Re: Defining Humanness

How do we define what it means to be human? There are many ways to answer this question. Of course, there is no single right answer, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to find one. Or some. The way we choose to answer it may reflect back to us our values, our needs, our fears, and our desires. Through the question, we can examine our grievances with the world around us and our criteria for a preferred future.

At Matter-Mind Studio, we’re etymology nerds. We’re curious about the origin of terms and how their meanings evolve, broaden, or invert. And how frequency of use affects the impact of words. Sometimes overuse can render some of our most interesting words underwhelming. Consider the word “awesome,” for example.

As practitioners working in the space of “human-centered” design, and design to “support human emotion,” we feel a responsibility to be specific about what we mean when we use the word “human.” We looked inward and found that our own answers to the question were… complex.

So we then turned outward to philosophers and scientists who have been grappling with this question long before us. For centuries, people have worked to pin down the traits and behaviors that distinguish us from from other creatures on the earth. It was necessary to develop an explanation for how we managed our superior position in the food chain despite the fact that we cannot run very fast, swim very well, or fly. It’s widely agreed that our development of a sophisticated all purposed tool known as the Acheulean handaxe is one of our most important evolutionary moments. Today, in a post industrial world, we are confronted with a new kind of otherness — human vs. machine. Now instead of declaring superiority we insist on our specialness.

Achuelean Handaxe

Realizing that our research of this topic will be an ongoing exploration, we decided to project this question outward: to our friends, neighbors, families, mentors, and strangers on the street. Check out our interview teaser below and stay tuned for upcoming episodes in which we’ll unpack the question of humanness through thematic lenses.

For more information about our work around this topic, please feel free to reach out through!

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