As a student I once visited a lecture on “artificial intelligence for social scientists” that confronted me with several provocative scenarios: What if we are approaching an age of intelligent machines? What if humans are about to transform themselves into cyborgs? What if we will be governed by technological systems beyond our control? I was fascinated by these thought experiments – and also suddenly shaken by an ontological insecurity. What if there once will be a society without humans?
The lecture strongly irritated my perspective on the social world. It took a good dose of social science to transform this irritation into productive curiosity: 10 years later I finished my PhD thesis about posthuman utopias. I turned the question concerning posthumanity into a question concerning the social construction of posthumanity. In other words: I regained ontological security in the comforting arms of constructivism. In a way.
Anthropocentric theories that claim that humans construct society (as well as technology and nature) never quite convinced me. My favorite brand of constructivism became Niklas Luhmann’s operative constructivism, a theory concerned with operations which generate social order. In Luhmann’s theory, society does not consist of humans but of social operations. Luhmann’s theory is severly posthuman, because it regards humans – as well as non-humans – as constructs of social operations. Forget ontology! This was Luhmann’s credo. There is no need for ontological insecurity anymore if ontology is “just” a product of operations constructing ontologies. Even if we don’t follow Luhmann’s total disregard for ontological questions, his operative constructivism is still a good antidote against an “ontologization” of the posthuman.
I share Stefanie’s fascination with “[c]yborgs, robots, enhancements, medical technology”, and with posthuman thinking in general. I love to speculate about different interpretations of quantum mechanics. But I am not so sure how it matters for social science “if we are slices, or smears on a universal map of sorts”. Can we escape the trappings of biological interpretations of the human by embracing cosmology? I don’t think that the real value of posthuman theorizing lies in ontological questions. Have we even been human? Are animals actors? Are interactions with machines “real” interactions or just imagined ones? These are fascinating questions, but as a sociologist I don’t believe I that it is my job to answer them.
I rather want to know: How are humans made posthuman? What is the role of technologies (including social technologies and technologies of the self) in this transformation? What kind of actors are included and excluded? How do these processes of inclusion and exclusion reconfigure social relations? Discourses on animals as citizens of “Zoopolis” and experiments with autonomous cars as new actors on the streets are good examples for contemporary renegotiations of the social. They are pressing political concerns as well as expressions of a new ontological insecurity. Posthumanism might help us analyzing these insecurities without falling back to ontological arguments.
However, the posthuman has two problems: the “post” and the “human”…