Jeanette Winterson and Mark O’Connell on the Future of Humanity in a Tech-Dominated World

"One day, maybe, a body will be like a costume, put it on, take it off."

With one eye on our inevitable techno-future, Jeanette Winterson and Mark O’Connell had a conversation over Google Docs about Mary Shelley, transhumanism, AI, and the human dream to transcend humanity. Winterson’s new novel Frankissstein, publishing October 1, weaves together disparate lives—including an imagined Mary Shelley, a young transgender doctor called Ry, and a celebrated AI professor called Victor Stein—into an exploration of love across gender, time, and space. O’Connell’s critically acclaimed work of nonfiction To Be a Machine traces Silicon Valley’s pursuit of a techno-utopia and explores the seemingly infinite possibilities and troubling consequences of the transhumanist movement.

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Mark O’Connell: It’s been a thrill, reading Frankissstein, to see the transhumanist ideas I encountered in writing my own book brought to fictional life in this way. I thought about, and read, Frankenstein a lot when I was writing that book, but it never made it directly onto the page. How did the decision to combine a contemporary story about love and technology with Frankenstein and its origins come about?

Jeanette Winterson: Hello Mark, like you I was re-reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and I realized that we are the first generations to read it not as gothic horror but as contemporary reality. We too will make a new life form, not out of the discarded body parts of the charnel house but out of the zeros and ones of code.

There are so many lessons for us in her book; we need to name (Victor Frankenstein doesn’t name his monster) and we need to educate (VF doesn’t educate his monster). Machine learning is how our self-created intelligent life will learn, and (at present) machine learning, based on data, is not just biased, it is misogynist, racist, sexist—and worst of all we imagine, we are taught to imagine, that machines are “objective.”

As you know, women are not getting involved in the Brave New World of AI, and I worry that after 100 years, in the West, of significant gains, women could become second class citizens again.

“One day, maybe, a body will be like a costume, put it on, take it off.”

Love comes off badly in Frankenstein too—all the major relationships in the book are disrupted by the monster—and the monster isn’t allowed love either. We hear so much about disruptive technologies, and somehow we’re meant to think this heroic, because men (and it is men) seem to have a need to feel heroic, whether it’s killing people in wars or imposing austerity (‘difficult decisions have to be made’), or smashing into a city with something like AirBnB or Uber and feeling like a pioneer when all you are doing is ruining communities and pushing down wages. The social media platforms situate themselves as heroic. What have they done but increase hatred, misery, and anxiety? Oh, and make money. Sorry.

I worry about love in all its forms. Romantic and sexual love—trashed by web porn. Family relationships—how do you have time when you are doing three jobs to put food on the table? Friendships—again, how do we find time? And those other sorts of love, like volunteering, like charity work, like coaching a kid, like taking an old lady shopping.

The neoliberal project was bound to end in tech hell—everyone atomized online. Virtual communities replacing the interaction people need. Shopping malls replacing free public space. Extraction capitalism.

For me, it is all about love. What do we love? How do we protect what we love? And that is a big lesson of Frankenstein. In my book, the whole sexbot thing is funny and meant to be – because we need a few jokes these days, but it is also about the commodifcation of human relationships. The corporatization of everything.

I am not at all anti-tech. But we really can’t leave this stuff to socially stunted white boys and corporate greed.

The free market doesn’t make life better; it makes some people richer. With tech this could become dystopian very quickly. We need regulation—and most of all we need reflection. Victor Frankenstein, and my own Victor Stein are visionaries, but they are prepared to sacrifice all the things that make life worthwhile for most people; love and affection, community, stability, a measure of control.

MO: When I heard you talk about this stuff at the Brave New World conference in Leiden, I was struck by––and I think I may have said this to you at the time––how enthusiastic you seemed about the transformative possibilities of technology for the human condition. You seemed much closer to being a transhumanist than I’d expected you to be. And there is a lot of optimism about a posthuman future in Frankissstein, particularly as a liberation from the confines of gender. (“Why are you so easy in your body?” Victor asks Ry. “Because it really is my body. I had it made for me.”) Is Ry’s transgender identity on a continuum for you with the kind of liberation from the body that transhumanists propose?

JW: That is an interesting question because whilst women are more dissatisfied with their bodies than are men, we are also closely connected to our bodies, through menstruation and birth, and then the menopause. We feel our bodies changing. I think the post-human future is coming (unless climate breakdown happens first and that is a real possibility), and that will begin with enhancements to our physical selves, and maybe move towards something more radical where we can upload our consciousness. That is the secular version of eternity.

We already intervene in our physicality—it is one reason why we live longer. We can have transplants. We can keep death at bay. We can have cosmetic interventions to keep aging at bay. We do this stuff. We will do more of this stuff—and it is interesting. If I could have a shot today that we could keep me alive and well for another 50 years I’d take it. I would retrain in medical science and make another life. Would I want to upload consciousness? Not sure. Eternity has always seemed like a long time to me. And who is in charge of my downloads? All sorts of horror scenarios there!

I am excited by our potential relationships with non-biological life-forms because that in itself will challenge our worn-out notions of gender. We do gender our AI at present, the basic Siri and Alexa versions, and I think that is a pity. Transgender is full of potential—especially when it becomes less costly to the original human—and I don’t mean money, I mean the hormone fix, the surgery, it isn’t comfortable or simple. That may change. Wanting a different body seems fine to me. All writers do it—at least in our imaginations, because we have to fully inhabit our characters. So, I get it that in order to fully inhabit their bodies, some people need to change that body. One day, maybe, a body will be like a costume, put it on, take it off.

MO: Almost everyone I met when I was in the transhumanist world was a man. These ideas seem to appeal overwhelmingly to men. Do you have any theories about why that is?

JW: Shall I be blunt and say that men don’t seem too comfortable with Mother Earth? It bothers me that a lot of smart, capable (and often wealthy) men are more interested in getting to Mars than sorting out the environmental disasters of Planet Earth.

I couldn’t care less about space travel, but it is a big part of the transhuman agenda. Space travel will never be easy in our earthy bodies. Men seem to worry more about legacy too—it’s a kind of omnipotence problem. If you can be stronger, faster, smarter, fitter, and live longer, men will want that. Overwhelmingly it is men, not women, who leave their partner for a younger model and start another family. That is a way of trying to cheat death. It is a way of refusing to age. I don’t think it is simply about economics—that men can afford to do this—though that is a factor.

Men tend to be more powerful than women, and the sense of losing your power is deeply upsetting. I can see why you would want to fix that.

Ray Kurzweil is a smart rich guy who enjoys life—why would he want to die? If you can afford it, you’re going to take it—and in this case male economic power will be decisive. More men will enhance than women—that will lead to some interesting future scenarios!

MO: For all its imaginative wildness, the book has quite a lot of scientific fact embedded in it. What kind of research did you do? Did you go deep on AI and sexbots and cryonics and so on?

JW: Like you, I have been reading and thinking about AI, both embodied and unembodied for a long time. I take New Scientist, just to try and keep up, and I keep an eye on what books are out there. I have read Kurzweil for years. Sexbots really worry me. I have been following this one. Matt McMullen at Living Doll is terrifying because he believes in his mission. And I wanted to put some of that counterargument across in my book. Maybe this IS a social service, and I am an old-fashioned feminist and also an old-fashioned human being. Like I said, a relationship with a non-bio will be interesting and I am up for that; but a sex doll is a facsimile of human with none of the problems of actually relating.

“Nothing is more human than the desire to transcend humanity.”

In Frankisstein Ron Lord (and I am fond of him) gives his own view and I get that. As a writer and thinker I have my own judgements, but I also have to watch and listen and take note and stay open. So yes, I read a lot, I roam around.

This brings me to you. I loved your book, as you know, and what struck me straightaway was that we both understand this so-called future as part of the human dream once colonized by religion.

All this stuff about temporary bodies—we are not really our bodies. The idea that the world is not our home. That we can live on—forever. That there is an essence of us, and it isn’t biological.

Do you think that the human dream is always the same and that we find new ways of experiencing it?

Religion has been a very successful way of refusing mortality and fixing our hopes outside the body.

From your book I know that you, like me, feel a certain déjà vu here. We know the story so well, what is changing is the way of telling it?

MO: I do definitely see transhumanism, and the kinds of techno-utopian ideas we are both dealing with in our books, in religious terms. I think the human dream, as you put it, has always been in some form a dream of escape, or to put it in more philosophical-sounding terms, transcendence. You mention the whole idea of Mars colonization, which I think you’re right to link to transhumanism, and which I think is at least as much about escape as it is about exploration, or about having a “backup” planet to protect the species from annihilation. In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt talked about how the early days of the space race signal a “repudiation” of Mother Nature, which she sees as in turn a continuation of the post-enlightenment rejection of the Father (God). She writes: “It is the same desire to escape from imprisonment to the earth that is manifest in the attempt to create life in the test tube . . . and the wish to escape the human condition, I suspect, also underlies the hope to extend man’s life-span far beyond the hundred-year limit.”

What’s interesting to me––and clearly to you, too—is that, as fantasy, none of this is new. Even transhumanism, which presents itself as a radical break with the human past, is basically just a 21st century reworking of what the Russian Cosmists were talking about at the turn of the last century, and what the alchemists were up to centuries before. Frankissstein makes this playfully explicit. Your characters are acting in the shadow of Mary Shelley’s character, and Shelley’s book was itself a “Modern Prometheus.” As soon as we could walk, we were dreaming about flying. Nothing is more human than the desire to transcend humanity.

JW: And I wanted to ask whether you would/will enhance your present physical self?

MO: As you know from reading my book, I’m pretty skeptical about the prospect of the kind of human enhancement technologies transhumanists advocate for. I don’t think mind uploading, for instance, is a likely scenario. I also have pretty serious doubts about whether the kind of radical life extension that, say, Peter Thiel is holding out for, is plausible. (Maybe this is wishful thinking, in that the idea of an immortal Peter Thiel is more than I can bear to contemplate.) But if I could get an implant or take a pill to make myself smarter, would I do it? I’d like to think I wouldn’t, but these things arise in a context, and if everyone else was cognitively enhanced, maybe it would be like professional cycling or something, where if you’re not doping, you’re essentially not competing. If I could take a pill to extend my life by fifty years beyond my actuarially predetermined lifespan right now, I’m not sure I would. But if I could take a pill at age 85 to give me another healthy ten years of life would I? Yeah, I might.

But fundamentally I find myself increasingly opposed to the ways that market imperatives are imposing themselves on human lives—Maximize your productivity! Optimize yourself to death!—through technology. And I see transhumanism as very much a radical intensification of that capitalist logic. And I want to resist that, because I think capitalism is at this point basically opposed to every human good. It’s worth bearing in mind, by the way, that I’m typing these words into Google Drive on my iPhone while on a Ryanair flight to Berlin.

“I want my children to be humans, not data sets or customers or machines.”

JW: And I know you have a young child. Would you/will you enhance your child, if it is possible and affordable?

MO: This is such a huge question, and in a way that both clarifies and complicates the issue. First of all, “enhancing your child” could almost be a metaphor for parenting, couldn’t it? I am trying to enhance my children (I have a daughter now, as well as a son) all the time, just by trying to do what I can to help them become decent and happy human beings. Does sending your child to Eton, to take an admittedly extreme example, not exist in the same category of things as purchasing a speculative cognitive enhancement for them, or editing their genes in utero or whatever? But I find myself uncharacteristically unambivalent on this question. I actually feel like a large part of my job as a parent is to try to protect my kids, as much as I can for as long as I can, from the excesses of a culture where the idea of “enhancing” them could even be introduced as a possibility in the first place. I feel like techno-capitalism wants access to my children in a whole variety of ways, and I want to block that access as long as I can. I want my children to be humans, not data sets or customers or machines.

JW: You write so well about cryonics. I think it is an interim non-solution. It is a bit like cassette tapes and will soon be obsolete as we work to enhance and extend life within our biological bodies, and with a view to copying our consciousness to a more robust platform. Any thoughts on that?

MO: What I found really interesting, when I was meeting transhumanists for my book, was that most of them understood that cryonics was an extreme long shot. The science is pretty ropey, and even Max More, the CEO of Alcor—whose appearance as an actual character in your book was a source of extreme cognitive dissonance and delight to me—told me that he hoped never to have to freeze himself. It’s Pascal’s Wager, basically. It might be a long shot, but it’s better to believe against the odds and be saved than not believe and be damned either way. Again, we are back in the realm of theology, which we never really left in the first place. How does your own famously complex personal relationship with religion bear on your interest in these questions of humanity and technology?

JW: Well. today is the day the UK Supreme Court didn’t back Boris Johnson dissolving Parliament for weeks to suit himself. My faith in humanity is somewhat restored. Human beings are addicted to Armageddon—God isn’t providing it, so as usual it is down to us; far-right governments, disaster capitalism, and the big one; climate breakdown. It is as though we are rushing through the Book of Revelations trashing every good thing in the hope of some final answer salvation politics. You know how Trump and Bolsonaro and Johnson, and Orban and the Islamists with their Caliphate, and I could write this list all afternoon, keep pointing to the glorious new world that is coming as soon as Satan (the liberal ‘elite’) is bound in the fiery pit and the 1000 year reign of the saints can begin. This reign can be techo-capital or plain old neoliberalism or nationalism or the kingdom of some god or other. The point is that there is a huge anti-imaginative death-wish going on in the world – and part of that madness is to pretend we can be super-human, or just fly off in a rocket (via a private estate in New Zealand).

Have we been more religious in our thinking since the Middle Ages? No! And that sentence would only make sense to someone who knows what religious thinking is; by which I mean the savior-solution. Brexit is a savior-solution. Trump is a savior-solution. And so on. We have made a terrible mess of life of earth, as Greta Thunberg is telling us every Friday. We do not need a savior—but we do need solutions. That is why AI is so compelling right now. Something smarter than us to help us out of the mess. Computer says Yes.

We are not living in a secular age. There is so much magical thinking. Unless it is understood that in many ways we are reverting to a primitive totemistic religious mentality we will not be able to manage the present crisis.

And like you I worry that the humans who may be able to extend their life-span are the ones who would be better off dead—for all our sakes.

I am so glad you made that remark about how we are all customers now. I was at an AI conference in Oxford in September called 100 Brilliant Women in AI. It was a great initiative, and carbon-neutral, but the language from the folks at Microsoft, Google, Deloitte, was worrying. Stake-holders. Road map. Actors. Market solutions. Reluctance-initiative (I think that is ways of getting people to do what they don’t want to do). As someone not in the corporate world I felt as much despair as optimism. Our language has been saturated by corporate jargon non-speak. And behind it all is the need to turn everything and everyone into a buyer or a seller. That is why I HATE Airbnb. If no money exchanged hands—if it was a genuine swap for swap—it would be a great thing. Instead we have to monetize the bloody bed we sleep in. Sorry, I will start ranting now and I have already written in CAPITALS which is a sure sign of THE END.

Techno-capitalism is commodification. What can we do? As you say, we love our search engines and lap topslaptops and we like connectivity and real-time news. Tech has given us a lot. How can we imagine (because that is where it has to start) our lives as something really human—and not post-human and not trans-human?

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Frankisstein by Jeanette Winterson is out now via Grove Press.






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