The strangest place writer Mark OConnell has ever been to is the Alcor Life Extension Foundation where dead bodies are preserved in tanks filled with nitrogen, in case they can be revived with future technology. There was a floor with the stainless steel cylinders and all these bodies contained within them and corpses and severed heads, he tells The Verge. That imagery is something that I will take with me to a grave, whether thats a refrigerated cylinder or an actual grave.
OConnell, 37, visited Alcor while writing To Be a Machine, which comes out February 28th. The nonfiction book delves into the world of transhumanists, or people who want to transcend the limits of the human body using technology. Transhumanists want to be stronger and faster; they want to be cyborgs. And they want to solve the problem of death, whether by freezing their bodies through cryonics or uploading their consciousnesses. Transhumanists have been around since at least the 1980s, but have become more visible in the past decade as technology advances have made these ideas seem more feasible and less like sci-fi.
OConnell had known about transhumanists for years, but they stayed in the back of his mind until his son was born and he became more preoccupied by questions of mortality and death. I was looking for a topic that would allow me to write about these things, he says. Even when I was writing specifically about the movement, I was also writing about just how weird it is to be alive in a body thats decaying and dying.
He ended up visiting the Alcor cryonics lab, talking to researchers who want to save us from artificial intelligence, hanging around with biohackers in Pennsylvania, and following transhumanist presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan on his campaign trail. The Verge spoke to OConnell about the philosophy behind the movement, his experiences in the transhumanist world, and whether his own beliefs and hopes for humanity have changed since writing the book.
How exactly do you define transhumanism? Doctors, for example, are interested in extending human life, but you could hardly say that all doctors are transhumanists.
Right, theres a way of defining transhumanism thats so broad that youre almost just describing a scientist. There are lots of different definitions, but for me its someone who thinks that we should incorporate technology into ourselves, to use technological evolution to push forward the evolution of the human animal. These people want to not be human in a very sort of radical and thoroughgoing way. They want to be literally machines.
I can identify with wanting to not die, but I cant with wanting to live indefinitely.
Its a disparate movement with many different beliefs. For example, not all of them buy into cryonics. Its almost like talking to a Catholic who goes, I dont take communion, dont go to Mass, but Im still basically Catholic. They believe in the general principle but dont sign up for all the things along the way. [Then} you get people saying, I should really sign up for Alcor, should get the paperwork done and provide for my future almost like you talk to people of my generation who are like, I really need to get started on a pension.
Its common to be frustrated by what our bodies cant do. But its another thing to implant electronics under your skin, or plan to preserve your body after you die. What drives people who consider themselves transhumanists?
They all have a similar origin story, all came to it in a similar kind of way. When you talk about their childhoods, most of them were already obsessed with not just death, but the sort of general limitations of being human, of the frustrations of not being able to do certain things, not being able to live infinitely, not being able to explore space, not being able to think at the level they wanted. All obsessed with human limitations. And most of them shared a similar moment where they went online, they discovered that there was this whole community of people who had the same concerns and philosophies, and they became transhumanists, even though they were without knowing the name.
Theyre all largely tech people and science people. Its hugely a white male thing and it tells you a lot about privilege. Its very difficult to be concerned that youre going to die someday if youre dealing with structural racism or sexism or just feeding your family. Transhumanism seems to come from a position of privilege. Big proponents like Elon Musk have sort of conquered all the standard human problems through technology, and they have infinite amounts of money to spend.
What were some of the transhumanist ideas that seemed the strangest to you? Did any of that change after writing the book?
When I started to look into what the basic ideas were around transhumanism, the thing that I found most alienating and weird and completely speculative was the idea of becoming disembodied and uploading your brain. Its called whole brain emulation. Its the endpoint of a lot of transhumanist thought.
But then I met Randal Koene [who runs Carboncopies, a foundation that supports research on whole brain emulation]. I find him incredibly charismatic. I was really struck by the tension between what seems to be the complete insanity of what he was saying to me the madness of the idea that he might be able to eventually convert the human mind into code and talking to this normal, really smart guy who was explaining really clearly his ideas and making them seem, if not imminently achievable, quite sensible. I was quite swayed by him and in a weird way Randals work seems like some of the least crazy stuff.
Were you swayed by the overall philosophy? You mention in the book that you dont consider yourself a transhumanist. Why?
When I was with the Grindhouse biohackers in Pittsburgh, one night we were in the basement trying to envision our futures. One of them talked about wanting to become this disembodied infinitely powerful thing that would go throughout the universe and encompass everything.
When you talk to transhumanists, in one way or another, they all aspire to knowing everything and to being gods basically. And I just sort of thought, this is actually something I cant relate to at all. The idea of being that all-powerful and omnipresent, its almost indistinguishable from not existing and I cant quite justify that.
Theyd say, youve got Stockholm syndrome of the human body. But that kind of idea is very unappealing to me. I cant see why that would be your idea of your ultimate human value. I was always trying to come to grips with these ideas and come to grips with what it meant for these people to be post-human, and just wind up getting more confused about what it meant to be a human at all in the first place. I can identify with wanting to not die, but I cant with wanting to live indefinitely.
Hanging out with all these people and spending time with all these weird ideas about mechanism and human bodies forced me into a position [to identify myself] as not even a human, but as an animal, a mammal. To me, what it means to be human is inextricably bound with the condition of being a mammal, being frail and weak and loving other people for their frailty and weakness.
Speaking of limitations of the human body, what about disability? When youre so focused on transcending the human body and its limitations, does that mean denigrating disability?
Transhumanists see disability in a completely opposite way. The people I talked to said, Look, were all disabled in one way or another. For example, there was a proposal to make Los Angeles cities more wheelchair accessible. And [transhumanist presidential candidate] Zoltan Istvan wrote this bizarre, wrongheaded editorial about how this was a crazy use of public funds, which should be putting it into making all humans superhuman. What he was getting at was that being physically disabled should not be a barrier to being superhuman anyway, so whole-body prostheses should be the thing that were investing money into. A huge number of people in the disability community were horribly offended and he couldnt quite see why.
Do you think transhumanist ideas are going to gain credence and become a lot more mainstream?
I have no crystal ball, so I dont know any more about the future now than when I started looking into this. But I can see that maybe human life will change so radically in the future that all of this will come to pass. And it wont have come to pass because of transhumanists agitating for it but just because technology has this internal momentum that keeps moving, and theres nothing we can do about it.
Writing the book felt like writing about a very particular cultural moment. Its a very specific cultural phenomenon that has gained quite a foothold in Silicon Valley for reasons that seem quite obvious. My sense is that there are a lot of people out there who would never call themselves transhumanists but share a lot of these ideas about the possibilities for the human future. Silicon Valley has generated this amazing amount of money and cultural power and this sense of possibility around technology. We think we can fix anything with technology, so the idea that we would be able to solve death the human condition seems to be the natural outflow of that.
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