They say the only certainties in life are death and taxes. Transhumanists disagree with the first one. This Silicon Valley sub-culture treat death as a disease that can be cured if humans learnt to update our wetware for purely artificial models. In his 2018 book To Be A Machine, the journalist Mark O’Donnell went on a Jon Ronson-esque escapade among this intriguing sub-culture of tech-utopians. Biohacking, cryogenic freezing, and mindfiling are just some of the science fictional imaginaries of humanity’s future that transhumanists are turning into a reality.
The themes of technology and mortality are acutely familiar to everyone in 2020. Covid-19 has forced us to live almost purely online to communicate with the outside world, so the adaptation of O’Donnell’s book by Belfast theatre company Dead Centre couldn’t be more timely. Like Forced Entertainment’s End Meeting For All and Nathan Ellis’s work_from_home, To Be A Machine represents a new frontier for digital theatre by treating the internet as a medium where humans are reconfigured into data subjects able to interact with a host of different media.
Parts of To Be A Machine are fictional lectures by Mark O’Donnell (played by Game of Thrones‘s Jack Gleeson) who takes us through some key ideas of transhumanism with slick minimalist slides and videos. The content is interesting if a little bland and, aside from some playful trickery with a can of coke magically appearing in Gleeson’s hand, unimaginatively staged.
The digital revolution is one of those subjects theatre artists notoriously struggle to translate into a dramatic event (see also the climate emergency). The effect is to add a slight theatrical gloss to the TED Talk format, which is disappointing given the powerful imagery in the source material. But these limitations are indicative of the problem of spectacle saturation when it comes to art and digital technology. iPhones under the skin and frozen heads buried under the Arizona desert is the stuff of a techno-futurism modern audiences have become too familiar with through hundreds of dystopian artworks, from William Gibson’s hard SF novel The Peripheral to popular dramas such as The Matrix and Battlestar Galactica. To Be A Machine never acknowledges this artistic context, which is an oversight considering the fundamental role art plays in imagining the future of humans living in sympatico with computers.
The true core of the piece rests in the quietly profound reflections on theatre as a medium of death. The audience’s attention is frequently drawn to the ways the digital medium elides the binary of the live and recorded to produce an event experienced in a tangled web of temporalities and presences. When Gleeson says, ‘Theatre is the dying medium’ he is referring to how bodies exist in a state of slow decay that we bare witness to when we watch other bodies perform for us. Dead Centre treat their audience as mysterious new playmates who could change the rules of their game at any time,and one always gets the sense they are usually disappointed we don’t take more liberties. In a reverse of the Turing Test, the game we play in To Be A Machine is to prove to Gleeson that we are not bots. This is harder than it sounds when all you’ve got to work with is typed words on a screen.
The thought of a theatre produced by and for bots suddenly, terrifyingly, felt within our grasp. The only other form of presence the audience has is some footage we record and upload the day before the show. One of the most striking moments is when the camera cuts to an auditorium filled with tablets of our faces, staring blankly ahead into the void of the screen. The effect is mesmerising, and not nearly as bleak a picture as the movies have trained us to believe. In a reality where intimacy with strangers can be deadly the sight of myself represented as a piece of data was oddly comforting as I sat in the dark in my living room, faintly aware of my baby son burbling in the background. To Be A Machine gave my computer a presence that was empathetically human. If we don’t want to succumb to the fantasies of catastrophe dystopian artworks have trained us to expect then we need to invent a new humanism for living as data subjects.