To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell

To Be a Machine Mark OConnell

Rating: 2 Stars ★★☆☆☆

All stories begin in our endings: we invent them because we die.

About

Once relegated to the fringes of society, transhumanism (the use of technology to enhance human intellectual and physical capability) is now poised to enter our cultural mainstream. It has found adherents in Silicon Valley billionaires Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis. Google has entered the picture, establishing a bio-tech subsidiary aimed at solving the problem of aging.

In To Be a Machine, journalist Mark O’Connell takes a headlong dive into this burgeoning movement. He travels to the laboratories, conferences, and basements of today’s foremost transhumanists, where he’s presented with the staggering possibilities and moral quandaries of new technologies like mind uploading, artificial superintelligence, cryonics, and device implants.

Review

People who call themselves cyborgs, cryofreezing your body, people experimenting with different ways to enhance their body with technology, artificial intelligence… sounds interesting, right?

It is, just not when you read this book. My main problem with this book is that it doesn’t really focus on its own subjects, the transhumanists. It focusses more on the author and how he feels about all this. I picked it up because I wanted to know more about transhumanism. What I didn’t want was philosophical waxing from the author.

Everything seemed suddenly, giddyingly revealed as bizarre and self-evidently preposterous: the scientist talking about liberating men and women from the captivity of flesh, the malfunctioning mechanism of the homeless man in a heap on a San Francisco sidewalk muttering his madness and misery into a void, the writer deluding himself with thoughts of seeing into the heart of things, and making a note to write something about the tittering derelict, the smell of weed, Nietzsche’s mad animals.

Then there’s the style. I don’t think the author ever encountered a fancy word he didn’t like. Maybe it’s because English is not my first language, maybe I’m just dumb, but there were so many words I didn’t know in this one. Words that, to be frank, could have been avoided if he’d just used common ones. But then the whole book wouldn’t have sounded so intelligent, right?

That this idea seems both utterly absurd and utterly familiar is a testament to the extent to which Cartesian dualism has, over the centuries, become a rigid orthotic structure around our relationship with our bodies.

I’m just really disappointed. The book was okay when it actually focussed on transhumanism after all, we’re talking about people who elevated technology to a kind of religion. Who see their human bodies just as meat machines, hardware that will become obsolete.

Kurzweil’s vision of the future might be an attractive one if you already accept the mechanistic view of the human being – if you agree with AI pioneer Marvin Minsky that the brain “happens to be a meat machine.” Why would we, or our meat machines, not choose to upgrade to some higher degree of functionality?

It’s fascinating stuff, but the book could have done with more on transhumanists and less about the author and a clearer language.

Conclusion

A fascinating topic, boringly written.

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