The social ontology of trans-human life

My notes on Maccarini, A. M. (2018). Trans-human (life-) time: Emergent biographies and the ‘deep change’in personal reflexivity. In Realist Responses to Post-Human Society: Ex Machina (pp. 138-164). Routledge.

One of the interesting features of the recent Centre for Social Ontology project on defending the human has been the realisation that many in the group are entirely open to the idea of trasnhumanism even while rejecting the notion of posthumanism. Andrea Macacarini draws the useful distinction between a post-human society (the radically other autonomous subjects, originally human or otherwise, as well as the ensuing social order emerging from them)and the trans-human change of human beings (transhumanization = processes through which an enduring and significant transition in human nature occurs, expanding their capacities and characteristics beyond the current species average), with the potential for each being found in two groups of phenomena: the inner transformation of humans through deep relationships with emerging  technologies and the development of non-human and non-living entities which come to exhibit an apparently autonomous subjectivity. They are inevitably related in practice but need to be distinguished in principle because of the different relations they entail between (a) the relationship of human beings to emerging technological agents (b) how the character of human beings are changed by those relations. They lead, as Macacarini puts it, to a “criss of the idea of a human subject” with unique characteristics able to realise species-specific outcomes (pg 139).

His concern is with  “conceivable forms of human enhancement that could lead to change  human beings with respects to their species-specific features” in a way “affecting their self-awareness, self-understanding, and lifestyle”. However most account of these possibilities “begin with technological advancements and then work their way through the possible meanings, consequences, required adaptations, and side effects of such technical tools and developments on culture, society and human beings”. This means that social and cultural analysis is restricted to the consequence of these facts, as opposed to a sociological approach which entails treating “the post-human phenomenon as a fully social and cultural fact” i.e. the prior social and cultural factors which allow these technological developments to have the impact which they do (pg 140). He argues that we can identify prior social and cultural trends which anticipate transhuman tendencies, finding their expression in technological change but with origins that precede it. As he puts it, “deep change is taking place, building persons who conceive of themselves as ‘differently human’, and thereby come to perceive the ‘trans-humanizing’ techniques as desirable tools to fulfil their needs”. Doing so helps us move beyond the choice of siding with either “enthusiastic post-humanism or with worried humanist” whose concerns, as well as the space between them, “constitute the core matter of many studies” (pg 142).

He astutely identifies a ‘messianic hope in technology driven trans-humanization” underpinning “a hidden assumption, namely that post-human persons will represent the accomplishment of humans best dreams” (pg 144). This explains a certain optimism in the literature in response to problems he categorise as equality, collective survival and ontological dignity because post-humans are quietly assumed to retain and express the best of the human. Beyond the cognitive achievements and physical attributes of trans-humans what can we expect of their moral dispositions, deep identity and self-understanding? He makes this interesting methodological suggestion that the only way to address these questions is to “look into what humans are currently looking for when they seek self-enhancement, and why humans would want to become enhanced themselves” (pg 144).

He explores this through the notion of the biographical scheme, relevant because it is a point of intersection where structure and cultural condition the unfolding of the life-course. Biographical schemes organise our experience of temporality, integrating our activity and experience over time into a coherent whole which links our inner experience of time through to time in our relations with others and on to the outer sense of history unfolding. He discusses a number of temporal transformations which might contribute to this: social accelerationtimeless time (beyond human experience e.g. computing), no waiting culture (the immediacy of current concerns fade into a continuous present: “the quest for achieving well-being by overcoming temporal limits” as he puts it on pg 153), performance culture (ever increasing temporal efficiency). Under these conditions “human beings are increasingly requested to develop rapid decision making, an enhanced capacity for computation ,management of emotions, simultaneous consideration of many factors, the capacity to work and make good decisions under pressure, the aptitude for team work, creativity in looking for fresh solutions, and more” (pg 150). Coping with these pressure might be contingently compatible with transhuman enhancement, constituting a vector of change because these enhancements are liable to change the conditions e.g. by increasing the experienced competition which led people to use cognitive enhancers in the first place.

But what does this mean for human being? Macacarini draws on Archer’s conception of reflexivity over the life course, in which the necessity of selection (from available opportunities, as much as they might vary between people and across time and place) inevitably gives shape to a life as the accumulation of past-choices increasingly constraints future choices as the biological lifecourse unfolds. But this relies on the assumption of sequential experience (challenged by timeless time), locality (robotics and virtual reality), rhythmicity (challenged by performance culture and acceleration), irreversibility (challenged by emerging technologies such as anti-ageing innovations) and self-transcendence (challenged by longer lives and the experienced change of the social institutions through which self-transcendence was sought). If these changes are leading to a transhuman way to inhabit time then what does it mean for the ideals of living which intermingle with our approach to making our way through the world? He suggests the growth of “individuals who strive to ‘totalize’ themselves and to swallow as many simultaneous possibilities of action and experience as possible, rejecting any definite shape or enduring commitment” through their rejection of the necessity of selection (pg 159).

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