Book Review: To Be A Machine – Mark O’Connell


Posted April 3, 2017 in Print

To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death

Mark O’Connell

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Mention that you’re reading a book on transhumanism and you’ll likely get a few raised eyebrows – strange for a Google-backed movement that attracts investments worth billions of dollars. So what does the movement entail? Well, in short, transhumanists believe that our bodies are imperfect technologies in dire need of an update. Their aim? To take control of human evolution, slow down ageing and, ultimately, do away with death. O’Connell convincingly argues that the transhumanist mentality is moulded on the dubious Cartesian notion of mind–body separation – ‘this machine’, Descartes called the body.

That transhumanists should come to imagine ‘this machine’ as a coding platform, and each individual mind as a code that could be transferred to another ‘substrate’ is not surprising. After all, we are reminded, metaphors for the human mind during the Renaissance were mechanical in nature (clockwork) and Freud’s theories about repressed urges that must find a release were developed when steam engines were dominant technologies. But O’Connell’s approach is more journalistic than scholarly. He spends more time detailing his hangouts with key figures in the transhumanist scene than tracing the philosophical underpinnings of the movement, and he provides compelling, thick descriptions, rather than attempting to give answers to the many questions that arise. He is sceptical throughout, but empathetic towards transhumanists’ desires. On some level, he holds, it is ‘in the nature of having a body to want out of it’.

Some of the book’s strongest points tell the story of the transhumanist credo as a peculiarly contemporary form of wishful thinking, yet another proof that science is ‘replacing religion as the vector for deep cultural desires and delusions.’ O’Connell draws intriguing parallels between the Christian Rapture and the transhumanist Singularity, between the belief in reincarnation and the equally faith-driven belief in the regeneration of cryogenically frozen bodies. ’I kept thinking there was something uniquely Irish about this idea of rationalism as a means towards insanity,’ O’Connell said in an interview with The Millions. ‘But I could never quite figure out what that meant,’ he says, with characteristic uncertainty.

Words – Eliza Ariadni Kalfa

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