To Be a Machine isn't written as an insider-baseball account of transhumanism; instead, it's framed as an investigation. With a winning mix of awestruck fascination and well-chilled skepticism, he tracks down various high-profile transhumanists on their own turf, immerses himself in their worlds, and delivers dispatches — wryly humorous, cogently insightful — that breathe life into this almost mystical circle of thinkers and doers ... Not only does O'Connell apply a healthy curiosity to his subjects, he places them in illuminating context. Amid vivid firsthand reportage, he dwells on the history and ramifications of transhumanism: economically, anthropologically, sociologically, theologically and culturally ... Rather than a dry treatise on science, To Be a Machine is a lucid, soulful pilgrimage into the heart of what humanity means to us now — and how science may redefine it tomorrow, for better and for worse.
...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 ... O'Connell 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 keeps the narrative grounded in a way that rigorous scientific debunking wouldn't ... If I have a complaint about O'Connell's book, it's that it doesn't turn its eye often enough toward money.
O’Connell is less interested in evaluating technology than in the people who make it and its philosophical implications. As he places the quest for immortality under the microscope, he follows the individuals—tech visionaries, billionaires, and futurists—who are trying to eradicate, or dramatically postpone, death ... If the average human life were to span 100 healthy years, then society, the economy, and the environment would be drastically transformed. How long would childhood last? What would the political landscape look like if baby boomers were able to vote for another 50 years? O’Connell’s foray into transhumanism comes at a moment when our democratic institutions look weaker than ever ... O’Connell finds it odd, too, that 'billionaire entrepreneurs' are more interested in developing AI than in eradicating “grotesque income inequality in their own country.” Of course, experimentation is essential to progress, and researchers claim their work will benefit all of humanity in the future. But it raises the question: What future and for whom?
The book is a wonderful, breezy romp filled with the beginnings of philosophical reflections on the meaning of the techno-utopians’ search for immortality ...But while O’Connell suggestively quotes Rilke, St. Augustine, Gnostic texts and Hannah Arendt in critiquing techno-utopians, he never goes very deep into understanding the pathology driving them. He feels no attraction to their philosophy and notes that his child playing horsy with his wife could not be 'rendered in code. .?.?.Their beauty was bodily, in the most profound sense, in the saddest and most wonderful sense.' But he fails to translate that feeling into anything approaching a coherent social or ethical critique. This limitation may be most manifest in O’Connell’s failure to mention one of the most disturbing aspects of this immortality mania: its utter selfishness.
Despite the heady subject matter, O’Connell never really attempts to 'solve' these big philosophical questions. Instead, he positions himself as a spectator to the movement, a stand-in for any 'non-transhumanist' so that he may draw parallels between his own beliefs and those of the scientists and entrepreneurs he is profiling. This means we are not taken aback by the severity of certain transhumanist doctrines ... We are eased into such bizarre subject matters as the economic impact of cryogenic freezing and the price difference in preserving your whole body as opposed to your “severed head” — a cephalon, technically speaking. All of this is done in the witty, and sometimes cheeky, language we’d expect from someone who included 'solving the modest problem of death' in the title of his book ... O’Connell’s most revelatory moments are when he is able to unearth these inexorably true, yet freaky insights ... I wasn’t able to forgive O’Connell for his heavy-handedness in the arena of religion ... For all of O’Connell’s efforts in characterization, he fails to give the people he profiles an acute sense of humanity. They read like caricatures — machines designed to drive plot — rather than individuals with whom you could actually empathize or engage.
To Be a Machine is an attempt to understand the transhumanist movement on its own terms; it’s a conversational, approachable book, resembling a set of magazine articles skilfully bonded together. Even the more ridiculous of O’Connell’s subjects largely escape his condescension. Istvan, De Grey and the others have all been written up before, but O’Connell, in embarking on a longer quest, is able to draw out similarities in the lives of many of his believers, including libertarian politics and an unsurprising early interest in science fiction novels ... It’s O’Connell’s lack of stridency, as well as his often splendid writing, that makes him such a companionable guide.
O’Connell dissects the practices and beliefs of transhumanism with extraordinary exuberance and wit. He writes in the 'gonzo' tradition of Hunter S Thompson — a first-person account of meeting, eating, drinking and travelling with transhumanists in their California heartland, elsewhere in the US and on the cult’s European periphery. To Be a Machine is sometimes hilarious but even as O’Connell mocks the more absurd manifestations of transhumanism he shows sympathy and understanding for its adherents ... no one could hope for a better chronicle of contemporary strangeness than To Be a Machine.