Book Reviews

#1771. To Be A Machine, Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death. (2016). Mark O’Connell. Toronto: Doubleday. 256 pp. Price: $ 15.59.  ISBN: 978-0-385-54041-4

Anne M. London

College of Community and Public Service Undergraduate Advising Center

Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, MI

In “To Be a Machine” Mark O’Connell examines the phenomenon known as transhumanism. Transhumanism is a liberation movement advocating a total emancipation from biology where future humans would merge with machines (p. 6). The thought system behind this movement is that the universal application of technology will solve the world’s most intractable problems (p. 70). According to this philosophy, technology would give humans complete power over their own health, life, and ultimately, their fate.

Transhumanists believe that society would benefit as a whole from artificial intelligence. This would be due to enhancing less intelligent people to think like the highest intelligent people in a society. Some supporters of this movement believe that humanity is a burden and that humans should be released from their humanity (p. 75).  According to another supporter (p. 42), if we want to be more than mere animals, we should embrace technology’s potential to make us more machine-like.  The concept of transhumanism was not solely portrayed in a negative light throughout O’Connell’s book. There were some positive aspects of transhumanism that were highlighted throughout O’Connell’s work.

Some of the advantages focused on health care. For example, one of the movement’s goals would be to create the option to have parts of the human brain replaced that were not working efficiently, thus improving quality of life. Other advantages included the study of military transhumanism and the interest in giving computers and machinery more human intuition. O’Connell in his work did not just interview those who supported transhumanism, but several who were vehemently opposed to it, like Miguel Nicolelis, a Duke University professor. Nicolelis (p. 56) believed that the idea of simulating a human mind was fundamentally at odds with the dynamic nature of brain activity due to the brain not being computable. Those in opposition to the movement also claim that transhumanism broaches gentrification and eugenics in some of the presented theories.

O’Connell’s experiences with transhumanists did not persuade him support the movement, but gave him a different perspective about those who invest time, resources, and emotion to this concept. His openness to learn more about a culture and belief system that was different from his own proved to be inspiring.  His in-depth look into this movement provides a unique opportunity to learn more about transhumanism from an impartial source and the advantages and disadvantages associated with it. This book, although well written, humorous and interesting, would likely not be a recommended resource for general academic advisors.   

Although it is difficult to connect the concept of Academic Advising with the books’ overall theme, there are important conversational topics in which advisors and faculty could potentially engage in with their students. O’Connell’s work may be interesting to those working in higher education with students in the healthcare, engineering, sociology, philosophy, and social justice and human rights fields. This book could provide an avenue for an interesting small group discussion or common read for the classroom. Discussions could potentially range from technological advances to whether or not the transhumanism movement supports those who are privileged enough to afford these potential advances.

Posted in: 2017 Book Reviews
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