According to a recent Washington Post article on so-called Twitter “cyborgs,” political activists are increasingly using automated “schedulers” to blast out wave after wave of pre-written posts, allowing a single user to tweet thousands of times a day. “My accounts will be tweeting long after I’m gone,” one such “cyborg” said. “Maybe in my last will and testament, I should say, ‘Load up my recurring queue.’” Hell is other people’s tweets.
The visionaries Mark O’Connell profiles in his latest book, To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, would not be satisfied with so modest a version of immortality. Adherents of a movement called transhumanism, they dream on a grander scale, marshaling technology in their “rebellion against human existence as it has been given,” an existence constrained by physical and intellectual limitations and needlessly curtailed by death.
O’Connell travels to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryopreservation facility in Arizona that houses Ted Williams’s head — take that, Cooperstown — where the CEO informs him that “cryonics…is really just an extension of emergency medicine.” He chats with Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, who argues that “biomedical cognitive enhancements would facilitate improved acquisition and retention of mental ability.” (Making the world a little less dumber one upload at a time!) A gerontologist seeking to radically extend lifespans describes aging as “a human disaster on an unimaginably vast scale,” and a Buddhist transhumanist prepares for the Singularity by practicing “mind-filling…a daily techno-spiritual observance, whereby you upload some measure of data about yourself.” Finally, O’Connell views the scars of Tim Cannon, who implants technological devices into his body and espouses his deterministic views in a memorably paradoxical way: “The problem is, most people make the mistake of anthropomorphizing themselves.”
Fascinated, charmed, and occasionally repelled by these characters and ideas, O’Connell tries to make sense of a world in which humans are becoming more robotic and robotics more human. The Millions spoke with O’Connell, a Millions staff writer and Slate book critic, over Skype.
TM: What are the goals of the transhumanist movement?
MO: Their goals are blindingly simple, almost farcically simple. They want to never die. They want to be as powerful intellectually and physically as it’s possible to be within the limits of the technology of the future. They want the same thing that we, as humans, have always wanted, which is to find some kind of a release valve for our mortality, some idea for a way out, which is obviously what religion provided, and still does for most people.
They want it all, but the difference of course for them is there’s the distinct possibility that this might be achievable through technology. That’s the interesting thing to me. You can’t really dismiss it as complete nonsense, because there’s always the logical possibility that it could happen. I spent a lot of time when I was writing and reporting the book being really stuck on this idea that nothing that I was hearing was completely illogical. Everything seemed to satisfy basic demands of rationalism, and yet the end result was always completely insane.
TM: You call their philosophy the “event horizon” of the Enlightenment, the reductio ad absurdum of rationalism.
MO: Well, you’re familiar with Beckett, so you know that rationalism is often the handmaiden of complete insanity, a tool of madness in its own way.
TM: Didn’t Hugh Kenner translate a Beckett passage [from Watt] into Pascal?
MO: I didn’t know that! I wish I had this conversation while I was writing the book.
TM: Then there’s Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot.
MO: Exactly, I kept thinking of that. I actually made several attempts to work Beckett and Flann O’Brien into the book, and I kept thinking there was something uniquely Irish about this idea of rationalism as a means towards insanity. But I could never quite figure out what that meant, or if I was merely being jingoistic.
TM: How does a mere user of technology evaluate these claims that technology can be used to direct human evolution, improve the “suboptimal system” of human existence, and achieve “longevity escape velocity,” that is, defeat death? As you point out, the claims are both perfectly logical and perfectly lunatic.
MO: That’s another thing I spent quite a lot of time thinking about, because, as made apparent early in the book, I don’t have a background in science. And I was tormented for a while that I didn’t really have grounds to judge the lunacy or otherwise of this stuff. I could approach it on a gut level — This can’t be true. What this man is telling me is insanity — but didn’t have the skill set to rationally pick apart these arguments. To use computer language, hopefully this is a feature of the book rather than a bug.
I was fascinated by the topic, but part of me felt that I was the last person who should be writing this book, that it needed someone more scientifically literate. It took me a little while to come around to the idea that, well, maybe actually I’m the best person to write the book because I don’t know anything about it. It sounds slightly self-serving, but perhaps a more literary sensibility is what that topic needs.
TM: If only to push back against the mechanistic or deterministic caricature of humans and human consciousness, which, as you point out, is generated partly by language, “a cluster of software metaphors that had metastasized into a way of thinking about what it meant to be a human being.” To what extent does language shape how we conceive of the human?
MO: I think it’s always metaphors. All of language is metaphorical, and any way that we can conceive of ourselves and who we are is unavoidably going to be through metaphor. So in one sense, the idea that we are a machine or a computer is as good as any we have of thinking about ourselves. Even the “human spirit” is a kind of metaphor.
One of the ideas I touch on is that our latest or most pervasive technology is what serves as the metaphor for our minds. For example, in the Renaissance with clockwork, or the Victorian period with steam engines. Psychoanalysis was full of steam metaphors…
TH: Releasing pent-up pressures and all that.
MO: Exactly. And those might not make sense anymore, but even if we don’t necessarily subscribe to that way of thinking about ourselves, we do tend to accept certain notions of the brain as computational. I instinctively reject those ways of thinking about what the mind is, but at the same, time, I’m obsessed with notions of productivity and getting the most out of my time. Even though I’m a really inefficient mechanism, I can’t help thinking of myself in that way.
TM: You bring up [the Swedish philosopher] Nick Bostrom’s thought experiment about a computer tasked with producing paper clips most efficiently. The computer turns the entire universe into one giant manufacturing facility — a nightmarish vision of productivity.
MO: If we’re going to think of ourselves in that way, if we’re going to measure ourselves computationally, think of ourselves as having value in so far as we can compute info and figure things out and be “intelligent,” then we’re always going to lose to machines in the end. And I think that is part of why the logic of capitalism is so disturbing. That idea is not front and center in the book, but it’s running in the background. There’s another computational metaphor.
TM: I’m keeping a running tab.
MO: It’s a tab that’s open, I’m sure.
TM: While the transhumanists speak in utopian terms, there is this dystopian aspect to a ruthlessly efficient, techno-capitalist future.
MO: That is a dystopian idea, but I’m not a prognosticator of the future. The book’s message is not, We have to prepare for this. But it seems to me inevitable that the automation revolution is coming, and it’s going to be much bigger than the original Industrial Revolution where machines were obviously replacing a lot of workers. I think that artificial intelligence, when it comes — and it will come, I believe — is going to displace huge numbers of workers. And that’s a crisis, but it’s also a crisis that’s inherent in the logic of capitalism. That’s one of the contradictions of capitalism, that it’s striving for the replacement of labor with mechanization. The ownership of the labor force and the means of production seems to be what capital wants, to put it in a slightly mystical way.
I don’t see anyone trying to prevent that politically at the moment. Watching your election in the States, it’s apparent to me that the whole idea of bringing jobs back to America, industrial jobs — it’s so obvious that’s not going to happen. Or if does happen, production will come back from China eventually, but only when automation allows for cheaper labor.
TM: To pivot away from economics to aesthetics, in the book you describe some of the artistic efforts of computers. If poetry is that which can’t be paraphrased, can it (or other art forms) be coded?
MO: My instinct is that no computer can make art, but I don’t necessarily trust that instinct because there are so many suppositions. What do we mean by art? If we define art as something made by humans, then no. But have you heard any music or the Google AI art that came out a year ago? Google made this machine-run algorithm that was able to make pictures of dogs and various standard scenes, and they’re incredibly weird. They’re like nothing else you’ve ever seen in terms of imagery. You’re obviously looking at a picture of a dog, but they’re deeply uncanny.
And the same is true of the music that’s been created by AI. There was a musical that came out in the West End in London, and the lyrics and the music were both written by a machine. And it wasn’t terrible, but it was just off. The same is true for any music I’ve heard composed by a machine. I would’ve expected music composed by computers to sound like Aphex Twin or something, but way more austere. But it doesn’t sound like that at all. It all sounds like ad jingles or radio stings. The music reflects some cheesy vision of ourselves back at us in a way that’s deeply unsettling.
But could a machine can ever make art? Who knows? Would you want that? I’d be interested, but I don’t know if I’d want to read a book written by a machine.
TM: Or literary criticism generated by a machine? Franco Moretti has claimed that the only way to understand the novel is to stop reading them. We don’t have the computational power to get the full picture.
MO: Yes, stop wasting time reading novels!
TM: As a literary critic, which contemporary novels do you think fictionalize the human condition vis-à-vis technology most astutely?
MO: Most of what I read that fed into the book was genre stuff, sci-fi, which is not an area I was that familiar with. Weirdly the book that clicked that I read close to the end of writing the book is Zero K, which is amazing. Obviously, DeLillo’s a genius, but he’s 80 and not immersed in technology in the lived sense. But I think he gets this stuff in the way that so few contemporary writers of so-called literary fiction anyway do. And I also read White Noise while writing the book.
TM: Some of the transhumanists express lyrical visions of immortality in the Singularity. They want to exist as pure consciousness, “a being of such unimaginably vast power and knowledge that there was literally nothing outside…[part of] an interconnected system of interlocking nodes.”
MO: Such a weird thing to want. I could never get to the point where I could really emphasize with it, which was one of the challenges in writing the book. I didn’t want to just have my skepticism borne out. I wanted to be won over. And in some ways, these people seemed way more human to me than they were at the start, but I never got to the point where I could say, yeah, I could see why you would want to be data, disembodied information in the cloud. That seemed to me a fate literally worse than death.
TM: Especially if you don’t like your disembodied neighbors.
MO: Right. We’ll be dealing with the same problems we’re dealing with now.
TM: The characters do come across as human, especially a questing soul like Roen, a monkish rider on the “Immortality Bus,” [a coffin-shaped recreational vehicle touring the U.S. and spreading the transhumanist message]. He abstains from alcohol and sex to preserve his body for future bliss.
MO: Roen, yes. If I were writing a novel, and he were a character, I’d probably want to tone it down a bit. Too on the nose. But that’s something you don’t have to worry about as a nonfiction writer. Who cares if it’s too ridiculous? The more ridiculous the better.
TM: What did you make of this devotional aspect to the movement?
MO: That is a huge dimension to the book. And weirdly, when I was writing, I spent quite a bit of time hanging out with Catholic priests in Ireland for a different project that never saw the light of day. I guess because I was doing this other project at the same time, I saw the connections between the two.
TM: And then in contrast, you have the “practical transhumanists” at Grindhouse Wetware outside of Pittsburg, who implant devices into their flesh to livestream their vitals, open car doors, etc.
MO: Those guys are intense. And that’s why I think what they’re doing, as fascinating and grotesque as it is, is a gesture, a provocation about the future of ourselves and technology. What they’re doing is actually really low tech stuff. What it allows you to do is fairly minimal. I guess I can see the use value of not taking my keys out of my pocket [to open a car door] and having an implanted ID chip, but it’s minor stuff. In a way, it’s closer to screen body modification than actually becoming a cyborg.
But their endpoint is the Singularity. Becoming a cyborg is only a step along the way for them. I could never really figure out whether that is a viable future for humans. Most people would not want that or anything close to that, but there are ways in which tech is already very much under our skin already, metaphorically.
TM: It’s interesting how transhumanist goals are often framed in the broadest of humanitarian terms, that we all need fixing and thus are all in a sense “disabled;” that we are all trapped in the wrong bodies because all bodies are fundamentally wrong. One transhumanist even attempts to find common cause with the transgender movement using that logic.
MO: Yes, though transgender people would look at the claim differently.
TM: As would a disabled person.
MO: For sure.
TM: Zoltan Istvan, the transhumanist presidential candidate whom you profile, suggested that the money allotted to make Los Angeles’ streets more wheelchair accessible would be better spent on robotic exoskeleton technology.
MO: And Zoltan got into pretty hot water over that. It was a slightly dumb thought experiment that I don’t think he thought through the implications of, but was happy enough with the backlash because it got people thinking through his ideas. And in a way, there’s a weird blinkered rationalism to it. Yeah, if you’re going to look at things in a completely, rigorously rational way, then maybe we should be improving all of our bodies and not spending money putting wheelchair ramps around L.A., but that’s not how the world works. That might be how a computer network system might approach it, but it’s not how humans work.
TM: There also seems to be a fascist element to this thinking, which reminds me of the slightly creepy spectacle of the DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] Robotics Challenge, “Woodstock for robots” as The New York Times called it. It’s the military industrial complex as family-friendly spectacle.
MO: That was one of the must fun things I did on the trips. I went with a friend from Ireland, and the experience itself wasn’t creepy. It was weird and interesting. But it was only thinking about it seriously after that it did seem to say something quite disturbing about America and American’s sense of itself in regards to power and violence and technology.
TM: You mentioned earlier that there might be something Irish about logical absurdity, but is there a distinctly American aspect to transhumanism and its audacious drive toward self-betterment.
MO: I can’t ignore the fact that so many of the prominent transhumanist are European or Russian, but I also can’t ignore the fact that so many end up in the Silicon Valley. In a way, then, there’s something uniquely American about it, but unique in the sense of America as welcoming of eccentrics and dreamers from all over the place. But there is also a connection culturally to American’s strange optimism about the possibility of technology and progress and individualism.
TM: And what about transhumanism’s politics or ideology?
MO: There are various strains politically within transhumanism — various liberal and socialist bents — but it seems to me that is a fundamentally individualistic, basically libertarian philosophy. And that maps very clearly onto America’s sense of itself, I think. It’s not coincidental that it’s taken hold so firmly in Silicon Valley.
It did feel to me when I was writing that I was writing a book about America as much as anything else. In a very oblique, quite idiosyncratic way, it was a way for me to come to grips with how strange I find America. I didn’t put my foot down about a lot of things, but when my American publisher was doing the audiobook, they had initially suggested a bunch of American actors to do the narration. I was very specific about not wanting an American voice to do my narrative voice, because I think a huge dimension of the reader’s experience is my bafflement [as an Irishman] about transhumanism specifically but also about American culture in general. And I think that would not come across in an American accent.
TM: I’m hearing Stephen Fry in my head.
MO: Perhaps too British, but there is a whole tradition of specifically British writers and being comically baffled by American stuff. And that is an element of the book, but I also wanted to avoid that, “Hey, look at that American. He’s fucking weird. Bunch of lunatics over here.”
TM: Like Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One in his satirical take on American death culture. Speaking of death culture, or death avoidance culture, when maverick multi-millionaires describe death as a humanitarian crisis, is this just a Silicon Valley spin on their own desire for immortality?
MO: The whole project grew out a kernel of identification with this idea. I started becoming interested in transhumanism 10 or 12 years ago when I wrote about it for a little magazine in Dublin called Mongrel after college. I talked to Steve Coll, who is a New Yorker staff writer, and he told me about this party he was at in Silicon Valley with a bunch of people who had been in on the ground floor of Google and were multi-gajillionaires in their early 30s. They had made all their money and were wondering what to do next. And they all said some version of, “Well, the thing we all want to do is to figure out how to stay alive long enough to spend all our money. So the next frontier for technology, as we see it, is immortality or radical life extension.”
That really got me interested in this, because, as I write in the beginning of the book, becoming a father made me start to think about the frailty and precariousness of life. They’re right, it sucks that we have to die! That’s what almost everything is about. Almost all of human culture and religion is a channeling or a sublimation of this fear of death, which we’re all thinking about in one way or another all the time. I know I am, anyway, not directly thinking about it all the time but…
TM: Oh, it’s usually in the back of my mind.
MO: So I totally identify with that. It’s bullshit that we have to die. Who designed this?
TM: Right, this a crisis!
MO: So I get it, but I also feel like it’s a really a strange way to approach death, to roll up your sleeves and say, we’re going to sort this. We throw enough man hours and intel units at this thing, and we’re gonna solve it.
TM: Or show up at Google HQ with a sign, “GOOGLE, PLEASE SOLVE DEATH” as one transhumanist does.
MO: One of the things I didn’t go into in the book was all the potential problems that would arise from solving the central problem of death. Obvious things, like overpopulation, what do you do with your eternal life. I did think about that stuff, it just didn’t make it into the book because it wasn’t what I was most interested in.
TM: One of the things you were interested in was how transhumanism — with its instrumental view of the human — made you aware of your own body, your own flesh as a “dead format.”
MO: Jesus, that’s horrible.
MO: Yeah, all the reading and grappling with mechanistic ideas and talking with people who thought in that way definitely had an effect on how I experienced my fleshy humanity. I’m not sure how differently I feel about being a human now. I’m not sure I have an answer now about what it means to be a human, but I do think it has something to do with not being a machine. That’s not a great answer to arrive at after two or three years of writing a book on the topic, but I know I don’t want to be a machine.
TM: Not even a little?
MO: I may change my mind. It’s funny, I’ve noticed that younger people see the immortalism of transhumanism as an out-there, whacky idea, whereas older people find it fascinating. I remember talking to my dad about it, and he said, “Well, I think maybe they’re onto something.” He’s 73 now. Life extension doesn’t seem so crazy when you’re up against the limit of your own natural lifespan.
But I fundamentally don’t think Peter Thiel is going to save us.