Silicon Valley’s Bonfire of the Vainglorious
By W. Patrick McCrayJuly 17, 2017
To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell
Valley of the Gods by Alexandra Wolfe
— Book of Common Prayer, 1928
“NO MORE SEX!” was the unexpected news that London’s Daily Herald brought its readers in February 1929. Those intrigued enough to continue reading found yet more startling information on “WHAT HUMANS MAY BE LIKE ANOTHER DAY” — such as “MEN WITH EARS UNDER LUNGS” — by the same scientifically pedigreed author. The source: John Desmond Bernal, a young Irishman whose daring new book, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, offered a “PEEP INTO THE FUTURE.”
A crystallographer and molecular biologist, Bernal was familiar to the denizens of Cambridge and Bloomsbury for his piercing eyes, rolling gait, and Marxist beliefs. He counted H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and C. P. Snow among his colleagues, and at least three Nobel Prize winners among his protégées. As a scientific humanist, he believed that rational thought coupled with radical new technologies would enable modern society to confront the “three enemies of the rational soul,” as he called them.
First among these enemies was The World, by which he meant the limits of terrestrial resources and the sheer unpredictability of our planet’s environment. He proposed that people leave the planet, with its “massive, unintelligent forces of nature, heat and cold, winds, rivers, matter and energy,” and expand out into the cosmos, where they could establish permanent settlements with “free communication and voluntary associations of interested persons.” In this way, people would also free themselves from the shackles of earthly politics and societal mores.
But to thrive in these new environments, humans would have to overcome the limits of their bodies — what he called The Flesh. For Bernal, this demanded radical surgery, the replacement of organs and tissues by mechanical substitutes, and the directed modification of humanity’s genome. Eventually, these new and improved humans, if we could still call them that, would acquire a form of immortality, preserving their ideas and memories by capitalizing on the electronics and machines with which they were likely to be conjoined.
One problem remained, however. For all their technological wizardry, people were still, well, people. Could they overcome the obstacles placed before them by The Devil, Bernal’s third enemy? No matter how much science advanced, humanity’s “desires and fears […] imaginations and stupidities” would likely remain a treacherous foe. To achieve their glorious future, people would have to transcend their greed, gullibility, and pretensions to godhood.
Bernal’s rough sketch resonated with an set of ideas circulating among British scientists in the 1920s. Just a few years earlier, Julian Huxley, a British evolutionary biologist whose brother Aldous would go on to author Brave New World, proposed the term “transitional human” to refer to a person who had deliberately modified and improved his or her own physical and biological architecture. In his 1927 book Religion Without Revelation, he imagined what would happen when humanity decided to “transcend itself […] realizing new possibilities of and for […] human nature.” By embracing the “zestful but scientific exploration of possibilities,” Huxley predicted humanity would finally “be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.” He termed this new secular faith in the future transhumanism.
Despite the tragic history of eugenics in the first half of the 20th century, the notion of an “improved people” and other such “transhumanist” ideas continued to percolate among futurists. Even before the cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard left the Earth’s atmosphere, medical researchers discussed avenues for altering human biology with chemicals and machines in order to enable long-term space travel, coining the word “cyborg” in the process. But this interest remained low-key until the late 1980s, when a small but creative cohort of future-leaning techno-hipsters in coastal California embraced transhumanism’s flexible tenets. As cultural critics Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron wrote in a classic 1995 essay critiquing the dot-com era, this “Californian Ideology” blended “the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies” with “the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies.” The technology journalist Paulina Borsook characterized the ensuing attitude toward society and government as “cyber-selfish.”
From the Bay Area, for example, a slickly produced magazine called Mondo 2000 introduced readers to virtual reality, hacker culture, smart drugs, life extension, and nanotechnologies. Its debut issue derided the “old” future as being “about going back to the land, growing tubers and soybeans, reading by oil lamps. Finite possibilities and small is beautiful. It was boring!” With the Cold War ending and cyberspace beckoning, “there’s a new whiff of apocalypticism across the land. A general sense that we are living at a very special juncture in the evolution of the species.” But where Bernal and Huxley envisioned biological transformations that could potentially benefit society as a whole, this new cult of transhumanists, death defeaters, and allied techno-enthusiasts focused on the self: the perfection of body and mind as individual self-fulfillment. In California, the net and nanotechnology met Narcissus.
Mark O’Connell’s open-minded new book To Be a Machine: Adventures Among the Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death offers an update on the desires, dreams, and delusions of late 20th- and early 21st-century technological optimists. With a practiced journalist’s sense of engagement and empathy leavened by healthy skepticism, O’Connell describes the peculiar constellation of scientists, seekers, grifters, and con artists orbiting techno-optimist communities over the past half century. Hoping to become rich, famous, and/or immortal, this population encompasses a seemingly dizzying array of types and propositions that can, I’d argue, be cleaved into three basic camps.
First, there are the cooks. Their approach to increasing people’s life spans is based on chemistry, genetics, medicine, and other tools of biotechnology. Prominent among them today is English biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey. Born in 1963, de Grey took a PhD in 2000 from Cambridge for research into how inhibiting damage to mitochondrial DNA could extend life spans. Three years later, he co-founded the Methuselah Foundation “to shed light on the processes of aging and find ways to extend healthy life.” Six years after that, he started the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Research Foundation. Based in Mountain View, California, a few miles from Google’s HQ and Stanford University and adjacent to a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Hall, its fortunes were boosted by Silicon Valley investors and de Grey’s own multimillion dollar inheritance. Public appearances on shows like Good Morning America and popular books like his 2008 Ending Aging transformed de Grey into a highly visible spokesperson for the immortality movement, such as it is.
O’Connell describes meeting de Grey at a bar in San Francisco, where the aging researcher — the adjective works both ways — was enjoying a breakfast beer. De Grey’s presentation of the current state of research into regenerative medicine was as much performative as it was perspicacious. “For every day that I bring forward the defeat of aging,” he claimed, “I’m saving a hundred thousand fucking lives!” O’Connell pushed de Grey on such statements, including whether it was possible for people to live a thousand years. Possible? Sure. But, the guru admitted, “it’s very much dependent on the level of funding.”
Ah, yes. The funding. A recent article in The New Yorker features a California living room, circa March 2017, teeming with celebrities, scientists, dot-com zillionaires, and venture capitalists. A tony Tupperware party for those anxious about aging, its attendees learn about and, more notably, market and sell their “secrets of longevity.” Sergey Brin, the fortysomething co-founder of Google and the 13th richest person on the planet, sadly acknowledges that, yes, he too is mortal, but at least he’s planning to do something about it. In fact, Google has already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the California Life Company (“Calico”) to combat aging. Even Town & Country is pushing the “immortality movement” — right along with news of Pippa Middleton’s honeymoon and revelations about what your travel bag for the Hamptons says about you.
All this would be fine — let the über-rich pursue their batshit crazy schemes — but, as O’Connell suggests, these expensive, research-intensive solutions to “the death problem” may then crowd out other issues and approaches. We can already help people — millions of them — live longer and better lives. It’s here! Hail the future! Ah … forget about it. No one working on Silicon Valley’s Sand Hill Road seems inclined to get super-stoked about pushing for universal health care, better public schools, sane gun laws, and a decent living wage. Why champion urban sanitation and clean drinking water when Bono and Leonardo DiCaprio are probably already on it? Today’s transhumanism isn’t about helping the masses. It’s all about me — the glorious, death-deferring me. And as my colleagues Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel have noted, the media isn’t helping the situation either; its breathless coverage of high-profile, low-probability, pseudo-Ponzi schemes has downstream effects, encouraging young scientists and engineers to invest their energies in trying to solve the wrong problems. O’Connell’s book places these quixotic efforts in context, offering much-needed critical analysis that never veers into condescension.
The cooks’ approach to augmenting humanity has found sympathetic communities in places far afield from Silicon Valley. One of O’Connell’s best chapters is titled “Biology and its Discontents.” In it, he introduces us to a motley collection of “practical transhumanists” operating a small company called Grindhouse Wetware in Pittsburgh and describes these biohackers’ zeal for augmenting people’s bodies via implants. In 2013, as proof of concept, one of Grindhouse’s co-founders had a device implanted into his own body that wirelessly transmits biometric information to his smart phone. (One can only imagine the possibilities if it could be linked to Tinder.) However, as O’Connell thoughtfully notes, biohackers’ enthusiasm for a techno-future where they possess the equivalent of superpowers is muted by something darker. Gesturing to his seemingly normal and well-functioning body, one such biohacker tells O’Connell, “I’m trapped here.” Transhumanism, at least in this version, appears less about liberation than self-annihilation. Like the ancient Gnostics, these people believe that our flesh is a prison trapping the soul — “our bodies, our burdens,” as it were. But then, transhumanism has always had more than a whiff of eschatology about it.
This near-contempt for our mortal vessels takes us to a second faction — let’s call them the coders — who are selling their own strategy for defeating or deferring death. Instead of augmenting the body with high-tech gadgets or through genetic and medical tweaks, they propose abandoning the Flesh altogether. The body as a machine to be maintained and augmented is old hat; they focus instead on the mind. Drawing on philosophical debates going back to Descartes, they imagine it as software — a program or data file that can be copied indefinitely and remain useful, so long as an operating system exists to run it. Making a copy of a person’s mind is the first step toward uploading it for storage and retrieval.
Accomplishing this feat, advocates say, will require a detailed understanding of what consciousness is and how it works, which, in turn, rests on a detailed physical understanding of the physical links and connections between neurons and other cells. Again, O’Connell draws our attention to Silicon Valley, where small companies, some with transhumanists at their helm, are developing tools for more precise brain scans and mapping. Their agenda is of course predicated on the assumption that the essence of what makes you uniquely you can be reduced to physical terms: to bits and bytes of information.
Whether people are information, chemistry, or indeed “spirit” or “soul” has kept stoned undergraduates talking into the wee hours and philosophers employed, but there’s now an undeniable commercial aspect to all of this. O’Connell takes us on a detour into the world of robotics and autonomous vehicles, areas of research and development drawing vast sums of money and labor. We meet some of the real actors pulling the strings and bear witness to Silicon Valley’s “roots […] deep in the blood-rich soil of war.” The technologies that companies like Google and Uber are developing for autonomous vehicles are dual-use and can readily be militarized. In fact, given the long history of funding by defense agencies like DARPA, we might as well speak of technologies like the autonomous vehicles prowling San Jose’s streets as “civilianized.”
Just as workers and labor unions are concerned about the effects of automation on jobs — something O’Connell addresses — scenarios of mind-uploading easily invite questions of whether our machines will one day supplant us. In 1983, Omni published a short essay by SF writer Vernor Vinge describing a future in which technological change accelerates at an exponential rate. “When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity,” Vinge suggested, “and the world will pass far beyond our understanding.” Sort of like when Trump was elected, but with robots.
Since Vinge’s essay appeared, people like Ray Kurzweil — engineer, transhumanist, and, more recently, Google executive — have made considerable money and headlines predicting how technological advances, especially in areas such as nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology, will drive us to that world-altering moment when there is a “rupture in the fabric of human history.” In 2009, Kurzweil helped start the Singularity University, located just off interstate 101 in Mountain View. Students from around the world have competed for spots in the program’s summer sessions while CEOs, inventors, and investors plunked down $12,000 or more for week-long “executive programs” on topics like “exponential manufacturing” and “accelerating returns.” What they would really benefit from, however, are a few classes at a local community college. In such places, they might learn that if your only model for how technologies develop over time is the cherry-picked exponentiality of examples tracking Moore’s Law, well, you probably should revise your business plan.
Meanwhile, celebrity technologists like Elon Musk have made headlines simply by expressing their fears about the growing power of artificial intelligence systems. In turn, celebrity interest has created a cottage industry of academic and nonprofit think tanks, many of them in California, devoted to studying existential risks. They are funded in part by technology companies and their executives. A cynic might be so bold as to suggest that the whole enterprise is a self-licking ice cream cone. A realist, at least one focused less on abstractions such as the “future of humanity,” might argue that the real problems Silicon Valley executives should address have less to do with tomorrow’s artificial intelligence than with the plain ol’ natural stupidity eroding and disrupting our civil society today.
The topic of stupidity, in all its many-splendored and undeniably human forms, leads us to the third community of people associated with this ideology. Meet the conned, who, alas, include the author of Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story. Alexandra Wolfe spins a tale of Silicon Valley absurdity masquerading as altruism, although she’s unlikely to pitch it in these terms. Unfortunately, her book also peddles just about every possible stereotype — cue the “scrawny nerd with thick glasses, baggy jeans, and a T-shirt” on page three who can’t seem to get laid, and every other variant of the hoodie-clad technological disrupter, creatively destroying all in his path.
The conned in Wolfe’s superficial fly-through of Silicon Valley include select college-age recipients of fellowships. The deal is this: if accepted, you will receive $100,000. You will also agree to drop out of college for the length of the fellowship while you pursue your entrepreneurial dream. The pied piper peddling this bullshit is Peter Thiel, who announced the eponymous program in 2010. When George Packer profiled him in 2011, Thiel was just another dot-com tycoon professing a slew of contradictory ideas and beliefs. Packer provided an indelible image of Thiel the libertarian — no rules! — and yet a proponent of life extension — live longer! — blazing down a California highway in his Mercedes sans seat belt. Besides railing at the uselessness of a college education — this from the man blessed with not one but two degrees from Stanford — Thiel lambasted the “political correctness he thought universities propagated.” Such thoughts coming from a gay man whose rights are legally if thanklessly protected in the United States is an eccentricity Wolfe doesn’t explore.
The cohort of those conned by Thiel’s munificence includes the young and oh-so-naïve Jonathan Burnham. When we meet him, young Burnham has just received a Thiel fellowship. Asked “How would you change the world?” Burnham doesn’t opt for curing malaria or improving inner cities. Nope. Not disruptive enough. He wants to mine asteroids. By the end of the book, Burnham has received a moon-sized helping of reality. As he told The New York Times, “It’s been really eye-opening for me to realize that just because you have a big idea doesn’t mean that’s all it’s going to take to make something happen.” Isn’t that the kind of advice that mentors — what the Thiel program ostensibly provides — are supposed to give their charges? Oh, right. That’s so quaint, so … undisruptive.
Wolfe certainly benefited from access to a colorful class of characters, even if they are predominantly male and resolutely infantile. This said, a few women proto-entrepreneurs do appear in Valley of the Gods — such as Laura Deming, who dropped out of MIT to pursue research on life extension — but they are all too often characterized by what they wear rather than what they think. Wolfe’s reticence in offering critical analysis is a shame. Surely she could have said something about the deep structural and cultural biases women and people of color face in the tech world and STEM fields in general.
For example, not far away from where some of the Thiel Fellows lived and coded — is there a difference? — are the 27,000-plus undergraduates of San Jose State University. Many are first-generation college students for whom a college education offers a ladder to the middle class and a decent income. In contrast, Burnham’s parents boast about how a Thiel Fellowship offered their kid a “new kind of status symbol […] it said their son could get into Harvard but turned it down for something better.” It’s one thing to write about a group of young people who, after being accepted to Yale, Princeton, and MIT, decided not to attend. That’s their privilege. But when the message is that higher education is for chumps, worth neither time nor public investment … well, that’s a very different kind of privilege.
Adding insult to injury is Wolfe’s sometimes shaky understanding of how Silicon Valley got to be the “valley of the gods.” Even Thiel himself, in his 2016 address to the GOP convention, acknowledged the federal government’s role in “laying the foundations for the internet.” (Uncle Sugar actually funded the engineers who built the infrastructure enabling Thiel to become fabulously wealthy, but, hey, let’s not quibble.) Wolfe seems unaware or unwilling to address this inconvenient truth. Instead we get just-so history where Stanford academics and heroic businessmen — not decades of massive Cold War defense spending — created Silicon Valley. In this story, regulations and rules seem hardly to matter, which may explain why Santa Clara County has two dozen Superfund cleanup sites. And it may explain why, in Wolfe’s book, we get vignettes about a lobbyist who helped Uber shaft the employees who want to unionize while circumventing local regulations. Move fast and break things indeed!
One might dismiss both O’Connell and Wolfe’s books for reporting about ideas, ideologies, and individuals who could easily be consigned to the margins. That would be a mistake. Peter Thiel matters. He has gone from being a billionaire with some odd ideas — ignore, if you can, his interest in parabiosis (i.e., rejuvenation via blood transfusions from young people) — to being a billionaire with influence in the White House. In addition, media attention and millions of dollars of private support from Silicon Valley moguls have nudged elements of the transhumanist movement closer to the mainstream. Like economic returns from Bay Area tech companies today, human enhancement technologies of the future will not be evenly distributed. If we’re now exercised over how the rich get privileged access to airline seats, imagine the reaction from le menu peuple when they see the callow Jared Kushners of tomorrow get brain upgrades while being infused with teenaged blood. Perhaps this explains why some of the United States’s wealthiest people are prepping for the day when the pitchforks come out — a veritable bonfire of the vainglorious — and they retreat to their converted ICBM silos and island compounds.
“There are two futures, the future of desire, and the future of fate,” J. D. Bernal said in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, “and man’s reason has never learned to separate them.” People use technologies to build the future. Visions of technological tomorrows proffered by cooks or coders matter. They matter a great deal. They are inherently political. And despite their pretentions to benefit humanity, they ignore vast swaths of the population. Not to take such visions seriously — to treat them as no more than play or whimsy — is to be conned.
W. Patrick McCray is a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Certain passages in this essay have appeared before in The Visioneers and on the author’s website.
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