February's Best Books, Gadgets, and VR Systems


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February's Best Books, Gadgets, and VR Systems

In this month's issue of VICE magazine, we review the best VR headsets, Mark O'Connell's new book on transhumanism, and a new startup working to get digital art on your walls.

This story appeared in the February Issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Mark O'Connell

The central question posed by transhumanism, the scientific and philosophical movement entertainingly explored by Mark O'Connell in his new book, To Be a Machine, is "Do you want to live forever?" As in: Do you want to make use of technology to extend your natural life, either in your current body or in some other form? It's a practical question, but it's also a philosophical one. To answer it, you need to take a stand on what life, or consciousness, even entails, and whether that sense of life holds true absent death. It's even, frankly, a religious question—it is, after all, a bargain offered by both Jesus and Satan.

In O'Connell's book, it's asked by Roen Horn, a long-haired young documentarian who, in late 2015, accompanied transhumanist presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan on a cross-country trip inside an RV built to look like a coffin. Horn dislikes the idea of death. ("I can't think of anything that would suck more than being dead," he tells O'Connell.) This isn't so odd, but where most of us accept death as a given, and address our distaste for it through healthy diets, seatbelts, and regular anxiety attacks, Horn and his fellow transhumanists look toward science and engineering to either put death off or eliminate it entirely. "I just want to have fun forever," says Horn, a strict vegetarian who abstains from alcohol. "I'm actually a total hedonist."


Believe it or not, Horn isn't the only eccentric in the small but well-funded transhumanist movement, and O'Connell's book is at its best when he's rendering funny and sympathetic portraits of the would-be immortals and other quasi-religious oddballs he met and spent time with in the US and Europe. There's Max More, a musclebound redhead and early transhumanist who now runs Alcor, a cryopreservation facility in Scottsdale (sample lobby reading: "an illustrated children's book called Death Is Wrong") that contains the remains of his wife's ex-boyfriend (to read more about Alcor, see page 44). In Berkeley, O'Connell meets with Nate Soares, who left a cushy job at Google for Berkeley's Machine Intelligence Research Institute, to address what he calls out-of-control, potentially genocidal artificial intelligence. Soares, wearing a "Nate the Great" T-shirt, tells O'Connell that he is confident that "this"—that is, murderous superintelligence—"is the shit that's gonna kill me," so he's—well, it's not exactly clear what he does, but it seems to involve lots of giving apocalyptic quotes to reporters. And there's Horn and Istvan, whose road trip, which O'Connell joined between Las Cruces and Austin, forms the book's hugely enjoyable climax. ("What do you say to people who accuse you of trying to play God?" a local news anchor asks Istvan. "I would agree that we are, in fact, trying to play God," says Istvan.)


The concerns transhumanists are attempting to address—the frailty of the body and the terror of death—are as old as humanity itself.

O'Connell, a columnist for Slate, is a charming, funny tour guide. Writing on transhumanism often gets swept away by the inherent drama of its adherents' promises, but O'Connell's eye for small human details—the pistachio dropped down a smug businessman's shirt, "open to the ideally entrepreneurial three-to-four buttons"—keeps the narrative grounded in a way that rigorous scientific debunking wouldn't.

It's good that transhumanists are so interesting, because their ideas usually aren't. Transhumanist "solutions" or concepts—cryogenic freezing, mind uploading, cybernetic implants—often feel, not unsurprisingly, like a bland mixture of classic sci-fi, Silicon Valley positivism, and one too many message-board arguments. Take the millenarian prophets of AI omnicide (and its charitable corollary, "effective altruism"), which convinces the rich and silly that donating money toward the prevention of a hypothetical and unlikely future AI apocalypse is more valuable than helping actual living people. And it's hard to take monstrously bearded life-extension huckster Aubrey de Grey seriously when he exclaims, "For every day that I bring forward the defeat of aging, I'm saving a hundred thousand fucking lives! That's 30 September 11ths every week!"

That so much of transhumanism has the scent of a grift (freeze your dead body at Alcor for only $200,000! Special $80,000 deal for decapitated heads!) is unsurprising. Many of the characters, dependent on private funding or business for their scientific research, ultimately sound less like visionaries than like salesmen. Transhumanism, considered broadly, is an increasingly big business; there are links to defense research and, of course, tech-industry wealth. If I have a complaint about O'Connell's book, it's that it doesn't turn its eye often enough toward money.


Two names come up over and over in To Be a Machine: Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, and Peter Thiel, the Facebook investor. Both are billionaires and generous donors to the various transhumanist sects, and without their munificence, it seems unlikely the movement's priests would be so richly appointed. But neither Musk nor Thiel is given much more than a nod as a quiet, behind-the-scenes moneyman. It seems significant that a fringe movement has such wealthy and prominent backers, and worth exploring the philosophical and political precepts that led Musk and Thiel to transhumanism. As O'Connell writes, the concerns transhumanists are attempting to address—the frailty of the body and the terror of death—are as old as humanity itself. What's new here is the arrangement of capital that gives rise to this specific crusade, and these particular solutions. Since at least Gilgamesh, the human race has been trying to end suffering and solve death. We have the money to undertake the former. So why is it being spent on the impossible dream of the latter? —MAX READ

Electric Objects

Chances are, if you're reading this, the closest you'll ever come to owning art is framing a poster. Here to save you from the banalities of the cheap water lilies that have been hanging on your wall since college is Electric Objects, a startup that produces the EO2, a high-definition 21-by-12-inch screen encased in simple wood frames that can hang on your wall or sit on a stand and, via a subscription service, display art from all corners of Earth and the internet. Thanks to a matte finish and a light sensor that imperceptibly dims and lightens the screen to match its surroundings, it all somehow looks intimate and lovely, and not—as one might fear—cheesy and horrible. Once you sign up for "Art Club" (free for this first month, $9.99 a month afterward), you can choose from thousands of images—you can even put artworks on a "playlist." Of course, there's a "social" aspect as well—you have a profile that looks like a mix of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. But like a Spotify for art, this is much more about the access you suddenly have in the privacy of your home. Paintings and photographs from the Getty, LACMA, the National Gallery, the NYPL, and the Rijksmuseum are at your fingertips, but there are also works by new artists, commissioned specifically for Electric Objects, including pieces that take true advantage of the medium, like Hannah Perrine Mode's Landmarks, a series of blue, circular cutouts of watercolors depicting natural landscapes that turn against a white background, like dials moved by a mysterious wind or spun by an invisible finger. Another mesmerizing group is the Space Is the Place collection, a series of images collected from high-definition NASA telescopes and enhanced by the artist Adam Ferriss.

Though it might seem like the video or animated art is the whole appeal here, on gray, winter days, I favored a cropped scene (if there's a major issue with this format, it's that due to the screen size being fixed, if an artwork does not fit the dimensions, you only get a piece of it) from Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters by Hendrick Avercamp, a Dutch painting from about 1608 that shows a canal freezing over, with children playing an early version of hockey, everyone going about their business, wrapped in dark coats, a warmth in the sky depicted by light traces of peach in the gray clouds. Because it literally is in this case, the painting seems lit from within, and with excuses to Walter Benjamin, though it is the ur of mechanical reproduction, it contains an unmistakable aura. —SOFIA GROOPMAN


What's the Best VR System?

Virtual reality has been in the realm of science fiction for decades, but in the last year or so, that's changed. Right this second, you can buy a headset that makes VR part of your living room. Whether you want to fly a spaceship to another planet, run through a haunted mansion, or simply watch a movie in your own private theater, VR is within reach for the average person.

The biggest problem is choosing which headset to buy. Sony, HTC, and Oculus have all released headsets with their own strengths, weaknesses, and differences in price. That last one is a big one, too. Fortunately, they're all pretty good. (If you're interested in VR movies, though, the nicer-looking headsets on PC are your best bet.)

The fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to jump into VR is Sony's PlayStation VR setup ($400), which requires a PlayStation 4 ($300) or a PlayStation 4 Pro ($400).

That being said, pricing on PS VR gets complicated. If you don't own a PlayStation Camera, required to use the headset, that's another $60. And if you want to play with motion controls, rather than the standard controller, it'll set you back another $100. It is worth paying the extra money for them, as motion controls are where VR games really shine. Save a few bucks and buy them used.  —PATRICK KLEPEK

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