Bonnie Rochman’s The Gene Machine and Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine, reviewed: Matters of life and death
Two new books, The Gene Machine and To Be A Machine, revolve around the basic question of what technology is supposed to do (ne2pi/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The Gene Machine: How Genetic Technologies Are Changing the Way We Have Kids – and the Kids We Have
Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pages, $37
To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death
By Mark O’Connell
Doubleday, 241 pages, $35.95
Mark Zuckerberg wants to reshape the world. At least that’s the vision the Facebook co-founder outlined in a recent 6,000-word manifesto about how the company intends to navigate these strange, perhaps historic times. Zuckerberg wrote about his desire to build a global community in the face of increasing polarization and to do something about the ideological bubbles that, thanks to social media, may have contributed to the rise of Donald Trump and the resurgence of racist, fascist and white-supremacist ideologies.
But the notion that Facebook had a role to play at all in last year’s U.S. election points to just how quickly and significantly the social network has become powerful. As New York Times media critic John Herrmann noted on Twitter, one “can’t help but see the words ‘THE PLATFORM IS THE NEW STATE’ flashing between every paragraph.”
The idea being that Facebook’s ultimate goal isn’t simply a better social network, but something as far-ranging as a new kind of geopolitical organization.
Such high-flying ideas have become de rigueur in Silicon Valley. PayPal founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel once wanted to build a libertarian island off the U.S. West Coast. Tesla chief executive Elon Musk wants to do everything from digging traffic-alleviating tunnels under Los Angeles to sending humans to Mars. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the techno-utopian tenor of our age is now also found in the two things that bookmark our lives: birth and death. On the one end, is the promise of genetic sequencing and screening that may radically alter health and child-rearing; on the other, are those trying to cheat that most fundamental, unifying human phenomenon: mortality.
Those are the topics of Bonnie Rochman’s The Gene Machine, which investigates both the promise and threat of genetic screening in babies, and Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine, which sets its sights on transhumanism, a movement that seeks to meld technology and the body – and even do away with the body altogether. Even if those ideas conjure a shudder in some deep part of your soul, they nonetheless each revolve around the basic question of what technology is supposed to do. When tinkering with the very basic ideas about existence, however, it’s also worth asking: where does technology end and the human begin?
As we’ve hurtled headlong into the digital era, turning phones into extensions of ourselves, techno-utopianism has found its inverse in techno-skepticism – in authors such as Evgeny Morozov, Doug Rushkoff and journalists including Sam Biddle or Sarah Jeong, who ask if technology is actually improving life, and for whom. “Don’t you see,” goes the line of the techno-skeptic, “how this is all leading us down the wrong path?”
Yet, Rochman’s text in particular serves as a reminder that tech is at its most (literally) vital when focused on the question of suffering. The Gene Machine tries to answer the questions raised now that we are gaining the ability to not just recognize genetic conditions in the womb, but also prevent, or even fix them, in utero. One example: Tay-Sachs is a disease that results in slow nerve degeneration in babies, with the vast majority of sufferers not living past the age of four. The implementation of a comprehensive screening program, however, means the disease can be recognized in fetuses, offering the choice of an abortion to prevent what would otherwise objectively be a brutal, cruelly short life.
The same techniques that allow a person’s genes to be mapped, however, also allow for uncovering less black-and-white conditions – among them, the BRCA1 mutation, made famous by Angelina Jolie, which radically increases the chance of breast and ovarian cancer. While that may seem like an unequivocal good, the fact that gene-carriers have a 50-per-cent chance of developing the disease raises a complicated set of questions: Do genetic counsellors tell young children or adolescents if they have the mutation, leaving the spectre of cancer to loom above their lives? Or not? Making matters more complicated is that current genetic techniques can detail many mutations or missing genes, but not what the precise effect will be. A standard genetic sequence will reveal no end of ambiguous data, as in Rochman’s tale of Daniel, a four-year-old boy whose parents were informed of a genetic anomaly but not what the consequences might be. They have spent the length of his short life racked with anxiety, hovering over their child, wishing no one had ever told them.
The genetic revolution has thus led to the strange scenario in which we have too much information and that somehow still isn’t enough – which is about as fitting a description of our era as you’ll find. Mark O’Connell, in funny, reflective prose, finds in the transhumanists a desire to exceed these very limits – of the capacity for thought, of death, of the body. Travelling across America, the Irish writer encounters a slew of oddball characters, many of them blisteringly intelligent, whom all wish to collapse the distinction between person and machine. Some wish to augment human intelligence with implants, while others have already implanted sensors in themselves (without anesthetic). Some wish to cheat death by either cryogenically freezing people with a plan to reanimate them at some future point, or by reversing aging; others wish to escape bodies entirely by uploading human consciousness to a network or into a robot.
If it all sounds far-fetched, that’s because it mostly is. While bionic limbs and auditory or even ocular implants are either here or coming soon, increasing intelligence or putting a mind into a microchip may well be impossible. As O’Connell argues, in trying to escape the limits of bodies, transhumanists return to an old type of thinking: the Cartesian idea that the mind and body are in fact distinct things.
But trying to replicate those things gets down to deep questions about what consciousness is. Perhaps like space and time, consciousness and the body are inextricably connected things – that what it means to be a self might be as much physical as mental. Ironically, though, as O’Connell points out, in that sense transhumanism is likely a modern substitute for religious faith, a solution to a kind of simmering unease. Presented with the crushing agony of mortality, the transhumanist, rather than superseding old patterns of thought, seeks out salvation in a steel or silicon deity. Each man’s story (they are unfailingly men) presents some trauma or failing – a near brush with death; alcoholism; lifelong virginity – and each seeks redemption in a post-human future where addiction, the messy sociality of sex, or the simple fact that we’re all going to die, evaporate in a fantasy of annihilation, the desire for immortality manifested in a strange version of the death drive. The image of a mind without a body is, rather than a vision of transcendence, a desire for a final nothingness.
Cast in this light, the wild fantasies of Zuckerberg, Thiel or Musk (again, all men) don’t seem so much high-flying as naive, seeking out childish chimeras of the future that have little to do with the gritty reality of politics or feeding people or preventing sharp inequality. But where these men differ from, say, someone such as Zoltan Istvan – featured in To Be a Machine, and who ran for U.S. president in 2016 on an immorality platform by driving a broken Winnebago around the country – is that today’s tech scions hold an immense, almost worrying power that also needs to be held to account for both its immense effect on our lives and their wildly unrealistic goals.
For those reasons and more, both Rochman and O’Connell are skeptical of our most recent technological turn – the former in careful, judicious weighing of the pros and cons of genetic tech; the latter in a funnier, more profane, and a more philosophical, ultimately more readable text on what drives transhumanism.
But in each there is a sense that there is something if not pure exactly, then irreducible about being human – a thing that might somehow be lost irrevocably by the intrusion of too much technology.
It is a common thought. Yet, there is another case to be made here: That lingering under each of these arguments is the notion that technology and humanity are not distinct ideas, but are in fact coterminous. It’s the idea of the techno-subject, the notion that all the things that make us human – at their most basic, language, and the manipulation of our environment and ourselves – are in fact technological. Rather than being two separate things, like space and time and the body and consciousness, technology and the human are two different sides of the same coin. As such, presented with an era of almost unimaginable change, the question is never really “how much technology is enough?” – but instead, at each new epoch, something altogether more difficult: that if technology is who we are, then what are we to do with ourselves now that who we are is forever changed?
Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto.