To Be A Machine


Mark O’Connell, Doubleday, 241 pages, $26.95. The titans of Silicon Valley technology in “To Be a Machine”— Peter Thiel, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and others — are obsessed by the desire for immortality, and their fixation leads them to pursue a host of science projects: uploading the brain’s contents into computers, cryopreservation, radical life extension. We meet a multitude of colorful characters: Aubrey de Grey, with his two-foot beard, who runs the nonprofit SENS Research Foundation dedicated to finding a way for people to live to 1,000 and then avoid death altogether; Max More, the proprietor of Alcor, a cryopreservation facility in Phoenix that for $80,000 will detach and store your head in “medical-grade antifreeze” — after you die, of course. The book is a wonderful, breezy romp filled with the beginnings of philosophical reflections on the meaning of the techno-utopians’ search for immortality, or as O’Connell puts it, “solving death.” He feels no attraction to their philosophy and notes that his child playing horsy with his wife could not be “rendered in code,” but he fails to translate that feeling into a coherent social or ethical critique. This limitation may be most manifest in O’Connell’s failure to mention one of the most disturbing aspects of this immortality mania: its utter selfishness. With all those old Peter Thiels living forever, the Earth would lack the carrying capacity for more people; there would be total resource limits precluding adding one more infant. Maybe this is why the titans of technology want so badly to escape to Mars.