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