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.