To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death

Mark O'Connell


A review of transhumanist ideas by an avowed sceptic.

Transhumanism is a difficult belief system to tackle. At its more extreme end it rests on the idea of the "singularity", the point at which scientific and technological problem-solving become so advanced that any solvable problem is solvable quickly – which of course includes the "problems" of sickness, death, brain uploading, and a host of other radical ideas. (In recent years the singularity is assumed to involve super-intelligent AI, although that wasn't originally the conception, and such AI could be regarded as a consequence rather than a cause of the singularity.)

It's an easy notion to ridicule, which this book sets out to do, and does well. But the long-term notion of accelerating progress isn't as fragile as it can be made to appear. The ideas deserve a better exploration than this book attempts. It's good for laughs and for making the participants sound like either idiots or charlatans – and maybe they are, but there's also some interesting and solid science going on that goes beyond these stereotypes, beyond those seeking publicity rather than knowledge.

Finished on Sat, 15 May 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

Robert Macfarlane


A beautiful and poignant volume that's hard to categorise: part travelogue, part biography of the poet Edward Thomas, part meditation, part exploration. Macfarlane traces old footpaths, from the South Downs to the Hebrides to Palestine, reading the landscape and the marks that people have left on it. He follows the diversions as he encounters them, musing about the "pathways" in the sea that are clear and long-lived despite being written in the water, formed from the ways in which current and wind interact to lay down the "natural" route to travel before powered craft. He spends night under the stars, including a rather unnerving and supernatural encounter while sleeping (ill-advisedly, as he puts it) in a neolithic ring. And he brings out literary gems, such as the relationship between Thomas (whose work I've now been inspired to read) and Robert Frost's poem The road not taken. Altogether a delight to read.

Finished on Tue, 04 May 2021 14:00:37 -0700.   Rating 5/5.