posthumanism: complexity to achieve simplicity.

First, I must apologize for the delay in what I originally hoped would be a fast-moving series of posts. Perhaps inevitably, life got in the way and I’m only now resuming what I started in August. Since then, I’ve had the fortuitous pleasure of having attending two conferences that fuelled the fire, and in particular reading a book (John Thackera's How to Survive in the Next Economythat has provided some insights and inspired some new thinking--so back to it!

As laid out in the first post of this series on posthumanism, this post is intended to discuss posthumanism as, in effect, a collection of phenomena of informational autonomy. In short, we lead more informationally-rich lives in terms of pure access than did our parents and grandparents, thanks to the internet, and as a result we have developed better ways of finding, storing, and using information, individually and collectively. This isn’t just a set of technical abilities, but cognitive ones as well.

Maybe ironically, one of the hallmarks of the culmination of the Machine Age and now the Information Age is the way that those in richer and more “wired” regions are increasingly ready to reject many of the hallmarks of the Machine and Information Ages. Many people of generation and those in the immediate vicinity are apt to do things like go off-grid with our energy consumption; put up a greenhouse and join the “Grow it Yourself” movement; hack flatpack furniture; upcycle magazines into reusable shopping bags; knit with fair trade wool instead of buying from shops we don’t trust; customize camper vans to run on bio-diesel; use wearable solar generators to recharge our smartphones; contribute to biodiversity databases using a mobile app; “rewild” areas of our property to support the bees; fantasize about living in a micro-home; use Uber and Airbnb and promote the sharing economy; you get the idea. There’s a growing attraction to simplicity and small(er)-scale consumption, or even pro-sumption, and switching roles, or goals, to make things work better is pretty much normal.

The reason most of us who do these things can do these things is because of our nearly-unfettered access to all kinds of information and social networks. There’s a seemingly endless supply of how-to videos and blog tutorials that help us figure out how to do things, a social group for everything you might want to do, which is great for support of all kinds, and perhaps most importantly, there’s a wealth of information available to anyone’s who’s interested about why you might want to do things differently than we have been doing. Social media, blogs, web fora and various other forms of online newsfeed, while frequently and often quite rightly bemoaned for their flaws, in this sense have an extremely positive role to play in the next phase of culture, what Thackera calls the “next economy” and Joanna Macy has called the “great turning” – a shift from “the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.”

Thackera describes one of the major elements of the larger cultural shift as stewardship, a growing tendency to “seek practical ways to reconnect with the soils, trees, animals, landscapes, energy systems, water and energy sources on which all life depends.” In an early chapter of his book he concludes that systems thinking must be paired with what he calls “systems feeling”—a thing he names but doesn’t define. I understand why: much of my research, across literature, games and communication, is aimed at discovering the components of that “systems feeling,” so that it can be cultivated more widely. With consideration of this set of ideas, it’s possible to rephrase the key ideas I outlined as defining posthumanism in this post to:

  1. A tendency to interpret ourselves as having non-starring roles in interconnected, dynamic, and particularly natural systems.  
  2. A willingness to understand our actions as collectively enacted in correspondence with environmental conditions and feedback.
  3. A questioning of the boundaries of the body, and a connectedness to other “bodies” that may be natural or man-made (including a body of water or a planetary ecology).

One of the most striking implications of the “next economy” and/or the “great turning”, as Thackera points out, cultural shifts suggest a future that is low-tech by design, whether by necessity or by choice. This idea always seems to surprise those who view techno-enthusiasts as being more or less in favor of everything becoming robots; that isn’t the case at all. Many of us are in favor of better tech meaning, in effect, less machinery and more—much more—nature. And knitting. This plays out in a back-to-basics, post-productive mode that has potential to backstep through some of the mistakes of industrial society and capitalism unbound.

But at the same time this future is dependent upon a huge amount of computing power that we must figure out how to produce efficiently. We also might be deepening the divide between the haves and have-nots of the informational economy, leaving less wired regions in the dust, unless we devise better ways to spread the informational wealth. And informational wealth is the effective basis of the next economy, according to Thackera (and a lot of other people). The capitalist tradition of huge overhead is giving way to business built on IP and creating exportable knowledge products, organizations with flexible operational structures and philosophies that emphasize agility.

One distinction to make is that Thackera sees the majority of the “new economy” as he calls it, arising from the ground-up as a matter of necessity. I see it as one aspect of a larger posthumanist turn, which includes matters of necessity but also the conversations in privileged cultures like the arts and the academy, reflecting as such a degree of moral luxury. That is, posthumanism includes, might even be driven by, philosophies that take into account marketing and commercialism as well as a growing informational fluency—two factors that are, admittedly, very often at odds. (Is “Ikea hacking” really hacking? The phrase itself bespeaks investment in two different philosophies, one corporate, one anti-establishment. Oh, and don’t get me started on Normcore, the fashion statement of “back-to-basics” that is, for all I can see, entirely devoid of actual philosophy.) We’re still human after all.

One post on this topic yet to come. Here are the first and second in the series if you’d like to have a read. And as always, I'd love to engage on this and a wide range of other topics, so feel free to tweet to me at @superblued