A more human posthumanism?

We are immersed in scientific and technological transformations that are affecting the human condition itself. What is the meaning of tendencies such as posthumanism? How should we think about this “afterness”?

Covering artificial leg, ca. 1920 | George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) | No known copyright restrictions

Covering artificial leg, ca. 1920 | George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) | No known copyright restrictions

In recent years the concept of “posthumanism” has taken on importance thanks largely to thinkers such as Rosi Braidotti, Franco “Bifo” Berardi and Peter Sloterdijk, who have recently visited the CCCB. However, as philosopher Braidotti herself affirmed in the interview published in this blog, posthumanism is not a closed concept, but “rather an index to describe the stage we find ourselves at now”. It is not a case of understanding what humankind is in essence, but of deciding what we want to be, what we will become as a species in the future.

We are witnesses to an era of incertitude and uncertainties. The modernity built around a narrative of the progress of knowledge has been called into question and, with it, the humanist project founded on an instrumental rationality, based on which humankind should be capable of transforming the world for its own benefit. However, scientific and technical knowledge seems to have remained on the sidelines of this crisis, to the point of finding itself in the midst of a new revolution. In the year that we are celebrating thirty years since the launch of the World Wide Web, at a time when concepts such as “artificial intelligence” and “machine learning” hold increasing weight in society’s debates, it seems that rethinking the relationship between humankind and technology is inevitable. Is it possible to continue thinking of technology as something that enables us to emancipate ourselves from our needs and increase our autonomy? Or should we alternatively maintain a critical attitude of rejection towards technical rationality, as something inalienable from the discourse of domination that has led to an unsustainable world? We are returning to a recognisable crossroads: technology viewed with suspicion or technology viewed as a solution.

But what are we talking about when we refer to technology? Since its origins, humankind has related with the world in an artificial way. Technology, therefore, would be nothing more than the way in which humankind relates with the world or, rather, the way in which humankind constructs its world. Perhaps the problem lies not in embracing or rejecting technology, but in analysing the singular world configured based on contemporary science and technology. Examining the conditions of what we commonly call “new technologies” in order to be able to determine what mechanisms of power they use and how these affect and transform contemporary subjectivity. Recovering, as advocated by Marina Garcés in her book Nueva Ilustración radical [1], the critical attitude that has remained trapped in a discourse that assimilates reason with the civilizing project of domination typical of modern capitalism. Only then can we be aware of the emancipating potential that still exists in technology. To paraphrase Franco “Bifo” Berardi, this would mean developing conceptual tools to orient ourselves in the territory of the transformation of the contemporary subject [2].

Augmented humanity

It is within this context that the debate around posthumanism takes on meaning. New technological changes enable us to think of a significant transformation in what it means to be “human”. In his essay L’Humanité Augmentée [3], Éric Sadin puts forward the emergence of a new form of man resulting from the  relationship between the human and the technological. For decades, science fiction has speculated about artificial intelligence and has filled our imaginary with cyborgs and machine-men. We can find recent manifestations in popular culture that warn us of the dangers of “Prometheanism” through fiction – as in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Avengers: Age of Ultron – in which machines reach a level of conscience and autonomy that leads them to rebel against their subordination with respect to human beings. However, as frequently happens, the reality is more complex. Sadin’s “augmented humanity” is not necessarily referring to anthropomorphic robots, but rather to the constitution of a new cybernetic reality, constructed through incursion into the world of an infinite, fragmented and invisible computational system that encompasses all spheres of life.

According to Sadin, this would have been possible thanks to three factors. On the one hand, advances in computation technologies would have permitted a new, more dynamic interaction with machines. Gilbert Simondon, an influential thinker because of his reflections on technology, affirmed that the technological revolution lies not in increased power of calculation, nor in  greater automation, but in “the fact that the operation of a machine harbours a certain degree of indeterminacy”[4]. With this, Simondon is calling attention to the capacity of machines for relating with outside data and information in an almost sensitive way, notably increasing their autonomy.

In second place, the ambition of the ideal of scientific and technological dominance is today reaching a level of organisation and quantification that is leading to the generation of a computational duplicate of the world. If, traditionally, technology served to mediate with reality, today the object of this mediation is not so much reality as its digital replica. However, we do not have the technical knowledge to understand the nature of these connections, which means a new barrier is generated with the world that implies, according to Sadin, a “loss of visibility and of friction sensitive with things, to introduce imperceptible and automated interference games” [5].

Finally, for the transformation to be effective, there has been a necessary generalisation and universalisation of the use of technological devices, increasingly more comprehensive and portable, enabling the digital subject to be connected at all times. This last point allows the closing of the circle: the smartphone as a paradigm and entry gateway into this new relationship with the technological. This device requires a dynamic and flexible level of interaction, as well as access to a vast amount of data to be able to adequately assist the new digital subject. But at the same time, it serves as a source of data for this same cybernetic system, thus completing the feedback loop. Contemporary technology is no longer localised in one object or device, but in a systemic network that forms what the French author defines as a “computational holism”. 

The World As a Screen. Dialogue between Ingrid Guardiola and Franco Berardi | CCCB
The World As a Screen. Dialogue between Ingrid Guardiola and Franco Berardi | CCCB

A connective order

The new subjectivity is constituted in this feedback between our technological devices and computational holism, and is based on a dual gesture. Initially the possibility of a more sensitive relationship is annihilated, by introducing a barrier with the new world image. Only then is it possible to recreate the world, from a digital assistance founded on a new type of relationship that will now be constituted in a necessary and pre-established way. Berardi defines this transformation as the passage from the conjunctive to the connective relationship. If the first emerges from the spontaneity of a specific and singular action, the result of our empathetic capacity to relate with the other; the second would respond to a rational dimension that allows us to abstract a specific dimension and produce a network of signs compatible with a determined syntactic structure, in this case the digital world. For us to relate with the duplicate in the infosphere, a connective relationship is necessary: one that rejects direct contact and leaves no place for indeterminacy. In the connective order, relations are standardised, they become homogeneous and regulated. We talk about the direct change we are undergoing due to the fact that we are constantly subjected to the digital and algorithmic way of doing things. But we also talk about a deeper mutation in our sensitivity. Our brain, incapable of adapting to the pace and quantity of information that cybernetic reality forces upon it, finds itself saturated, overwhelmed, and obliged to economise its processes. The only way that we have of relating with each other is to accept and adapt to the new language. For this, we succumb to the indiscriminate use of devices that, thanks to that new dynamic computation, are capable of guiding us. Individuals are assisted by all kinds of devices and algorithms that decide for them and help them, through gentle and transparent coercion, to fit in with the new digital world. In this homogenisation process, any kind of indeterminacy and difference that does not favour the efficiency of the system is avoided. In an ideal situation, the new humanity that emerges from this new paradigm will not be political in that there will be no conflict or decision within it. We move from human to posthuman through an increase in capacities. The new relationship with technology will allow humanity to adapt to the new digital world. However, we see how, far from opening up the playing field and making us freer, this new relationship seems to be launching us, paradoxically, into a deterministic order in which our behaviour is governed by a series of automatisms.

This said, it would seem that the only way out would involve returning to the initial dichotomy and rejecting technology, now under the form of the social media networks, platform economies or biometric control devices, for example. However, there is an urgent need to ask ourselves whether it would not be more interesting to try to break the dichotomy proposed and go beyond this rejection, to attempt to find a critical way of approaching technology. From this angle, it is possible to understand posthumanism in a different way, situating it in the crisis of humanism that is emerging following the forgetting of the indeterminate. Under the control of technical rationality, humankind is reduced to its connective aspect, finding itself immersed in a series of automatisms and predeterminations that destroys its singularity. A certain incommensurability exists in what is human that makes it impossible to completely quantify it and reduce it to a purely technical language. According to this viewpoint, the proximity of the transhumanist utopia in which we find ourselves was not due to the possibility of creating a synthetic  brain, but rather to the fact that, in a hyper-technified society, what is human finds itself reduced to its merely connective side, forgetting that indeterminate aspect that characterises it.

Under this perspective, posthumanism implies distancing ourselves from a humanism founded around a conception of the technical human, which converts the world into its objective representation. This does not necessarily imply a rejection of technology, but rather it invites us to think about a post-anthropocentric world. Ridding ourselves of the idea of the world as representation, which situates man as a measure and ultimate principle, to make room for ways of doing things beyond technical rationality. It is necessary to recover the awareness of this incommensurability, precisely to tackle the challenge of finding new ways to deal with the reality in which we find ourselves. Establishing a new relationship with the technological that is based on awareness of this singularity and knows itself to be irreducible to scientific and technological quantification. Given this approach, posthumanism is revealed not as the determination of our relations, but precisely as the guarantee of their radical singularity. That which reminds us that not everything is reducible to data, and offers us the opportunity to place limits on the digital hegemony, thus returning technology to its role as an instrument for emancipation.

[1] M. Garcés (2017). Nueva Ilustración radical. Barcelona: Anagrama.

[2] F. “Bifo” Berardi (2014) And. Phenomology of the End. Helsinki: Aalto University publication series, p. 10.

[3] É. Sadin (2017). La humanidad aumentada. La administración digital del mundo. Buenos Aires: Caja Negra.

[4] G. Simondon (2008) El modo de existencia de los objetos técnicos. Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros, p. 33.

[5] É. Sadin. op. cit., p. 44

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