A Need for Posthuman(e) Design

I’d like to put some thoughts out there in the hopes that this might help to position ourselves better toward the challenges of our time. This is not meant to be a fully developed argument, but to be the begin of a conversation.

The posthuman has been a concept that has been invoked by multiple thinkers in the past to think the relation between humans and technology. Views on the posthuman differ widely - from techno-optimists such as the Oxford “Future of Humanity” Institute that seeks to ‘perfect’ humanity by rationally transcending bodily constraints to more critical, feminist approaches such as those by Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti. These approaches each have their advantages and disadvantages. I will be relying on Braidotti’s understanding of the posthuman here.

A short summary of Braidotti’s thought (this will be highly philosophical so skip ahead to the examples if its not for you): Braidotti sees us in the middle of the convergence of two phenomena - the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Sixth Extinction. These two together force us to reconsider our models of thought that rely on putting the human at the centre of the world (anthropocentrism) and inscribe a hierarchy between the white male human and all others onto it (European Enlightenment-style humanism). These are two movements which produce separate yet simultaneous effects - acceleration and exhaustion - which nonetheless stem from the same system (i.e. cognitive industrial capitalism).
Thinking the posthuman thus involves understanding both what we are ceasing to be and what we are in the course of becoming. If we are indeed moving toward a post-anthropocentric, post-humanist world, then we are increasingly finding ourselves in a world that is ontologically ‘flat’, so to speak. What I mean by this is that we find ourselves embedded and embodied in the world, on the same level as robots, animals, plants, rocks, minerals. Braidotti calls this the zoe/geo/techno-assemblage.
In this world, ethical action must be understood as action that increases the potential for multitudinous becomings, as opposed to disciplinary structures that limit the field of becoming.

Time for examples. The neo-liberal logic of self-improvement, together with the increasing popularity of metrics, can be seen as a disciplinary structure. Consider that only certain activities count as self-improvement (working out, self-care, practicing mindfulness, learning languages) while others do not (think of basket weaving). The common element between those activities that count and those that do not are that they either increase your ‘human capital’, that they involve market transactions, and/or that they are quantifiable. Technologies that, through metrics, seek to reinforce the performance of these activities create a strong cultural normative tendency toward the further distribution of both the activity and the technology.
Note that in this example, it may seem that it is solely a question of technology-human interactions - a problem that might be solved by ‘humane’ design. But the dimension of the excluded other exists here too: Be it in the various animals used as test-subjects for cosmetics, the CO2 impact of animal protein sources, or the psychological impact on all those humans who cannot afford to eat well, do not have the time to work out, and so on.

What is posthuman design, then? This would be technology designed with an understanding of the posthuman subject as zoe/geo/techno-assemblage - that is, posthuman technologies would seek to increase the distributed potential for becoming by adopting a holistic perspective. We could think, for instance, of a self-driving car that chooses its route not only on which is fastest, but also on which has the lowest gas-usage, which makes the least noise, which passes through the least protected areas, …
We could also think of a picture sharing app which actively prevents certain photos from going viral if they are likely to produce mass tourism in the area - think lavender fields in France or Thai beaches, all of which have sustained either economic, cultural, or natural damage from going viral on Instagram.

Here, then, is my point. I think the idea of humane technology is great - but it might come to late. Humans are increasingly being displaced from their privileged position. Focusing now on humane technology seeks to re-inscribe a distinction which is not only being eroded from all sides, but which was also from the beginning unfair - denoting some bodies as more human and less human. Rather, we would do well to go with the tide and see how we can create technology that is ethical from a posthuman perspective - and hence to the benefit of all bodies; technological, human, animal, mineral, that compose us today.

Let me know what you think.

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Wow, great post, thank you for writing this down!

I am a complete noob at philosophy science, and there are many things in your piece that would require me much time and effort to fully grasp. But on the whole - from the gist I gleaned - there are many things that resonate with me… a lot!

(Beware… I may say foolish things, but I’d like to test some of my own thinking :smile: )

First of all I wholly subscribe to your argument of adopting a holistic perspective. I don’t know the concept of posthumanism, but when only interpreting from the word itself I would say this is an era in which there is ‘less space’ in which humans can exist, because natural chaos - caused by the imbalance created by our too large footprint on this world - is evening out the forces of nature, creating more entropy.

If taking a holistic view of how we should live, then we can only continue to thrive if we co-exist will all the other forces, i.e. if we had a system that was (theoretically) fully sustainable, and we continued to maintain the balance to assure this condition continued. Holistic sustainability is then needed: ecological, socially, economically and also … technologically (circles of sustainability + 1 circle).

All in all, I think I fully agree with most if not all of your writing. Though there are some things that sit not well with me. Posthuman - again just the word - sounds like the era where we were defeated. Lost the fight. It has negative connotation to me. Secondly, yes, humane technology might very well come too late. But ‘going with the tide’ to me sounds like more of a laissez-faire approach, rather than continuing a humane tech / sustainability roadmap with full force ahead, in order to lessen the speed of the erosion, while we are improving our ways, lessen our follies. Hence giving us more time to do it well.

Coincidentally I’ve just picked up a hobby project of mine that deals with bringing some optimism and positivity back in our lives, in these days where our outlook seems so bleak. Your post is exactly on topic with that, ha ha, and there is also some hobby philosophy in there :smiley:

Nice post. Thank you for that. Definitely thought-provoking.

I’m a bit skeptical about “posthuman” talk. I think too many confuse aspiration for actuality. Particularly because most of the characteristics ascribed to any posthuman identity seem externalized rather than internalized. We seem to constantly believe we can escape our inner selves through external distractions, whether they be digital superpowers, technologies that allow us to live forever, or physical abilities that aren’t discernible from today’s magic. I’m of the mind that all of that is superficial as long as the human mind and soul is still weighed down with all the same frailties, insecurities, egoism, and inability to be alone with our thoughts. That’s not posthuman. That’s merely a child wearing adult clothing pretending to be something greater than it actually is. Hence the whole idea of posthumanism strikes me as a bit of a fantasy. Hence posthuman design is a non-starter, since its premise is already rather preposterous.

Second, the Fourth Industrial Revolution … or what I like to more cynically call “Make Industrialization Great Again”. Unlike my statement about posthumanism, I do see the real potential in postindustrialism. I don’t see a future in us recreating a new version of the old abuses and mindsets that have come with industrialization, again just dressed up in digital clothing. I love what Klaus Schwab has done with inclusion of a younger generation for the WEF with the Global Shapers, but I feel the exact opposite about his coining of the 4IR – which sounds like a retread of old models and ideas for what it means to be productive or to add value for ourselves and to society. As such, that table leg is missing for me and hence Braidotti’s thinking collapses with its absence as something that doesn’t ring relevant to the future of humanity.

That said, I do see value in the zoe/geo/techno-assemblage. Look to xenodesign (https://jods.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/6qb7ohpt) or even Society Centered Design (https://societycentered.design/) for examples. And I divorce that from the idea that everything of value can be measured. Things like love, belonging, contentment, etc. have immense personal and social value and thus don’t readily fall into the digital metrics of quantification.

“Humane technology” itself, as a term, is kind of a misnomer. We are not easily cleaved from our technology, just as our human identities – even down to our genomics – are influenced by our technologies such as agriculture, transportation, etc. We are cyborgs in every original sense of the term: humans and their use of the technologies we create. Which is why I laugh when people claim to be cyborgs because of chip implants when we have been cyborgs ever since before we discovered fire. It is already embodied, as it has been since the beginning of human history. (History itself also being a technology.)

There are dark patterns, of course, and they vary with tolerances of different people. An Amish person may eschew buttons while some of us are hesitant about RFID implants in our foreheads. I don’t think all values are thus universal, even if it’s probably fodder for us to debate for generations.

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And a similarly thoughtful, inspiring response you gave, @greg, and thank you for these fine useful links too.

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Thank you for the wonderful replies! I will need some time to fully explore the sources, links, and arguments given in detail.

@aschrijver I understand your aversion to the word posthuman - posthumanism remains a highly heterogenous field for now and there are certainly some very resigned theories out there (although these might more often be described as ahuman or inhuman theories rather than posthuman). While it might seem that posthumanism is about defeat, I think Braidotti tries to find an affirmative response to the changes we’re witnessing. That doesn’t mean laissez-faire - there is still room to ask where we would like to go. The only difference is that this “we” includes more than humans.

@greg I will have to read more about Klaus Schwab and the 4IR. I didn’t even know it was such a clearly defined term as opposed to a general, somewhat vague understanding of massive technology induced change. I will also take a look at the examples you’ve shared for the zoe/geo/techno assemblage, which sound very exciting.

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