In February 2014, there was a terrifying scene outside of the Mountain View swallowing Googleplex. A “protest” was happening outside of Google’s shiny, cyclist-friendly Castle Doom and among the demonstrators, Jason Xu held a sign that read: “Google, please solve death.”
This scene, and the concurrent one happening in New York City’s Union Square, where Sarah Jordan Amechazurra held a sign identical to Xu’s, is expertly framed and discussed in the Irish writer Mark O’Connell’s book To Be a Machine. The book has recently been shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction, one of the world’s richest non-fiction prizes with a reward of £30,000. These people were, and presumably still are, transhumanists – people who believe that “the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.” The ultimate hope for transhumanism is immortality, an endgame in which Silicon Valley luminaries such as Peter Thiel and Google’s Ray Kurzweil invest heavily. The terror of this, the “first ever street action for transhumanism in the United States,” was twofold: first was the nature of the request, something O’Connell was right in calling “less a protest than a supplication, a prayer,” and then was the idea of everyday people having faith that Kurzweil and his Google colleagues would share the secret to “solving” death with the rest of us if it was ever discovered.
There is a problem in modern discourse where tech companies are framed as something other than the everyday capitalist enterprises that they are. There is the usual veneration of the industry kingpins for their job creation, as if a living is something for them to bestow upon us mortals, yet they are talked about in different breaths from regular businessmen. They are great saviours, descended from Ivy Leagues to harness the potential of technology and make everybody’s lives infinitely better through what O’Connell calls “a kind of trickle-down economics of intelligence.” There is a perceived rationality to faith in science and technology, that these are fact-based things, so they must be apolitical and could never be used as instruments in class warfare. O’Connell is right to invoke Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment and their “argument… that the progress of scientific rationalism was always a progress toward tyranny.” While it is true that technology has the potential to vastly improve the everyday lives of all people, this is also true of more traditional industries such as housing or healthcare; if the millionaires and billionaires who control them show no real interest in bettering the working class experience – or indeed eliminating the idea of class existence – why do people expect any different from the gatekeepers of technology?
Xu et al. were doing what too many people have been doing with tech companies or personalities like Google, Thiel, or Elon Musk: they were undertaking the capitalistic bastardisation of the already-bad idea of God-Building. Developed by the Bolshevik Anatoly Lunacharsky – an ally of Lenin rival Alexander Bogdanov, who, coincidentally, died after contracting malaria from the kind of experimental blood transfusions aimed at lengthening lifespan that Thiel is reported to be so interested in – the idea of God-Building is to replace the religious god with a quasi-religious new vision of humanity. Lunacharsky’s idea was to do so with socialism, the Silicon Valley idea is to do so with transhumanism.
Lenin hated God-Building: he saw it as a compromise with reactionary forces, a vestige of liberal reformism rather than something truly revolutionary. Considering how easily the idea is transposed onto capitalist entities and leaders, he appears to have been right. Google, Musk, Thiel, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation and others are all positioned as prophets of the transhumanist twin gods of science and technology; the danger of that came sharply into focus when some good news was delivered to American corporations during the summer: not only is death not being solved, Americans are actually dying younger and it is saving money for the corporations.
Techno-capitalists are still capitalists, whose main interest is and always will be capital. All it takes is a reading of the report on declining life expectancy as good for business by Bloomberg, a publication obviously on the side of capital, to get a feeling for how they view the rest of the world. Pension payments are referred to as “pension woes” as if it is tough for these obscenely wealthy companies to help the workers who created the wealth through the duress of old age. There’s also the sentence, “Absent a war or an epidemic, it's unusual and alarming for life expectancies in developed countries to stop improving, let alone to worsen,” which completely ignores the fact that the U.S. is engaged in its longest ever military conflict and that there is an opioid epidemic ravaging the country because these are not things that typically affect the kind of people Bloomberg is aimed at.
It makes sense that millionaires and billionaires would concern themselves with extending life indefinitely; again, we look to Dialectic of Enlightenment and the explanation that “rulers experience existence, with which they need no longer to concern themselves, only as a substratum.” Look no further than Mark Zuckerberg’s mind-bendingly odd virtual reality tour of the wreckage of Puerto Rico. Witness Zuckerberg, or rather his avatar, high-fiving amongst the ruins of lives and you witness the truth: real life is virtual for these people; suffering is a tourist destination. The real Zuckerberg attempted a return to the substratum this year with his fifty state tour of the USA and the results have been just as bizarre. Pictures of him atop tractors and in the gallery of an African Episcopal Baptist Church show him feigning comfort as best a man who gets whatever he wants can. In the pictures, Zuckerberg looks as if he is experiencing things just like a virtual avatar, his blank stares showing no awareness that he is in real life. To him, all life outside of Silicon Valley’s beer pong-filled offices is virtual.
These people are concerned with the solving of death because life has been solved for them; they are too far removed from the trench warfare of meeting the rent every month or living without health insurance for the idea of improving life to resonate with them. The Tech Apostles of Silicon Valley may position themselves as new age radicals, but deep down they know they got to where they are through old-fashioned exploitation of labour. They want you to have froyo instead of unions. They won’t even share beaches with you; what makes people think they would share the secret to eternal life?
Adorno and Horkheimer said that “the more the process of self-preservation is effected by the bourgeois division of labour, the more it requires the self-alienation of the individuals who must model their body and soul according to the technical apparatus,” meaning that transhumanism is a natural reaction in the age of automation. Late capitalism tells us that the faults don’t belong to the market, that there’s nothing wrong with the wealth inequality that’s carefully managed by those on top of the pyramid: it’s us. We need Better Skills, Better JobsTM. Nothing is more skilled than a computer, they are so skilled and efficient that they are taking our jobs, so you must look to become one.
Marx correctly identified religious devotion as an expression of the workers’ alienation from their labour, an acknowledgement that life in its then form had left people hollow and that the only way to justify the conditions they lived through was the promise of eternal life after death. Transhumanism is the modern day equivalent, rank-and-file worker support again comes from the acknowledgement that life is not as it could be and thus the answer must be to make it infinite in the hope of eventually finding some sort of peace or meaning in a world where we are nothing but cannon fodder for the rich. The only feasible situation wherein these people would share eternal life with you is if you were forced to sign a lifetime contract to man their cafeterias or assembly lines; otherwise it’s about as likely as the assistant Elon Musk fired for asking for a raise after twelve years getting a free ticket on one of his rockets into space.
The problem with religions has always been the preachers, never the deities. Science and tech are good things monopolised by the wrong people; spending eternal life with your loved ones would be fantastic if possible, but people are often sold the promise for profit. What we do know is that Facebook workers live in garages while Zuckerberg has five houses within his estate, that Tesla employees are disparaged for attending the birth of their children over work events, and that Peter Thiel wants your blood. These people are preachers and they want you to pitch whatever you have into the collection plate, whether it’s your money, your labour, your body, or all of the above. In return, they promise eternal salvation, yet all we see is them cementing their assets and enriching themselves.
The tricks of the transhumanists are the tricks of any capitalists. Take the Englishman Aubrey de Grey, Chief Science Officer of Strategies for the Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation, who, as O’Connell points out, inherited £11 million after the death of his mother and avoided paying tax on most of it by turning SENS into a registered charity. This is a man so out of step, or wilfully ignorant, that he told O’Connell: “Probably the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead.”
Things could not be any plainer to see: it is good for corporations if we die and Mark Zuckerberg’s way of advertising his latest toy is an inhumane virtual misery tour through real life despair. The answer isn’t for us to never stop working and never die by making ourselves eternally youthful; the answer is in the inverse of the above: it is good for us if the corporations die. Maybe then, when we have taken back our labour and repurposed science and technology to be truly for the good of all people, we can confront the prospect of immortality. If it happens – whether through prayer, unicorn blood, machines, or a combination of all three – the earth can literally live happily ever after. But until we solve life, there’s no point in solving death.
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