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

256 PP.; $26.95

To Be a Machine by versatile literary journalist Mark O’Connell is a travelogue about the author’s experiences among the “transhumanists,” i.e., those who believe that immortality will soon be possible by means of scientific and technological advancements. The idea of defeating death—not with spiritual prosthetics but with material ones—is a provocative idea that merits a provocative response. Unfortunately, O’Connell’s response is at this point a rather conventional one: that transhumanism is a religion. A fair place to start and perhaps even end up, but not if you don’t go anywhere in between.

Transhumanism has been called a religion since its inception, and for valid reasons. It comes with its own creed, saints, final judgment, and answer for all questions. It claims in most of its forms epistemological exclusivity about what the future holds for humanity. And, psychologically, its adherents probably believe more in the likelihood of their own personal immortality than most modern American Christians believe in theirs. As a worldview, it encourages the same naïve and servile mentality as other social movements that have been pejoratively likened to religions or cults. So O’Connell isn’t wrong when he talks about the “obvious religious foundations” of the whole thing. He’d just perhaps be surprised by how many people (including many transhumanists) already take that for granted.

However, if O’Connell’s opinions on transhumanism aren’t all that compelling, his impressions of the places he goes and the people he meets certainly are. O’Connell spends a year and a half bouncing around to various events, conferences, and life-extension facilities in the United States and Europe. For instance, he attends the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Robotics Challenge—a prize competition aimed at developing semi-autonomous robots for military purposes. While there he picks up on the obscure but seductive “sporting tenor of the event: the scoreboard and live commentary, the Jumbotron and sideline engineer interviews, the pervasive American balm of hot dogs and popcorn,” which brings to his mind a “speculative future, vaguely fascist, in which the machinery of national defense had become a spectacle of mass entertainment.” O’Connell also notes Google’s institutional ties with DARPA (the agency’s former director works for Google now) as well as Amazon’s economic interests in the event given their desire to eventually replace a large chunk of their workforce with robots and drones.

O’Connell also spends time with Zoltan Istvan—a writer and real-estate investor from San Francisco, California, who ran for president on the Transhumanist Party’s ticket in 2016. The candidate drove across the country in a forty-foot long bus decorated to look like a coffin to spread his political message of immortality through technology and science. Istvan’s concrete policies involved everything from setting up a universal basic income (since “most jobs will be lost to robots and software in the next thirty years”) to installing tracking implants in Syrian refugees to monitor their behavior and location (“maybe Big Brother isn’t the bad guy, if he protects us from ISIS”) to mobilizing the federal government to assist heavily in the R&D of experimental life-extension studies (“robotic hearts, cranial implants, artificial limbs, exoskeleton suits, artificial intelligence, anti-aging research, and of course, the burgeoning field of genetic engineering”). In 2013 Istvan self-published a transhumanist utopian novel about a “floating libertarian city-state called Transhumania” that “wages an atheist holy war on a theocratic United States.” Transhumanists in the novel are a persecuted minority. Life-extension research is made illegal and transhumanist activists are murdered by religious fanatics. At one point during their road trip, Istvan tells O’Connell that he’s a “firm believer that the next great civil rights debate will be on transhumanism.”

Interestingly, this isn’t the only time O’Connell catches a tech billionaire or industry activist spouting the rhetoric of human rights, empowerment, and victimhood when discussing transhumanism and the popular opposition standing between it and its goals. Peter Thiel—perhaps the dumbest rich man on the planet (an admittedly stellar accomplishment given the field)—said “probably the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead.”

O’Connell meets members of the “grinder scene”—an “online community of biohackers” who partake in “augmenting humanity using safe, affordable, open source technology” (e.g., implant magnets into their finger tips and biometric devices into their arms). Pretty much everyone from the grinder scene O’Connell talks with has their own dubious and remarkably self-pitying political analogy for why being a transhumanist is really as tough as it gets. One woman equates the “tyrannical onslaught of disease and mortality” to living in North Korea. Another suggests that if folks think transgender people have it bad, imagine the anxiety and desperation of those for whom no body is the right body to live in. Aubrey de Grey, one of the forerunners of modern transhumanism, told O’Connell that there is a conspiracy of elites stopping the proper flow of grant money to life-extension projects and research. With only the support of the US military, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, the European Union, and private billionaires, it’s amazing how much those in the longevity business have still managed to accomplish thus far.

Transhumanism has been called the latest “materialist religion” by its more classically faithful opponents. But O’Connell seems closer to the truth when he compares it to the Gnosticism of early Christianity, specifically that tradition’s contempt for the corporeal body as the earthly source of evil. Although most representatives of the transhumanist movement O’Connell encounters mouth a reductionist form of materialism (“To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he’s a machine, a walking dildo…just a bag of chemicals reacting to shit”), they also consider themselves as more than mere flesh and bone. For them, their mind is a piece of software that can be realized by (or transmitted into) different types of hardware other than just the human brain.

At this point, transhumanism lacks a coherent vision and thus genuine unity as a movement. Extending human life is a self-evidently laudable desire. However, as O’Connell points out, a lot of the recent technological breakthroughs have been used, not for any commonly arrived-at goals, but to intimidate workers or spy on citizens or attempt to replace both in their vital roles in society and the economy. Behind the gritty materialism of transhumanism lies a dualistic worldview prone to spiritual effusions about the redemptive capacities of technology. But redemptive for whom? And for what evil? These are the kind of questions O’Connell raises in To Be a Machine. The book, for all its lack of intellectual originality, does a brilliant job focusing on the human element of an important subject trying desperately to transcend that very thing.