Wellcome Book Prize: To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell [Blog Tour]

Following on from my blog post on The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, I’m here today as part of the blog tour, showcasing the wonderful To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell, which is published by Granta Books.

The prize celebrates the many ways in which literature can illuminate the breadth and depth of our relationship with health, medicine and illness. If you’re not too familiar with the Wellcome Collection, then I highly recommend you check the museum out – it’s a great destination for the curious and often has intelligent, engaging and thought-provoking exhibitions on. The museum was originally established under Sir Henry’s will in 1936, and is now a global charitable foundation, which aims to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive.

Here’s a quick reminder of the other shortlisted books:

Wellcome Book Prize 2018 shortlist

The winner is set to be announced at a ceremony on Monday 30th April 2018, which is being held at The Wellcome Collection, and the prize is being judged by:

  • Hannah Critchlow, Neuroscientist, author and presenter
  • Bryony Gordon, Journalist, author and mental health campaigner
  • Edmund de Waal, Writer and Artist
  • Sumit Paul-Choudhury, Journalist
  • Sophie Ratcliffe, Writer, critic and academic 

A little more about To Be a Machine: 

tobeamachine

Transhumanism is a movement pushing the limits of our bodies–our capabilities, intelligence, and lifespans–in the hopes that, through technology, we can become something better than ourselves. It has found support among Silicon Valley billionaires and some of the world’s biggest businesses. In To Be a Machine, journalist Mark O’Connell explores the staggering possibilities and moral quandaries that present themselves when you of think of your body as a device. He visits the world’s foremost cryonics facility to witness how some have chosen to forestall death. He discovers an underground collective of biohackers, implanting electronics under their skin to enhance their senses. He meets a team of scientists urgently investigating how to protect mankind from artificial superintelligence.

Where is our obsession with technology leading us? What does the rise of AI mean not just for our offices and homes, but for our humanity? Could the technologies we create to help us eventually bring us to harm? Addressing these questions, O’Connell presents a profound, provocative, often laugh-out-loud-funny look at an influential movement. In investigating what it means to be a machine, he offers a surprising meditation on what it means to be human.

Author: Mark O’ Connell
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Granta Books

My initial thoughts: 

One thing that really draws me to To Be a Machine is that it looks at the influence technological innovations have on humanity and humanity’s future – ever since I was a young age, technology has fascinated and scared me in equal measure, so this a topic that really intrigues me. Also, in my career to date I’ve worked with a number of huge technology brands and it often astounds me that there’s no end to the use cases of new science and innovations – particularly when looking at new developments within hacking and robotics, I often end up thinking what next?

Whilst I’m yet to finish reading To Be a Machine, I’ve found it to be really thought-provoking, clever and engrossing so far. It manages to explores a really complex, and at times dark, subject matter in a chatty, candid and digestible way. I’m looking forward to finishing it off to see what the rest of the book holds.

Today I’ve also got an extract of To Be a Machine – read on and enjoy:

A broad definition: transhumanism is a liberation movement advocating nothing less than a total emancipation from biology itself. There is another way of seeing this, an equal and opposite interpretation, which is that this apparent liberation would in reality be nothing less than a final and total enslavement to technology. We will be bearing both sides of this dichotomy in mind as we proceed. For all the extremity of transhumanism’s aims—the convergence of technology and flesh, for instance, or the uploading of minds into machines—the above dichotomy seemed to me to express something fundamental about the particular time in which we find ourselves, in which we are regularly called upon to consider how technology is changing everything for the better, to acknowledge the extent to which a particular app or platform or device is making the world a better place.

If we have hope for the future—if we think of ourselves as having such a thing as a future—it is predicated in large part on what we might accomplish through our machines. In this sense, transhumanism is an intensification of a tendency already inherent in much of what we think of as mainstream culture, in what we may as well go ahead and call capitalism. And yet the inescapable fact of this aforementioned moment in history is that we, and these machines of ours, are presiding over a vast project of annihilation, an unprecedented destruction of the world we have come to think of as ours. The planet is, we are told, entering a sixth mass extinction: another Fall, another expulsion. It seems very late in the day, in this dismembered world, to be talking about a future. One of the things that drew me to this movement, therefore, was the paradoxical force of its anachronism. For all that transhumanism presented itself as resolutely oriented toward a vision of a world to come, it felt to me almost nostalgically evocative of a human past in which radical optimism seemed a viable position to take with respect to the future. In the way it looked forward, transhumanism seemed, somehow, always to be facing backward. The more I learned about transhumanism, the more I came to see that, for all its apparent extremity and strangeness, it was nonetheless exerting certain formative pressures on the culture of Silicon Valley, and thereby the broader cultural imagination of technology. Transhumanism’s influence seemed perceptible in the fanatical dedication of many tech entrepreneurs to the ideal of radical life extension—in the PayPal cofounder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel’s funding of various life extension projects, for instance, and in Google’s establishment of its biotech subsidiary Calico, aimed at generating solutions to the problem of human aging. And the movement’s influence was perceptible, too, in Elon Musk’s and Bill Gates’s and Stephen Hawking’s increasingly vehement warnings about the prospect of our species’ annihilation by an artificial superintelligence, not to mention in Google’s instatement of Ray Kurzweil, the high priest of the Technological Singularity, as its director of engineering.

I saw the imprint of transhumanism in claims like that of Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who suggested that “Eventually, you’ll have an implant, where if you just think about a fact, it will tell you the answer.” These men—they were men, after all, almost to a man—all spoke of a future in which humans would merge with machines. They spoke, in their various ways, of a posthuman future—a future in which techno-capitalism would survive its own inventors, finding new forms in which to perpetuate itself, fulfill its promise.

Have you read any books on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist? Which one do you think will win this year? 

You can catch the other blog posts on the tour, here:

wellcometour.jpg

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