Book review: ‘To Be a Machine’ by Mark O’Connell

The idea that there’s a way of beating death is a perennially appealing one. The transhumanism movement believes technology may be within sight of a solution.

Readers won’t have to delve far into ‘To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death’ (Granta, £12.99, ISBN 9781783781966), Mark O’Connell’s lively account of how rapidly the transhumanism movement is gaining traction to see why its ideology appeals to so many influential movers and shakers in technology hubs like Silicon Valley. For the successful billionaires whose fortunes can get them almost anything they could wish for, it promises the one thing that money can’t yet buy: the ability to avoid mortality.

The idea that eternal life is achievable if we work at it hard enough has been around as long as people have been telling stories. As far back as Ancient Egypt the wealthy believed that investing in a copy of ‘The Book of the Dead’ would buy them a short cut to a comfortable afterlife among the gods.

If the hope of overcoming death is so pervasive as to be almost commonplace, ‘To be a Machine’ illustrates how mundane the promised solutions can be. O’Connell hits the road to meet a succession of evangelists for different approaches to achieving immortality through technology. Whether sharing a drink and snacks with the London Futurists in the corner of a pub following a lecture by Swedish academic Anders Sandberg or taking a tour of Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s cryogenic storage unit in Arizona, he encounters a succession of people who take for granted that achieving immortality should be one of science’s fundamental aims.

The transhumanism movement is predicated on the conviction that we can and should use technology not just to control evolution but to eliminate ageing as a cause of death, augment our bodies and even merge with machines. In scientific terms, adherents like to talk about eventually ‘solving death’ as a natural progression from using technology to eliminate near-sightedness and smallpox.

The roots of transhumanism are both scientific and philosophical, and O’Connell investigates both. Most transhumanists talk of the next ten years as having more profound changes to what it means to be human than any period of time before now.

One worrying aspect of this is the extent to which they can see the line between humans and machines as a blurred one, and disability as a software bug or broken part that needs to be fixed. In some eyes we are just computers built from protein – ‘meat machines’.

Total emancipation from biology is one extreme of this line of thinking. At the other, though, are relatively straightforward brain hacks to eliminate things like forgetfulness that could have far-reaching effects.

To be a machine, or not to be? It’s appropriate that O’Connell’s title echoes Shakespeare’s contemplation on mortality. From the evidence presented here it looks like anyone expecting to make that decision in a permanent way anytime soon is going to be disappointed. This is the sort of societal change, though, that happens at a gradual if not glacial pace and many readers may find themselves having to decide within their lifetime to what extent they’re happy for their natural physiology to be replaced or enhanced by a mechanical alternative.

This engaging gallop through the history and current state of play is a good preparation for making an informed choice as well as an entertaining, if at times unnerving, read.

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