The outbreak of Coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown on movement has shown us just what the government and the population are prepared to do to stop the spread of disease and limited the number of deaths from this unknown virus.
In To Be A Machine, author and journalist Mark O’Connell explores the world of transhumanism, where believers try and avoid death not by lockdowns or vaccines, but by superceding biology with technology and exploring ways in which technology, rather than medicine, will control the evolution of our species.
In the book, O’Connell describes transhumanism as,
a movement predicated on the conviction that we can and should use technology to control the future evolution of our species. It is their belief that we can and should eradicate aging as a cause of death; that we can and should use technology to augment our bodies and our minds; that we can and should merge with machine, remaking ourselves, finally, in the image of our own higher ideals
These are people who are willing to freeze their heads after death, in the hope that they can be ‘resurrected’ through technology. They believe that aging isn’t an integral part of living, but something to be cured, like a disease. They see a distinct separation between the body and the brain and in short, they are determined to find away to live forever.
O’Connell meets with various proponents of the transhumanist movement. He visits the facility in Arizona where those with enough cash can have their bodies (or just their heads) cryonically suspended, ostensibly to be brought back to some form of life when technology catches up.
He hangs out with a gourp of ‘grinders’ who augment their bodies through technology, once they have mastered how to open their cars with just a wave of their enhanced arms. He travels across America with Zoltan Istvan, a presidential candidate who journeys in a coffin-shaped ‘Immortality Bus’, along with a young man who is saving his virginity for a sexbot, because real life women can hurt you or give you an STD.
It would be very easy for O’Connell simply to make fun of all these people, to mine their strange belief systems for dry humour but his approach and his writing come from a deeper place than that. He sets out to understand why believers in transhumanism feel that human beings are ‘broken’ and therefore fixable and also to try and capture what it means to be human.
He notes, with interest, that a lot of discussion around transhumanism echoes the language of religion and faith. The movement is an attempt to improve humanity on earth in order to achieve transcendence and ‘eternal life’.
But perhaps it wasn’t so much that transhumanism was a quasi-religious movement, as that it addressed itself towards the fundamental human contradictions and frustrations that had traditionally been the preserve of faith.
O’Connell in particular struggles with the transhumanist assumption in the separation of the mind and the body. As a new father to a young son, he struggles with this idea that the brain is a separate entity – one that can be saved or uploaded to allow humans to live forever. What then is life without a body? Are we simply a programme that is dysfunctional and in need of an upgrade? O’Connell doesn’t think so and believes that transhumanism ignores a core part of what it means to be human in the physical world.
I had a very strong feeling – an instinctual burst of subcortical signals – that there was no distinction between “me” and my body, that I could never exist independently of the substrate on which I operated because the self was the substrate and the substrate was the self.
This is in part what makes To Be A Machine so enjoyable. O’Connell is open to the people he meets and to their ideas. He never looks down on them or dismisses their beliefs out of hand, he is – at the end of the day – human.
He also brings welcome touches of humour to bear on this somewhat technical world. He notes, with interest, that one of the passengers on the Immortality Bus, who believes technology will allow him to prolong his life, travels lying on the floor of this old and decrepit vehicle.
All of this seems especially odd, given the seat belt’s well-known efficacy as a life extension technology.
To Be A Machine is a fascinating and timely exploration of a movement that goes beyond the ideas of what it means to be human, while at the same time, reminding us of what being human actually means.
You can listen to Mark O’Connell taking about the dissolving border between humans and machines in this YouTube video.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!