While at conferences and doing research and writing over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a lot of confusion about the terms “posthuman,” “transhuman,” and “posthumanism.” A lot of people—including scholars who should know better—use these terms pretty much interchangeably and indiscriminately. Part of the problem is that these terms are all fairly new. So for clarity’s sake, I offer these simple thumbnail definitions of all three terms…
· Most simply, the posthuman can be defined as that condition in which humans and intelligent technology are becoming increasingly intertwined. More specifically, the posthuman is a projected state of humanity in which unlocking of the information patterns that those who believe in the posthuman say make us what we are—will shift the focus of humanness from our outward appearance to those information patterns.
Thus, the focus will be on function rather than form: humanness will be defined by how a species operates—in other words, whether it processes information like a human, is sentient, empathic, intelligent, and such—rather than how it looks.
Humans and machines will be effectively merged, since differences in appearance will be meaningless (as Katherine Hayles puts it in her book How We Became Posthuman, bodies will essentially become fashion accessories). And, increasingly, some argue that this will also elide differences between humans and other species, as well. In fact, it already has, to some extent. A group called The Nonhuman Rights Project has recently won rights of legal personhood for certain great apes. Thus the posthuman naturally undermines human exceptionalism.
· The transhuman is the project of modifying the human species via any kind of emerging science, including genetic engineering, digital technology, and bioengineering. Transhumanists already use implants to modify their body and seek to also modify human longevity, brain power, and senses. The focus is on using prosthetics and other modifications to enhance, rather than compensate for, normal human functions.
Two significant differences between transhumanism and the posthuman is the posthuman’s focus on information and systems theories (cybernetics), and the posthuman’s consequent, primary relationship to digital technology; and also the posthuman’s emphasis on systems (such as humans) as distributed entities—that is, as systems comprised of, and entangled with, other systems. Transhumanism does not emphasize either of these things.
· Posthumanism derives from the posthuman because the latter represents the death of the humanist subject: the qualities that make up that subject depend on a privileged position as a special, stand-alone entity that possesses unique characteristics that make it exceptional in the universe—characteristics such as unique and superior intellect to all other creatures, or a natural right to freedoms that do not accrue similarly to other animals. If the focus is on information as the essence of all intelligent systems, and materials and bodies are merely substrates that carry the all-important information of life, then there is no meaningful difference between humans and intelligent machines—or any other kind of intelligent system, such as animals.
Or aliens. Or a collection of substances that form an (arguably) intelligent entity, such as a colony of bees, the ecosphere of a planet, a group of algorithms, a group of cellular automata (which a number of thinkers, most notably Stephen Wolfram, believe constitute our universe), or a colony of cells (which is, after all, what a human body is). In other words, human exceptionalism is dead. And we face an era in which we have to come to terms with recognizing ourselves as merely systems integrated with other systems.
This death of the humanist subject leads to the dilemma of how to think of a post-humanist subject position, which is the more academic preoccupation dealt with by “posthumanism” (check Amazon for recent books on posthumanism by Rosi Braidotti and Cary Wolfe, for instance).