Mark O’Connell

Posted by Sue Leonard on Sunday 27th May 2018

The Irish journalist, Mark O’Connell, has been shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize – which is worth a whopping £30,000.  Awarded for a book that engages with medicine, his debut, To Be a Machine, has already been shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, and the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize.

In this fascinating debut, Mark explores Transhumanism – a movement whose aim is to use technology to change the human condition, and to improve us, body and mind so that we become more machine and less animal. It’s a strange world; one peopled by those who are determined to overcome the vagaries of ageing and death.

Mark though, is not a transhumanist – nor is he a scientist – but when his son was born five years ago, he became preoccupied with ideas of life and death, and with the deficiencies of the human condition.

“I don’t agree with transhumanism. Their aims are unnerving, but my interest does come out of a kernel of identification. I watched my son being born and thought that there ought to be a better system. I became preoccupied with the human condition being sub-optimal.

“I don’t have access to the actual nitty gritty of scientific ideas. I don’t understand it, so I have thought of it through metaphors; I get people to explain it to me in a way that I can actually hold the ideas in my mind.”

Investigating, Mark visited transhumanists in Silicon Valley. He went to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a crypto preservation facility, where corpses are suspended in some liminal stasis until science advances to a stage where it can bring them back to life. He meets those progressing Artificial Intelligence, coming to the frightening conclusion that with few looking at the safety of the project, if they succeed in their aims, they could kill us all.

He meets those aiming to download their brains to robots – and those inserting implants with the eventual aim of being no longer human, and therefore not subject to animal urges and frailties. It’s complex stuff, but such is Mark’s accessible style, he’s given us an enjoyable, sometimes hilarious read.

Mark’s background is in academia; yet he claims to have been a terrible student as an undergraduate.

“I failed exams and had a bad attendance,” he says. “It was only when I left college that I got interested in all the stuff – the English and Philosophy – that I had been doing.”

He worked for Newstalk for a year, as a researcher on the Orla Barry Show, then it was back to Trinity College Dublin, to the Oscar Wilde Centre to take a Masters.

“I really got into it then,” he says. “I wanted to be an academic and be around books all the time – and be able to read books and talk to people about books.”

He went on to take a PhD on the writing of John Banville – and afterwards, he converted his thesis into an academic book.

“As a postdoc, I had some light teaching, and there was little work to do on the book, so I started writing critical and personal essays about life as a reader and academic.”

Gradually he realised that it wasn’t so much the academia he enjoyed, but the writing itself.

“I was getting the most fulfillment out of sitting down and writing sentences and making it as good as I possibly could. In the end I realised I needed people to actually read my writing, because as an academic you have seven readers if you’re lucky.”

Moving into journalism, Mark’s reviews and critical essays were in the New York Times Magazine and Book Review; the Sunday Times, Guardian and Observer. He contributed to many magazines and blogs, but says he was never comfortable as a mainstream journalist.

“I don’t have the skill of going into a situation, having a question that I want answered and doggedly pursuing that. When I’m finding a story, it comes out of my writing. I never know what I have, and I never know what I’m going to say until I sit down and start writing.”

The book has a novelistic feel. Did all that work on Banville help? He nods but says he wouldn’t dream of comparing himself to Banville.

“I’m a very different writer prose wise. I’m more colloquial, and not densely poetic, but reading him so intensely for so long kind of rewired me in some way. I think a certain relationship with language was laid down.”

It’s clear both from our conversation, and from the content of the book that Mark is a sceptic about transhumanism, but he never challenges those he meets, or tries to belittle them. He simply introduces their ideals in a non-judgemental way. It’s notable that not one of his subjects – all of whom were sent the book before publication – had any objections or corrections.

His first reader, apart from his agent and editor, was Margaret Atwood.

“She wrote to me, enclosing a photo of my book on her bookshelf, saying she was looking forwards to reading it. Then she read it, and very generously tweeted about it, listing it as one of her favourite books about death. That was hugely gratifying. At that stage my wife hadn’t read it; nobody I knew had read it, so she was my first reader in a way.”

It has, since, received a raft of rapturous reviews. The writer Jeanette Winterson seemed particularly enamoured with it – saying she was buying six copies at a time and giving it to everyone.

The most surprising reaction came by email from a London based lawyer.

“She had read the book, loved it, and been so enthralled by it that it had converted her to being a transhumanist. She had recently had an implant in her arm. She wrote, ‘I’m UK’s first post human lawyer.’

“I never considered that a possibility when I was writing the book because of my own horror at the implications of the movement. It’s not a polemic, but my feelings on it are definitely there.”

Mark is now writing a book about apocalyptic anxieties and worries for the collapse of civilisation. Does this come from personal worries?

“I think fear of the future is an interesting way to write about the present, and all the political upheavals we are going through at the moment. And I’m naturally drawn to gigantic, and dire, extreme topics.”

The new book, like To Be A Machine analyses the place of religion.

“It seems to be a thing that expresses itself through all kinds of things that are not inherently religious, like technology and fear about the end of the world. All these religious patterns that have been laid down in mythology and actual faiths – fears seen to express themselves through theology and politics, so yeah, religion is an ongoing preoccupation.”

Towards the end of the writing of the book – Mark had a cancer scare that, thankfully, came to nothing. But it got him thinking about death in a much less abstract way.

“Since I started writing the new book things have changed a little. The world is still fucked up, but my relationship towards it has altered. I’m becoming a father again, and something about having children has forced me into not being a complete pessimist. I’ve always been, philosophically a pessimist, but having children has forced me to have hope. Because a child is a gesture of hope.”

Since this article appeared, Mark has won the Wellcome Award, and has become father to a  second son. 

To be a Machine. Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell. Granta: €11.44.  Kindle: €4.89.

Published by The Irish Examiner on 14th April

© Sue Leonard. 2018


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