This is a weirdly compelling read. Compelling, because Mark O’Connell is a good journalist, and this is the kind of book where he meets various interesting and/or wacky people, and tries to understand them on their own terms, allowing us to form our own judgements. On TV, it’s Louis Theroux territory; in printed form it’s called ‘gonzo journalism’. This is an easy read, and at the risk of cliché, a good Irishman knows how to spin a good yarn. If I’m being picky, I’m not sure it’s as laugh-out-loud funny as the blurb would you think, but you will smile, and keep turning the pages.
It’s weird because the people O’Connell meets are by turns bonkers, dangerous, harmless, self-harming, sad, and – in one case – a US presidential candidate. Thank goodness the Americans had the taste and good sense not to elect him.
So who does he meet, and why do I think it’s an important book for to read?
They are an eccentric mix of futurists, robotics experts, philosophers, mystics and others from the same fringe, who all have in common the deep sense that death should be an unnecessary event for humans, and that various scientific (they would allow not any scare quotes around their use of that word) solutions will solve it for us. Probably in our lifetime.
What’s really scary is how many of them believe – not only that it is coming, but that it has already started.
Let’s start with something that makes me queasy (don’t worry – there are are other things here that make me queasier). Freezing bodies, so that dead people an be resuscitated when medicine finally solves the problem that caused them to die. Happy with that? Because that’s real, now. Has been for decades, in fact.
Or, if that strikes you as a tad expensive (because there are maintenance costs for running the freezers) how about you just have your head frozen? Much cheaper – and one person here has calculated that in the right stized silos, it could be done for everyone on the planet, without too much space being taken up, and with huge savings on costs.
Head freezing is real now, too.
What isn’t, but is being talked about, is cryogenically suspending a human with learning disabilities, until that genetic issue can be unscrambled. Queasy enough for you yet?
Now remember the problem with the ‘yuk’ factor. It is not enough to be disgusted and turn away – we need to think why we think it’s wrong, and have a better alternative.
Let’s try a different angle. You probably upload photos onto the cloud and so forth, and maybe you have a stream on Facebook or Instagram. I met someone recently who claimed he tweeted 12,000 times in one week. How would you feel about being much more intentional about the upload, such that your memories and understanding could be stored, and then replicated in a computer, such that you could be reconstituted from them after your physical death? Would it still be you?
Now at that point the scientific community pushes back hard – there is zero chance of that being remotely possible in a real-time laboratory, because they do not think that the mind can be reduced to mere data. I think that’s self-evident, but these futurists just say that the hard scientists can’t do it yet.
What about medicine itself. Some of you will have had invasive surgery performed by robots, or at least relying on computers for its success. Older readers might have reached the point of an artificial hip, or a pacemaker. The technology has been around a while.
So ask yourself the Robocop question: at what point would we have we replaced sufficient of a person’s body, that she is, functionally, a machine? At the moment we have the relatively non-controversial questions of para-athletes having those amazing blades, or Stephen Hawking engaging with the world entirely through technological brilliance. In neither case is their humanness affected.
But what about a car crash victim, in a coma, on life support for ten years. Cruelly, such people are disparaged with the word ‘vegetable.’ But what is to stop us using the word, ‘machine’? Isn’t what they are, really?
Or take another idea, common in the people O’Connell meets: what about using technology deliberately to enhance human capacities? The military pop up here – what about re-engineering human biology such that you could have a soldier who didn’t need to sleep? Are you still happy?
Or take a scary bunch of people who experiment on themselves by inserting chips and circuitboards into their arms and necks? You read this chapter and it sounds like something out of dystopian cyberpunk, but it’s real, and happening. Occasionally we see the legit side of this, when an ambitious prof pops up on the news, having had a chip implanted in his hand, so that he can have his blood pressure read at a distance. That’s the kind of microchip we put into pets.
But this group is much more determined, and is embedding technology to enhance, not just monitor, their bodies.
One common thread between all these groups, is that at some point in the future (they differ over timings), advances in medical science will have overtaken the reasons humans die. according to one contributor, there could well be young humans now, who will not die for hundreds if not thousands of years, because they will keep being cured.
At which point you will conclude that you’ve met a serious bunch of nutters, but remember these are senior nutters with significant clout. In places like Silicon Valley. In places like Google. (yes, seriously – they have a project called Calico, addressing the problem of ending death. TIME magazine covered it, back in 2013).
And, yes, there are some daft cults in here too. Just for fun. And some Mormons. And a cynical hippy.
So we have a little knot of theological issues to pick over: what is a human, when is a human, what is death, how is it to be faced, and so forth.
Mostly, these are not new, because ethicists who deal with the beginning and end of life questions have been dealing with them for ages.
But this group’s eager embrace of technology as a way of escaping our physical limitations (their disdain for the body is quite marked) is new, I think, although reminiscent of a series of philosophies that see the body as bad. There have been Christian heresies which have taken that line too. And this book makes us ask the extent to which we are unconsciously complicit in that. What do I actually mean when I say Evernote is ‘my digital brain’? That using it means I’ll never forget anything even again? Is that just a metaphor, or something are?
Second, I was struck by how many of these groups are led by people who had a Christian upbringing and have consciously rejected, and therefore seek out a deliberately alternative metaphysic. Death is not an inevitable judgment, but an inconvenience which technology will soon solve.
O’Connell is troubled by this. He has the same story of rejecting a Christian narrative, but he has the same problem with the futurists as he would think he has with us: eternity, an elongated state of existence with no end or change, must be inevitably tedious and pointless.
He gives us snapshots of his young family going through the normal delights and horrors of childhood and parenthood, and constantly quizzes his interviewees about whether any machine could replicate his experience of fatherhood and relationships. One creepy but sad young man says he is looking forward to the arrival of ‘sexbots’ (wrk it out), because a machine wouldn’t cheat on him. And finally, he has to deal with his own mortality.
If I had to summarise O’Connell’s own view. I’d describe it as basically Stoic: this is what there is, live with it, and death, when it happens, is nothing, followed by non-existence. That’s my description, not his, and probably too neat.
But make no mistake: this area of medical science is going to pose some new ethical questions, that our teens are probably already on the brink of asking.
And then there’s death, to face up to. Everyone he meets is actually terrified of it, and running from it as fast as they can.
if only someone could solve not just death, but the fear of it.
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. Heb 2:1-15
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