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 na'ive 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...