Human Definitions: Evolution and the Next Theoretical Phase of Being

I’m fascinated by the idea that space is not a fixed but a fluid concept, and one subject to change depending on the era. A major consequence of industrialization in the nineteenth century was the new popular sense that, through inventions like the telegraph or steam engine, space had been conquered by humans. The world got even smaller, theoretically, in the post-war era with more advanced telecommunications and increased travel by air. A fantastic article I read recently by Sadeq Rahimi describes this as “depriving geography of identity,” a hallmark of the modern era.

We are fairly confident in our mastery of space, I think, in the age of blogs and Google Maps. But, as the same article points out, we have not yet mastered time. We exist as time-bound creatures, both as individuals and as a species (since, eventually, our sun will go cold and unless we’ve found another inhabitable solar system, that’s it). And we define ourselves in time, as products of our age: as postmodern, perhaps, or Baby Boomers, or twenty-first-century humans. But this becomes problematic when time shifts quickly enough that we struggle to form coherent identities. As Rahimi notes:

The conflict is fundamental: if self-identification has traditionally always already implied a reference in time, then acceleration is inherently the enemy of identity, by continuously curtailing the ‘stuff’ identity is made of. It is not a coincidence perhaps that the concerns of social sciences have gradually moved from being able to predict the future to being content with simply explaining the present, as the high speed of change leaves little room for the luxury of prediction.

If this continues, we will ultimately be unable to define ourselves as we do, in time, as human. We would need to be constantly re-inventing and re-iterating ourselves, re-imagining who we are. In a theoretical sense, this would be termed “posthuman.”

Since I just love terms that are prefixed by “post-,“ I did some research into the concept of posthumanness, to see how much it had to do with its cousins, postmodernism, postfeminism, and posthistoricalism. Turns out, it has as much to do with Battlestar Galactica.

Theoretical posthumanism dates back to Steve Nichols’s 1988 The Posthuman Manifesto, a controversial work that argued that because we are now so advanced, we are already posthuman compared with our ancestors. The debate has evolved to centre around the idea that (and this is according to Wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt), “posthuman is not necessarily human in the first place, but is rather an embodied medium through which critical consciousness is manifested.”

Heavy stuff. But it makes sense, when we think of constantly re-imagining our present-day identities, to also talk of re-imagining our future selves. According to many posthumanists, the next stage of our evolution is the gradual incorporation of technology with biology, a coming roboticization of the human race. Some might recoil in horror or fear at the thought of becoming machines. It doesn’t seem human somehow, not to be distinct, and flawed, and somewhat messy. The uniformity and perfectibility of technology seems to be at odds with the very idea of what it means to be human. But it’s only natural, they argue, and in some ways I’d even argue that it has already happened. We have pacemakers and various plastic augmentations inside our bodies, and corrective lenses and steel limbs outside of them. Is it so much of a stretch to think that next will be automated GPS mapping or artificial memory recall implants, as some have suggested?

I suspect the reason people fear such a future is because they fear the inequalities it would create. Visions of a Brave New World-like universe abound, in which a small group of oligarchs rule, and all others exist in a semi-comatose state effected by drug dependency and decayed mental facilities.  In such a world, there would be an upper class of posthumans who’d have the capital and access to technology to improve upon their human blueprint, and an underclass who wouldn’t. The upper class would be so far superior to the other that they would rule absolutely. They would own both robot and human means of production, in essence forming a Marxist superbourgeoisie.  And, their production needs satisfied by machines or ordinary humans, they would exist solely to seek amusement from others.

In some ways, these doomsday visions aren’t so different from what we see today. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracist, I’d argue that there is indeed an upper class today with access to the means of production, money, and technology – not quite a superbourgeoisie, but one closer to Marx’s idea of a the ruling class. In a broad way, this includes most members of the Western world, who are healthier, wealthier, and more able to access the things they want and need in life that those, say, roughly south of the equator. In a more narrow sense, it is the powerbrokers of society: the wealthy tycoons, the politically powerful, and those who have the authority to make military or other government policy decisions.

And the rest of the world does in some ways exist in a kind of semi-comatose, consumption-fuelled dream (nightmare?) already. Much of the fear surrounding the “Great Recession,” as we are apparently now calling it, has grown from the realization that Western societies operate almost entirely as service economies in the kind of era-specific invented industries that I spoke about in earlier posts: hair dressers, insurance adjusters, pop psychiatrists, entertainment bloggers. In some ways we already do exist solely to amuse each other, particularly if we count acquiring and then playing with money as amusement. And new needs are invented every day, from material objects like iPads, to emotions, like the need to be “in the know” (through using Twitter) or the growing popularity of being “green.” And since we live only to consume, and rarely to produce, we in the West are in trouble, slaves to a growing China because of our love of cheap TVs from Wal-Mart.

I’ve always thought that much of the fear people have for the future comes from a deep, if unacknowledged, sense that they currently hold an advantageous position relative to their peers and that this might not be so were things to change. This is why so many of the robot-takeover or China-ascendant polemicists are from advanced Western societies: they don’t want their own status to change. And who would? But I doubt they need worry, as the trajectory of this new evolution favours just those who are currently powerful. This is where technology is so dangerous. As a tool, it vastly augments the existing inequalities within human relations. Humans have never been able to control their evolution before, and being able to do so would only magnify the differences that are now but slight, in a biological, evolutionary sense. Biological inequalities can be the most deeply-rooted. But there will no doubt be a power struggle that will even the playing field – again.

What I’ve read of a coming posthuman era seems to me only to validate the tendencies of the current, all-too-human age, the desire to have power over others paramount among them. Visions of the future always reflect the present (and past). Indeed, the very idea of posthumanity itself betrays a very human (and apparently ‘postmodern’) need to identify everything within the linearity of time. If being posthuman is, as Wikipedia so confusingly asserts, not necessarily human at all but rather “an embodied medium through which critical consciousness is manifested,” we need to re-think what being human is, because I’m pretty sure I meet embodied media every day that display critical consciousness (to varying degrees…). By this definition, I think my blog might be posthuman, since there’s a fair bit of critical consciousness in the comments sections.

And I suspect that anything with critical consciousness will seek to form an identity, if not through time than through language, or physicality, or some other “human” means of classification. Would this not be human, then? So much of theory seems to come down to semantics, anyway – the world is what we think it is, as individuals and as a society. So our identity, in the end, comes down to what we say it is: space-bound, time-bound, human-entity-bound… or not.  To paraphrase a famous Ford saying (as we are now in the Year of Our Ford…what, 107?): whether you think you are, or you think you aren’t, you’re right.

Gosh, isn’t that such a posthuman thing to say?

4 Responses to Human Definitions: Evolution and the Next Theoretical Phase of Being

  1. David says:

    Love the blog! I thought you might like to know that this entry is on the intro reading for my 3rd year class on posthumanism in the Fall.

    • Kathryn Exon says:

      That is pretty fantastic. Thanks! I’d love to hear any feedback you get on the topic — I’ve been thinking about a follow-up post…

  2. David says:

    Not sure if it is up your alley, but there is a lot of pretty sophisticated work on posthumanism that emphasizes animality rather than (or in addition to) the technological side of it; might be something to chew on for any follow-ups.
    As for feedback, I’ll encourage students to post their thoughts directly to the comments section; by all accounts, it’ll be a pretty savvy group.
    (Oh, and a self-correction: it is actually a 4th year class)

  3. Daniel says:

    Behind the incorporation of machine elements into the post human is the desire to extend our power and our senses. These sense extenders cover the electromagnetic spectrum beyond the visual, acoustical waves beyond what we hear and less dramatic extensions in the other senses. the ultimate Cyborg does not have a laser weapon replacing his fingers but the ability to literally tap into all human perceptions both internal and external

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