As we careen toward the 2020s (!), and I personally careen toward my fifties (!), I have been increasingly experiencing what is probably a universal, and not entirely pleasant shock of aging, i.e., how fucking long ago in history the decade of my childhood exists. Specifically, the 1980s. I was born in 1975, but the ’80s marked the true memorable—in both senses—extent of those verdant years (not so verdant, actually, as most of them were spent in Saudi Arabia, but anyway). The 1980s long ago crossed that invisible cultural line into the realm of nostalgic camp: Pac-Man, early MTV, Arnold Schwarzenegger—even grainy TV footage of Ronald Reagan has long carried with it a kind of hideous sentimental aura. But enough time has passed and sociopolitical changes have occurred that it now exists as wholly in its own time as the ’40s and WWII did when I was a child.
When this amount of time has passed, we can truly evaluate literature from an era, both in terms of how well it captures its own time, and how well it, however obliquely, anticipates or fails to anticipate ours. This seems a particularly pressing question during our current political and cultural insanity: Which books and authors are identifying something true about our moment, and in doing so, perhaps predicting something true about the next? Assuming the existence of readers 40 years from now, they will be able to judge our literature at more or less the vantage we can now judge that of the ’80s. Recently, I happened to reread two of the most-’80s of ’80s novels: Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine and Don DeLillo’s White Noise. It struck me what a contrast they provide—two ways of looking at what is now a startlingly previous age.
In The Mezzanine, Baker examines an 1980s office park under a scientist’s microscope. Nothing is too small to escape his notice, nothing too trivial to be beneath consideration: the superiority of paper towels to hand dryers; the overflowing multitudinousness of office supplies in cabinets; different vending machine mechanisms for dropping candy; the subtle kabuki of polite office conversations; the layout of a nearby CVS; an intricate, fantastic meditation on the similarities between office staplers, locomotives, and turntables. Applying a peeled eyeball to the overlooked mundana of office life, is, in fact, the aesthetic mission and basic point of the book. As it undertakes a seeming irrelevancy like tracing the evolution of stapler design from the early 20th century to the present, it invites a reader—unaccustomed to this level of granular detail applied to the banal—to ask what is relevant. Absent the large plot movements and rich character detail we’re accustomed to in fiction, what is left? Well, as it turns out, life, more or less. These tiny objects and customs constitute our lives—in the case of The Mezzanine, our lives as we lived them in the 1980s.
The narrator, Howie, is transfixed by the tiny ingenuities that populate the modern world, and by their evolutionary processes—both technical and cultural. Objects—and ways of using objects—have a lifespan as organic as the lifespans of the invisible humans who invent, market, and use them. The culture or character of any particular age is constituted by the stuff of that age and the way society agrees, by unconscious, collective fiat, to keep it or change it or discard it for something else, sometimes better and often worse. Throughout The Mezzanine, Howie’s little ecstasies about this type of staple remover, or that method of polishing an escalator railing, are tempered by a subtle awareness and anxiety about the loss of these inventions and learned behaviors to an ever-coarsening culture of pure productivity that doesn’t prize them (or anything much besides profit and cost-cutting).
The book is unostentatiously prescient on this point. At one
point Howie wonders how all of this makes money, how it can last. As he says:
We came into work every day and were treated like popes—a new manila folder for every task; expensive courier services; taxi vouchers; trips to three-day fifteen-hundred-dollar conferences to keep us up to date in our fields; even the dinkiest chart or memo typed, Xeroxed, distributed, and filed; overhead transparencies to elevate the most casual meeting into something important and official; every trash can in the whole corporation, over ten thousand trash cans, emptied an fitted with a fresh bag every night; restrooms with at least one more sink than ever conceivably would be in use at any one time, ornamented with slabs of marble that would have done credit to the restrooms of the Vatican! What were we participating in here?
His thoughts go in this large, abstract direction as a natural extension of his noticing the very small, concrete things around the office. The sheer fact of the material world around him, all of the things that have to be manufactured and bought and cleaned and serviced to maintain the surface of a functioning 1980s office building, is both a delight and a bit of an existential horror at certain points. It feels—and, in fact, will turn out to be—unsustainable. Howie’s apprehension of the coming changes in the economy, the layoffs and downsizing both financial and spiritual that will render this kind of lavish and stable workplace antique, is a kind of involuntary thesis that follows unavoidably from his close reading of his world’s text. Nicholson Baker, via Howie, goes humbly about his quiet work, gathering data and making reasonable inferences about the world, inferences that have largely been borne out by the intervening decades.
In White Noise, Don DeLillo—in almost perfect contrast to Baker—looks at his world with the telescopic eye of a priest or pop-cultural anthropologist, beginning with a couple of large-scale hypotheses about modern culture and gathering particulars from there. Anyone familiar with DeLillo could more or less guess what these general hypotheses are, as they run throughout his body of work in various guises: 1) modern consumer culture is similar to primitive culture, and, related, 2) people want to be in cults.
As is standard operating procedure for DeLillo, the book, via its narrator Jack Gladney, operates in the oracular intellectual mode. There is, for instance, lots of stuff like this (during one of the many scenes in which Gladney watches one of his many children sleep):
I sat there watching her. Moments later, she spoke again. Distinct syllables this time, not some dreamy murmur—but a language quite of this world. I struggled to understand. I was convinced she was saying something, fitting together units of stable meaning. I watched her face, waited. Ten minutes passed. She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell of ecstatic chant.
A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform…
Et cetera. If you’re not reading too closely, it sounds good, and the massed effect of paragraphs like this—of which there are many in White Noise—is to generate an impression of gnomic wisdom. But what is this actually saying? I suppose: brands infest our collective consciousness, more or less, though it sounds much more mystical than that. It’s never quite clear to me, reading DeLillo and especially White Noise, where the satire begins and ends. Is this supposed to be a parody of the pompous intellectual Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies and wearer of a toga and sunglasses around campus? It would probably be more convincing as satire if it didn’t also sound exactly like Don DeLillo. And if there was much of anything else going on the book besides these sorts of ruminations.
Over and again, we learn versions of the same thing: car names
are like magic words, shopping malls are like temples, the Airborne Toxic Event
is like an ancient Viking Death Ship (to be fair, this is actually one of the
more striking images in the book). This may or may not be true, but it isn’t
especially illuminating on any level beyond the claim itself. The book, one
feels—despite an established critical reputation for its prescience and
incisive cultural vision—is not looking very hard at the things it purports to
look hard at.
The result is a novel that misses many present or future aspects of Late Capitalism—Trumpism, economic inequity and class struggle, the Internet—and superficially identifies other burgeoning issues—environmental disasters, anti-depressants—without saying anything very noteworthy about them. White Noise’s mode of intellectual engagement is perfectly metaphorized by the Airborne Toxic Event—a large, dark cloud that floats above the pages and across the events of the narrative without bearing down on the characters or reader in any appreciable way, other than conveying ominousness.
DeLillo’s best book, Libra, operates in a mode much closer to The Mezzanine. Though it invokes its share of non-specific quasi-mystical dread, it is a piece of work grounded in the mundane facts of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life: the abortive time in the military; his awkward marriage to a Russian woman, Marina; the little firings and failures that pushed him, and the country, toward catastrophe. Even the larger circles of intrigue—the CIA and KGB and Mafia and the Cubans—are laboriously researched and rendered, and although a plausible conspiracy is offered, it is a conspiracy of error and stupidity and inertia, and convincing for that reason. Libra notices: it builds its case from the ground up, rather than a big top-down idea that must be proved—that perhaps only can be proved—by exhaustive and unilluminating iteration.
The difference between these novels says something important, I think, about the most fruitful way of looking at our present moment. There is, on Twitter and elsewhere, the constant search for the Big Idea, The Grand Unified Theory of Trump and Late Capitalism. In a media environment that almost exclusively rewards brevity and pithiness, memorable pronouncement is the coin of the realm. In this sense, DeLillo really was prescient—if nothing else, the style of White Noise fully anticipates our era, the superannuation of truth by the impression of truth, or just by sheer impression.
Still, the most important work will always be done on the ground level, with attentiveness to the little particularities. We are always too close to the big thing to see the big thing, and so writers are at best like the blind men surrounding the elephant of their particular era—here, a tail; there, a baffling trunk. The Jack Gladneys and their Big Ideas will not often provide a definitive record of their time, or a projection of the one to come. It will be constructed by the Howies, all the careful and conscientious noticers of the world.
I spent a lot of this year trying to write a book: lying on the floor, making spaghetti, chewing on my fingernails, staring at the wall, reading. I wanted to figure some things out, and surrounded myself with books that I thought would help. Instead of reading them, I got distracted. I read an endless number of articles and essays about politics, technology, politics and technology. I stuffed my brain with information. Wikipedia. I was thinking about Yelp culture and V.C. culture, so I read a lot of Yelp reviews, and a lot of tweets from venture capitalists and nascent venture capitalists. Medium posts. Hacker News.
After a while, this became boring, and I remembered how to read for pleasure. I read, or reread: Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay; Things I Don’t Want to Know; Stone Arabia; Asymmetry; Housekeeping; Fierce Attachments; The Maples Stories; Twilight of the Superheroes; Talk Stories; To the Lighthouse; Mating; Imperial San Francisco; The Book of Daniel; White Noise; The Fire Next Time; Close to the Machine. Essays from Happiness, and The Essential Ellen Willis, and The White Album, and Discontent and Its Civilizations, and The Earth Dies Streaming. This Boy’s Life and Stop-Time. I meant to reread Leaving the Atocha Station, but it fell into the bathtub; fine. 10:04. A stack of books about Silicon Valley history, many of which I did not finish; a lot of them told the same stories.
I read a 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the free e-book preview of The Devil Wears Prada, and some, but not all, of The Odyssey, the Emily Wilson translation. I got stoned before bed and read What Was the Hipster?––? I read Eileen and The Recovering and And Now We Have Everything and The Golden State and Chemistry and The Boatbuilder and Normal People and Breaking and Entering and Notes of a Native Son and Bright Lights, Big City and Heartburn and That Kind of Mother and How Fiction Works and Motherhood and Early Work and My Duck Is Your Duck and The Cost of Living and Who Is Rich? and The Mars Room. Some more pleasurable than others but all, or most, satisfying in their own ways.
I read the Amazon reviews for popular memoirs and regretted doing that. I did not read much poetry, and I regret that, too.
A few weeks ago, I read What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions, and No Regrets: Three Discussions. Five discussions! Not enough. I was very grateful for No Regrets, which felt both incomplete and expansive. Reading it was clarifying across multiple axes.
I wish I’d read more this year, or read with more direction, or at the very least kept track. I wish I’d read fewer books published within my lifetime. I wish I’d had more conversations. Staring at the wall is a solitary pursuit. I didn’t really figure out what I hoped to understand, namely: time. Time? I asked everyone. Time??? (Structure? Ha-ha.) Whatever. It’s fine. Not everything has to be a puzzle, and not everything has a solution. Time did pass.
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Why did America put Franz Kafka in such a good mood? As his friend Max Brod remembered, Kafka worked on his ultimately unfinished novel about the U.S. with “unending delight,” a noteworthy state for someone much more likely to be brooding about the big three (guilt, your father, corporeality) or writing pained letters to a distant love. In Amerika’s most upbeat passages, Kafka seems to take pleasure in romanticizing about the “New World,” imagining the U.S. as a beacon of equality and a decent hard day’s work. In this sense, the novel echoes plenty of earlier literature on America.
But more surprisingly, Amerika anticipates a newer form of Romanticism, one that is worth considering closely, because it has since become a major presence in fiction about the U.S. Briefly put, the New World got Kafka excited about the potential benefits—really, the transformational power—of being stupid: the magic of being out of touch.
This was something more than anti-intellectualism. This was pro-ignorance. Consider Amerika’s final chapter, in which the protagonist, a young immigrant named Karl, has reunited with friends and found a job with the “Nature Theatre of Oklahoma” after a long series of frustrating losses and wrong turns. According to Brod, this was Kafka’s favorite part of the book, a section he loved to read aloud. And although he never finished writing the chapter, he apparently would hint (with a big smile on his face) that “within this ‘almost limitless’ theatre his young hero was going to find again a profession, a stand-by, his freedom, even his old home and his parents, as if by some celestial witchery.” This was new territory for Kafka: magical thinking and happy endings.
But here’s what the happiness actually looks like: Karl and his friend Giacomo find themselves crammed into a train car on a long cross-country route. They become so giddy about the trip and the beautiful scenery they pass that they are completely oblivious to their immediate surroundings. The seats are so crowded they can barely move, and thick cigarette smoke makes it hard to breathe. Their cabinmates, who make fun of Karl’s and Giacomo’s naive excitement, pass the time by playing cards and grabbing and pinching their less-seasoned fellow travelers. Karl is stuck, in other words, in a low-paying and unpredictable job, in rough conditions, surrounded by people who get a kick out of harassing him. This trip is pretty clearly not going to be great. And the scene is able to suggest that Karl is rushing off to a blessed future only because he seems so dimly aware of what is actually taking place.
We’re familiar with the idea that ignorance is bliss, but, in the spirit of Amerika, the last century of fiction about the U.S. has flirted with the stronger notion that ignorance can heal. We will never learn exactly how Kafka’s dense traveler was going to reunite with family, friends, and home. But we now have a long list of novels that connect similar dots, turning states of density into moments of reunion and reparation.
My favorite example is Alberto Fuguet’s Las Peliculas de mi Vida, in which the 1992 Pauly Shore movie Encino Man becomes a symbol for finding love in America. The novel relates the life story of a disillusioned Chilean-American seismologist who is torn about returning to America after many years in Chile. When he finally decides to move to California to pursue a love interest he met at the beginning of the book—she’s an American immigration attorney, as if to hammer home the idea that the journey is national as well as personal—he writes her one last note: “I’d like and am afraid and hope” that we will meet again, he says, “P.S. I did see Encino Man … I thought it was pretty bad and—nevertheless—enjoyed it.” His hopes and fears speak to the possibility that love in the U.S. could change his life. His appreciation of what is arguably the most ridiculous movie of the ’90s shows that he’s ready.
Or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, in which the Nigerian protagonist, Ifemelu, falls in love for a while with Curt, a “relentlessly upbeat” American who “believed in good omens and positive thoughts and happy endings to films.” As Ifemelu explains, Curt is “admirable and repulsive in a way that only an American of his kind could be.” She eventually moves on. But her temporary attraction to Curt and the dense Americanism he represents helps the story eventually land where it does: “The best thing about America,” she claims near the end of the novel, “is that it gives you space. I like that you buy into the dream, it’s a lie but you buy into it and that’s all that matters.” Who knows what would have happened if Ifemelu had not found, albeit temporarily, this “space” of obliviousness?
This embracing of the forcefully unintellectual appears again in the conclusion of Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, another novel about an immigrant’s journey to America. After a twisting and traumatic plot, Holocaust survivor Joe Kavalier has ended up living for several years as a recluse in Manhattan, unable to connect with his friends and family. And he returns to the fold by making a scene. In a stunt announced anonymously in the newspaper, he swings from the Empire State Building in an iridescent gold suit and mask.
The stunt, channeling the comic books Joe loves (and creates), makes no sense. But it works. When Joe’s estranged wife and cousin later ask why, he responds, “I guess this was the point … for me to come back. To end up sitting here with you, on Long Island, in this house, eating some noodles.” Somehow, the act of thrilling onlookers in a golden bathing suit and boots has enabled the refugee to rejoin the family he might not otherwise have seen again. It seems we can’t stop imagining stupid entryways into American life.
More recently, the second-generation Turkish-American Elif Batuman has styled herself as an idiot in The Idiot, an autobiographical narrative of her college years. In an interview, she refers to “moments of what felt like, in retrospect, stupidity” as distinguishing her path through Harvard to a successful career as a journalist and novelist.
We could go on: In Don Delillo’s White Noise, the goofy experiences of familial love that only seem possible in grocery stores; or the concluding image in Delillo’s Underworld, a novel steeped in issues of immigration and race in America: a billboard for orange juice that might or might not radiate divine forgiveness and plenitude after a tragic death (“they stared stupidly at the juice …’Did it look like her?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘I think so’”). Salman Rushdie’s American novels are more concerned with violent emotions that can’t be escaped (see: Fury), but he alludes to the healing powers of American unknowing when, in The Golden House, he has the narrator dream that he could be reunited with his son “and jump into Doc Brown’s DeLorean and fly back to the future and be free.”
I think this might be one of the last frontiers of Romanticism, informed by a stubborn unwillingness to give up on the idea that America is a place of new beginnings. Returns to childhood, the national volk, hedonism, intelligence: These have pretty clearly lost their punch. But ignorance, ironically enough, is a harder Romantic object to dismiss, because it’s the only mental state that can’t be accused of bad faith: It so obviously isn’t setting out to get anything done, so obviously isn’t part of a plan, how could it have an ulterior motive? Still, for perhaps obvious reasons, few literary or academic voices would admit to taking ignorance seriously. A notable exception is Avital Ronell, whose wide-ranging philosophical study, Stupidity, makes a case for its revolutionary potential. Ronell does not have much to say directly about American contexts, but at one point, referring to the blockbuster movie Forest Gump, she writes that “moral purity, American style, can be ensured only by radical ignorance.” This is, I think, the basic underlying hope that helps imagery of ignorance feel optimistic in fiction about the U.S. There’s something that feels desperate about all this fascination with American ignorance, especially at a time in which assaults against knowledge so powerfully shape our public culture—but Kafka’s brilliance was a form of desperation, too. And it will be interesting to see where the desperate Romanticism he foresaw ends up.
Image: Flickr/Rakkhi Samarasekera
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.