Mark O’Connell: Transhumanist Companion and Author of ‘To Be A Machine’

by Ben Cooke

For three years, Mark O’Connell hobnobbed with people trying not to be human. Neuroscientists trying to run their brains on hard drives; “body-hackers” turning themselves into cyborgs one electronic implant at a time; dreamers, hoping one day to merge their minds into a collective super intelligence.

The little-known label ‘transhumanist’ was to them a commonplace. They were people trying to transcend the limits of the human condition with the aid of technology, and escape their fragile, transient bodies to live forever as machines.

O’Connell is not a transhumanist. He was drawn to write about transhumanism by “a mixture of abhorrence and weird sympathy.” On the one hand, he could relate to their dissatisfaction with the human condition as it is – eighty years of steadily declining health isn’t exactly an optimal situation, after all.

But on the other hand, the transhumanists he spoke with seemed not to want to improve this situation, so much as substitute it for an entirely mechanical state of being – a prospect that revolted him.

Returning from California to his home in Dublin, he wrote up this journey into Silicon Valley’s fever dreams in To Be a Machine: Adventures among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death. This attempt to understand transhumanism on its own terms, alternately absurdist and profound, won the 2017 Wellcome Prize.

“It was never my intention to be the sceptical man who goes into this milieu and just debunks everything,” says O’Connell.

“Initially, I was convinced I was going to write a book about self-improvement. I spent a long time grappling with this idea before realising that transhumanism was this kind of species-level application of the logic of self-improvement.”

As bonkers as these brain-uploaders and body-forfeiters may seem, O’Connell saw they were driven by the same horror of mortality as gym fanatics and calorie-counters.

The difference, however, is that they don’t just want to postpone their own deaths; they want to cancel death for everybody – an aim whose religious overtones O’Connell is alive to.

“I see transhumanism as a sort of displacement onto technology of the religious urge, or anxieties that religion takes up and deals with,” he says. “Their level of faith in technology is extremely radical, almost fundamentalist. It’s like they’re saying, ‘the lord will provide’.”

It would be tempting to take the pseudo-religious evangelism of transhumanism as evidence of its absurdity, if not for the fact that technology keeps on giving us abilities that would seem magical to our ancestors. Perhaps it really is the transcendental force they make it out to be.

O’Connell came away from his experience convinced that: “there’s a distinctively theoretical possibility that we will be able to use technology to push the boundaries of what it means to be human.”

One of the attractions of O’Connell’s book is that it leaves open this question: when, for instance, Google’s director of engineering Ray Kurzweil says we’ll all soon be living as lines of code on a hard drive, is he just revamping religion for nerds, or is he really onto something?

Whereas a more polemical writer might have come down on one side of the question or the other, O’Connell doesn’t think he has it in him to be so resolved.

“I’ve never been very good at encountering something, having a strong opinion about it, and then writing that strong opinion. Writing, for me, is much more about figuring out what I think, and arguing myself into and out of that position, it’s the only way I can do it.”

His book is all the better for being agnostic about its subject. It leaves you feeling that if you’re not bewildered by technology’s transformative power, you haven’t been paying close enough attention.

O’Connell doesn’t think he knows any better than anyone else where it’s taking us. Perhaps the next time we meet, as lines of ones and zeros on some global hard drive, he’ll have a clearer idea.

Featured Image by Rich Gilligan

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