Narratives are made by the artful omission of facts. Never was this maxim more evident than in a gullible feature story that landed on the front page of the New York Times last fall, about a young woman’s last-ditch bid for life extension as she succumbed to the ravages of brain cancer. A sober look at the case would have revealed it to be but the latest botched mortuary procedure conducted by a gang of creepy scam artists. Instead, through the good graces of the Times, this grim tale was spun into an inspirational saga of one person’s courageous quest for a second chance at life, aided by medical visionaries on the verge of miraculous technological breakthroughs.
Kim Suozzi died at age twenty-three in January 2013. After her first diagnosis, twenty-one months earlier, Suozzi chose to become one of the youngest people ever[*] to undergo an expensive form of ritualistic corpse mutilation called cryonic preservation. In pop culture, cryonics is perhaps best known as the plot device that transports the schlubby pizza delivery guy in Matt Groening’s animated series Futurama into the thirty-first century. The decades-old quack procedure, which involves freezing corpse parts for later resuscitation, was for a long time apocryphally associated with such wealthy eccentrics as Walt Disney. It then caused a scandal in 2002 when it was widely reported that the body of baseball great Ted Williams had gone into deep freeze against the wishes of some in his family. In recent years, cryonics has regained an entirely undue aura of respectability as the thought leaders of Silicon Valley have trained their enterprising, disruptive vision on the conquest of disease and death.[**]
Suozzi, an agnostic libertarian and aspiring neuroscientist, began taking cryonics seriously after discovering the work of the futurologist Ray Kurzweil through a cognitive science class at Truman State University in Missouri. After surgery and other treatments failed to stop the growth of her brain tumor, Suozzi determined that upon death she—or rather, her head—would be frozen and stored for decades, centuries, or millennia in the hope that one day, diligent, wonder-working doctors would transplant her consciousness into a new, healthy body, or perhaps onto a high-capacity hard drive.
As a tech-savvy millennial, Suozzi turned to the chat website Reddit for help in raising the $80,000 she needed to fulfill her last wish. That got her well on her way, with about $7,000 reportedly raised. Cryonics boosters jumped in and helped raise more within their affluent network. In the end, it worked: Suozzi’s dismembered head was frozen and stored at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, the world’s largest and most famous cryonics outfit. And the sad, strange story might have ended there, if not for the hungry maw of the news business.
A Frozen Tearjerker
In September 2015, more than two years after Suozzi’s death, the New York Times ran its lengthy feature story, packed with intimate anecdotes from the young woman’s last days. A classic daily newspaper tearjerker, the story ran with a large above-the-fold photo showing Suozzi and her boyfriend tenderly holding hands in her hospice bed. Times web designers gave the story the full animated-background treatment, with hypnotically dancing green and blue dots—“an artist’s interpretation of neurons firing inside a brain”—serving to emphasize the pseudoscientific rationale for the attention lavished on this morbid subject. “Can’t stop staring at the visualization,” one reader said on Twitter. Newspapers from Seattle to London reprised the story, as did countless blogs. Readers enthused over the “fascinating,” “inspiring,” and of course, “heartbreaking” tale.
Cryonics has regained undue respectability as the thought leaders of Silicon Valley have trained their vision on the conquest of death.
Heartbreaking and fascinating, sure. But readers could find inspiration in Suozzi’s story only by choking down a heaping dose of snake oil to aid in the suspension of disbelief—or by buying into the banal, cultish philosophy that impels Alcor on its mission.
Not that the Times would give sustained scrutiny to the dark side of the story. Science reporter Amy Harmon’s narrative depended upon the artful omission of the single most pertinent fact: that cryonics is an utter crock, has always been a crock, and will continue to be a crock for the foreseeable future, no matter what a handful of contrarian university-affiliated researchers with a financial stake in the corpse-freezing racket may claim.
In the hurried fashion of the disclaimers at the end of a pharmaceutical ad, Harmon’s story contained the requisite “to be sure” paragraphs. Quoting a researcher’s speculation that a “digital replica of a person’s mind” may eventually be possible—even without cryonic preservation, Harmon added, “other neuroscientists do not take that idea seriously.” With that fleeting caveat, plus a few poorly contextualized paragraphs about recent rat-brain experiments of dubious significance, Harmon was free to focus on the end-of-life ordeal of “a minor social media sensation” who ran a successful crowdfunding campaign. American social mythology demands that we be ever-optimistic entrepreneurs, even in death.
A Head for Business
The worst obfuscation in the Times story was the claim that “the procedure itself went mostly as planned.” Judging by Alcor’s own account—published in its magazine, Cryonics, eighteen months before the Times report—the procedure clearly did not go as planned.
In the weeks before her death, Suozzi’s health was still robust enough that the hospice she’d checked into in Scottsdale had asked that she leave “until she became more comatose,” in the words of the Cryonics report. To accelerate her own demise, Suozzi began refusing all food and drink, as Alcor advises members to do when physician-assisted suicide is not a lawful option. Twelve days later she stopped breathing. Summoned by Suozzi’s boyfriend, Alcor’s “stabilization team,” which included staff, volunteers, and a former paramedic, arrived ahead of the hospice nurse. At Alcor’s direction, Suozzi was packed in ice before the hospice nurse arrived to assess her condition and pronounce her death.
Within minutes of taking custody of the body, the bumbling Alcor team began experiencing a series of equipment failures. A temperature monitor didn’t work because, as it turned out, the batteries were dead. Shortly thereafter, their expensive mechanical chest-compression device stopped functioning. Then, having moved Suozzi’s body into a tub of ice, the Alcor team realized they’d forgotten to bring along a key piece of cooling equipment. Alcor’s after-action report, compiled from the haphazard “free-form” observations of an unnamed but “experienced” observer, determined that such mistakes could in the future be remedied by “the use of a checklist.” Now there’s a thought.
Forty-five minutes after Suozzi was declared dead on the morning of January 17, 2013, her corpse arrived at Alcor headquarters, where a crack team of quacks shaved her head and drilled a number of sizable holes into her skull. Microphones were then inserted in order to detect the cracking sound of tissue-destroying ice crystals—a freezer-burned brain being even less useful to the imaginary reincarnators of the future than an otherwise undamaged one.
At 9:33 a.m., Suozzi’s body was moved to an operating table. Ten minutes later, Alcor’s technophilic necromancers completed “cephalic isolation”—a euphemistic neologism that means they cut off her head. Such bloodless jargon obscures the macabre slapstick of the antics in the morgue—er, “operating room.” As the magazine account went on to relate:
9:45 a.m.: Cephalon placed in holding ring of cephalic enclosure.
[Translation: They put Suozzi’s head in a box.]
9:51 a.m.: Cephalon fell out of holding ring.
[Translation: Her head fell out.]
9:52 a.m.: Cephalon repositioned.
[Translation: It’s a good thing that, as far as anyone knows, none of these people have been operating on live human bodies.]
Suozzi’s bodily fluids were flushed and replaced with a specially formulated and questionably effective “cryoprotectant”—antifreeze. The official recap alludes to a certain amount of rubbernecking and bickering consistent with past insider accounts of Alcor operations. That wasn’t all. “Unfortunately,” the Cryonics report notes, “there was some confusion and disagreement regarding the ideal temperature at which to perform surgery.” One might assume a forty-four-year-old organization devoted to storing body parts on ice would have reached some working consensus on this question by now.
In the months ahead of the procedure, Alcor boasted of the important research data it would glean thanks to Suozzi’s corporeal donation. But afterward, the official notetaker lamented that the only information collected during the procedure came from the thermometer crammed into her nose.
In Alcor’s account, “the actual success of perfusion in this case appears negligible.” (Perfusion is the term for pumping fluids through blood vessels.) A CT scan later confirmed that “cryoprotective perfusion was not generally successful”—meaning that Suozzi’s brain would not be well preserved. (Or, in Alcor jargon, “cortical cryoprotection” was “minimal.”) In other words, the procedure was a failure. The Times glossed over this and other facts that undermined its bizarrely credulous narrative, which tacitly endorsed Alcor’s ongoing con job—and, by extension, the agenda of its Ayn Rand–worshiping techno-fetishist leadership.
The Anti-Death League
Even before the Times report on Suozzi, Alcor had enjoyed a reputational boost in recent years through similarly credulous reports by way of PBS’s Nova, the BBC, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, Vice, and Wired, among other media outlets. Perceptions had shifted since 1996, when the Los Angeles Times referred matter-of-factly to the “widely discredited cryonics movement.”
What changed? What rescued the reputation of cryonics from the graveyard of forgotten boondoggles?
It wasn’t the march of science. Breakthroughs in medicine and neuroscience had not brought the freeze-dried dream of immortality any closer to reality.
Nor had cryonics organizations cleaned up their act. Alcor’s board of directors, for instance, still boasted a man alleged to have killed his own mother in order to accelerate her “cephalic isolation.” Its chief financial officer, the longtime keeper of the frozen crypts, reportedly spoke openly of having castrated himself with a small blade while in college, which did not speak well of his sanity. When the cryonicists decided to help Kim Suozzi raise money for her decapitation, they turned to an organization, the Society for Venturism, that was founded by a former Alcor vice president and affiliated with its current leadership. The Times duly noted the society’s philanthropic efforts but said nothing about its more questionable aspects. Ventureville, the society’s cryonicist getaway, was once described by a visiting Alcor whistleblower as “one part survivalist camp, one part religious cult compound, and one part travel motel” that struck him as “another Waco waiting to happen.” Ventureville’s former general manager described it as “a fortress” designed to protect cryonicists from the “piracy” of “vulture-like relatives, friends and lawyers” seeking to “get their greedy paws on money which should have paid for a loved one’s cryonic suspension.” More pesky facts extraneous to the narrative.
What did change, thanks to the tech bubble, was the combined net worth of the Silicon Valley software engineers who are in the demographic sweet spot of the Alcor business model. Here were young people possessed of the lust for eternal life, who required no PR blitzes to persuade them of technology’s ability to overcome the brute empirical facts of the human condition—many with the outsize ego to cast themselves as Christlike figures awaiting resurrection and the ample self-confidence to ignore all naysayers.
There was another important factor in the sane-washing[***] of cryonics. Alcor had a new chief executive. In contrast to his predecessors, this one looked and sounded almost . . . normal. And yet he was every bit the oddball charlatan that his predecessors were, as well as a longtime keeper of the organization’s secrets.
His name was Max More. He had been leading Alcor for about a year and a half when Suozzi posted her crowdfunding appeal on Reddit. More was savvy enough to milk maximum value from the promotional opportunity represented by Suozzi’s struggles, particularly for a movement overpopulated with reclusive crackpot-geezer clients. Knowing a good thing when he saw it, More championed Suozzi’s “charity case” to the Alcor board and introduced her as a speaker at Alcor’s 2012 member conference.
But More was much more than an effective publicist who found himself in the right place at the right time. He was the vanguard leader of a peculiar hyper-libertarian, anti-government, techno-utopian ideology that came to dominate Silicon Valley as the computer industry cast itself as the panacea for all the world’s problems.
A self-styled Nietzschean “overman,” More, now fifty-two, achieved geek-world fame as the bodybuilding “strategic philosopher” of the 1990s “extropian” movement. More’s journal, Extropy, promoted seafaring secessionism long before Peter Thiel’s Seasteading Institute hit the scene. It extolled the subversive potential of digital currencies before Bitcoin was a twinkle in Satoshi Nakamoto’s eye. It denounced, with eerie glee, environmentalists, “statists,” and “deathist” cryonics critics who threatened the transhuman future.
Forty-five minutes after Kim Suozzi was declared dead, her corpse arrived at Alcor headquarters, where a crack team of quacks shaved her head.
Although a failure as an academic and as a businessman, More must nevertheless be counted among the most influential philosophers of the past several decades. His fans include corporate oligarchs and icons of academia. Martine Rothblatt—the CEO of the publicly traded biotech company United Therapeutics, a cofounder of Sirius XM satellite radio, and an adviser to Alcor—praised More as the “best-of-the-best” upon his appointment to lead the cryonics organization. MIT artificial intelligence pioneer and futurist icon Marvin Minsky—also an Alcor adviser until his death at eighty-eight this January—once declared More the heir to Carl Sagan. It speaks to the degradation of the age that More could be wrong about pretty much everything yet still be seen as ahead of his time.
Born Max T. O’Connor in Bristol, United Kingdom, More was traumatized at age eleven by his father’s death. “My mother tells me I wouldn’t even mention it for many months. I was in complete denial,” he recalled to an audience of prospective cryonicists. More was a mediocre student at his countryside boarding school until he discovered libertarianism, which kindled his academic ambition and propelled him to St. Anne’s College at Oxford.
At a time when libertarianism was still seen as a fringe conservative sect, especially in Britain, More was as extreme as they came. In a 1983 article for the Libertarian Alliance newsletter, More argued that “non-coercive sex with juveniles is not immoral—it is merely a matter of preference.” He wrote:
If there is nothing objectionable about an adult giving a child sweets or toys, why is giving sexual pleasure wrong? . . . Such an attitude implies a hatred of all pleasure gained through voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. . . . It is true that children questioned in court over alleged sex crimes have often shown great distress. But . . . it is those who wish to retain the age of consent laws who are responsible for this emotional pain.
More was only eighteen when he published the essay, and later sought to distance himself from it without renouncing all of its conclusions. “I was a new, hardline radical libertarian,” More wrote. “Unfortunately, in my foolish arrogance, I wrote about a topic that I was then too naïve to properly understand.” However, he affirmed that he was right to stand up for “free speech” and to attack inflexible laws regarding maturity and consent.
More’s interest in life-extension was kindled at around the same time as his politics. This was not coincidental. As former Alcor president Mike “Darwin” Federowicz wrote, “cryonics began as a radical social movement as much as, or more than, as a scientific or technical undertaking.” Early cryonicists—More’s original mentors and current employers—saw their project as a “globally transformative idea; one that would remake, and in some cases abolish, core human institutions such as inheritance, marriage, the family, and religion with the advent of a ‘freezer-centered society.’” Such were the ideals that led the precocious More to found Britain’s first cryonics organization, now defunct.
In 1987, More left England to pursue a PhD in philosophy at the University of Southern California. Almost immediately, he hooked up with Alcor.
The Dysfunctional Directorate
Among More’s mentors at the organization was a man named Saul Kent, who had founded New York’s first cryonics organization in the mid-1960s and became a supporting member of the California-based Alcor after that organization’s founding in 1972. Kent established a mail-order supplement empire under the umbrella of the Life Extension Foundation (not to be confused with the Alcor Life Extension Foundation). Its catalog today sells pricey bottles that make incredible claims, such as the Dopa-Mind™ “wild green oat extract” capsule that promises “more youthful cognitive health”; the “dual-action” Waist-Line Control™ pills made of fermented yeast; and a “DNA Protection Formula” containing “curcumin, chlorophyllin, wasabi, and broccoli extract.” Life Extension also publishes an eponymous magazine and sells books such as Sexy Forever by Suzanne Somers and FDA: Failure, Deception, Abuse, “a compilation of FDA atrocities” detailed by contributors to the magazine.
Kent poured the profits from this operation into Alcor. He also raised seed money for the expansion of Alcor’s cryonics operations from Stephen Ruddel, a real estate tycoon based in Hollywood, Florida. Ruddel was a drug-addled recluse who peered down on the city through a telescope from his squalid penthouse fortress, guarded by cameras, alarms, and razor wire. A narcotics investigation led police to send a SWAT team rappelling down via helicopter to Ruddel’s roof. Inside the Alcor patron’s home they found assorted gold coins, platinum bars, a thousand eight-ounce ether bottles—enough “to blow up a city block,” but fortunately all empty, police told a local newspaper—along with “feathers, wigs and suggestive snapshots of young women,” and a crack cocaine laboratory. Ruddel was captured while attempting to flee on foot, “wearing only black bikini underwear and deck shoes.”
That was in 1986. By 1988, Kent himself was in trouble with the law. After the disastrous alliance with Ruddel, he had moved to California with his ailing mother, Dora, who was by Alcor’s account “essentially bed-ridden by osteoporosis and senility” and confined to a nursing home. In December 1987, following a bout of pneumonia, Dora Kent became Alcor’s eighth “patient.”
The Riverside County, California, coroner’s office maintained that Dora Kent was killed as a result of the drugs injected by Alcor to prepare her for freezing. Saul Kent and Alcor maintained that she was already dead, but declined to cooperate with the investigation. Riverside County lost a civil court battle with Alcor over the custody of Dora Kent’s remains. Officials abandoned criminal charges and eventually stopped looking for the key piece of evidence: Dora Kent’s head. Given the reported presence of lethal chemicals in the woman’s bone marrow, Alcor’s legal victories were widely attributed to the incompetence of local officials. One of the coroner’s investigators, Alan Kunzman, wrote and self-published a book about the case, which he deemed a travesty, titled Mothermelters: The Inside Story of Cryonics and the Dora Kent Homicide. Saul Kent, still afraid of possible murder charges, has refused ever since to comment on the case and the whereabouts of his mother’s presumably frozen head.
One of the people present for Dora Kent’s final moments was a young Alcor volunteer named Max O’Connor, according to Kunzman. More himself has written in passing that he “assisted” with the Dora Kent operation but otherwise has remained dutifully mum on the subject.
Arguing Against the World
At USC, More’s dissertation, “The Diachronic Self,” concerned the nature of death. He rejected “cardiac and consciousness based conceptions” of the end of life as well as the assumption that death was an irreversible state. While still at USC, More founded a side business, the Extropy Institute. Its main purpose was to publish Extropy magazine, which promoted cryonics and anarcho-capitalism, among other futile pursuits. The name was another pseudoscientific invention. In contrast to entropy, a dictionary word that refers to the observed tendency of matter and energy to dissipate over time, More’s made-up law of “extropy” described the unstoppable drive of humanity toward greater things. The young philosopher invented a new identity for himself, as well. In Extropy no. 6, published in 1990, he wrote:
I am no longer “Max O’Connor.” I’ve changed my name to “Max More” in order to remove the cultural links to Ireland (which connotes backwardness rather than future-orientation) and to reflect the extropian desire for MORE LIFE, MORE INTELLIGENCE, MORE FREEDOM.
“Please note,” he added, “I will be unable to cash checks in my new name until October, so make them payable to ‘Max O’Connor’ until then.”
More’s business partner, Tom W. Bell, also took a new, extropian name, signing himself T. O. Morrow. They sold T-shirts, swapped ads with like-minded organizations such as Alcor and Boing Boing—an obscure Colorado-based “neurozine” before it was a popular geek-culture website—and delighted in the discovery of so many wannabe superhumans.
“The abolition of aging and, finally, all causes of death, is essential,” More wrote. Inspired by Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, he held that “transhumanism” was the next great leap in rationalized selfishness, and a necessary corrective to the “outdated values and ideas” of humanism. A fellow extropian, the cryptography pioneer Perry Metzger, formed an email list that was separate yet closely connected to the magazine.
It almost goes without saying that both the magazine and the listserv were a font of terrible ideas. Some were merely frivolous, such as the proposal for a new calendar for the extropian era. Others were pernicious and, unfortunately, persist.
More was not shy about describing his effort as a grandiose scheme to rewrite the rules of society. “We feel a pressing need for memetically engineering our culture,” More wrote.
We want to increase support for life extension, physical and cognitive augmentation, and combat statism, and paternalism. Especially important in the 1990s is combating the false doom-mongering of the apocalyptic environmentalists. These anti-growth, anti-market, anti-freedom, back-to-the-Pleistocene forces threaten all that we believe in.
Extropianism was a sort of caricature of nineties capitalist excess. Its first principle, as presented in one of More’s manifestos, was “boundless expansion.” Addled by the new potential of the Internet, the apostles of extropianism imagined that their movement would turn into something like a home shopping network for self-actualization. The extropian commitment to technology promised “more intelligence, wisdom, and personal power, an unlimited lifespan, and removal of natural, social, biological, and psychological limits to self-actualization and self-realization.”
Most extropians were content to enthuse over how awesome eternal life would be once they assumed control of their indestructible cyborg bodies. Others, however, flirted with totalitarianism and called for genocide in the service of the Singularity.
One dark tirade along those lines kicked off in 1998 in a discussion thread about a possible extropian political party. “I think we should take a few things into account,” a pseudonymous extropian wrote:
1. People are stupid
2. People are stupid
3. People are stupid
The writer held that the sublime extropian ends justified any and all means, including “lying, cheating and media propaganda.” He urged the abandonment of “the usual Libertarian ‘everyone should be free’ nonsense” in favor of a “you should do as we say” program. “Forget Democracy, Totalitarianism is the only route a modern party should take,” he went on. “We’re not here to ‘make a better world’ we’re here to ‘make a better self.’” Moreover, it would be necessary for the extropian master race to “cull the herd.”
“At this point many of you may think I’m joking,” the extropian wrote. “I’m not.”
More chimed in to say he found such an approach repellent, but went on to recommend a sci-fi novel, Slant by Greg Bear, in which the extropians were given credit for inspiring just such a future totalitarian movement. But rhetorical qualifications aside, there was no escape from the abyss More had swan-dived into. Drawn together by the Internet, a giddy cohort of devotees believed a quantum upgrade of the human software was in the offing—one that readily justified More’s heated dismissal of “outdated values” and his rapturous visions of immortal übermenschen pursuing their chosen genius-agendas “without an obligation to ‘the masses.’” Indeed, extropians rarely expressed anything but contempt for the billions of people who failed to heed their boundlessly life-expanding vision.
On the subject of cryonics, at least, More still shares his comrades’ contempt for nonbelievers. “It may seem like a strange thing to do,” More said at a recent gathering of fellow life-extension enthusiasts. “It may seem unconventional or peculiar. That’s only because people are stupid.”
Genocide for Progress!
The problem with stupid people, from the extropian point of view, is that they get in the way. Another example of extropian exceptionalism was posted to the listserv after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Titled “TERRORISM: Is genocide the logical solution?” the author’s answer was decisive: Yes! Humanity’s imperative is to ensure “the elimination of aging and death and the feasibility of uploading our minds into much more robust hardware,” according to this visionary. As people of Afghanistan were “highly unlikely” to advance that goal, “the value of their lives is negative.” Therefore, murdering twenty-five million people would be entirely justified if it could accelerate the arrival of those future technologies, even by a mere six months.
From a rational position . . . a plan of genocide to bury the country in rubble seems justified. Is this feasible? It would appear to be the case. 100 Minutemann [sic] III ICBMs could launch 300+ Ktons each at Afganistan [sic]. This roughly translates to over 1 ton TNT/person.
The architect of this insane genocidal screed was no marginal misanthrope, no illiterate barstool general. He was a successful Silicon Valley engineer named Robert J. Bradbury, a Harvard dropout and programmer who had been employee No. 28 at Oracle—the world’s second-largest software company after Microsoft—and went on to found Aeiveos, a private corporation devoted to quixotic life-extension research. Aeiveos was bankrolled by Bradbury’s former employer, Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison, who had a personal fortune estimated at $56 billion and a well-documented obsession with finding the real-life fountain of youth. Bradbury’s friends and business associates included luminaries of the transhumanism scene and, while some condemned such amoral outbursts, these sentiments were not uncommon in the extropian milieu.
For his part, More demonstrated a startlingly utilitarian view of human life. In an essay on population control, he wrote that children in poor countries “can be regarded as ‘producer goods,’” on account of the labor they produce. “As we become wealthier,” he explained, “children become ‘consumer goods.’”
Therefore, as More saw it, the solution to the overpopulation problem was simple: stop “subsidizing” fertility through “free education (free to the parents, not to the tax-payers), free child health care, and additional welfare payments to women for each child they bear. If parents must personally bear the costs of having children, rather than everyone else paying, people will tend to have just the number of children for whom they can assume financial responsibility.” Simple!
As such faux-sober exercises in realism show, extropian economics was barely a step removed from Jonathan Swift’s sendup of utilitarian philosophy as a baby-eating cult. And yet the futurist orientation of the extropian creed gave the reactionary rhetoric a sense of urgency and momentum. Writing elsewhere in Extropy, More anticipated Bitcoin, arguing that “statist” control over the economy might be shattered by the development of “electronic cash and competing private currencies.” Such ideas were borrowed from science fiction, but Extropy eagerly carried them into the political realm.
Other authors plotted secessionist colonies on the high seas. T. O. Morrow imagined “Free Oceana” as a trial run for “Extropolis: an artificial city floating far above Earth’s surface” where transhumans could achieve their destiny as the rulers of space. He recognized that to say as much in public meant consignment to “the wacko camp.” Instead, he suggested a cynical strategy of “portray[ing] ourselves as the ocean’s guardians, protecting our domain from those who would pollute it or exploit its resources.” While extropians elsewhere derided environmentalists as sentimental, Pleistocene-minded foes of foreordained transhuman progress, they were more than willing to impersonate them for the sake of public respectability—and profit. Here’s how Morrow sought to nail down the case for the space-city prospectus:
If we present the idea cautiously, skeptically, with the attitude that it makes for an interesting “hobby” or research project, it might have a level of “memetic appeal” that could attract a number of bright, innovative minds to an extropian philosophy. And then, if it works, and makes money, at least enough to be self supporting, so much the better.
Extropolis may remain a distant dream, but the unfortunate truth of the matter is that Morrow’s daft sketch of the movement’s bait-and-switch funding mechanisms actually worked like a charm, once the new cohort of Valley-minted moguls picked up a whiff of it. Today, it barely rates as news when another tech billionaire announces that he’s plowing his fortune into a scheme for space colonization, sea-steading, or government-free “experimentation zones” devoted to the libertarian version of deliberate living.
All Hail the New Self
Nevertheless, the unlikely elevation of extropian thought into respectability (if not intellectual coherence) is another cautionary tale for our time. Contributors to the extropian listserv, who numbered between two hundred and three hundred, were united by the now universal dogmas of technophilia and libertarianism.
Extropianism was a sort of caricature of nineties capitalist excess. Its first principle was “boundless expansion.”
Those who remember the period will not be surprised to know that the movement’s biggest boost came from the soft-core extropians at Wired magazine. Founding executive editor Kevin Kelly in 1993 endorsed both Extropy magazine and the magazine’s email listserv as an “absolutely fun” antidote to the “Politically Correct Future of the alternative press.” The following year, Wired ran a lengthy feature on the extropians that further raised More’s profile and cast the extropians as a bunch of hedonistic reactionary swingers. One memorable scene featured Romana Machado, a.k.a. “Mistress Romana,” a “software engineer, author, and hot-blooded capitalist” (and occasional nude model), who arrived “dressed as the State, in a black vinyl bustier and mini, with a chain harness top” and “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.” Everybody into the hot tub!
But as many veterans of the first tech bubble learned, buzz didn’t pay the bills. More’s post-PhD career was a familiar hodgepodge of consulting, freelance writing, adjunct teaching, and mounting credit card debt. Alas, some financial obligations are not yet expungeable with the promised labor of a Third World child.
The later course of More’s career at least lends an entertaining ironic gloss to his otherwise plodding speculative manifestos. “Personal responsibility” was always a key tenet of More’s philosophy, as he emphasized in Extropy no. 8. “Extropians are almost always highly libertarian,” More wrote. “Libertarians favor a society where everyone is free to make their own choices, and to bear the costs of their own mistakes rather than shift those costs onto someone who has not made those choices.” While “pessimists are much more comfortable depending on the nanny state’s promise of a stifling security,” he went on, “libertarians hold that individuals can and should take responsibility for their choices in the market and for the direction of their lives.”
You don’t say. In 2005, More filed for personal bankruptcy protection. The court filings listed $110,000 in unsecured debts, including a combined $32,000 for two Extropy Institute credit cards. In 2006, More, having left California for Austin, Texas, closed the Extropy Institute for good, announcing that “its mission was essentially completed.” The transhuman revolution occurred at the end of the Bush era, it seems, without anyone much noticing.
At that time, More’s old friends at Alcor were reeling from negative publicity after the alleged mishandling of Ted Williams’s corpse. Soon enough, the organization began headhunting (as it were) for new leadership. More answered the call, and in 2011 was appointed CEO. As of 2013, the last year for which Alcor’s public tax filings were available, he drew an annual salary of $124,000. As More used to sign his extropian emails, “Onward!”
My Kingdom for a Meme
Nothing makes the case for the extropians’ lasting influence better than the apparent success of its “memetic engineering” project. Pop culture and the press are filled with stories about extropian themes of secession, techno-transcendence, and selfish contempt for the weak-willed masses. Extropianism conquered the mainstream. In retrospect, this weird little movement makes a good argument for the power of small magazines.
Although he remained obscure to the broader public, More gained a number of wealthy and otherwise notable admirers. He was among the extropians and Alcorians to join an outfit called the Society for Venturism, founded by David Pizer, the multimillionaire realtor and former car-upholstery dealer currently challenging John McCain for U.S. Senate in the Arizona Republican Party primary. Other extropians included Nick Szabo, Wei Dai, and Hal Finney, three old-school “cypherpunks” who have all been suspected, at one point or another, of being the true identity of Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto. (Finney died in 2014 and was placed in an Alcor freezer.) Stanford PhD and cryptography pioneer Ralph Merkle gave presentations at Extropy Institute events and now oversees More as an Alcor board member.
Alcor, the premiere extropian boondoggle, also boasts a growing roster of notable members and supporters. Among the wealthiest is Peter Thiel, the radical libertarian venture capitalist, early Facebook investor, and PayPal cofounder. A well-known British gerontologist, Aubrey de Grey, also serves as an Alcor adviser. K. Eric Drexler, a nanotechnology researcher, has spoken in favor of cryonics at Alcor events, as has futurist author Ray Kurzweil, now Google’s director of engineering. Brad Templeton, a former chairman and board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, maintains an interest in cryonics. Larry King, the former CNN host, also thinks it’s a grand idea.[****]
Sunbelt Death Cult
Thanks to all this high-profile backing, a true transhuman miracle has occurred: Alcor, a preposterous operation built on the unethical sale of false hope, remains in business.
Alcor’s pricey freezer fees—$80,000 for a head, $200,000 for a whole body—are partly covered by life insurance policies that members take out on themselves, naming Alcor as the beneficiary. Thus, Alcor benefits whenever its members die. Does this ever happen in real medicine? Doctors tend to get paid more when they keep their patients alive.
More now commonly boasts of Alcor’s high regard in its laissez-faire Arizona home. The foundation has over the years beaten back legal challenges as well as regulatory campaigns. At this point, More claims, Arizonan lawmakers are friendly with Alcor, seeing it as a beacon of the state’s high-tech industry. Who cares if it’s bogus?
Alcor’s most prominent whistleblower is a former chief operating officer named Larry Johnson. It was Johnson who leaked the story of Ted Williams’s head to the press. In 2009 he published a book about Alcor, coauthored with Scott Baldyga, titled Frozen: My Journey into the World of Cryonics, Deception, and Death.
Alcor filed multiple legal actions against Johnson, Baldyga, and their publisher, Vanguard Press, including a libel complaint in New York that was dismissed in 2014, although Alcor has appealed that judgment. Under financial pressure from Alcor’s complaints—and subject, by his own account, to death threats—Johnson did make a limited apology for inaccuracies related to the Williams operation, which he did not witness firsthand. But he never retracted the bulk of the allegations in the book. Much of what Johnson reports is information he gained from the inside while talking with Alcor leadership, often with a hidden microphone. At a minimum, his account leads the reader to marvel at what a poorly regulated business with an anti-government ethos can allegedly get away with in a weak-government state like Arizona. Johnson claims that Alcor stockpiled expired drugs, including hallucinogens and deadly paralytics, for injection into patients; that Alcor held secret board meetings in violation of IRS transparency requirements; that nepotism and misuse of funds was rampant at Alcor; that Alcor committed routine environmental and public health violations such as dumping AIDS-contaminated blood down public drains—even that Alcor staff inflicted needless cruelty on animals, including draining a dog’s blood and replacing it with cryoprotectant out of sheer curiosity. That last claim, and others in Johnson’s book, are confirmed by the published writings of Alcor’s own leadership, although such accounts certainly put a different spin on things.
Other allegations may not carry legal consequences but sure are disgusting, such as the filthy condition of Alcor’s facilities—which More, writing in Cryonics, pledged to address upon his appointment as CEO.
The Ice Bath Cometh
But what bothered Johnson most was the brazen scammery of it all. Alcor sold “false hope to the hopeless” and “actively targeted” terminally ill people by listing the names of specific diseases on its homepage. “Anyone who paid up front was accepted,” according to Johnson.
The membership, he wrote, “consisted mainly of sick people: AIDS patients, cancer victims, people diagnosed with brain tumors.”
In other words, sick people just like Kim Suozzi.
In reality, Suozzi wasn’t entirely a “charity case,” as More and Alcor claimed, and as the Times suggested. The twenty-three-year-old cancer victim was a marketing opportunity for a crooked cult. Some $10,000 of her Alcor fees came from a preexisting life insurance policy that otherwise would have benefited her mother.
Before Suozzi’s death, Alcor had the bright idea to cast the occasionally foggy-headed cancer patient in a recruitment video pitched at young people. The video was posted online, some weeks after the Times story, by the Church of Perpetual Life, a new charitable venture by Alcor board member Saul Kent based in a former Baptist church in Hollywood, Florida.
In the video, Suozzi sits awkwardly between two grinning geriatric Alcorians in a spartan morgue that’s lined with tall metal canisters filled with liquid nitrogen and body parts. Suozzi’s interlocutor, psychiatrist Robert Newport, faces the camera and asks, “What would you say to young people to prompt their becoming interested and active?”
“Well, it’s not that expensive if you sign up early and have life insurance,” Suozzi replies. “And, in terms of becoming interested in it, you really have—um. Sorry. I don’t know what to say,” she trails off, losing focus.
But the Alcor ghouls carry grimly on, welcoming her to “the community” of the frozen dead. It’s just a shame that they didn’t manage to get there first.
[*] In spring 2005 a two-year-old Thai girl was frozen by Alcor at the request of her parents after succumbing to a terminal illness.
[**] Cryonics, the con job, should not be confused with cryogenics, the science of freezing things, although it frequently is.
[***] Credit goes to University of California–Berkeley lecturer in rhetoric Dale Carrico for this coinage.
[****] Contrary to myth, neither Peter Sellers nor Walt Disney had their heads frozen at death. Timothy Leary almost became Alcor’s eternal pitchman-on-ice but changed his mind, explaining, “They have no sense of humor.”
Corrections: Due to a reporting error, this piece initially misstated the interval leading up to Kim Suozzi’s decision to pursue cryonic preservation at the Alcor facility, as well the time of fasting and preparation leading to Suozzi’s death. Those numbers were, respectively, twenty-one months and twelve days, not two years and one week, as was originally reported.
Also, an earlier version of this essay quoted the New York Times as follows: “Other neuroscientists . . . do not take [cryonics] seriously.” We have revised this paragraph to clarify that the neuroscientists in question were referring specifically to brain emulation, or the belief that it will someday be possible “to generate a digital replica of a person’s mind.”
Finally, we have revised the description of Kim Suozzi’s involvement with Alcor to clarify that she sought their services after surgery and other medical treatments failed, and that only her head was frozen.