Reconciling nostalgia with posthumanism

I had an interesting conversation with a friend recently, which came off the back of our last workshop in #SRDW2017 on posthumanism. While we established that we were both in support of this theoretical shift of how we view ‘our’ place in the world, we still found ourselves reflecting on a time before digital technologies became so prominent in our lives. I was struck by our nostalgia and ability to romanticise a time that is quickly passing. I realised that it was this ‘nostalgic mindset’ that can make people like myself apprehensive in fully accepting, albeit critically, this inevitable social transformation. After all, I’ve found that using posthumanism as a theoretical lens can shed some wonderful light on how to better research and view the digital world.

In laymen terms, posthumanism refers to a way of looking at the world whereby the human species no longer holds the dominant or central position. Rather, they are ‘decentred’ and a greater emphasis is placed on the role non-human agents — animals, environment, digital technology — play in the world and our lives. In short, it calls into question our preconceived notions of ‘human and non-human’, ‘subject and object’, and opens the door for new understandings to be conceived. The dystopian television series Black Mirror illustrates how such cherished binaries are challenged by digital technology.

I think it’s safe to assume that when people first hear the term ‘posthumanism’ it automatically triggers a montage of Sci-Fi movies and novels of cyborgs and robots taking over the world or, worse yet, our jobs! My intent here is not to trivialise people’s concerns and fears of being squeezed out by ‘robots’. Rather, I’m trying to posit that we need to look beyond the divisive and limited binary of ‘positive-negative’ or ‘good-bad’, and start from the vantage point that society is undergoing a fundamental transformation (like that of the industrial revolution), which calls into question our ‘anthropocentric’ view of the world. Although I have no intentions of ascribing utopian connotations to posthumanism, I will say this: it’s quite mind blowing to view the world in such a way where human beings are seen as a single entity among many and not as the most significant entity.

In terms of my research outlook, postmodernism has allowed me to challenge traditionally-held dichotomies of thought such as ‘subject and object’, ‘private and public’, and ‘human and machine’, and consider new knowledges/approaches where digital technologies and humans are seen as an entangled entity which come together to constitute a partnership.

While it’s beyond the scope of this blog post (any my intellectual capacity) to list the various methodologies that enable researchers with such an approach, it’s worthwhile noting that even a slight brush with posthumanism (as was mine) is enough to unsettle and unearth taken-for-granted views on humanity, technology, the world and everything else in it. I’ll leave you with this thought: acknowledging that the digital is encroaching on, and infiltrating, all aspects of our lifeworlds, means working towards dispelling this ‘nostalgic mindset’ of the “good old days”, because it unjustifiably romanticises humanism.