Facing the Future

The future. An enduring cultural fascination yet an inherently elusive entity. As Jeaneatte Winterson writes, "The future lies ahead like a glittering city, but like the cities of the desert disappears when approached."

The future is very much the realm of extremes, as Jason previously discussed in his post on synthetic biology. We imagine the best and worst of what we think is possible or likely. We are rarely right. The future will likely continue to surprise us as much as it has in the past. But while it is unlikely that the futures as discussed and predicted today will ever come to pass, discussions about possible futures do tell us a lot about the present.

So what do dreams of posthuman futures tell us? That our very sense of humanity is conflicted. That we see ourselves as both angels and devils. That technology is a double-edged sword we are unsure whether or not to trust ourselves with. Perhaps we are just learning to grow into our responsibility, or perhaps we are losing this race with progress and will eventually be outstripped, by robots or earthquakes or our own narcissistic desire to control and perfect what we do not understand.

How do we address the paradox of nurturing the intended while creating what we don’t understand? How do we regulate something expanding and evolving so rapidly as genetic technologies? The answer cannot simply be an agnotological “oh well, nobody knows what will happen”. Human – or posthuman – we can do better than this deliberately blind optimism as an excuse for going full speed ahead.

In my own work, I use the term posthumanism to indicate a de-centering of the human subject while taking seriously the liveliness and agency of the nonhuman world. The unit of analysis in such a posthumanist space is objects that are neither pure nature nor pure culture. At first I thought this seemed quite different from the posthumanism discussed at the recent Our Post-Human Future event. But in fact, these different forms of posthumanism do share some common themes. For instance, both reject the sharp distinction between nature and culture, or body and technology. Both inhabit a world understood more through networks and hybrid figures than pure forms. But the difference lies in the ethics.

Rather than reject hybrid forms, post-human feminist technoscience calls us to embrace them not as monstrous other, but as connected and constitutive of our own subjectivity, our own humanity even (as Michael warns in his post, “Stare in the eyes of a cyborg and you'll find a reflection”). But we are not to do so uncritically, quite the contrary. Thinking about what direction we want to aim our current efforts is crucial. But more than that, how we imagine the future does effect how the future manifests. We must attend to the possibilities that are both created and shut off by our actions and interactions.

Yet nostalgia for the past will help us no more than blind optimism for the future. What post-humanism desperately needs is more post-disciplinary work, more commonly called transdisciplinarity, which blurs the boundaries between disciplines and between academics, policy makers, technicians and the public. Transdisciplinarity addresses the inherent complexity, non-linearity and heterogeneity of the human and nonhuman world by taking a more holistic view than the typically fragmented understandings that modern systems of knowledge production provide. Posthuman debates over technologies such as synthetic biology, human enhancement, and robotic life degenerate into a for/against dichotomy at our peril. As social scientists and philosophers, are we going to actively engage and participate in making the future, or protest at the sidelines in fear of it?

One possible solution that struck me was to start teaching ethics, science & society together at an early age. As technologies advance ever-more rapidly, it is often kids who understand it best. How might we help them to also develop the critical tools needed to shape it wisely, facing it with open senses and hearts?

Lisa Cockburn is a doctoral student in science and technology studies at York University. You can find out more about her here.