In the inlay to Mark O’Connell’s book, To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, there is a quote from White Noise, an award winning 1985 novel by the postmodernist writer, Don De Lillo. “This is the whole point of technology,” De Lillo writes: “It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.”
Looking at technology through this man vs machine-prism sets the tone nicely for the direction O’Connell’s narrative leans towards as he seeks to understand the transhumanist ideology, which he believes advocates for nothing less than a final and total enslavement to technology through the convergence of technology and flesh. Hollywood movies like The Terminator and RoboCop may have popularised such ideas as dystopian science fiction. But there is a now a dedicated global movement of people that fervently believe in the capability of machines and humans merging. Many of these individuals are Silicon Valley insiders, holding important positions of power in multibillion-dollar multinational corporations like Facebook, Google, and PayPal.
“Transhumanism is obviously a new and radical idea,” O’Connell explains from his home in Dublin. “But it’s keeping in line with this irreducible human need to feel we are going somewhere as a species. It also brings out in us those same instincts and anxieties that religion and mythology give us.”
“Really that’s where all stories arise out of — making sense from the fact that our existence doesn’t make sense. So, we need stories to put that in some sort of frame,” O’ Connell adds.
In To Be a Machine, O’Connell attempts to grapple with a number of pertinent themes relating to a possible future where humans become second best to intelligent machines. How the human species will change over the coming decades, ultimately, depends on how much we embrace technology, or, how willing we are as a species to hold onto what makes us Homo sapiens too, O’Connell believes.
As a literary and cultural critic, O’Connell doesn’t claim to be any kind of tech expert. But perhaps his lack of ties to the tech world can be a useful advantage when trying to figure out what makes the transhumanist community tick. O’Connell’s book is primarily a philosophical exploration of what it means to be human as well as our inability as a species to accept the concept of being static. Or, put another way, our insistence that we can somehow overcome, or transcend, our limitations as human beings, and become something above and beyond our physical selves.
It’s here that O’Connell’s background in culture works well. The book comes with a wide array of cultural references from towering 20th century intellectual giants, like Sigmund Freud, W.B. Yeats, and Ernest Becker. And O’Connell borrows from philosophy, mythology, and psychology to explain concepts such as ageing, death, and technology. O’Connell’s view of technology, for instance, borrows from Freud’s idea of the death wish (a deep desire for self-destruction, ed.):
“Technology just so happens to be how we pursue our death wish,” O’Connell claims. “The more sophisticated our technology gets, the greater our capacity for destruction becomes. We do have an undeniable destructive urge as a species. And as amazing and wonderful as the many achievements that technology has brought us are, it has also created the atomic bomb,” he adds.
As a layman with a penchant for books rather than machines, O’Connell furthered his understanding of the transhumanist community by travelling across the United States, where he spent considerable time with a number of committed members of the movement.
During his trip, his view of what transhumanism is started to change, he explains: “When I started to write the book I wanted to travel to various places around the world, because transhumanism is obviously a global movement. But I eventually concluded that transhumanism is an outpost, not just of American culture, but specifically Californian culture. And that I was actually writing a book about America,” O’Connell says.
At least three important questions stand out in O’Connell’s book. First, does it make sense to think of humans as essentially bits of information that can be deciphered? Second, is there something deeper at the core of human existence, other than just random material matter? And third, will artificial intelligence eventually redeem or annihilate us?
The first question is one that Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari— author of Sapiens and Homo Deus— and I discussed at length when I interviewed him for this publication some months ago (SCENARIO 01.2017) Back then, Harari kept referring to the term dataism: the idea that the universe consists of data flows and that organisms are essentially a way of organising and processing that data.
“I think ultimately this idea is just a metaphor,” says O’Connell defiantly. “If we reduce the mind to flows of information and see ourselves as just code, we are talking within a very narrow discourse, and then we are always going to come off second best to machines.”
Moreover, O’Connell believes viewing intelligence as the ultimate value of human existence will land humans in big trouble in the long run.
“That is a very limiting view of humanity,” he explains. “But it’s something that a lot of transhumanists believe. They are striving for a version of themselves that blurs the lines between being a computer and existing as a human being. They think of humans in terms of code and their perception of reality is a computable binary system.”
O’Connell argues that by accepting from the get-go that humans are simply machines, one quickly ends up committing to a worldview that closely resembles that of Silicon Valley religious-like tech-enthusiasts, such as Ray Kurzweil or Elon Musk.
Kurzweil is Google’s Director of Engineering, heading up a team developing machine intelligence and natural language understanding. He’s also the author of books such as The Singularity Is Near, in which he argues that rapid developments in artificial intelligence and related technologies will soon lead to humans and machines merging completely. Musk, meanwhile, is a tech investor, engineer and inventor, who was last year ranked 21st in Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful people. And he has invested heavily in AI enterprises over the last number of years.
O’Connell likes to poke fun at the information-centred view of the world shared by many transhumanists. At one point in the book, he makes a reference to Kurzweil’s observation that the ocean appeared to him to be a vast flow of data and information. And not, say, a remarkable achievement of nature that can be admired simply for what it is.
On a more serious note, O’Connell draws attention to the fact that Elon Musk has recently announced that he is investigating something called neural lace technology. Presently, this idea is merely hypothetical and theoretical, because it doesn’t physically exist yet. However, the basic idea concerns what is called a brain machine interface technology, where one could potentially inject a special substance onto the surface of the brain. This would allow the brain to communicate with the computer and send signals back and forth.
Crucially, though, it would merge at a cellular level with the material of the brain too, thus allowing humans to merge with a superficial artificial intelligence. The end goal of such technology is to have a group of people who are super intelligent.
“This idea— from Musk’s point of view— is that AI is coming. And therefore, if we don’t merge with our own version of AI, we are going to be obsolete,” O’Connell explains. “It grows out of the idea that humans are just basically machines. But if you start to think that way you have already lost and abdicated any meaningful sense of what it means to be a human being,” O’Connell adds.
THE CREED OF TECHNOCAPITALISM
While Musk and Kurzweil certainly get a mention in O’Connell’s latest book, alas, they do not make any cameo appearances. O’Connell does manage, however, to conduct many in-depth interviews with other tech gurus over the course of the book, which is part gonzo journalism, part philosophy of the mind, and part critique of late western capitalism. These interviews include key figures from the broad church of the transhumanist movement, among them Dr Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and Max More, CEO of Alcor Life Extension, a cryopreservation facility near Phoenix, Arizona. More can almost be viewed as the central figure in O’Connell’s book. Primarily because he is known as the founding father of the transhumanist movement. More achieved this status from a famous essay he wrote in 1999.
A Letter to Mother Nature: Amendments to the Human Constitution argued that humans have now matured to the stage in their evolutionary path where they are clearly capable of taking back complete control of nature. More wrote at the time:
“What you [nature, ed.] have made us is glorious, yet deeply flawed. You seem to have lost interest in our further evolution some 100,000 years ago. Or perhaps you have been biding your time, waiting for us to take the next step ourselves. Either way, we have reached our childhood’s end. We have decided that it is time to amend the human constitution.”
“Reading that, I just thought it was a very provocative statement that shows the arrogance of transhumanism,” says O’Connell, expressing his contempt for such hubris. “This idea that we now have the tools to take our development out of nature’s hands and become a thing that we have designed ourselves. Taking back our fate from nature has always been an undercurrent in the development of technology and science. But this letter is fascinating, primarily because of the rhetorical conceit,” O’Connell adds.
O’Connell went to visit More in Phoenix, Arizona, at Alcor Life Extension Foundation, where hundreds of people alive today have already paid for their bodies to be brought to after death. Here, they will be cryonically suspended until science figures out a way to bring them back to life. Others, who have died, lie waiting in vaults to be, well, brought back to life too, should the breakthrough happen sometime soon. This is normal behaviour within the transhumanist movement, as O’Connell’s book documents in some detail.
More is primarily a philosopher, but he also holds the responsibility of running a small to medium business, which has all the usual banal administrative tasks that capitalist tech enterprises tend to. To O’Connell, this juxtaposition of the profound and the very ordinary at Alcor Life Extension Foundation is strangely dislocating and paradoxical. O’Connell says walking into this vast warehouse in Phoenix, Arizona— that was full of huge ten-foot-tall stainless-steel canisters which he knew contained dismembered bodies and severed heads— gave him a strange feeling of almost being stuck inside a J.G. Ballard novel. It also struck him as being comparable to one of the central ideas of Catholicism:
“Visiting this office building in the middle of an industrial estate reminded me of the idea of limbo: where you are neither dead nor alive,” O’Connell explains. “And that is literally how transhumanists view this stuff. There is a whole lexicon that goes out of its way to defer the fact that these are corpses. They know that these people are dead. But the idea they believe in is that they are going to come back to life. So, you are kind of surrounded by corpses. But you are also surrounded by people. It’s a weird and surreal place,” he adds.
Before setting out to write this book, O’Connell says he had a vague notion that a disembodied mind was central to the church of transhumanism. But in his vague understanding, such a concept remained squarely in the realm of speculation. And then he met Randal A. Koene, a Dutch neuroengineer and co-founder of carboncopies.org, a non-profit foundation that supports scientists working with ‘whole brain emulation’ (digital mapping and storing of the human brain, ed.). Koene has dedicated thirty years of his life to the ideal of extracting the minds of individuals from the material— flesh, blood, neural tissue— in which they have been traditionally embedded. And, as he explained to O’Connell when they first met, his interest in the uploading of minds arose out of what he called “a preoccupation with the limitations of creativity and a precocious awareness of how many things he wished to experience in life.” O’Connell, however, has no sympathy with the idea of uploading minds to a digital platform, or anywhere else for that matter.
“I mean why would you want to do it?” he asks incredulously. “And in what sense would you continue to be human if you did? The implications of it are almost unthinkable. And yet, this is what transhumanists want. If you talk to them for long enough there is always some version of this that they have in mind. Leaving the body. Not so much becoming disembodied intelligence. But living inside a computer or whatever. They all want some version of that. And that is when you realise the absolute craziness of all of this,” he adds.
If transhumanists almost always come off sounding like a brainwashed bunch of religious nutters, well, that’s because most of them— according to O’Connell at least — are just that. “The unquestionable faith of transhumanists is on a par with any religious fundamentalist you can think of,” O’Connell says: “These people have an evangelical faith in technology.”
O’Connell may not be a writer prone to coming out with general sweeping statements, where he lays a fundamental argument firmly down before his readers. But his book does come to a defining conclusion: that transhumanism is part of a broader ideological commitment to ‘technocapitalism’ (a line of thought that sees rapid technological development and the evolution of capitalism as interdependent, ed.). And, while transhumanists themselves say they are ideologically neutral, O’Connell just doesn’t buy this argument.
“Every version of the future transhumanists talk about is predicated by the further development of capitalism,” says O’Connell. “The end goal of technocapitalism is a vision where we have this machine that does away with any need for labour. The algorithm is owned by a proprietor and its goal is purely to generate profit. So, I think it’s difficult, and possibly impossible— in practice if not in theory— to separate transhumanism from this specific kind of capitalist extremism,” O’Connell concludes.