Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Transhuman/Posthuman: What's the difference?

I have no degree in cybernetics, therefore my work with transhumanism stems from my own disciplines: writing and language.

They are not disparate. Writing is the vehicle through which I have explored many many different ideas, occurrences, and phenomena. Language is something which connects all things. As such, the language we use becomes critical, despite however easy it may be to take the default option of laziness and whine, "it all means the same thing."

Which is why I'm glad I read this article by Kevin LaGrandeur. He is a faculty member at The New York Institute of Technology and is a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. The piece makes a concise and clear distinction between the terms "posthuman" and "transhuman" while mildly admonishing those who use the terms interchangeably, something I ashamedly have done at times. So what is the difference between them?

"Posthuman" describes a new state of being. It is a "mode" of sorts where humanity and intelligent technology become merged to greater and greater degrees. So much so that the definition of "human" is no longer constrained to the form and crude matter of the body, but it becomes defined by what you do. This means being self-aware, intelligent, and empathetic among many other aspects. As I have attempted to convey time and again to detractors, these attributes exist beyond the physical and should not be affected (but perhaps they can be enhanced) by changing the physical. This kind of flexible thinking is especially helpful when considering a person who has had their consciousness uploaded. By the posthuman definition, they are still human even if disembodied.

"Transhumanism" is the act of modifying the human body via emerging technologies. This goes beyond "hardware" such as implants and cybernetic limbs and extends further into things like genetic engineering and bioengineering. Again, during my clashes with the naysayers of transhumanism, I have argued that the simple act of taking a vitamin is a form of transhumanism. You have taken a product of technology into your body with the end goal of enhancing said body. The human body is nothing more than a system. A system can be altered. One example of a burgeoning transhumanist effort to modify the system would be anti-aging.  Extending human lifespan well beyond the natural can most certainly be seen as "modification."

LaGrandeur makes another important distinction between the two terms, posthuman and transhuman:

"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."

And therein lies where I, evidently, have misapplied the terms at times.

As I typically close out posts on transhumanism (and I suppose posthumanism as well), I will try to bring this down to the personal level. No, I will not be talking about how depressed I am and how I hope cybernetics will one day help me to switch my emotions off. You've all suffered enough. But speaking of suffering, I have been watching someone I love go through continuous physical deterioration. Let me tell you, if you were going through this, the promise of transhumanism or even posthumanism would be a source of hope and would mute any petty philosophical objections that you might have. Let's take control of our biology...or perhaps even discard it altogether. The posthuman era can't come soon enough for me.

In the meantime, I will be undergoing great cogitation before deciding whether to write "posthuman" or "transhuman" in any given sentence.

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