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Mark O'Connell interview

Mark O'Connell interview

The Baillie Gifford Prize 2017 longlist

Mark O’Connell tells us most of the research for his longlisted book To Be A Machine was in the form of real world reportage and gives us a range of book recommendations which explore the desire to transcend death.

What does it feel like to be longlisted?

It feels like unbelievable good fortune, and an incredible honour. It's the thing I've only fleetingly allowed myself to imagine for the book, and here it is.

What inspired you to write this book?

The book is the product of many years of obsession with the promethean ambitions of science, with the existential difficulty of coming to terms with death, and with the transhumanist movement as a particular expression of these things. As a writer, I'm inexorably drawn to the realm of extreme metaphors, and for me transhumanism is just that: although it's a fascinating movement in itself, it's also a way of looking at the strangeness of our culture's relationship to technology, and a kind of fever-dream vision of where capitalism is going. 

How did you research?

I spent about two years, on and off, immersed in this movement in one way or another. A lot of it was reading, but most of it was in the form of good old fashioned meatspace reportage. Although the book is largely concerned with ideas, I need to see the whites of people's eyes if I'm going to write about them––or at least the glint of their Google Glasses (extremely outmoded tech reference there...) So I spent a lot of time breathing weed fumes in the basements of cyborg collectives, and doing road trips across the American South West, and wandering around cryonics facilities and so on. Aside from anything else, it was a lot of fun.

For anyone who wants to explore the subject further, which book(s) would you recommend?

I drew less from writing about transhumanism itself than I did from older books about the relationship between technology and faith, and the desire to transcend death. The Denial of Death, by the psychologist Ernest Becker, had quite an effect on me, as did Technics and Civilisation, Lewis Mumford's stunning 1934 book about the history of technology. Donna Haraway's A Cyborg Manifesto is also crucial reading on transhumanism, though she is coming at it from a much more left-wing and feminist perspective than most of the people I write about. And Katherine Hayles's book How We Became Posthuman is necessary reading on how technology has effected a disembodiment of information, and why that's extremely important for understanding the world we live in and how we relate to ourselves. And Don DeLillo's novel Zero K is about cryonics, and really nails the strangeness of this world. Although that book came out after I'd finished writing the first draft, DeLillo was a major tutelary spirit for me all along. White Noise, for instance, was always lurking somewhere in my brain when I was writing it––and it's still there now.

What would you say to someone considering cryonic preservation after visiting ALCOR's Warehouse yourself?

I would recommend having a long and frank conversation with your family, particularly if you're planning on signing over your life assurance policy to pay for it. And I would also recommend having a think about whether you want to spend a thousand years frozen in a giant thermos flask with Peter Thiel.

What are you working on next?

I'm writing a book about apocalyptic anxieties, and the various prospects for civilizational collapse. It's going to be funny, somehow, I hope.

Mark O'Connell

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