To be a Machine by Mark McConnell: The Timeless Quest for Immortality

Mark McConnell Explores Transhumanism, an International Movement Intent on Immortality

Immortality is Part of Our Design

To be a Machine, Mark McConnell, Amazon
Immortality is an idea novel to homo sapiens; we have sought a cure for death since the dawn of time. Religions provided an imaginative remedy to death: the promise of a perfect Elysium in the eternal afterlife with family members reunited in the sky softened the frightening prosepct of eternal nothingness. Being an artist provides another neat solution to the universal conundrum. Rembrandt, Monet, Picasso, Milton, Coleridge, Dickens, these artists have gained a form of immortality because they echo in our collective imaginations.  When Keats saw the Elgin Marbles he found their beauty so eternal that it brought into sharp focus his own mortality and insignificance:

 

My spirit is too weak—mortality

Elgin Marbles: Beauty for Eternity

Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,

And each imagined pinnacle and steep

Of godlike hardship tells me I must die

Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.

 

In reaction, Keats made a bid for immortality by penning a beautiful sonnet and adding it to the eternal Sonnet sequence.  The artist holds a niche splendour in immortality in that he is festooned in the sweet eternal nectar of culture. It is for this reason, tyrants adore artists. In that regard, Napoleon was a true Frenchman in that he wasn’t content with sending millions of men to their graves but in addition wanted to be admired by artists.

To Be a Machine: Part Futurama; Part X-Files

To be a Machine explores these epic themes and more; it is a wonderfully chaotic journey across techno-America with the inseparable lovers, death and immortality.  It details the Californian techno-progressive answer to mortality with fascinating results.  This movement is generally understood as transhumanism and they firmly believe that death is wrong and the primary focus of techno-giants and government should be life extension. With the relentless march of technology, transhumanists think this inevitable, the human race will have the capability to extend life and, in the end, be immortal.  The means to that end comes in many forms, however, and is at times both disturbing and sympathetic, yet always desperately human.

Cryogenics: More Chilling than Comforting

Cryogenics is one remedy, and well understood in popular culture through numerous movies and science fiction TV series. At times, To Be a Machine feels just like that, McConnell’s journey into the dark Arizona desert to visit the cryogenics company, Alcor, the world’s foremost cryogenics company, puts one in mind of the darkest episodes of the X-files. Clients pay to be frozen until medical technology has advanced to the point where they can be cured and reawakened. Humans are stored in giant flasks like cylinders called ‘dewars’. Full-body freezing is expensive, so Alcor offers a cheaper package where only the head is frozen, which brings us to the terrifying image of the warehousing techniques: the severed heads are stored together in these massive, dewar, containers. Futurama meets Moulder and Scully; the darker side of transhumanism.

Alcor has Heads Frozen in Massive Metallica Cylinders: Is this your Future?

Immortality is Tragicomic

At its heart, To be a Machine is a poignant tragicomedy, however. While these dark moments are ubiquitous they are contrasted with the ridiculous and philosophical; the absurd and the contradictory. In one particular instance, we meet the charismatic, and fantastically named, libertarian transhumanist, Zoltan Istvan. He is running for President as the transhumanist candidate. His campaign consists of driving across the country, from San Francisco to Washington via Miami, in a campaign bus called the Wanderlodge. It is a 1970’s camper van refitted to resemble a coffin, its brakes are faulty, its steering inaccurate, and the engine prone to overheating. As McConnell notes, for individuals so concerned with the death they were quick to through caution to the wind.

The Immortality Bus

In one episode, there is a spontaneous bout of drunk driving. When McConnell questions Zolton on this well-established life-threatening practice, he replies that the steering on the vehicle is so unresponsive that any errors on his part due to alcoholic impairment would be negligible. Not reassuring. For a man so overwhelmingly terrified by the prospect of death, there was also a strange reluctance to wear seat-belts. Of course, the author holds an honest trepidation of ridiculous immortality: flying off the road and dying in flames on the aptly named immortality bus will result in certain ironic infamy.

McConnell draws on his rich knowledge of literature to demonstrate the timelessness of the pursuit of immortality. In all his meetings with transhumanism, God lurks ominously in the background. Transhumanists show a devout faith in technology that is only matched by religious observance; one-day technology will come and save us all from our petty and useless existence. Like religion is obsessed with the flesh and its weaknesses, so too do transhumanists have a pathological disdain for the human body. They despise that it breaks down and does not operate to machine standard, hence the contradictory and ugly name for the human body, the “meat machine.”

There are also the messianic visions of utopia and totalitarianism and each of these designs for human perfection are given voice. Human history is awash with failed utopia, Nazism, Communism, the Garden of Eden, the flaw in the system was always humans. We got flung out of the Garden of Eden and we have taken many routes to get back in; each of them blocked. The atheistic enterprises of Nazism and Communism were paths to human perfection with messianic leaders in their genome.  Only the realisation of a heavenly paradise on earth will do if there is no religious afterlife.  In many of these cases, technology was critical to creating utopia and attempting to cure us of our natural frailties.

 

Left, Utopian Vision of Nazism; Right, the reality

 

Transhumanism is the latest movement to harness the power of technology to answer this timeless question; in their minds, technology finally provides the answer to the problem of death. But it has all the rhetoric and all the language of previous utopian pursuits, which reveals the infinite terror of our finite existence rather than any the real technological possibility. As McConnell states,

‘beneath the talk of future technologies, I could hear the murmur of ancient ideas. We were talking about the transmigration of souls, eternal return, reincarnation. Nothing is ever new. Nothing ever truly dies, but is reborn in a new form, a new language, a new substrate.’

The pleasure in To Be a Machine is people wrestling with the prospect of death, as they have done throughout history. But underneath the laughter and eccentricity, McConnell deftly illuminates the inherent danger in these designs. There is a reason why utopian ideologies lead to untold human destruction; they are fanatical enterprises accompanied by a deranged obsession with death. We take on the role of creator, a place where we have no right to be, but cannot help but go, with the inevitable destruction of something of greater value, our human souls.

Tragicomedy is said to be the genre that best reflects the human condition; at its centre is humanity’s bizarre reactions to life’s great scepter, death. To be a Machine takes the form of a modern tragicomedy – death in the digital economy. This is a marvellous book, philosophically varied and timely, and although the themes are morbid, the story is brimming with life brought alive by the author’s elegant writing style and charming turn of phrase. Perhaps, Mark McConnell may have ensured his own immortality with this fantastic work.

Buy To be a Machine, by Mark McConnell

 

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