Mark O’Connell takes us on a captivating journey especially for those who love science fiction and are intrigued by authors such as Asimov and Jules Verne; those who can’t avoid daydreaming about the future and the possibility, though remote, to be someday able to get into a time machine like Emmett Brown’s DeLorean.
So this book presents a kind of journalistic scifi adventure told in a fashion that science fiction becomes reality. Through interviews and first hand experiences it tells about Transhumanism. That cultural movement outlined in 1957 by the English biologist Julian Huxley. A theory based on the hope the human race could evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.
“We will no longer tolerate the tyranny of aging and death. Through genetic alterations, cellular manipulations, synthetic organs, and any necessary means, we will endow ourselves with enduring vitality and remove our expiration date. We will each decide for ourselves how long we shall live. We will expand our perceptual range through biotechnological and computational means. We seek to exceed the perceptual abilities of any other creature and to devise novel senses to expand our appreciation and understanding of the world around us.”
Towards the technological singularity
These words are taken from the Letter to Mother Nature by philosopher Max More who after graduating in Oxford became one of the movement’s main supporters. The letter is quoted by the author in order to introduce the reader to Transhumanism.
The Transhumanists are in favour of technological innovations also the most controversial ones such as genetic engineering and they look forward to the technological singularity. The moment in which the invention of an artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in huge changes to human civilization so much as defying mortality.
What makes this book a page-turner is the fact that this story is told by a journalist with a literary background and not by a transhumanist or a scientist. Then he describes what he sees with curiosity but also with a critical and skeptical approach.
In this way he tells about Alcor an American company which for 200.000 dollars can store your body in liquid nitrogen until the science will exist to revive you. And then he describes the life of a group of biohackers attempting to become cyborg. He tells about Elon Musk or Steve Wozniak that are persuaded that in a near future our mind will be able to be transferred on a computer and from there assume whatever form, likely that of a machine.
Reading Be a Machine
This book approaches those “world systems” issues dear to philosophers, scientists and poets in a direct, clear and engaging way. Be a Machine is then an attempt to understand how the opposition to the mortal state of human being and the fondness to life may lead to a profound faith in technological innovation. The exploration of this tendency and of Transhumanism, which embodies it, makes Mark O’Connell grasp the paradoxical strength of its anachronism.
This mirrors in part the nostalgic feeling with which we all often look at the time that flows and the consequent pain coming from being helpless. The fact of having to accept it in an axiomatic manner makes us want to rebel. However, often in stories hubris and the research of immortality lead to ill-fated consequences like it was for Prometheus and more recently in Blade Runner, Terminator, Alien or Matrix.
Beyond considering the inauspicious possibilities that may come with an unconditional faith in technology, the book explores the possibility that being a machine will not necessarily mean losing our humanity and lead to a gloomy future but on the contrary that it may be a chance to preserve the specificity of our individual experiences.