Reading Mark O’Connell’s “To Be a Machine”

02Jul18

A book review.

  • He said, ” I have so far abstained from sex. I have never had a girlfriend.”. 
  • “you’re saving yourself for the sexbots?”.
  • He nodded slowly, shrewdly raising his eyebrowd. You bet your ass he was saving himself for the sexbots.

Chickens, so I was told by a paleontologist once, see chickens as the crown on the evolution. For chickens, descending from dinosaurs, chickens are the ultimate, most successful species on earth. Other species, particularly humans, beg to differ. At least they spend lots of time pondering how different and how much more advanced they are, compared to other animals. For transhumanists however, even this special status of evolution’s most special is not enough. They believe humans should beat evolution by means of technology, and, if I read Mark O’Connels book: “to be a machine” correctly, they feel we have no time to waste.

Maybe transhumanism isn’t really a coherent set of ideas, but more of a loose collection of humans, all pursuing their own dreams about how technology could help them overcome death. We are talking about many different things. Mind uploading: into computers.Cryptoreservation: storing bodies for later recovery. Biohacking: enhancing the body with computer technology under the skin. And, yes, sexrobots: no explanaition needed. What O’Connell does, is dive into these groups and examine their thinking respectfully and seriously without ever becoming a “believer”, therefore allowing his audience to make up its own mind about transhumanism. O’Connell:

“I am not a transhumanist. That much is probably apparent, even at this early stage of the proceedings. But my fascination with the movement, with its ideas and its aims, arises out of a basic sympathy with its premise: that human existence, as it has been given is a suboptimal system.”

I picked up the book to feed my fascination with what drives people in general – and utopians in particular. What is it, really, about a technology enhanced world that is so attractive? Why would anyone in his right mind want to chase a future in which technology play’s an even bigger role than it already does in modern society? The simple answer is that transhumanist love, adore and even worship technology. They see humans as imperfect machines, bound to decline and die way too early and they believe we should take things in our own hands. It is our duty and our destiny is to become better versions of the devices that mother nature gave us. We could live in bodies more efficient, more powerful, more useful, so we should try our best.

The book offers a tour amongst innovative business and bright, yet slightly twisted, minds that think of the human condition, in particular mortality, as the next technological frontier. This leads into vivid and witty vignettes, a sense of the undercurrents that feed this type of thinking and many cute philosophical questions.

Take the question of brain uploading. Analog to the classic question, how does it feel to be a bat, one could probe the feelings of an uploaded brain. Would it still it feel like your brain? Would your sense of self be copied? Or, as O’Connel asks: would it feel like coming out of a major operation, having difficulty – but luckily help from family,- in reconstructing yourself?

In all, I believe it is worth your while to pick up “to be a machine”, if only because of the many questions it raises. I must warn you though: after 200 pages among transhumanist, an unsettling estrangement is likely to haunt you. In O’Connell’s words:

“Speaking to Natscha reminded me of what I always found so disturbing about transhumanism. There was the truth of its premise, that we were all trapped,bleeding, marked for death. And there was the strangeness of its promise, that technology could redeem us, release us from that state. These things both did and did not connect.”

Reading More?

I wrote about technology optimism in evaluating the netgen argument, and about the cyborg manifesto in Reading Dona Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women.

 

Other related book reviews include: Countdown to Zero Day, The Information, Mediated, The Meme Machine, and Thinking Internet and Thinking.

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