Transhumanism: surpassing mortality

An interview with Trinity graduate and author Mark O’Connell

The first Rooney Prize to ever be awarded for a piece of nonfiction has gone to Mark O’Connell, who completed both his English and Philosophy undergraduate degree and English PhD at Trinity. O’Connell received the award for his book To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death. The work is a rigorous exploration of what transhumanism, a movement which attempts to harness technology to “enhance human intellectual and physical capability”, looks like in the 21st century and why exactly that can be so uncomfortable.

O’Connell, who is a staff writer at The Millions literary magazine and a columnist for Slate magazine, is both “thrilled” and “deeply grateful” to be the first nonfiction recipient of such a prestigious award. Yet it makes sense, given that so much of the book is committed to portraying the deeply uncomfortable, and by extension deeply human, themes at the centre of the transhumanist debate. For O’Connell, “weaving those different registers into my work is a large part of what I’m trying to do as a writer. I feel like none of these things should be seen in any case as mutually exclusive––human stories, philosophy, self-reflection, political argument, reportage, memoir. It’s all one thing to me, and to most of the writers I value.”

Transhumanism, then, is a very appropriate topic. It solidified in the late 1980s and “coalesced around the early internet”. Much of the inspiration for the philosophy is accredited to Julius Huxley for his book ‘Transhumanism’ and his other work in the 1950s. O’Connell believes transhumanism grows out of a “deeply human discomfort with our own humanity.” Part of what “makes it so interesting” to O’Connell, is that “denying our mortality is actually a dimension of what makes us human. It’s sort of paradoxical”. Huxley, a eugenicist and evolutionary biologist, was a staunch believer in humanity’s capability to transcend the human condition: “ I [Julian Huxley] believe in transhumanism: once there are enough people who can truly say that, the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours as ours is from that of Peking man. It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.” His convictions foreshadowed decades of scientific progress and technological advancement which would make such a vision ever more plausible.

 “O’Connell believes transhumanism grows out of a “deeply human discomfort with our own humanity.”

O’Connell sees Huxley’s desire as a “huge driver of human civilisation”, spanning the millenia before the transhumanist movement was ever officially birthed. It is clearly a saga he knows well, with “flickerings of transhumanism in the earliest written narrative we have, the Gilgamesh epic, which is in part about the quest to defeat death”. We see this replicated to some degree or another in Enlightenment thinking, in Descartes, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man which “predicts a lot of the themes and aims of transhumanism”. Even “the Russian Cosmists of the late 19th and early 20th century were obsessed with finding scientific means of resurrecting dead people, in a way that anticipated the contemporary transhumanists.” The list goes on.

Today, Transhumanism, or Humanity+ as it is often referred to, occupies a similar philosophical space that has been physically transformed by decades of technological investment and start-up culture. If you find your way onto the official website for Humanity+’s non-profit, you are greeted by a magazine, a global leadership platform, and a mailing list. In their own words, they “want people to be better than well.” But how? Popular projects include a variety of biohacking techniques, gene-editing through CRISPR, augmented reality surgeries, cryogenically preserving your body to be resurrected at a later date, and practically any other means to prolonging the human lifespan. Ray Kurzweil, a notable figure in the movement, has been a vocal advocate for mind-uploading, or the transfer of human consciousness to artificial neural networks. When asked if he believed in a divine intelligence, his response was “not yet.”

As for his own thoughts on Kurzweil’s work, O’Connell said he was “skeptical”. To him, the idea that “everything is a machine, and death is essentially the breakdown of a system, so we should be able to engineer our way out of that” is a byproduct of the “comical arrogance and naivety” of a number of people “who have got very rich through technology” in Silicon Valley. The resultant “boundless optimism around technology, around the idea that basically all problems can have technological solutions” finds a natural friend in transhumanism. The leap from mechanics to a semi-spiritual preaching approach to tech is aided by the Californian tradition of “new agey mystical thinking around the cult of selfhood and individualism”.

“You only have to glance around the transhumanist movement to notice the distinct lack of female voices.”

In his book, O’Connell calls this pattern of hyper-rationalist thinking “Magical Rationalism”. O’Connell believes this pattern of thought is something “men fall victim to more easily than women”. Add this to the male driven culture of the Valley, and you have a “very male milieu”. You only have to glance around the transhumanist movement to notice the distinct lack of female voices. Another explanation is offered by Jeanette Winterstein, author of Frankissstein, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic story through the lens of transhumanism and gender identity. As O’Connell explained it: “men are … less accepting of death, and of other forms of powerlessness. Not all men, as the charged phrase goes, but definitely more men than women!”.

Perhaps this is representative of a power imbalance at large that transhumanism seems to exemplify. Even if the transhumanists prove successful in their ‘human enhancement’ projects, O’Connell says he is “not particularly optimistic” about the future of the movement. The implementation of such extreme augmentation would be an (un)natural way to exacerbate the trend of worsening inequality around the world, and “would likely only benefit people who are already very wealthy anyway”. He admits that part of what drew him to the subject in the first place was how the movement represented such an “extreme manifestation of capitalism”. It is not hard to imagine a “pretty dystopian vision of the future” through this exact lens.

Despite his many misgivings, O’Connell admits that, “in some very basic sense, I have no idea what to make of transhumanism”. Here, he is first and foremost a writer and as a writer: “I’m just feeling my way around, groping towards occasional insights, or failing at jokes.” Part of wanting to write on a subject is wanting to know what to think about it, and, O’Connell says: “I never really know what I think about something until I start writing about it, and I often still don’t know what I think even when I’ve finished writing.” Is he approaching these topics of technology, humanity, and their merging from within a certain framework? O’Connell doesn’t seem to think so: “If I have a framework, it’s curiosity.” To explore a movement which seeks to surpass the human condition through the lens of such an intrinsic aspect of our humanity is almost as paradoxical as transhumanism itself.