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Slipping the Mortal Coil

Irish debut author Mark O’Connell has won the Wellcome book prize, the Guardian reports, for his exploration of transhumanism, a movement that seeks to use technology to solve “the modest problem of death”, as O’Connell puts it.

To Be a Machine won the £30,000 award, which goes to the best work of fiction or non-fiction to “illuminate the many ways that health and medicine touch our lives”, at a ceremony in London last night. O’Connell’s book saw off competition that included the Nigerian author Ayòbámi Adébáyò, nominated for Stay With Me, a novel about sickle cell disease, and Sigrid Rausing’s memoir about the impact of addiction on her family, Mayhem.

Chair of judges Edmund de Waal called To Be a Machine a “passionate, entertaining and cogent examination of those who would choose to live for ever”.

Reviewing To Be a Machine in the Dublin Review of Books in May last year, Matthew Parkinson-Bennett wrote that according to John Locke there were only two possible ways of explaining human consciousness: either we are lumps of matter that are somehow able to think and reflect or we are immaterial, thinking entities that have somehow found ourselves attached to lumps of matter.

The first possibility raises the question how consciousness comes to be a property of what Locke’s contemporary Newton termed “brute and stupid” matter. In modern terms, if all the stuff that makes up the universe was spat out at the Big Bang, and has been morphing through different forms and arrangements ever since, how is it that some of that stuff gained awareness of its own existence, came to possess the power of thought? On the other hand, to hold the second position, what philosopher Gilbert Ryle called “the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine”, we will have to account for how it is that this immaterial mind-substance occupies and interacts with material bodies. What keeps the mind and body together? Why don’t my mind and yours swap bodies?

But what exactly is “transhumanism”? It is, writes O’Connell, “the belief that we can and should eradicate aging as a cause of death; that we can and should use technology to augment our bodies and our minds; that we can and should merge with machines ...”

Those at war with death and the frailty of the body come from a range of positions: there are those who undergo surgery to attach powerful implants to their limbs; others target the signs of aging (by means more effectual, one hopes, than skin creams) while others are still betting on cryonics, a twentieth-century fad which sees the bereaved freezing the bodies of their recently deceased loved ones in the hope that science will sound find a way to bring them back.

But the really big dreamers of transhumanism, writes Parkinson-Bennett

are the proponents of the meat-free option. They see the body as an outmoded device, last era’s technology, and plan to liberate the mind from its sub-optimal hardware. It must be admitted that compared to a computer, the brain is a clunky old thing: “Neurons … fire at a rate of 200 hertz … whereas transistors operate at the level of gigahertz. Signals travel through the nervous system at a speed of about 100 meters per second, whereas computer signals can travel at the speed of light.” So they aim to “emulate” the human mind “on a third-party non-flesh-based substrate” – in other words, upload it to a computer. Serious energy and money is spent in pursuit of “the ideal of extracting the minds of individuals from the material – flesh, blood, neural tissue – in which they have traditionally been embedded”. I love O’Connell’s “traditionally” in that sentence: it captures the transhuman attitude to the passé human form. These are secularists for whom the body is a temple to be desecrated.

Mind and body are all very well, he adds, but didn’t there used to be a third thing? Oh yes. “the name we give to that part of us which is irreducible and beyond price, what makes a human human”. Perhaps, Parkinson-Bennett concludes, “we will transcend our bodies, upload our minds and live forever – but we should remain wary of selling our souls”.

To Be a Machine is available as a Granta Books paperback.