Drones and Dreamers: On Mark O'Connell's “To Be a Machine” and Corey Pein's “Live Work Work Work Die”
Mark O’Connell | To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death | Doubleday | February 28, 2017 | 256 Pages
Corey Pein | Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley | Metropolitan Books | April 24, 2018 | 320 Pages
Transhumanists take their work more seriously than the odd piece of news coverage suggests. Their movement, transhumanism, attempts to improve upon the biological limitations of homo sapiens, hence the name that means “beyond human.” It sounds radical, alien, and scary. However, when you hold up Mark O’Connell’s To Be A Machine and Corey Pein’s Live Work Work Work Die before this project, a new image emerges. Instead of being a movement that heads beyond humanity, transhumanism transforms into an attempt to regain one’s humanity in a dehumanising society.
Mark O’Connell delivers on the promise his book’s title makes, To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death. It practically serves as a summary for the book. After the birth of his son causes him to realize that mortality is a pretty grim bargain, Mark O’Connell becomes fascinated by transhumanism and sets about meeting the big names, creating a transhumanist “who’s who” in the process. However, he deviates from the many takes on transhumanism, which can to go along the lines of “This is the future” or “Hey! Check out this weird thing.” O’Connell writes To Be a Machine in a gonzo manner that is sympathetic to the transhumanists. Instead of alienating the movement, he frames his understanding of transhumanism as the fundamentally human need to be more than human replaying itself. It is the desire that fuels The Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of The Fall and Christianity’s redemption narrative.
He first sees this expression of humanity through transhumanism when we meet Dr. Anders Sandberg, a fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford who works on the ethics of whole brain emulation and human enhancement. O’Connell originally wanted to meet him because the way Sandberg was depicted in the documentary that O’Connell saw was a “slightly chilling figure making priestly gestures of technological benediction.” However, upon meeting him, O’Connell was struck by how, “[Sandberg] seemed not just older, but less machine like, more fascinatingly human in his desire to be a machine.” In fact, O’Connell is repeatedly struck by this apparent paradox. We meet Max More, the CEO of the cryopreserving facility Alcor, Tim Cannon, a biohacker based in Pittsburgh, the gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, and many others who all spout rhetoric about becoming more than human, but seem to become so much more human in the process.
As the names passed by, I had to pause for a second. If they became more fascinatingly human in their desire to become machines, then they were presumably less human beforehand. After flipping back and forth for a bit, the paradox tightened. As the transhumanists became human in their drive to become a machine, it became more and more apparent that they were also mere machines when they were lowly homines sapientes.
Behind all of the theories of transhumanism sit a cluster of mechanical metaphors. Even non-transhumanists employs them when they say that they’re “letting off steam” or preach about the necessity of “networking.” These metaphors betray a mechanist view of the human body that evolved into the core premise with which the various outlets of transhumanism work: we are all devices and our destiny is to become better versions of these devices. The moment Mark O’Connell had this epiphany was while he was trawling through the website of the OS Fund, a Bay Area venture capital fund with the professed goal to invest in “‘entrepreneurs working towards quantum leap discourses that promise to rewrite the operating systems of life.’”
These metaphors, like “the operating system of life,” give the context for the transhumanist project. They also upgrade the traditional divide between mind and body. O’Connell comments on this by suggesting that the people who work on brain emulation consider the mind to be a piece of software or an application. This is actually rather important, as it shows how the apparent paradox of becoming human by becoming a machine doesn’t exist. Instead, we have to revisit transhumanism. It literally means beyond human and many transhumanists talk about moving beyond humanity. However, the movement replays the traditional, religious narrative that separates humanity from homo sapiens, the interpretive and cultural being from the biological one.
So that’s it, right? Transhumanism redeploys a cultural narrative that used to be conducted by religion. Well, no. The issue is that in the opening pages of To Be a Machine, O’Connell notes that transhumanism offers two interpretations: a positive one and a negative one. Tranhumanism presents itself as an act of emancipation from the body and all its inconveniences, like death and decisions informed by irrational emotions. Conversely, one could take it as the total enslavement to technology. Of course, both are true. It just depends where you are situated.
Unsurprisingly, the difference is based in your socio-economic position. As transhumanism replays traditional religious narratives, it also replays the fact that the hope these narratives promise is largely given to the people whose social or economic status allows them to indulge in such hopes. When O’Connell visits the lecture Dr. Anders Sandberg was delivering to the futurist salon called the London Futurists, he sees “a small group composed of mainly men, arranged in a tiered seating in a room in Bloomsbury, there to listen to another man talk about the future.” Everything has changed. We are now interested in uploading our brains into a computer, thus achieving a type of “Singularity”. And nothing has changed, as the people who are interested in transcendence are rich men.
If To Be a Machine treats its subject with a sympathetic understanding, Corey Pein’s attitude in Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley is more antagonistic. His beautifully sardonic images always paints the Silicon Valley techies as some inhuman other. At the beginning of his capture on perks, he invokes them saying, “[The tech workers’] industry was the alien invader that consumed everything it touched. Its radioactive presence may have sterilised the outside world, stifling organic life in all forms, but inside the warm embrace of the mothership, the worker drones had comfort, stimulation and plenty.” Barely a page is spared from this vitriol.
Pein’s point in doing this is to show how far removed these cutthroat libertarians are from our society. To the native Bay Area residents, the influx of mostly white, suburban, middle-class male tech workers is an alien invasion. But with Facebook, Google and other companies embedding themselves into our lives, our cultural axis has shifted to Silicon Valley. As tech startups disrupt aspects of society with a model Pein describes as doing legally on the web what would be illegal to do in real life, they leave us to organize society around them and their visions. Uber worked because the online gig economy model did not require the same accountability as the traditional hired car service, and now it is one of the most pervasive forms of transportation. The alien has made itself our home.
Live Work Work Work Die situates itself as the story of a have-not. He frames his the goal of his project as a plan to make an absurd amount of money with a startup in Silicon Valley in 2015 and to write a book detailing how he succeeded. Spoiler alert: he fails. His failure shifts the focus of his project to a gonzo-journalist look at the socio-economic structure of Silicon Valley in a manner that is very reminiscent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The structure of the book’s analysis follows an upwards movement from the new startup immigrant to a glimpse of those who made it. The final chapter, the pinnacle of Silicon Valley, deals with the subject of transhumanism, specifically the Singularity, a theoretical point where all biological life will be absorbed into a single computer processed consciousness. As I said, the attitude he takes to this is rather antagonistic. In another example of his splurges of scorn, it became clear to him that “beneath all the claptrap about conscious capitalism — the latest buzzword for ‘mission-driven’ corporations — and saving the world, blah blah blah, there lurked a tenebrous techie will to power.” It is a view that is looking up at those who could easily afford to be cryogenically preserved from the position of one who is struggling to just survive.
So the juxtaposition of To Be a Machine and Live Work Work Work Die puts together a picture that portrays the negative as well as the positive interpretation of transhumanism. In case Pein’s screeds had not made it obvious, his interpretation is the negative one.
Corey Pein’s work adds a more nuanced view of the picture of transhumanism than just a simple compare and contrast composition. When read next to To Be a Machine, the tech workers in Pein’s account occupy a doubly alien space. Obviously, the average techie does not have the glamour of Max More or Ray Kurzweil, one of the biggest prophets of the Singularity. They are, however, steeped in the philosophy that runs rampant throughout the Bay Area. In fact, they work closer with the technology that fuels the futurists’ metaphors than many of the futurists themselves. So, as Pein observes them, they display both a drone-like mentality and the impotent aspiration to become human, or at least something more than just a cog in the machine.
The aspirational nature of these workers becomes the most apparent in their desire to not be a worker. Yet another one of Pein’s rants begins over the first question they ask each other: “What is your space?” The way most people would phrase this is “What do you do?” The difference in the question carries over to a difference in the answer. “If,” Pein explains, “you flipped hamburgers all day, you wouldn’t say ‘I’m a fry cook,’ you’d say ‘I’m in the carbonised protein space.’” The latter does not imply that you actually do anything, whereas the former is burdened by its greasy connotations. It is also a weaker phrase. If you say you are in a space, you still sound as if you have your agency. If you are just a worker though, the job dominates your identity. The impression a space gives is more like the domain of a god than a job.
Fortunately for them, the job market accommodates this denial. Instead of having to be a coder or a programmer, they had to opportunity to announce themselves as “Java Legends,” “Python Badasses,” or “Hadoop Heroes.” Walking around DevWeek, a conference where thousands of companies show up to hire developers, Pein reflects on how “[West Coast techies] could only face themselves in the mirror if their business card proved that they were rockstars or ninjas or something romantic and brave and individualistic — anything but the truth, anything but a drone.” They are a drone because underneath all of the perks their jobs afford them, they are still slotting themselves into a grueling routine that they will never question.
Drone is the operative word. When Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, demonstrated how well Google Assistant could mimic a human’s speaking patterns, some people expressed concern over the way it was designed to deceive humans by sounding as human as possible. However, there is the equal and opposite issue of what happens to humanity when we can just automate it, or at least give it the appearance of automation. Recently, The Guardian ran a piece describing how startups that boast their use of AI sometimes employ people to pretend to be AI during the development period. However, its allure has spread from the startups, which have to appear cutting edge, to the international arrivals section of JFK Airport. As a jet-lagged passenger, you step into a large room filled with boxy machines that compare the picture of you on your documentation with your haggard face. They then spit out the photo of your haggard face which a TSA agent must then compare to both the photo from your documentation and your face. It’s only after you stumble towards the baggage claim that you realize that the facial recognition technology that was employed was pointless.
The showy but ultimately pointless technology employed in the illusion of automation exhibits our true feelings to those who make society run. They are hidden until a set of algorithms are ready, and then they are replaced altogether. While watching the impressive displays of robot athleticism at DARPA, Mark O’Connell muses on how the term robot really just means “forced labour,” and so the robot carries out the logic of techno-capitalism to its conclusion. Rather than seizing the means of production, the labour force itself is seized. But as long as they are there, they must be as invisible as possible. In effect, they are the machine against which humanity is defined. It is this condition that Corey Pein’s description of tech workers captures in his aptly titled Live Work Work Work Die.
The story that these two books make when placed together is that of the fallen state of humanity is essentially an owned machine from which the transhumanists seek to escape. Individually, To Be a Machine and Live Work Work Work Die are insightful and delightfully written. Together, though, they present a message that is more important than just a passing interest in transhumanists or the opportunities a tech worker in San Francisco actually has. Working as a TSA agent does not require an interest in any of this, but they are still affected by the cultural tentacles that are clawing its way out of the Bay Area. The ideas and structures Mark O’Connell and Corey Pein encounter do affect us. They lay out the automatizing logic of a world keen on automatizing us and in its reflection of people trying desperately to become human, we must see how we are human ourselves.