The modest problem of death: On Mark O’Connell’s “To Be a Machine”


Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine gives voice to the transhumanist movement, which is predicated on the belief that technology should be used to extend human life and eventually achieve immortality. Transhumanism may appear to approach the occult, but many of the innovations O’Connell writes about have already infiltrated our collective consciousness. Uber is crafting artificial intelligence capable of manning self-driving cars. Don Hertzfeldt’s The World of Tomorrow, an animated short about mind uploading, won the Grand Jury Prize for Short Film at Sundance. The Terminator series and its lead cyborg need no introduction. “Science is an almanac of unlikely victories,” O’Connell writes. These are the stories of the scientists who believe they can emerge victorious over death.

But cheating death is no simple undertaking. O’Connell’s scientists are weighed down by serious ethical questions, some of them conflicting. Can ascetic transhumanists be compared to Buddhists, insofar as they reject self-indulgence for the express purpose of living long enough to develop technology that makes them immortal? If you believe that the mind is separate from the body, and if you upload it into a robot body after you die, “would it be [you]?” Society embraces prostheses for the handicapped, but how much technological enhancement can be attached or implanted into the body before you are no longer human? Does our reliance on smartphones make us cyborgs already? Why would people believe so fiercely in the promises of transhumanism when the technology to attain it has not yet arrived?

Despite the heady subject matter, O’Connell never really attempts to “solve” these big philosophical questions. Instead, he positions himself as a spectator to the movement, a stand-in for any “non-transhumanist” so that he may draw parallels between his own beliefs and those of the scientists and entrepreneurs he is profiling. This means we are not taken aback by the severity of certain transhumanist doctrines. Take, for example, this anecdote that precedes O’Connell’s explanation of the transhumanist belief that humanity is plagued by “the tyranny of aging and death”:

Becoming a parent forces you to think about the nature of the problem — which is, in a lot of ways, the problem of nature […] the realities of aging and sickness and mortality become suddenly inescapable. […] [My wife] said something during that time I will never forget. “If I had known how much I was going to love him,” she said, “I’m not sure I would have had him.”

Though most of us don’t view death as expressly “tyrannical,” many of us will one day become parents and can, therefore, relate.

Each chapter of To Be a Machine follows a comforting pattern of anecdote, personal profile, and then elucidation of parallel between the transhumanist thought process and O’Connell’s own. We are eased into such bizarre subject matters as the economic impact of cryogenic freezing and the price difference in preserving your whole body as opposed to your “severed head” — a cephalon, technically speaking. All of this is done in the witty, and sometimes cheeky, language we’d expect from someone who included “solving the modest problem of death” in the title of his book:

Ask your doctor if immortality is right for you.

Ice crystals are high on the list of things that will seriously fuck up your post-resurrection quality-of-life prospects.

If you’re a neuro-patient, there is the matter of your decapitation to be attended to.

O’Connell ties his chapters together through an introspective meta-discourse — he not only depicts his thoughts as he observes transhumanists in real time, but also reflects on them from the perspective of a writer passing judgment on the subject months later.

Los Angeles Review of Books for more

Comments are closed.