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Transhumanism, immanence and existential risk: An interview with Mark O’Connell

Gerry Gaffney Internet of Things, Transhumanism Leave a Comment

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Transcript

Gerry Gaffney

My guest today is a freelance writer based in Dublin. He’s written for Slate, The New York Times Magazine, The Observer, and The New Yorker.

His is author of a book that is equally entertaining and disturbing – To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death.

Mark O’Connell, welcome to the User Experience Podcast.

Mark O’Connell

Hi Gerry, thanks for having me on.

Gerry

Very near the start of the book I think you hit the crux of the matter when you write, “We exist, we humans, in the wreckage of an imagined splendour. It was not supposed to be this way…” And that seems to go to the heart of a lot of the people and the organisations that you talk about in the book.

Can you tell us a bit about what the premise of the book is?

Mark

Basically, my book is about the transhumanist movement, which is this social movement predicated on the idea that we should use technology, current technology and future technology to kind of push out the boundaries of the human condition and to kind of, to augment our mental capacities and our physical capacities, and ultimately the kind of end point for most transhumanists is that we would actually become immortal through technology and through things like uploading our brains to machines and so on.

So it’s quite and extreme set of ideas but it’s also a movement that has quite a bit of purchase in the tech world, particularly in Silicon Valley where a lot of very powerful, very influential tech people are fully invested both figuratively and literally in trying to make some version of this future happen.

Gerry

How did you get interested?

Mark

I found out about it. I mean, my background is not in science at all. As you kind of glossed in the introduction I’m a literary critic and my background is as an academic, I did a PhD in English Literature, I’ve no real grounding in science at all, so, I just, I found out about this movement maybe seven or eight years ago, I wrote a short piece for a magazine that I used to write for, about transhumanism. It was quite a short and frivolous sort of piece but it stuck in my head because I was sort of fascinated by this idea that there were people out there who wanted to eradicate death and they thought that this was possible, and I guess I was particularly taken by the kind of, the religious undertow of the whole idea, this idea that technology has become a new kind of vector of religious faith is really fascinating to me.

So I’m always looking for, I suppose as a writer I’m always looking for ideas that allow me to explore other things, like transhumanism is very fascinating in and of itself but what drew me to it as much as anything else was that that it allowed me to explore all these other phenomena like, you know, our sort of strange relationship with technology as a species and where capitalism is right now, and the anxiety about death, and all these different things that can be kind of viewed through the prism of the transhumanists and the movement.

Gerry

Do you think your view of the parallel or the connection between the transhumanist movement and religion is partly down to your own background?

Mark

I don’t really have any background, despite being Irish, you know I was nominally at least baptised a Catholic but I was not really brought up in any kind of serious religious space. So I don’t really… I’m fascinated by religion in a sort of an abstract way, and I’m fascinated by religious views of the world, but it’s not a sort of, a personal obsession for me. It’s not something that I bring to the table personally.

But yeah, in the beginning of the book I kind of talk about my own sort of fascination with the book of Genesis and the story of the fall, which… I suppose I’m interested in as a literary text almost, I’m really fascinated by stories that kind of get to the root of our own inability to accept ourselves as animals, to accept the fact that we die. I’m really fascinated by this, for the same reason I’m fascinated by psychoanalysis and all these things as well.

So transhumanism seemed to me to kind of flow out of a similar deeply human anxiety about our condition.

Gerry

You mentioned the Gnostics as well, and it sort of reminded me, Philip K Dick who’s a sci-fi writer whom you nod to at one point in the book was very focused on the Gnostics in a lot of his later and sort of more crazy writings. What was their idea and why does that resonate with the transhumanist movement?

Mark

Well, the Gnostics, one of their major dogmas was the idea that the flesh was evil, and that… they sort of believed in two gods, basically, there was a god who made humans and there was a higher god who was sort of like the real god. And these bodies that we are forced to live in are the creation of a lower, evil god, and demiurge, and that our destiny as a species, or our struggle was to find an escape form the body and become pure spirit.

And so transhumanism has a very similar kind of idea about transcending the flesh, and that what’s most true about us and what needs to be liberated is our mind, and so transhumanists have a similar attitude towards the body, I think, as Gnostics.

And quite a few other kind of religious throughout history as well. Transhumanists are obviously largely, kind of, rationalists and they come from hard-line techno-rationalist backgrounds. So they’re very uncomfortable with any kind of suggestion that transhumanism might have a lot in common with religion. I mean, they can see that these strands are there and they’ll say, yeah, there’s obvious crossovers but the crucial difference is that technology actually allows us to these ends that religion has always promised us, that technology can in fact offer us immortality in the future.

One of the things I did very early on when I was writing the book was I attended a conference on transhumanism and religion, I write about that in the book obviously, but that conference was really badly attended, and the reason I was given for that was the idea of, the mere notion of a conference on transhumanism and religion is kind of seen as taboo within the movement and people just kind of shunned it.

So there’s a definite sort of tension around any interpretation of transhumanism as having a religious dimension.

Gerry

Although you do also write about the movement or elements of the movement have an inherent nostalgia. You talk about an inherent nostalgia within the transhumanist philosophy, a firm belief that we can use technology to build a brighter future. That’s almost a description of any religion, isn’t it?

Mark

Well, that’s true, and I think one of the things I realised early on and I talk a little bit about in the book is I think transhumanism is, despite the fact that it’s so resolutely oriented towards the future, and this very radical extreme vision of change to come in the future, it struck me in a weird kind of way as quite anachronistic, as a kind of a hold-out in a way from mid-20th century optimism about the future. It struck me that that kind of optimism about our future as a species has fallen away in the culture, in the West certainly. We tend to have a much bleaker view of the future due to things like I guess climate change and in a lot of ways the slowdown in technological progress in a lot of ways. You mentioned Philip K Dick earlier, and the golden age of science fiction, and I’m by no means an expert in science fiction, but it seems to me that the golden age of science fiction was maybe the mid-20th century and it coincided with things like the space race where there was this sense of wide open possibility and optimism about the future, by X year we would go to Mars and all these kinds of ideas and we’d all be living on some space stations and stuff.

And that is not in the culture anymore. But transhumanism has maintained something of that kind of extreme sense of wide open possibility about where we might go, which in a lot of ways is a fascinating and inspiring aspect of transhumanism, that sort of radical optimism. It’s not my own neutral gear, myself, but I’m intrigued by it.

Gerry

Yeah, I think you’ve got a very bleak world view, I’m just looking for the quote here. You said, “This was what we did as a species, after all: we built ingenious devices, and we destroyed things.”

Mark

Right. Well that line is in the context of the chapter about the anxiety about existential risk, which is a big thing for a lot of transhumanists to the extent that, I mean they are obviously quite optimistic about the future but a great many of them have this very sort of visceral fear about artificial intelligence and the idea that artificial intelligence might get to a sufficient level that it would for whatever reason decide to wipe us out because we’re not part of its designs.

Just as we have kind of blithely wiped out so many species as we become more technologically sophisticated. And so, yeah, and in the context of that line, is the idea that we would build something that would reflect our domination of nature, that would treat us in the way that we’ve treated lower primates or whatever. And so, in that view, our track record as the top of the evolutionary pyramid is not a good one. We build ingenious devices and we destroy things. I mean, we do a lot of other things as well, we’ve done a lot of good things, but that seems to be the major indictment of our species to me.

Gerry

On thing that occurred to me, you were talking about the lack of positivism since the mid-20th century or so but you do have people like Elon Musk talking about his Mars shot, but on the other hand he and Stephen Hawking and someone else whose name escapes me at the moment, Bill Gates, are very concerned about AIs taking over the world and destroying us, aren’t they?

Mark

For sure, there’s almost, again, almost a religious dimension to this sort of extremity of good and evil. It’s either heaven or hell, you know? The way I look at it actually is that, I find it quite, you can tell when you read the book that I have a fairly high degree of skepticism about these extreme notions of artificial intelligence wiping us out or on the other side us being able to merge with artificial intelligence in this kind of quasi-rapture-esque singularity.

What strikes me about these two kind of polar extremes is that whether we’re damned or whether we’re saved it’s going to be the result of technology, it’s going to be the result of rigorous rationalist thinking and so the only people who can save us, who can save the world, are programmers, are people who deal in technology. And so to me it seems like an extension of the kind of techno-boosterism that you get in Silicon Valley, this idea that this app or that app can save the world and that, you know, this social media platform can change the way we think and this kind of like, fairly extreme, almost narcissistic attitude towards the power of technology, the power of the innovations that are coming out of Silicon Valley.

So what struck me about the existential risk idea was the it was kind of an extrapolation of that, and only technology and technologists can save the world.

Gerry

Tangentially to that, at one point, Mark, you describe one of the transhumanist meetings as being overwhelmingly male. You do introduce come female proponents of the movement but is the movement in general male-dominated and what are the implications of it if that is the case?

Mark

I think profoundly male-dominated. That comment comes at the very beginning of the book where I attend this meeting in London of a transhumanist meetup called the London Futurists. It struck me that, I was in a room in a lecture hall in Birkbeck in Bloomsbury in London. The conversation was around the sort of radical changes that were imminent in our society and that were going to change everything about what it meant to be human and I was just looking at around the room and I realised that it could have been at any point in the last 200 years because the room was just full of men, and that struck me as a kind of a strange, as existing in a strange tension with this idea of radical change.

So I think, yeah, transhumanism is a deeply male culture. I did speak to a number of female transhumanist. At a certain part of the book I realised that I hadn’t spoken to any women and so I kind of realised it would be weird if I didn’t. So I go looking for some women and I found some really interesting… actually there are a number of prominent people like Natasha Vita-More who’s the president of Humanity+ which is the transhumanist international organizing body. She’s obviously a woman. And there’s Martine Rothblatt who I didn’t get to speak to, who’s a trans woman.

But by and large it’s a very male movement. And I think, probably in a way that reflects a little bit the makeup of technology in general as a sector, the tech world, Silicon Valley’s famously, notoriously quite a male culture. So it’s possibly not that different to that.

Gerry

In fact as we speak we’ve just seen Uber, the Uber board going through various transfixions during the past some days as it supposedly tries to become more forward-looking and more modern. You could almost position the whole transhumanist thing, as you describe it then if it is male-dominated as almost a proxy battle for the ability to procreate. I guess that’s getting too off-topic, isn’t it?

Mark

I don’t think it is, actually, that’s a dimension in the book. It’s not a huge thing that I sort of explore in any great depth or explicitness but it is there, and I think there is a dimension of transhumanists’ view of the future that does sort of version out childbirth. And that seems to me to be something that either ironically or otherwise is more sort of appealing to, not men per se but a certain kind of, maybe uniquely male view of the world.

Actually one of the things I’ve noticed since the book has come out is that, and this is only anecdotal because you can’t really tell exactly who your readers are, but to the extent that I’ve had strong responses from the book, you know, I’ve done quite a few events stuff at this point, and festivals, and it seems to me that most of the people who are responding strongly to the book are actually men. So that is, and I don’t mean that the people who are reading the book and who are interested in the book are transhumanists, but there is something about this topic, something about this way of thinking about the world that seems to appeal disproportionate to men.

And that’s not something that I, maybe surprisingly, it’s not something that I anticipated when I was writing the book. It’s given me reason to think about, I mean, in a way, of course my book is about transhumanism but it’s also about a particular kind of frame of mind, it’s about rationalism in a way. And I… I’m not quite sure how I would frame this, but I’m beginning to suspect that there is something about this view of the world, about this extreme kind of rationalism that is maybe peculiarly male. You can tell that I’m sort of hedging myself a little bit here and I’m kind of wary of making absolute pronouncements, but there is some… in the same was as say the new atheist movement seems to me to be overwhelmingly populated by men. So there is something about this kind of rationalist mindset that appeals to men.

Gerry

You also, I guess on a related topic you’re also very much conscious in the book of I guess where the movement fits in with or gels with the whole concept of Western capitalism. I’ve got a quote here, you say, “I was increasingly aware of the extent to which my movements in the world were mediated and circumscribed by corporations whose only real interest was in reducing the lives of human beings to data, as a means to further reducing us to profit.”

Mark

Yeah, I mean I sort of, I guess that’s quite a bleak view of how capitalism operates but it is kind of my view. Part of the experience psychologically for me of writing the book and doing the research and reporting for the book was I was constantly kind of encountering these very extreme mechanistic views of what it meant to be human, and constantly kind of grappling with the view of the human being and the self as a kind of machine. And so that sort of infected me over the course of when I was writing the book and I would constantly be seeing ways in which I was operating as machine or as part of a larger machine. And that would be like, you know, at times I would be sitting typing into my computer or whatever and I write a little bit about it in the book and I’d see myself in this kind of feedback relationship as a machine entering information into another machine. But also, you know, being in a huge supermarket in Texas or whatever and just seeing the ways in which I was being funneled through these channels and the endpoint was always to get information and to get money from you. It sort of forced me into seeing society under capitalism quote unquote in a very sort of machine-like way.

I’m fairly staunchly anti-capitalist in general. I [don’t think] the book is polemical all that much but I mean it definitely comes through, you’d definitely come out of the book under no sort of illusions as to my political persuasion I suppose.

Gerry

You reminded me there, William Gibson, obviously I’ve got a bit of a sci-fi obsession, but William Gibson in one of his earlier books describes a casino, an orbital casino as a funnel that you pour people in one end and you shake them and they fall out and all that’s left is their money.

Mark

Right. That’s beautiful. I don’t have that much of a… no more than I have a background in science, you know I’m a big reader and I’m a literary critic but I was sort of quite ignorant about science fiction when I went into this. So I got friends who are big sci-fi fans to draw me up reading lists and stuff. And I didn’t do probably as much reading as I planned or should have but I did kind of discover sci-fi writers along the way. And I was aware of William Gibson, I’d read one or two of his books before but I only read Neuromancer when I started writing this book and Philip K Dick as well was someone I’d been meaning to read for ages and it was only when I got to write this book that I sort of forced myself to sit down and read some of these people, and that was a kind of an education in and of itself.

But what struck me quite quickly was there is a feedback loop. I keep using this term which is itself quite a transhumanist way of thinking about things, but there is a feedback loop between ideas that come out of fiction and science fiction and feed into actual science and, you know, so many of these ideas that transhumanists are animated by come directly out of science fiction. So, you know, you have a conversation with transhumanists and they will invariably start talking about writers, well not so much Philip K Dick or Gibson but people like Arthur C Clarke are huge touchpoints for transhumanism, and various other mid-century science fiction writers as well.

Gerry

Did anyone point you at Greg Egan’s Diaspora?

Mark

You know I read Greg Egan’s “Diaspora” very early on when I was writing about mind upload. Yeah, a couple of people mentioned that book to me, including my editor who’s not a big sci-fi person but whose brother is, and it was pointed out to me pretty early on that this was one of the books that I had to read.

Gerry

I think, you know, just talking about the mechanistic view, I think there’s two alternatives that come out in the book. One of them, I guess is… I remember when I first came across the term “wetware” when it started to appear in the cyberpunk genre, it was almost shocking. But now it’s sort of a mainstream analogy. I was really surprised, I just finished reading a fantastic book on visual design by Alberto Cairo and he’s always, his aesthetics are really brilliant but at one point he describes our brain as “a flawed meat machine chiseled by evolution.” Do you think the view that we are already machines informs or enables a perception or a view that we can fiddle, interrupt, upgrade or even discard the body?

Mark

I think that is absolutely right. I don’t think transhumanism can take root in the psyche of an individual unless you already think of the human being as a machine, unless you already think of yourself as some kind of machine.

I mean, to me transhumanists, whether they frame it in this way or not, see the body as a machine, just a primitive machine and the idea is that it needs to be just better. I’ve been talking about this a little bit since I finished writing the book, and more and more I’m seeing things like Elon Musk seems to me like someone who… I might as well be paying him to promote the book because some of what he comes out with publicly is deeply transhumanist. But shortly after the book published in the States he launched this initiative called, I’ve forgotten what he called it now, it’s gone out of my head, but the technology is called neural lace and the idea is a sort of nanotechnology lace is positioned over the brain and that would allow a merger between computers and the flesh-and-blood brain at a molecular level. And the idea being that we would be able to merge our own flesh-and-blood consciousness with artificial superintelligence. And the reason for this is that Musk believes that AI is going to make us obsolete in the near to medium future, and so the only way that we can offset that future obsolescence is by merging with AI, by merging with the thing that’s going to make us obsolete.

And so I think that kind of attitude only makes sense if you already think of human value in machine-like terms, which is to say that only if you think the value of thought is computation, is a very narrow kind of view of intelligence, does it make sense to believe that we should merge with machines. So, yeah, I see this view as being extremely narrow and I see a kind of view of humanity that is basically… what is of value as a human is only to the extent that we can do what machines to, and once machines start doing that in a more sophisticated way, computational problem-solving, then we’re in trouble.

But I think that’s a very kind of dangerously reductive view of what it means to be a human.

Gerry

To offset that mechanistic view there’s also a certain beauty. You describe a scene, I’m not sure whether it’s from a movie or what, of Ray Kurzweil sitting on a beach and looking out over the sea talking about the amount of computation that’s involved in the movement of the tides and so on. And you used the term which I really liked of, it’s like an “algorithmic immanence.”

Mark

Again, this is kind of an illusion to religious ideas there. I mean, the immanence of god in everything, this pantheistic idea that god is immanent in all of nature. And so Ray Kurzweil’s view seems to be that all of nature is just a massive, he sees all of creation in a way as just a massive computer. His view for the future, I don’t know if you’ve read his “Singularity Is Near,” his vast book on this topic. It’s a fascinating, very strange but fascinating book. But his kind of endpoint for human evolution is that we would turn, essentially all of the universe into a giant computer. And he looks out and sees all these stars, all this huge resource of energy that’s just sitting out there doing nothing, and if we could harness this and use it for computation we could achieve so much and become so much.

And so there is a kind of religious view of this, of the world, that you get in transhumanism. But yeah, there’s a certain kind of irony to that language I think… That scene in that movie that I’m talking about in a documentary about Kurzweil, just before that scene he’s been talking about the death of his father and how he’s dealt with the grief of losing his father. And in the next scene he’s looking out at the sea and I think the sea is like, as a symbol in literature and mythology is always associated with death and the afterlife and eternity. So I think it’s strange and slightly moving I suppose that he looks out at the sea and doesn’t see death but sees this vast churning possibility for computation.

Gerry

I love the pistachio story. For listeners, near the start of the book you talk about going to that conference in London and somebody who you obviously dislike dropped a pistachio shell down his shirt and you sort of catch him fishing it out and you decide that you’re going to include that in the book, you use the term as almost a “petty and futile vengeance.” And it struck me that an AI would never do that. Maybe some kind of schadenfreude is the essential human trait that machines will never replicate.

Mark

Right. I mean the thing that impels that exchange and that moment in the book is this buy who I’m encountering is a sort of a thought leader type figure, he’s a corporate speaker, he talks about the future of humanity and how automation is going to change everything. We’d been having this discussion about how so many jobs are going to be obsolete and he’s also telling me that writers will eventually become obsolete as well. He bent me out of shape a little bit, so I decided to drop him in it by mentioning the slightly ridiculous thing of the pistachio. But he’s actually the only person I write about in the book who I don’t name, don’t know if you noticed that.

Gerry

I did. I was very conscious of that. I’m sure he’s read it with a degree of, well perhaps wry enjoyment maybe.

Mark

Right, well I just figured that the only reason for him to be in the book at all was to be as a kind of a target for slightly slide ridicule so it would be unfair to name him just for that purpose…

Gerry

He’s a fall guy.

Mark

A fall guy, yeah. So I don’t want to be unduly cruel necessarily. And I think there’s a lot of self-ridicule in there as well. Obviously I’m kind of well aware that that’s, as you say, a petty and futile act of vengeance that would be beneath an artificial intelligence.

Gerry

Beneath, or beyond hopefully.
Several times in the book you talk about the experience of fatherhood. At the time you were researching and writing the book I guess you were very very newly a father, and how somehow it seemed to negate the whole concept of trying to transcend humanity.

Mark

Yeah, well in a way it’s a complicated entanglement of ideas and motivations that the book grows out of. Like, I started working on the book in earnest around the time my son was born, at least I started thinking seriously about the topic and part of the experience of becoming a father for the first time was, you know, along with all the joyful stuff of early parenthood, this sort of shocked recognition of the fragility of our condition, you know, this tiny fragile human being who was born through a lot of pain and hardship on his mother’s part, and the sort of, yeah, I guess I got a little bit obsessed with the human condition, which is another way of saying, I guess, obsessed with death around the time of his birth.

And so, yeah, the book kind of grows out of that obsession. So in a way my encounter with transhumanism begins with, in a strange sort of way, an identification with their ideas. I mean, just in a very basic sense, that transhumanism is predicated on this notion that death is unacceptable, we need to do something about it.

I’m sort of starting from the point of, yeah, death is unacceptable actually. This whole human condition, this idea that we’re only here for a short time, we’re fragile and we’re going to die is kind of awful actually. Maybe it’s not so crazy that we would want to do something about it. So that’s where I start investigating transhumanism from.

So I think there’s more of identification. As much as I am creeped out and abhorred by so many of the ideas and so many of the things I encounter, hopefully it never loses that core of empathy and of vague identification with where the movement comes from.

Gerry

At the time that you were a new father you were also at the other end of things, you went to, I think it was Phoenix Arizona to the Alcor facility. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

Mark

That was one of the first thing I did for the book in terms of reporting, I went to this place just outside Phoenix, Scottsdale in Arizona which is one of, it’s the largest of the world’s four cryopreservation facilities and so it’s essentially it’s a place where people are taken, bodies are taken very shortly after the point of death in order to be preserved in liquid nitrogen essentially in these giant stainless steel containers like Thermos flasks and the idea is that people are stored there for decades or centuries or even potentially millennia until such point that technology gets sophisticated enough and powerful enough that it will be possible to bring deceased human beings back to life. So in most cases the bodies are beheaded as soon as they’re brought in, I guess because a) it’s cheaper to store just a head…

Gerry

The heads are be-bodied.

Mark

The heads are debodied would probably be a more accurate way of putting it, yeah, true. Assuming most transhumanists don’t want to come back to life in these old decrepit bodies that they died in, they want to come back as uploaded minds in kind of sleek new humanoid machines.

So that’s the idea behind Alcor and, yeah, there’s a lot of very prominent people signed up to it. Ray Kurzweil is signed up, Peter Thiel I believe is signed up. Quite a few kind of Silicon Valley bigwigs. And not all the people who are signed up to be preserved at Alcor or the people who were already preserved there are necessarily 100% believers that this is going to be a route back to resurrection and eternal life, but the idea is, I describe it, I actually compare it to Pascal’s wager in the book, the idea is, you know, if you don’t do this, if you don’t sign up for Alcor you’re definitely not going to come back, even if it’s just a small possibility.

It’s a bizarre place, obviously. It’s a deeply strange spectacle.

Gerry

It’s very Futurama, isn’t it?

Mark

It’s very Futurama, yeah.

Gerry

I was surprised. I was having a chat to some people the other day and I mentioned the book and I mentioned the cryogenic facilities around the place and the people I was speaking to really didn’t know about them, and I remember them being big news back in the, what, the 70’s or the 80’s or whenever the popped up. But now it’s just, you know, “Welcome to the future, human slave.”

I wonder what the rationale is for people, I mean who’s going to sit around in 100 years time or whatever and say, you know, “What’ll we do today? I know, let’s resurrect some of those dead people from the 21st century.

Mark

It would seem like it would be something that would be fairly down the list…

Gerry

As opposed to playing squash or something.

Mark

Right. Exactly, yeah, and that’s you know assuming that 1,000 years from now, 2,000, 10,000 years from now, you know, some catastrophe wouldn’t have happened, power might not have cut out. You know, there’s all kinds of variables on which the whole cryonics idea is contingent. But it’s in this particular place in Arizona in the desert specifically because well it’s easy to get to it’s beside an airport but also it’s geologically quite un-volatile as areas in the continental United States go. So it’s this idea that it’s one of the safest places to be storing your human body for… They don’t refer to them as bodies, by the way, they refer to them as patients.

Gerry

A great place to be dead.

Mark

Great place to be dead, yeah. A great place to spend your afterlife.

Gerry

As a species we sometimes seem to be enamoured with technology for its own sake. You know, you’ve covered that off pretty well in our discussion today. And we kind of see its expansion as inevitable. Do you think that we’re already committed to some sort of transhuman future?

Mark

That’s a really interesting and difficult to answer question. In the book I kind of refrain for various reasons from making any kind of prediction, largely because I just don’t know. I mean I don’t know if you’ve read Yuval Harari’s book, Homo Deus. It’s quite a big book at the moment and it came out around the same time as mine. It deals with kind of similar topics, he deals with the future of humanity. His prediction is quite stark and he says that this stuff is coming and that we are going to merge with machines at some point and the next stage of evolution is going to be a merger with technology. So he’s essentially, I don’t think he describes himself as a transhumanist, I guess he’s scientist… actually I think he’s a historian. He’s one of those people who confidently predicts that this stuff is going to happen in the future.

I just don’t know. I’m much more skeptical, skeptical both of these technological possibilities and of my own ability to predict anything about the future. Because all you have to do is look back 50 years, look back 100 years, look back 300 years, at the things people have been predicting, very rarely comes to pass actually. I think human history is a series of lurches from crisis to progress to change to reversal and I don’t believe in this kind of linear idea that we progress towards something. I think that’s essentially a fallacy. As you pointed out early on, my kind of idea of the world, of humanity is considerably bleaker than most transhumanists. When I think about the future, and I discuss this a little bit in the beginning of the book, I see something much darker and chaotic and I can’t really think beyond the coming effects of climate change when I think about the future. So it’s very difficult for me to imagine a sleek version of the human future in which disease is eradicated, and we all live eternally and we’re sort of merged with machines. I think the future will probably be very much like that past.

Gerry

Somebody said prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

Mark

Right, yeah. I would whole-heartedly agree. I don’t have the expertise to be confident enough to do that, although I also believe that the people who predict the future tend not to have that much expertise either. Yeah, I guess I know enough to know that I don’t know much.

Gerry

Mark, are you going to continue on this journey you’re on or do you have any plans for your next book.

Mark

Yeah, I’m working on a book right now actually, at least trying to work on it while doing travelling promoting the current book… The next book is I guess in some ways a progression in some ways on this book although it’s on people who are convinced that civilization is going to collapse and they’re making preparations yo….

Gerry

Ah, preppers!

Mark

Preppers is part of it, yeah, but I’m by no means focusing just on preppers. There’s lot’s of different strands, politically and socially to it. There’s quite a bit of myself in the book as well, quite a bit of my own kind of anxiety and stuff so it’ll be a little bit more, I think a little bit more inside out rather than the outside in of the transhumanism book. But it’s very early stages.

Hopefully I’ll get it written before the apocalypse happens.

Gerry

[Laughter.] I’ll remind listeners that the name of the book is To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death. And it’s an absolutely fantastic read and I recommend it very very highly.

Mark O’Connell, thanks so much for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Mark

Thanks so much Gerry.

Gerry GaffneyTranshumanism, immanence and existential risk: An interview with Mark O’Connell

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