Category: Transhumanism and Anthropology

Swarming Syphilis: On the Reality of Data

(Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of the Thematic Series Data Swarms Revisited) Syphilis, an infection caused by the bacterium treponema pallidum, is an important disease. It starts as a skin lesion and develops until it deforms bones, compromises the central nervous system, and ultimately causes death. During pregnancy, the disease can also be transmitted from mother to child. It has accompanied our species at least since the Renaissance and generated various innovations in modern science throughout this history. It helped give rise to serology through the Wasserman Reaction (Fleck 2010), the first detection test, and it was crucial for the consolidation of somatological perspectives of mental illnesses in psychiatry (Carrara and Carvalho 2010). Due to sexual transmission of the disease, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it became the evil venereal illness par excellence in restrictive sexual regimes (Fleck 2010; Quetel 1986). Since that time, syphilis has laid the foundations for codes of social conduct and even for ideas of the “self” in western societies, for example in criminalizing prostitution (Carrara 1996; Bastos 2007) and shaping contagion theories and its relations of body-subject (Echeverría 2010). (read more...)

Multiple Modes of Being Human

(Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of the Thematic Series Data Swarms Revisited) In the last couple of years, I have been toying around with the ideas of “modes of humanism,” “inventing new modes of being human,” and modes of existence, such as data swarms and the pre-, post-, and transhuman. However, I was never really able to wrap my head around the question, what it really means when Bergson, Simondon, and others speak about the possibilities of “new modes of being human.” Modes of being human signify a multiplicity of possible forms of being human. These forms differ historically and culturally. (read more...)

Angelology and Technoscience

(Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of the Thematic Series Data Swarms Revisited) The study of angels, angelology, is seldomly taken seriously. Instead, it is seen as the topic of ridicule, exemplifying the irrelevancy and unworldliness of some academic questions: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Why would angels have knees? Do angels have sexes? Further, angels often reference disembodiment and neutrality, ideas any decent posthuman scholar seems to abhor. Nevertheless, I would argue that angels are a fruitful way to critically assess our posthuman condition. Angels embody a number of valued characteristics of our posthuman selves, but also a number of transformations in how science is currently practiced– what I would like to call technoscience. Technoscience refers then to a range of new disciplines, such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology, robotics, or data science. These are new disciplines where classic distinctions between science and technology, nature and artifact, are disappearing. Posthuman thought and technoscience have remarkable similarities, but, in contrast to posthumanism, our attitude towards technoscience is ambivalent. Do we really want that kind of science for our future? Or, differently put, do we really want to become angels? (read more...)

Data Swarms Revisited – New Modes of Being

Editor’s Note: The new Platypus Thematic Series entitled “Data Swarms Revisited” will feature posts form computer science, philosophy and anthropology and connect to the Thematic Series Anthropos Tomorrow: Transhumanism and Anthropology inaugurated by Jon Bialecki and Ian Lowrie on Platypus in 2017. The posts will deal with overarching questions of the so-called “human condition” in times of accelerated computation, digitalization and technological infrastructures. Herein, the figuration of the Data Swarm serves as a playful and slightly ironic approximation to the threats and promises embedded in these on-going controversies. At the end of September 2019, it was already the fourth time that both the Research Lab of the a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities Cologne and the Collaborative Research Center 806 “Our Way to Europe” had invited an interdisciplinary group of international graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to meet at the Cologne Summer School of Interdisciplinary Anthropology (CSIA). For an entire week, the participants delved into the many controversies about the so-called “human condition” and what it actually means to “be human” in the 21st century.[2] After three years of discussing the latest material and practice turns along the Phenomenality of Material Things, in 2019, the CSIA relaunched its inquiries in new modes of being and humanism(s) under the theme of Beyond Humanism: Cyborgs – Animals – Data Swarms. With an apparent elective affinity to Donna Haraway (Haraway 2016b), we picked up where the last CSIA left by taking a closer look at what trans– and posthumanist agendas actually imply and how they relate to classic understandings of the human condition. Our goal was not simply dismissing these new modes of humanism(s) as mere social phenomena in an age of accelerated technological and cultural transformations but to take them seriously in order to better understand the shifts in contemporary concepts and controversies about being human. Through historically tracing back modes of humanism and their counterparts, as well as excavating their ontological and epistemological conditions, we identified three relational contestations of what it no longer means and three figurations of what it nowadays means to be human. The contestations are: (1) the distribution of human subjectivity and cognition, (2) the disintegration of human individuality, and (3) the dissolution of humanity as a unique ontological category. (read more...)

Human as the Ultimate Authority in Control

(Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of the Thematic Series Data Swarms Revisited) With the growing size of historical data available to researchers and industrial practitioners, developing algorithms for automating numerous aspects of everyday human life has become ever more dependent on data-driven techniques. Previous approaches relying on formal methods and global optimization no longer meet the increasing scalability requirements of modern applications. One of the most successful global optimization algorithms, such as Particle Swarm Optimization (PSO), continues to be employed in practice but more often as a part of more complex approaches, only being able to provide partial solutions to complex modern optimization problems. PSO was first introduced by Kennedy and Eberhart (1995) who were inspired by the most mesmerizing phenomenon in nature—bird flocking. As in any collective behavior, birds converge to an equilibrium formation that maximizes their benefits as individuals and as a society overall. V-Formation as (read more...)

Portending the Posthuman on YouTube

During this most spooky time of year, it is apropos to explore our transmogrification into posthumanity—a concept that instills fear in the hearts of many scholars, including many anthropologists, who are especially afraid that exploring this terrain precipitates the end of their discipline. For humanities studies scholar Rosi Braidotti (2013: 5), there is an “undeniably gloomy connotation to the posthuman condition, especially in relation to genealogies of critical thought.” In her view, our lack of theorization of posthuman subjectivity has brought us into a “zombified landscape of repetition without difference and lingering melancholia” (Braidotti 2013: 5). To be honest, I share numerous concerns about posthumanist claims and their implications. However, whether widespread posthuman-phobia is warranted remains to be explored. (read more...)

Gods, AIs, and Mormon Transhumanism

I’d like to start this post by juxtaposing two scenes. The first one is set about two years ago, and occurred on the third floor of the Provo, Utah Convention Center. The scene was very similar to the one found in any academic conference—down to the dais, the rows of chairs, and a screen designed for projecting PowerPoint slides. We were between presentations, and as often happens during moments such as these, I was spending the interstitial moments catching up with acquaintances I mostly know from on-line interactions. In the case at hand, the person I was talking to is in his late twenties or early thirties, someone who had recently left his position in the United States Marines; in fact, he had left the military so recently that he still had the short haircut associated with service. On his arm, he also had a tattoo of an electromagnetic equation. He is holding one hand out in front of my face as we talk. In normal conversations, a gesture like that would be rude, but this was not a normal conversation. This is because he was describing how, at very close distances, he can feel the presence of electricity with his hands. He had gained this ability through intervening in his physical body—biohacking—which I will return to shortly. (read more...)

Transhumanism, Tragic Humanism, and The View From Nowhere

A number of scholars of post-humanity (such as Hayles and Wolfe) have argued that transhumanism is an unduly optimistic extension of humanism. I can’t agree – not only is it not optimistic, it is not a humanism. Transhumanism is filled with the anxiety of extinction. It also is enthused enough about non-human flourishing that it marks a departure from humanism (besides: is anything more optimistic than humanism in its enlightenment mode?). Transhumanism’s posthumanist stance is the continuation of enlightenment technoscience in so far as it centralizes human technology, even if it projects the technoscientific breakdown of humanity. However, insofar as its ideas and projected technologies propose an almost panpsychic collapse of mind and matter, it pushes us beyond reductive materialist, secular and humanist arrangements, and points to some interesting new openings. (read more...)