As humans, we are defined by, among other things, our desire to transcend our humanity. Mythology, religion, fiction and science offer different versions of this dream. Transhumanism – a social movement predicated on the belief that we can and should leave behind our biological condition by merging with technology – is a kind of feverish amalgamation of all four. Though it’s oriented toward the future, and is fuelled by excitable speculation about the implications of the latest science and technology, its roots can be glimpsed in ancient stories like that of the Sumerian king Gilgamesh and his quest for immortality.
In writing To Be a Machine, my book about transhumanism, my thinking on the subject was heavily influenced by the psychologist Ernest Becker’s 1974 study The Denial of Death. It’s an extraordinarily potent work of social anthropology, the underlying argument of which is that much of our culture is a reaction – variously destructive and creative – to the inadmissible fact of our own mortality. Though Becker was writing well before transhumanism existed as a movement, his book is useful in positioning it as a neurotic symptom of our inability to accept our own mortality. It’s also, more broadly, an eloquent and unsettling disquisition on the inexhaustible weirdness of the human animal.
Speaking of inexhaustible weirdness, Becker could have written an entire book about Ray Kurzweil, the futurist and director of engineering at Google who has made a career out of the elaborate evasion of the reality of death. Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology is a monumental work of religious mysticism, which has somehow managed to pass itself off as technological futurism. It is long and complex, but its premise is simple, if incredibly strange: we are on the historical cusp of a great convergence, known as the Singularity, in which artificial intelligence becomes so powerful and sophisticated that we, as humans, will merge with technology, becoming immortal godlike creatures of infinite intelligence and capability. It’s an ecstatic vision of the end of history, from which Kurzweil emerges as a chimeric amalgam of Buckminster Fuller, Steve Ballmer and John of Patmos.
Transhumanism represents a desire to obliterate the boundary between human bodies and machines, and a confusion in the first place as to the distinction between the two. Among the great books on the history of this strange and intimate relationship is Technics and Civilization, by the American historian and sociologist Lewis Mumford. Published in 1934, it’s an extraordinarily prescient polemic about the mechanisation of human life. The machine age, he argues, began not with the industrial revolution, but when humans began treating each other, and themselves, as machines. “Before inventors created engines to take the place of men,” he writes, “the leaders of men had drilled and regimented multitudes of human beings: they had discovered how to reduce men to machines.”
The transhumanist movement tends to be an overwhelmingly male racket. Writing my book, there were times when I was convinced I was excavating some specifically male neurosis about our animal nature. But one of the most enduringly fascinating pieces of writing on the future of humans and technology is Donna Haraway’s 1984 polemic “A Cyborg Manifesto”, in which she puts the sci-fi idea of the cyborg to feminist uses. “The cyborg,” she writes, “is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self. This is the self feminists must code.” Haraway’s writing is strange and occasionally impenetrable, but as a vision of a posthuman existence, it’s more radical and provocative than the business-casual mysticism of Kurzweil or any of his Silicon Valley futurist colleagues.
Don DeLillo’s novel Zero K is a haunting story about an aging billionaire who arranges for himself and his dying wife to be cryogenically preserved, in the hope of being reanimated once the technology’s been developed to allow them to live eternally. There are obvious echoes of the transhumanist movement, and the Silicon Valley cult of eternal youth and transformative technology that it feeds off, as DeLillo brilliantly captures the broader perversity of our culture’s fraught relationship with technology, and the strange apocalyptic tenor of our current moment.
• To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell (Granta Books, £9.99). To order a copy for £8.49, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.