What Is Posthumanism?

I had a friend over last night who admitted she wasn’t sure what posthumanism actually was. I admitted to not knowing myself, and I’m not sure anyone really does. Certainly there are posthuman thinkers, like Donna Harroway, Katherine Hayle and Robert Pepperell, but these writers and academics often focus on just one aspect of posthumanism. Harroway the role of the information cyborg in gender, Hayle the mutually dependent relationship between man and intelligent machine and the relation of information to the material, and Pepperell the breakdown in duality between mind and environment. Some people get posthumanism confused with transhumanism, which carries a humanist mindset into a future augmented with technology which would enhance, and not destroy, our individualism. For the transhumanists, it’s all about living longer, thinking faster, accomplishing more while still retaining our individuality, which is why so many of them are libertarians. For me posthumanism is not so much about our relationship to machines, though that is certainly part of it, but our relationship to information. We have been called infoborgs, forsaking our biological heritage to become informational entities roaming around in cyberspace, choosing for our own identities anything that suits us at the time–stills from our favourite movies on Facebook, a well-loved avatar that appears nothing like us, biographical information that might not even be true to our real-world selves.* Transhumanism focuses on our real-world ability to transform ourselves. Posthumanism focusses on our second world ability to already be transformed. The two will eventually meet. When we are roaming around in cyber space we are aware that we are brushing up against bilions of sentient entities, but they are all without identity. Gender and name and status loses significance, and so we have only to identify people by their virtual production–their likes and dislikes, their avatars, their disembodied comments about the world. In a few years, when computers pass the general language Turing test, we won’t even be sure they are human. In a desperate attempt to retain our identity, we too post likes and avatars and fancy up our pages and write blogs and attack the question of cyber identity with more information. So much of our human identity lies within our bodies and our real-time relation to others, and since they cannot be taken into the cyber world, we lose it. We become an infoborg, an entity, disembodied information. And since there are no limits to what we become in that way we soon gladly leave our human identities behind.

It’s a tangled knot of events and trends and technology and ontology and questions of morality and philosophy and the validity of enlightenment-age thinking. It’s complicated as hell and there is no simple way to describe it. But once you see it, it is hard not see it. Everywhere. All around us. All the time. It can almost drive you crazy. In fact, I think, as I wrote in Virtual Madness and the Posthuman, it does drive some people crazy.

The next time you are on the Internet just notice who you’ve become, or when you’re driving your car think of yourself as cyborg in near-perfect symbiosis with steering wheel and brake of the machine. As man and machine and cyber world sink deeper into each other, biologically and psychologically, can any of them maintain separate identities? From this perspective, it almost seems silly to think so.

* Luciano Fiordi, Information: A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press 2010

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