Transhumanism: More Nightmare Than Dream?
Gabrielle Bellot on the Shadowy Line Between Human and Machine
On the eve of the 20th century, an obscure Russian man who had refused to publish any of his works began to finalize his ideas about resurrecting the dead and living forever. A friend of Leo Tolstoy’s, this enigmatic Russian, whose name was Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov, had grand ideas about not only how to reanimate the dead but about the ethics of doing so, as well as about the moral and religious consequences of living outside of Death’s shadow. He was animated by a utopian desire: to unite all of humanity and to create a biblical paradise on Earth, where we would live on, spurred on by love. He was an immortalist: one who desired to conquer death through scientific means.
Despite the religious zeal of his notions—which a number of later Christian philosophers unsurprisingly deemed blasphemy—Fyodorov’s ideas were underpinned by a faith in something material: the ability of humans to redevelop and redefine themselves through science, eventually becoming so powerfully modified that they would defeat death itself. Unfortunately for him, Fyodorov—who had worked as a librarian, then later in the archives of Ministry of Foreign Affairs—did not live to see his project enacted, as he died in 1903.
Fyodorov may be classified as an early transhumanist. Transhumanism is, broadly, a set of ideas about how to technologically refine and redesign humans, such that we will eventually be able to escape death itself. This desire to live forever is strongly tied to human history and art; indeed, what may be the earliest of all epics, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, portrays a character who seeks a sacred plant in the black depths of the sea that will grant him immortality. Today, however, immortality is the stuff of religions and transhumanism, and how these two are different is not always clear to outsiders.
Contemporary schemes to beat death usually entail being able to “upload” our minds into computers, then downloading our minds into new, better bodies, cyborg or robot bodies immune to the weaknesses that so often define us in our current prisons of mere flesh and blood. The transhumanist movement—which is many movements under one umbrella—is understandably controversial; in 2004 in a special issue of Foreign Policy devoted to deadly ideas, Francis Fukuyama famously dubbed transhumanism one of the most dangerous ideas in human history. And many, myself included, have a natural tendency to feel a kind of alienation from, if not repulsion towards, the idea of having our bodies—after our hearts stop—flushed free of blood and filled with cryonic nitrogen, suspending us, supposedly, until our minds can be uploaded into a new, likely robotic, body—one harder, better, and faster, as Daft Punk might have put it. (This is what happens at Alcor, the world’s largest cryonic facility, where over a hundred bodies—including baseball legend Ted Williams, the writer FM-2030, and even James H. Bedford, who was born in 1893—lie suspended between life and death in cylinders called dewars; for $80,000 to $200,000, you may donate your body to them in the hope of being resurrected. Bedford, the CEO of Alcor, Max More says, is the world’s oldest living human; you are not dead, More claims, if you are cryogenically suspended.)
Yet transhumanism is increasingly influential in the world we live in. Modern medicine, after all, is concerned with prolonging and improving human life, and even mundane technologies, like cell phones, can grant us radical extensions of our natural abilities; like gods of old, we can communicate across continents in a blink, can navigate cities we’ve never been to with instantly conjured-up maps. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud defined the human as “a kind of prosthetic god”; for Emerson, “a man is a god in ruins.” Transhumanists surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, frequent Silicon Valley—and a fascinating new book by Mark O’Connell, To Be a Machine, attempts to examine, define, and perhaps redefine transhumanism for the masses. O’Connell’s book is by turns intriguing and unsettling, insightful and comedic, populated by transhumanists—both famous and working in the shadows—who are often as outsize as their ideas.
And O’Connell certainly presents a cast of characters—human, but wishing to escape, or, better, transcend, their humanity. In To Be a Machine, O’Connell visits Alcor in Phoenix, where bodies—or, Futurama-style, just heads—are preserved so that their brains may be uploaded into “better” bodies in the future; speaks with DIY biohackers, who implant chips and devices directly into their skin; talks to scientists working on mapping and uploading the human brain into computers (the brain being, seemingly, just another operating system); and even travels with a transhumanist politician who promises, as part of his campaign, a world without death, not via religion—though there is a transhumanist religion in the book—but through the marvels of science. To Be a Machine may not be the first book to cast a layperson’s eye on transhumanism, but it certainly is generally an engaging, interesting read, accessible to even those with no prior knowledge of the movement.
When I spoke to O’Connell, he doubled down on his complex feelings about transhumanism. Early in the book, he explicitly says that he is “not a transhumanist”; frequently, he has a visceral response of revulsion to the movement’s ideas. “I guess I’ve always had a fascination with the body as a mechanism, as a thing of moving parts and electrical charges and mechanical impulses,” he told me. “A thing that does or doesn’t work properly, that does or doesn’t fulfill its requirements… But spending so much time around transhumanists and their ideas really led me into direct and uncomfortable confrontation with this question of what a human being is, and what it means to think of humans as machines.” Yet he reveals that one of his earliest reasons for exploring transhumanist thought was realizing how frail a human body is, an epiphany he had shortly after the birth of his son.
Near the start of the book, he accidentally books an extra night at a hotel, costing himself money; he wonders if it wouldn’t be useful to be able to technologically enhance his memory. “When I was writing the book,” he told me, “I started to see mechanistic ideas about human beings everywhere—in constant references, in one way or another, to the brain as a literal computer. And the whole logic of techno-capitalism seems to drive us towards thinking of ourselves in terms of productivity, like input/output mechanisms. There’s a part of me—some rebellious mechanism—that wants to reject any identification of the human with the machine, but ultimately I feel like this is probably naive. What is the hand but the original tool, the original machine, and what are tools—hammers, iPhones, whatever—but extensions of our bodies?”
Our flesh-and-blood prison makes us, well, us—but it is a prison, at least depending how you think of humanity. In the grand scheme of things, we’re hardly the dominant species. A microscopic tardigrade has a body significantly more resilient than our own; were tardigrades intelligent and large, we would seem quite weak and sad in comparison. Even an ant can possess physical strength greater than what we do, proportional to its body size. We are grand emperors of sand castles.
But O’Connell goes beyond his reactions to pointing out both the virtues—and, most of all, the dangers—he sees in transhumanism. “In writing the book,” O’Connell told me, “I definitely became very aware of the dangers of instrumentalist understandings of human nature, and human beings. I think reducing human value to intelligence, which is what much of transhumanism boils down to, is extremely dangerous, not to mention a fundamentally shallow way of conceiving of human beings. It becomes a kind of techno-Darwinism, this value of ‘optimizing for intelligence,’ which seems inevitably to wind up in an acceptance, even an embrace, of our own obsolescence.” While I disagree with some of O’Connell’s interpretations of mind-mapping—in particular, I do not think the idea of mapping a human brain is necessarily dualist, unlike O’Connell—his analysis here is powerful. There is something of Gnostic Christianity in much transhumanist rejection of the fleshly body, which O’Connell brings this up multiple times in the text; by rejecting our bodies, are we improving our capabilities or transforming into something nonhuman? It’s not difficult to see a bridge from this “techno-Darwinism” to the lurid dystopia—masquerading as a utopia—of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” in which everyone has been reduced, or increased, to an equivalent level of intelligence, as well as mobility—and such absolute equality means, ironically, no equality at all.
The same Vonnegut, of course, also has a wonderful story in Welcome to the Monkey House about a computer that falls in love with a woman. EPICAC—both the name of the computer and of the story—is as human, if not more so, somehow, than the narrator, who tells the tragicomic tale of EPICAC as if he is delivering a eulogy for a fallen friend.
Sometimes, perhaps, to be a machine is not so different from being a human.
Perhaps the most extraordinary figure in the book is a transhumanist politician, Zoltan Istvan, who drives an enormous vehicle shaped like a coffin—dubbed, strikingly, the Immortality Bus—and promises would-be voters a cure for death. Istvan, who also may have invented the coffin-suggesting sport of volcano boarding many years before, does not see himself as a snake oil salesman; indeed, when O’Connell met him, Istvan was on a trip to, like Martin Luther, affix a set of theses—a “Transhumanist Bill of Rights”—to the doors of the Rotunda. For Istvan, immortality is an issue of civil rights. “I’m a firm believer that the next great civil rights debate will be on trashumanism,” Istvan told the Huffington Post. “Should we use science and technology to overcome death and become a far stronger species?”
Like a number of other transhumanists, Istvan came to the movement after a near brush with death—almost stepping on a mine in Vietnam’s DMV—revealed to him the fragility of his body. While Istvan’s claims may seem extraordinary on the surface, it’s not really uncommon for politicians to promise that their constituents will, somehow, live longer; Istvan is just a bit more pronounced on the point, if perhaps head-shakingly so. Of course, in the era of Trump, it’s tempting to consider Istvan as an alternate candidate; in the era of Trump, too, it’s slightly less absurd—just slightly—to think an Istvan could win.
It’s no coincidence Istvan’s car is shaped like a coffin. The more we speak of immortality, the louder Death’s footfalls seem to become, not-there-yet-there behind us.
In 1959, the writer and chemist C.P. Snow delivered a lecture on what he termed “the two cultures.” For Snow, who would become famous for the idea, the humanities and sciences had become two separate worlds; he was disappointed at how often his colleagues in the humanities made fun of their ignorance of science. A few decades later, Stephen Jay Gould wrote about how science and religion were “non-overlapping magisteria”: each represented a fundamentally different area of inquiry, he said, with science providing the facts of life and religion a sense of meaning. (As an atheist in the humanities who enjoys learning about science, I find both concepts useful but problematic.) To Be a Machine attempts to connect the cultures and magisteria of science, the arts, and religion. I would have liked more in braiding of transhumanist ideas to literary and art history (even to music history, as with the technology-inspired music of Luigi Russolo, George Antheil, and Edgar Varese), but it’s certainly refreshing and enjoyable to read a book like this, knowing O’Connell may jump from Gnosticism to Ray Kurzweil to Descartes to Karel Čapek, the latter of whom coined the term “robot” in his 1921 play, Rossum’s Universal Robots.
A great deal of art deals indirectly with transhumanism. H.R. Giger’s fusions of human and machine can be profoundly disturbing, yet somehow beautiful, alien and recognizable all at once. The French artist Moebius’s gorgeous Edena graphic novels feature a fantastical multi-planet world that in some ways exemplifies tenets of transhumanism; in Edena, humans, who have lost their gender characteristics (but, unsurprisingly in the often patriarchal world of transhumanism, call each other “he”) by routinely ingesting a brew of chemicals they believe are necessary, casually prolong their lives by replacing their organs. In John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, much of humanity becomes prey to mobile, monstrous carnivorous plants after an unceremonious cosmic event blinds almost everyone. Would such a story be possible—monstrous plants aside—if our eyes were robotic, impervious to such weaknesses as blindness?
And, more importantly, would we really want such a story to not be possible? Do we actually want a world free of our weaknesses, or do we crave weaknesses, in some fundamental defining-as-human way, even as we try to eradicate them?
Defining science—and, with it, defining what humans are—has a long set of histories. Science should be science, regardless of where or by whom it’s done, yet historically there have often been groups that tried to politicize science by arguing that only certain groups could do it. Hitler notoriously dismissed the “Jewish” physics of Einstein; the Soviet Union embraced the bad science of Trofim Lysenko, which rejected Mendelian genetic theory, partly because it appeared to conform to Marxist tenets; in the French Third Republic, an extraordinary group of men, The Society of Mutual Autopsy, dissected each other after members died to prove politicized ideas about how brain shape and size connected with one’s character and value, as well as to “prove” souls did not exist. There is a long racist history of assuming that science arose purely from the work of white Western men, when, in fact, the roots of science are scattered across the globe, across gender and culture and color.
Then there is the historically blurry line between what people may wish to be true and what science has been able to prove is likely true. In the early 20th century, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famed for his creation of that paragon of rational thought Sherlock Holmes, infamously claimed that a series of photographs of fairies—the Cottingley fairies, later proved to be a hoax—were evidence of the reality of supernatural beings; Doyle also suggested, in The Edge of the Unknown, that Houdini had “psychic,” “inexplicable powers” and could—as a friend of Doyle’s also suggested—“dematerialize” his body to pass his hands through manacles. For Doyle, as for many others of his time, such phenomena were scientific evidence of a spiritual world, and defining what it meant to be human—and, thus, trans-human—meant incorporating the presence of the supernatural. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” reads Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, and it’s certainly true. There is no scientific evidence of anything beyond the material, naturalistic world. All the same, Doyle’s beliefs show how unstable, in a sense, defining the “human” in “transhuman” is; transhumanism would look remarkably different if Spiritualism was real, just as the universe would look different if we had waited too long to discover the universe is expanding—for its expansion might have, paradoxically, pulled out of reach the very evidence proving its expansion.
What do we gain, I wonder, by trying to escape death’s hand as she comes to lead us away? A part of me fears fighting against death is simply a prolonging of the inevitable. In Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed series of graphic novels, The Sandman, Death, who is memorably personified by a young, friendly, compassionate goth girl, says that she will always be there at the end to bear us away to the place she cryptically calls “the sunless lands,” which may as well be a place as no place at all. In Gaiman’s comics, Death, her siblings often suggest, will probably outlive everyone.
Perhaps Lady Death will always be in our mirrors, no matter how we try to make our reflections change in them.
O’Connell’s book is as much about the past as it is about the future—but it is perhaps most about the present. “I wanted it to be the kind of book,” he told me, “that, if someone was to read it 50 years from now—by instantaneous neural upload, or by the light of smouldering post-apocalyptic embers, or with any luck just reading it on the train—they would see it as a deep and idiosyncratic engagement with a very specific moment… I think we’re at this moment,” he continued, “where our personal lives, our culture, our politics, are utterly saturated with technology, and with an extremity of faith and anxiety around technology that approaches the apocalyptic.” He then invoked Peter Thiel, who is a prominent figure in both the book and, notably, in Trump’s administration. “Peter Thiel is obviously quite a major figure in my book,” O’Connell said to me, “his money and influence being everywhere in the worlds of radical life extension and artificial intelligence etc.—my editor at one point referred to him as Kurtz to my Marlow—and he seems to be increasingly looming as this baleful presence on the world stage, as someone who is, among other things, a very prominent supporter and friend of your new president. I read earlier this week that he, Thiel, is polling advisors on a possible run for California governor in 2018. So who knows what kind of weird, nightmarish offspring might issue from a marriage of Trumpist atavism and Thielian futurism.”
I feel uncomfortable with transhumanism, even as its ideas sometimes make me feel that sense of childlike wonder I remember from standing atop a hill at home and looking into the night sky, free in my home in the mountains from much light pollution, and wondering about traveling to the stars or living in some extraordinary future. It’s the stuff sci-fi and dreams alike are made of: beautiful visions, horrific nightmares, futures we may as well hope for as hope never come to pass.
Transhumanism, regardless of what one thinks of it, is unquestionably profoundly human: terrifying, absurd, optimistic, daring, strange. And, perhaps most important of all, it’s not an idea of the future: its basic ideas, whether we realize it or not, already underpin much of how many of us already live. Whether or not one agrees with the tenets of transhumanist ideas, it is hard to forget that these notions of going beyond nature, of pushing boundaries, are profoundly human. We are far from perfect as a species; the homicidal narrator of American Psycho is as much one of our own as the Good Samaritan. For H.L. Mencken, indeed, the world looked best when there was least life on it (though Mencken, clearly, was unaware of how ubiquitous microorganisms are; life, even in the most toxic or frozen or boiling wastes, seems inescapable on our planet, though that life is far more resilient than ours). Yet our imperfections make us what we are. Our imperfections, ironically, may bring us closer to a simpler perfection: being comfortable with who and what we are. Asking what it means to be a machine, it turns out, is as much to ask what it means to be human.
I believe the meaning of life is to live, to imbue life itself with meaning. Whatever our bodies may look like, let us never forget to value human life. And, no matter what visions of immortality we may dream, let us never forget that Death is always in our mirror, smiling and knowing, even when we try to break the glass.