthuman descendants. “Homo sapiens could disappear, and longtermists wouldn’t consider that extinction, because they explicitly want to create a posthuman species to replace us,” Torres tells me. “They’re not actually expressing an alignment with team human—they’re on team posthuman.”

“Why lift a billion people out of poverty today, the thinking goes, if your efforts could instead enable trillions more to thrive in the glorious posthuman civilization of tomorrow?”

TESCREALism is, above all, a marketing project. And by strategically distorting the meaning of the words we use to describe their mission, these Silicon Valley elites have bent language, the world’s oldest communication technology, to their will—transforming it into sleight of hand, or, perhaps, a Trojan horse. The same could be said for Andreessen’s manifesto, which—by deploying phrases like “the new frontier” and “rebelling against the status quo”—leverages the language of futurism to sell an old narrative: that of a conquering hero mapping uncharted territory, claiming valuable resources, mastering nature, and bending the world to his vision. Just as Manifest Destiny framed extension across the United States as “inevitable”—leading directly to the Gold Rush of 1849, the genocide of California’s Indigenous population, and the rise of San Francisco as a global center—Silicon Valley technocrats are employing a familiar colonialist dogma cloaked in the rhetoric of innovation. This widespread adoption of technology as the new state religion—positioning its advancement as synonymous with societal progress—conceals the fact that, historically, the fruits of such “progress” have been enjoyed by a select few. What’s more, the TESCREAList vision of the future is premised on the acceleration of technological advancement, consumer capitalism, and economic growth that has led to our current crisis. “Their idea of ‘better’ is all about being more productive, living longer, and processing information faster,” says Torres. “No one is asking, ‘What do we really want out of the future? What makes a meaningful existence?’”

“Under capitalism, growth became the secular promise of redemption,” write Matthias Schmelzer, Aaron Vansintjan, and Andrea Vetter in The Future Is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism, noting that, as of one 2019 survey, 54 percent of young adults in the US report that they have a negative view of capitalism. From these cracks in the façade, movements like degrowth and its sister, alternative hedonism, have emerged—proposing radical alternatives to our current expansionist, growth-based, hierarchical, and increasingly alienating system. Central to degrowth is the premise that infinite economic expansion is fundamentally incompatible with Earth’s finite material resources—so rather than relying on GDP as a measure of societal success, the movement advocates for policies that promote more holistic metrics such as life expectancy, health, education, housing, and ecological sustainability.

Degrowth and TESCREALism are both effectively utopian projects, and both address the need to think and act beyond the present. But while TESCREALism seeks to slake our existential thirst through the ceaseless churn of new products, degrowth argues that even if our current rate of consumption was sustainable, it wouldn’t increase our collective well-being beyond a certain point. In radically reimagining how we define and measure societal happiness, the movement reflects the thinking of French philosopher Miguel Abensour, who described utopia as “the education of desire.” For him, utopia’s role is “to open a way to aspiration, to teach desire, to desire better, to desire more, and above all to desire in a different way.”

Let’s say, for a moment, that Silicon Valley technocrats pull it off—leading an interplanetary exodus not only for the billionaires but for everyday people as well. Would the world they’re envisioning, with its techno-capital machine and giant computer simulations, be any better than the physical and virtual realities they’ve created in the present? After all, their mission to “connect the world” led, instead, to increased political polarization and loneliness, with a rise in teen suicide rates coinciding with the mainstream popularization of social media use. The percentage of American adolescents who report hanging out with friends multiple times a week decreased dramatically in 2008, the year after the first iPhone was released. We’re having less sex than ever, indulging instead in nonstop stimulation that fails to satisfy our deeper cravings. Then, of course, there’s the ever-widening wealth gap, the gig economy choking out the middle class, environmental degradation, and the fact that despite the development of productivity-enhancing technologies like AI, none of us seem to have any free time.

For all their talk of technology’s liberatory potential, the wealthy benefactors of our current system have always harnessed it to concentrate power at the top. And though they’re marketing their imagined future as utopia, it more closely resembles the dystopia Huxley warns against in Brave New World: a society centered around artificial pleasures, where people are brainwashed to value frictionless productivity above the less quantifiable qualities that make the human experience what it is. You could attribute this to spiritual impoverishment, a miseducation of desire, or their being blinded by their hubris. But whatever the reason, it’s clear that for those caught up in the Silicon Valley mindset, the “reality distortion field” goes both ways—and in their quest to extend and optimize human life, they’ve lost sight of what makes our lives matter to one another in the first place.