To Be a Machine: Adventures among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O'Connell - review by Jonathan Beckman

Jonathan Beckman

The Great Hard Drive in the Sky

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


Granta Books 241pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Half an hour’s drive outside Phoenix stands the headquarters of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a business devoted to the cryogenic preservation of bodies. For $200,000, Alcor will keep your entire body frozen until science develops the tools to reanimate it. They’ll do your head – reverentially referred to as a ‘cephalon’ – for $80,000, anticipating that technology will, in the future, be capable of reproducing the data in your brain so that you may be resurrected in cyberspace. (Alcor is situated in the Sonoran Desert. Given that it is of the utmost importance that the corpse is frozen as soon after death as possible, I idly wondered whether prices might not have been lower had the facility been located in more frigid climes, but it turns out that Phoenix is very well connected.) Alcor is run by Max More, who changed his name from Max O’Connor because, he felt, Ireland was a backward place and he wished his cognomen to signal his aspiration for ‘More Life, More Intelligence, More Freedom’ (it also makes him sound like an energy drink). He is one of a dozen or so people, profiled by the unabashed Hibernian Mark O’Connell in this bracingly intelligent and debonair book, who can be collectively described as transhumanists – a category of people who wish to outrun the whirligig of time as it spirals towards the grave. 

These fall, broadly, into three groups. The first – whose epitome is Aubrey de Grey, an English biomedical researcher with a Rasputin-like beard – seeks to restore ‘the molecular and cellular structure of the body to the state it was earlier in adulthood’. Its members ultimately aim to achieve ‘longevity escape velocity’ – a situation in which life expectancy is being extended at a greater speed than that at which time is passing – and thus assure their immortality. The second emerges from an ideology known as Grindhouse: its adherents intend to upgrade the body with implants and prosthetics that will give rise to superhuman capabilities. Their earnest wish is to become cyborgs. O’Connell hangs out with a community of grinders in Pittsburgh whose achievements, thus far, consist of a subcutaneous chip that opens their laboratory door with the waft of a hand. But their ambitions are far more expansive. Tim, their presiding spirit, declares: ‘My goal, personally, is to peacefully and passionately explore the universe for all eternity. And I’m sure as shit not gonna be doing that in this body.’ The third group of visionaries – and the most extreme – consists of those who desire to assimilate themselves with computers, to divest themselves of their bodies and translate their minds into code, thereby to live forever as beings of pure intelligence.

Two attitudes unite these constituencies. First, all transhumanists walk daily, with great trepidation, through the valley of the shadow of death. They may be relentlessly chipper about the momentum of technological progress, but they fear mortality in their guts. They feel a moral and existential imperative to put death to the sword. A distaste for flesh and the experience of being embodied accompanies this. O’Connell’s interviewees refer to the human body as a substrate or a platform (‘wetware’), which is all we have for the time being but which any rational person would upgrade if given the chance. One transhumanist describes personhood as like living in ‘somewhere like North Korea’ and disease and death as tyranny. Tim, the Grindhouse guru, compares his sensation of being ‘trapped in the wrong body’ to that felt by transsexuals. Personally, I can’t think of anything more horrific than voluntarily imposing locked-in syndrome on oneself. Apart from the obvious deprivations (no human intimacy, no sex, no cricket), even the more intellectual pleasures would disappear. The joy of reading derives from cumulative progress; you won’t get much out of Madame Bovary if you’re a highly efficient processor capable of crunching all the book’s data in an instant.

Silicon Valley is transhumanism’s navel. It is populated by people less than comfortable in their own skin, who spend most of their waking hours dissolving into computer code, making and remaking a world whose parameters they can manipulate with perfect precision. Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, has popularised the concept of the technological singularity – the moment at which, in the nicest possible way, artificial intelligence will seize control of civilisation, leading to a marriage of humans and AI. In the outcome that he ardently yearns for, intelligence will infuse all matter and the entire universe will come to resemble a vast computer. At this point you’re tempted to ask, if the whole universe is a computer, what exactly is it processing and why on earth is it processing it? O’Connell describes transhumanism as a modern form of the Gnostic heresy, the belief that ‘we humans were divine spirits trapped in a flesh that was the very material of evil’. It seems equally indebted to Aristotle’s idea of god as thought thinking itself; deification, in the form of omniscience, omnipotence and immortality, appears to be the goal of its exponents. Not that transhumanists aren’t subject to baser instincts. O’Connell attends a conference on transhumanism and religion where he meets Jason Xu, the founder of the ‘transreligion’ Terasem, who can only attract a congregation for a service with the offer of free pizza.

One of the joys of this book is O’Connell’s near-faultless handling of tone, which ranges from the mock-pedantic (‘the media – a category from which I did not presume to exclude myself’) to Amis-esque saltiness (a robot moves ‘in the manner of a prodigiously shitfaced man intent on demonstrating that he had only had a couple of sherries with dinner’) via DeLillo-esque pastiche (‘There were malfunctions of equipment; things did not proceed frictionlessly’). By including the word ‘modest’ in the subtitle, O’Connell humbly doffs his cap to another Dublin-based satirist. Perhaps too many of his chapters share a similar formula – O’Connell attends conference, sceptically interrogates man with strange beliefs, has minor epiphany about what it means to be human, questions man further and realises he is genuinely weird, finds reassurance in the innocent and instinctive vitality of his baby son – but O’Connell excels at the tricky task of painting his subjects vividly while treating them fairly. By the end of the To Be a Machine I was still as convinced as when I began that I do not want to live out my days on a hard drive, but glad to have clarified exactly why I don’t.

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