‘Trans-humanism… the idea that we should, and that we ultimately can, use technology to become immortal.’

As heard on Today with Sean O'Rourke

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Conquering death, eternal life, the quest for immortality, they have been themes amongst writers, playwrights, artists and thinkers for millennia. And with the rise of computer technology over the 20th century, advances in medical technology, robotics, cryogenics, and other technologies, those themes have given us some memorable on-screen experiences, most recently (small spoiler alert) the critically-acclaimed Get Out.

The old adage, as cited by Sean O’Rourke on the Today programme, proposed that there were only two certainties in life: death and taxes. But, as Sean’s guest this morning discovered, a growing movement of people are hoping to make one of those less of a certainty. And they’re not talking about taxes.

‘Trans-humanism is a movement that is predicated on the idea that we should, and that we ultimately can, use technology to become immortal. To push out the boundaries of what it is to be human.’

Irish journalist, Mark O’Connell, has written a fascinating book called ‘To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death’. In it, he explores this radical but seemingly well-funded field called trans-humanism.

‘ I spent a lot of time talking to trans-humanists who are convinced that not only is death the biggest problem that humanity faces, but it is solvable, and we should solve it.’

Not a transhumanist himself, he took a clinical look at the various strands of this growing field and those who are trying to push the boundaries forward. Many are relatively young, have had huge success in technology and other enterprises, and are now looking to conquer that seemingly eternal human search: the quest for eternal life (of sorts).

In talking to many of these trans-humanists, Mark found himself defending death, saying that death was what gave life meaning. To which his trans-humanist subjects would reply, ‘No, man. You are a death-ist. You’ve got Stockholm syndrome.’

‘Despite its extremity, it reflects something quite central to our culture, this deep faith in the possibilities of technology. One of the major dimensions in my book is the ways in which technology has become a religion. It replaces what religion offered, which is this sense that we can redefine what it means to be human, and maybe even become immortal.’

Now, before you snigger, it’s worth considering who some of advocates of trans-humanism are. Amongst them, Google’s co-founders and the PayPal co-founder, Peter Thiel. Max More, who made a fortune in property, and now runs a cryogenics facility in Arizona. Randal Koene, who is working on a way to basically ‘upload’ people’s brains to computers so they could live eternally.

Let’s face it, 100 years ago, could anybody have conceived the extraordinary technological developments we have seen over the last century? Most of the technologies we now take for granted would have been considered tricks of the imagination a short period ago. Remember British sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke’s third law? ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

Whether or not trans-humanism achieves its aims, it seems to have enough subscribers to warrant further examination.

‘To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death’ is published by Granta Books. It retails at £12.99 sterling.

You can listen to the full interview with Sean O’Rourke by clicking here.

© The Listener 2017

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