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what is posthumanism (now)?

Note: This is the first in a series of posts on the topic of posthumanism. The next post in the series can be found here.

Posthumanism is used often now in critical studies to describe the state of human being in the age of information machines. It has the central idea that, the further we develop and understand our human interactions with our technologies, the more indistinct become the boundaries between the two. A typical view is that humans are, in countless, profound and increasing ways, joined or merged with information machines, to the extent that the very essence of humanity has evolved into something "post-".

What we’re moving away from is liberal humanism, the humanness that has defined us since the Renaissance. We traditionally conceive of human being as comprised in a single individual, one who has free will and discrete identity, who is capable of having individual thoughts and ideas, and taking consequent action in the world.

Now we have a lot of machinery—laptops and iPhones and Instagram and 3D imaging and microwaves and prosthetic limbs and 3D printers—mixed into our humanness. These aren’t just tools anymore. They have literally changed our brains. As a result, personhood itself--how we define what it means to be human, or not--is also changing.

Imagine a flock of starlings: each bird follows a hundred unconscious rules as an individual. Simultaneously, the whole group is reacting to a hundred varying stimuli at every moment. It sounds like it would result in chaos, but it doesn’t; built into the architecture of those rules and responses is a network of unconscious communication—tiny, largely invisible signals that dictate how the starlings continuously coordinate as, in effect, one system. This is complexity at work.

Now, thanks to technology, we know what complex systems are, and we understand more or less how they work. We also now know that what we do as individuals, when you zoom out to look at whole populations, demonstrates systems-based complexity, just like a flock of starlings.

One basic tenet of posthumanism is this: the divisions between us count for something, I’m still me and you’re still you, but also, we’re both part of a bigger systems. And as components within these bigger systems, we’re generally acting unaware, even as we carry out systemic rules in such a way that, from a certain vantage point, it would appear to be extremely well-coordinated, even directed. Some theorists discuss this as a form of distributed cognition or collective mind.

A second tenet of posthumanism is that the boundaries of systems don’t necessarily take bodily boundaries into account. This is effectively the foundational premise of cybernetics, a research area that has been hugely important for posthumanism as well as for the development of artificial intelligence, neuroscience and many other disciplines--that communication feedback loops can and do carry information back and forth between humans and humans; between humans and machines; between humans and other animals; between other animals and machines; between machines and machines. And where there are subsystems at work within a human, an animal or machine (which there always are, often in the hundreds) those subsystems can interact without the knowledge or sanction of the bodily individual.

An example: humans apparently pair up by “sensing” the capabilities of each others’ immune systems, without ever knowing this is happening, via communications between various bodily systems. These two humans' bodily systems temporarily form another interactive system, one that coordinates parts of both individuals, but not all of either individual. Sort of like the middle section in a Venn diagram.

Another example: you unconsciously pick up on the positive or negative cadences of posts in your social media feed, and become happier or sadder as a result. This system involves you, algorithms in the social media programme, the programmers and possible other tech support people, as well as all the other people in your feed who may or may not be getting the same or similar messages, and possibly all of their friends, and all of their friends. Now it’s the middle section in a Venn diagram, only the diagram has a billion circles in it.

One thing is very clear: these systems don’t need the permission of our conscious minds to work. And considering that the conscious mind is the seat of our belief in our own individuality and, well, humanness, this could be problematic for the human self-image. After all, posthumanism essentially deconstructs the primacy of consciousness, finding the conscious mind to be a “minor side show” rather than the main show of human being.  

On the other hand, being inclined toward the idea that humans aren’t special in that sense, posthumanist theory draws upon many things we have in common with other systems, particularly dynamic systems. This complexity is awesome in its own right, despite the fact that it's turned out to be incredibly commonplace. When we compare ourselves to animals, machines, moss, starlings, whole ecosystems, this is exactly what we find: basically the same informational structure of essentially every living system around. 

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My posts over the next few weeks will look at posthumanism in three ways: as dynamic complexity observable in cultural products, such as books and television series; as phenomena of informational autonomy, for example the growing numbers of people going “off-grid” or joining the grow-it-yourself movement; and as complex knowledge relationships in higher education and professions, where lateral connections are increasingly replacing expertise, and network thinking replacing hierarchy.

I’m looking especially at what posthumanism is now, two decades into its lifetime, and particularly as we settle into the era of the Internet of Things, which has once again changed the way we think about and relate to our technologies. Many people, academics and others, have worried that the digital era is moving us further away from reality, and for a while that was possibly true; but I have reason to argue that one effect of recent posthumanist phenomena will be to bring us back in closer contact with the “real”.

Stay tuned and thanks for reading! Comments always welcome, tweet to me or leave one below.

Danielle

Note: This is the first in a series of posts on the topic of posthumanism. The next post in the series can be found here.