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Mark O’Connell’s Journey Among the Immortalists

The author hit the road to interview those among us who think they can live forever

(Richard Gilligan/Penguin Random House)
(Richard Gilligan/Penguin Random House)

Few people want to die. Nevertheless, like taxes and The Big Bang Theory reruns, death is an inevitability of the modern human condition. It’s the status quo. And tech-sector eccentrics adore little more than disrupting the status quo, which is why Slate books columnist Mark O’Connell zagged from a dingy warehouse full of surly biohackers in Pittsburgh to various Bay Area dive bars to a tour bus shaped like a coffin, surveying America’s subcultures devoted to living forever. The result is To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, a travelogue through the well-funded fringe communities seeking to live forever.

O’Connell’s book is skeptical but not cynical, and it functions as a witty overview of transhumanism, a movement defined by the desire to use technology to enhance and eventually transcend the mortal body, as well as a meditation on how people deal with death. Last summer, I attended an immortality conference, and my experience there made To Be a Machine mandatory reading.

Many of the same people I saw at the conference showed up as subjects of O’Connell’s book, including excessively bearded scientist Aubrey de Grey, who has proclaimed that the first person who will live to be 1,000 years old is alive today. There’s also hardbody transhumanist Max More, who sells the chance to live forever as the CEO of the Arizona-based cryonics company Alcor, which charges people to freeze their bodies and brains, with the assumption that science will figure out a way to revive them later.

I called up O’Connell, who lives in Dublin, to learn more about what happened on his raucous reporting journey for To Be a Machine. This interview has been edited and condensed.

One of the reasons I loved your book is that it uses philosophy, literature, and mythology to illustrate the ideas that transhumanists and life extensionists have. Even though they can seem like new-fangled science-fiction, they’re really manifestations of the old human desire to live forever. I know you have a background in writing about literature, so I’m curious what sparked your interest to go on this journey of writing about transhumanism and life-extension movements, specifically?

I was intrigued by this stuff for a really long time before it occurred to me that I might be able to write a book about it. I used to work for a magazine in Ireland, years ago, after I left college. I stumbled across transhumanism on some website and I wrote a short piece about it. I went back and read it while I was writing the book, and it’s a frivolous, crappy piece — you know the pieces you wrote years ago and you’re kind of ashamed of — but it never went away, I was always thinking about the topic.

I don’t want to say I’m preoccupied with death, but, like everyone else, I think about it a lot. I think about how weird it is that we’re alive and dying, and we all know this is happening to us, and we don’t ignore it, but we sublimate it in various ways. I like literature that approaches that. Not only does transhumanism come from the same place as religion, but a lot of art comes from the same place as well. It’s this sense that this is unacceptable; it’s a bullshit situation that we have to die.

I think what’s weird and interesting and crazy about transhumanism is that, while I don’t want to characterize it as very American, it has this American, can-do, capitalist attitude, where you roll up your sleeves and you attack the problem and throw money at it and think, “We can do this thing.” [The book] rolled together all these things I was fascinated with anyways, like salesmanship. There’s a lot of really great, eccentric salesmen in the movement. I’ve always been drawn to people who are great at selling stuff. And I think the salesmanship aesthetic is very American, and I’m interested in that aspect of American culture. It was a way to write about America that wasn’t just “European guy goes to America and just walks around in wide-eyed bafflement at American culture,” but a way that was more oblique and specific than that.

I attended an immortality conference last year, and I found it upsetting how much of the immortality movement that I saw on that weekend was focused around buying products and services. I saw people who seemed like true believers, but at the same time they were also selling stuff. It made me concerned that it was just a big grift. I was wondering, since you met with a lot of the same people, like [transhumanist presidential candidate] Zoltan Istvan and Max More, what you think of their motivations. Do you think most of them are true believers?

There were moments where I felt it was just a sales pitch, a grift. But I think the true salesman is someone who is not a grifter. They believe absolutely in what they’re selling. I don’t think, on any level, for any of those people, it’s just snake oil. I think it goes much deeper than that, and in a very personal way they’re obsessed with these technologies and possibilities. In a way they are unable to see the extent to which it looks like a bunch of baloney to most people. But it is fascinating how smoothly this stuff segues into money-making.

Peter Thiel is not a huge figure in my book. I never met with him, and he’s mostly lurking in the background throughout the book, but in almost all of the major technologies that I looked into, his money was there, or thereabouts. I think he sees a way to make massive amounts of money with all of these technologies. Whether he’s right or not, I have no idea. It’s definitely that, but it’s also a true belief that this is a way to address the problems of the human condition. And I think that’s the truth for most of these people. I’ve never met anyone who was at once such an amazing salesman and someone who clearly believes absolutely in everything he’s selling as Aubrey de Grey. So, yeah, I think the two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

Aubrey de Grey ended up moving from London to Silicon Valley because it was a better culture fit for his life-extension project. A lot of time in the book is spent in Silicon Valley, and it seems like a hub for transhumanism and the life-extension movement. I think that follows from the overall Silicon Valley culture of techno-utopianism. Did your feelings about Silicon Valley’s culture change over the course of this book? Did you become more of a believer or more of a skeptic as you were researching?

I’m not sure I’d be comfortable saying it went in either direction completely. I went into it definitely very skeptical. But I also really did not want to go in with a skeptical attitude and come out having my skepticism confirmed. I wanted to emerge slightly different from the experience of reporting and writing the book than I went in. I don’t know if that actually happened. I’d love to be converted to radical techno-optimism, but it was never going to happen. I’m not wired that way, to use a slightly transhumanist-sounding term. But I wanted to at least be open to the possibility. While my attitude never really changed, I became more open to people who have those attitudes. I could see what it meant to them, whereas before I would have just seen a bunch of rubes or grifters or wide-eyed, naïve optimists. In every case I saw something much more complex than that, much more human and sophisticated and messy.

I both loved and was afraid of your discussion of artificial intelligence, where you go over how some of the figures in the book believe that AI is a potential key to immortality, since it could possibly allow people to upload their consciousness. But then you talk to other people who believe that AI could destroy humanity, because the artificial intelligence would end up killing humans as part of its programming imperative. And those are such different, extreme conclusions of what AI can do.

You get people who believe both at the same time. Which is not completely irrational. But you get people who think that AI could or very likely will destroy us all. Most of them believe if that doesn’t happen, we’ll be set — we’ll be uploaded to the cloud and be powerful and intelligent and it’ll be great. We just have to forestall the annihilation issue.

That’s a really strong example of where I would be speaking to people who were incredibly rational, and in most cases were so far ahead of my intelligence that I could barely keep up, but at the same time I was thinking, “This is crazy, and these people are nuts.” As a journalist, it’s kind of uncomfortable to be the dumbest person in the room, but there were so many situations when I was writing that book where I felt like a bit of a dud. I probably should’ve done a crash course in basic coding or formal logic before I embarked on the book. Didn’t happen.

In the chapter “The Wanderlodge of Eternal Life” you describe riding around in a coffin-shaped tour bus with Zoltan Istvan, who is this transhumanist figurehead. You also describe Roen Horn, Zoltan’s sidekick, who is saving himself for a sex bot. He doesn’t eat or drink that much, and I was honestly not sure if he was going to be OK based on your depiction of him. I’m wondering if you kept in touch.

We’re friends on Facebook, and I’ve talked to him since. That chapter was excerpted on The New York Times Magazine [February 9], so I know he read that. You’re always wary of how people will react to their depictions, and people might read about Roen in the book and in the excerpt and think, “Wow, this guy is off the charts completely.” So I wondered if he was going to see a distorted version of himself in that depiction. You try not to do that, but it’s impossible not to reflect people in different ways than they see themselves. But he was fine with it! He thought it was good promotion for his eternal life racket. He’s still doing what he was doing when I hung out with him. He’s still doing the Eternal Life Fan Club and he’s living with his parents.

He subsequently, and this shouldn’t have surprised me at all, but he became a really vocal Trump supporter at a certain point after the election, after the coffin-bus episode. He’s a very eccentric guy who knows what his motivations were, but at some point he started to see Trump as the vehicle who will deliver eternal life. I think he’s still there; I’m not sure. He seems to have adopted his philosophy to the current political climate.

Maybe he’s taking his cues from Peter Thiel.

Who knows, if you’re susceptible to the sales pitch of eternal life, you might certainly be open to the pitch of making America great again.

What’s your relationship like with the other people you wrote about in the book? Was Zoltan happy with his depiction in the New York Times Magazine excerpt?

Yes, Zoltan was super happy; he was delighted. He’s obviously a guy who likes to promote himself in whatever way he can. You try to represent someone as accurately as you can, and there are certain comic elements to Zoltan as a person that you can’t ignore. There was always the possibility that he’d be uncomfortable with it, but he was thrilled. So that’s good. I’m not sure what his next move is, I think he’s doing quite well [from the] self-promotion that he’s getting from the tour, so he’ll continue to capitalize on that. There may be more political gambits.

As far as the other people I wrote about, I haven’t really been in touch with them since stopping reporting beyond checking up on things here and there. I don’t really do that. It’s not like I spent all that much time with them. I wasn’t living with any particular person for a long period of time. I’d hope that they’re not going to be disgusted about it, or sue me or my publishers, but you never know. People have different reactions to things.

I want to talk about the grinder community [a group of people who want to augment their bodies with technology to live extended or infinite lives as cyborgs]. When you went to Pittsburgh to meet biohackers, I thought it was interesting that the grinder subculture seems a lot grittier and DIY-focused and much less into the idea of courting corporate interests and Peter Thiel than, say, the artificial intelligence research community. Do you have any theories on why the grinders are less interested in going corporate, why they’re rougher around the edges?

Grinders are inherently quite extreme people. They’re dedicated, and they were much different from the other transhumanists I’d met. Most of the people I spent time with were very scientific people, and they had much more in common with any other kind of scientist than with the grinders. They’re an anomaly within transhumanism. They don’t have that much connection to the overall movement; they’re not really that big a part of the community. They do call themselves transhumanists, but they’re sort of punk. What they’re doing is literally and physically so extreme. They get a kick out of that in the same way extreme body-piercing people would. So there’s a visceral element to it that’s absent from transhumanism more generally. The DIY element attracts a particular kind of person, and the personalities were completely different. I guess most transhumanists are fascinated by the idea of grinders and becoming cyborgs but they don’t want to do the disgusting stuff, where you put a giant whatever under your skin. I regretted not getting to see implants being done. That would’ve been a thing I missed out on in the book, but I’m kind of glad I didn’t as well. I’m sort of squeamish.

I was going to ask, what would it take for you to get technology implanted in your body?

I did think about it. At a certain point I thought it might be a good thing for the book, if I had that kind of extreme, edgy experience. But I don’t think I cared about the book that much, to be honest.

I don’t think you needed to get cut open for it. I’ve seen photographs of [book subject Tim Cannon’s body-monitoring] implant and they still haunt my dreams.

It was enough for me, in terms of extreme experiences, to see video of Tim getting the implant done. I mean, people have done it. In a way it’s an obvious thing for a writer to do, and I think a guy who wrote for Vice did that, and a German magazine. So I didn’t go down that road, nor would I have, probably. I would’ve come up with some medical excuse.

On the other end of the spectrum of people you interviewed, you went to a religious service for a group called Terasem. They don’t do anything to their bodies, but they believe in the spiritual side of transhumanism. I’m not sure where the meeting was happening. Was it in a church? How parallel was it to a traditional mosque or church or temple experience?

It was in a room in a veteran’s hall in Piedmont, California, which is where a transhumanist conference I was at was happening. I’d been at the thing all day, and although this part comes late in the book, it was the first bit of reporting I did. So, it was my first experience with actual transhumanism. It’d been a really long day, and the conference was mostly quite boring, as conferences tend to be, and it was 9 o’clock and I was thinking about getting out of there when the organizer told me that the Terasem thing was happening. We were in this makeshift room, and it was nothing like an actual religious meeting I’ve ever been to, but my experience with religion is exclusively Catholicism and the Church of Ireland, where it’s grandiose. I imagine it might have something in common with Protestant church meetings, maybe Quakerism, in an odd way. It was one of the weirdest experiences I had writing the book. And it was the first thing that I did.

Did anyone else you talked to while reporting ever bring Terasem up? Did it seem like something most transhumanists even knew about? I went to its website and it hadn’t been updated recently. The only updates from 2016 were posts that say “Hacked By GeNErAL.”

That was one of the things I noticed early on, that transhumanists are a group that is so deeply embedded in the culture of technology and futurism, but their websites are universally shitty and bad. The web design looks like it was made in the late 1990s and left to fester. It is surprisingly low-tech. But yeah, it’s very niche, even within the overall niche of transhumanism it’s a tiny niche. The conference [about religion and transhumanism] I went to was very badly attended, because while the overlap between transhumanism and religion does exist, within the movement it’s taboo. They in no way want to be connected to religion, they don’t want to be seen as a cult at all, so things like Terasem are sort of noncanonical, if you know what I mean.

At the same time, Terasem comes from the writings and philosophies of [biotechnology CEO and Sirius XM founder] Martine Rothblatt, who is a significant figure in transhumanism. She’s a very wealthy woman who funds a lot of transhumanist endeavors, so it’s not completely obscure. People are curious about it, but it’s so obviously out there, even within the context of transhumanism. I could never get a grip on what it was, and I think my complete bafflement is obvious in the book. I had no idea what was happening in that meeting, and I don’t think anyone else does either. I don’t even think the guy who was holding the meeting knew what was happening. And it’s so full of obvious nonsense language, with no reference to anything in the world, that it was almost like a parody of religion in a way that was completely sincere.

I’m curious how involved Martine is now in Terasem. Did you try to talk to her?

I reached out a couple times but never heard anything back. There was a big profile in New York magazine around the same time I started writing, and it was amazing. But I didn’t get to meet her, and it’s a shame, but at the same time she didn’t quite fit into any of the major things I was hoping to look at in the book. There were a couple people I tried to talk to who just weren’t into it, like Peter Thiel. You can imagine the channels you have to go [through] to get to him. I didn’t hear back from him at all. [Ray] Kurzweil wasn’t into talking either. Fair enough! I was always more interested in talking to the less-prominent people anyways.

I was also wondering if you had any luck talking to anyone who worked for Google’s life-extension wing, Calico. I’ve tried many times to get them to talk to me and have never had success.

Nor did I, so it’s not just you. It seems like a closed shop. They have no need to talk to the press. I guess they will at some point, when they have something to sell, but that’s probably very far off. There was some writing around the margins, because Calico is the most interesting thing happening in that area. It sucks not to be able to write about that in a direct way. But I would’ve been getting their media pitch anyways, and that’s not interesting.

I’d always rather talk to regular employees instead of the press people. It’s the only way to get information.

I guess I could’ve gotten a car and driven up there and broken the door down. Maybe a better journalist would go do that, but I never got to that.

I think that would have been a really quick way to get arrested.

But it might have been interesting for the book!