N00bz & the Actor-Network: Transhumanist Traductions

Nothing surprises us; fat, wall-eyed robots clothing themselves in glandular carpets, wishy-washy sexualities, ears on mice… artificial life.  We do now live in “the future”, no matter how much we winge about the fact that jetpacks weren’t waiting when we got here.  So it behooves us, before we’re washed out to drift forever in cynicism and jadedness, to look at the foundations for some of this transhumanism business.  Not the leeward and courseward zig-zag of discoveries and engineering so much, but the ideologies that allow for an understanding of what this stuff is all about.

As it turns out, transhumanism is an embodiment of a popular (or at least buzzy at the time) idea from the social sciences of the 1980s: Actor-Network Theory.  Actor-Network Theory (ANT), suggesting that all nodes within a social network are social actors — whether human, animal, or machine — is a ready tool for finding peace with cyborgs and other less tidy things, and giving them room to grow in our 21st Century cultures.

By now, we know the caricatures of transhumanists well: the flesh and feelings of human beings, wetly brooding and slumping over clackety keyboards, will be infused with dreamish tech; the result straightens the spine, awakens the kundalini by command-line, and allows nerds to churlishly march to the stars, now half-man and now half-quantum-computer. The network wakes up in the flesh.  Pinging nodes like spammers, electron blue binary patterns play on lymph nodes.  Stutter multi-dimensionaly, sputtering synaesthetic.  It’s a boon.  There’ll be girls.

The reality is different.  Daily, transhumanist-leaning academics put in hours building up solid philosophical bases on which to seat a movement that would make us ready to face a co-evolution of human and human technology.  Nick Bostrom’s efforts at establishing transhumanism within the earlier framework of humanist philosophy stands as an example.  Or, if you like, you may think of the thousands of transhumanist-prone programmers and engineers who daily write the code and build the engines that will make intense and purposeful co-evolution possible.  That’s not a march to the stars — it’s a grinding and caffeinated march to the cubicle and keyboard.  We can’t favor either of the “two cultures” of C.P. Snow in these efforts; doers and thinkers are both slogging through the goo together.

ANT provides help.  Any scientist trying to understand the information revolution and attendant technological ramp-up since the 1980s would do well to go back and spend some time with it. Whether we’re talking about the “boundary objects” of Bijker, Hug’s explorations of computer networks on hierarchical social structures, or communications blackboxing in the developing world, ANT charted some wild changes as they happened.  Simple things are a nest of complex networks of people and their built environments.  When Madeleine Akrich looked into the transfer of forest industry technology from Northern Europe to Central America, she found much more than a simple economic transaction.  It turns out that an exponentially glutted and mutant variety of globalization was peeking out of the Cold War’s birth canal and winking at Nicaraguan farm laborers.  Machines were on the move, and people were trying to keep up.

John Law, Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and plenty of others put a name to a set of tools that could begin to describe the new kinds of relationships budding from all these new, faster, asymmetrical and asynchronous interactions with others (other people, other things, other processes).  They hammered out this Actor-Network Theory, which gained traction up until the early 90s.  At some point, it seems, the advent of mass usage of the Web obviated the point… yeah, networks… we get it.

But the points made by ANT are still sound, and the popular recognition of “the network” as an important ontological metaphor (everything’s, like, interconnected man!) doesn’t mean the work of ANT is done.  Its deeper implications have yet, in fact, to be realized — even by the ivory tower.

And it is in the work of transhumanists that the harder lessons of ANT will be realized.  It’s fun to speculate about the future, and it’s (perhaps) more fun to watch the weird writhing on the daily news as the future and the present get to know each other in new ways now.  But the tough questions have barely begun to be formulated.  We see plenty of clues as to how the changes in technology are beginning to affect our relationships: the Facebook bullying that leads to a suicide… the identity play that smears marriages across virtual worlds… or robotic-traffic-signal-photo-policing-efforts…  In each case, we get forced to think differently about who other people are, how we relate to them, and to what degree we let “technology” mediate our presence with other humans.

It’s funny. By now it’s so ingrained in us, that the very notion of “technology” seems somehow attached to human identity.  It’s just part of us.

And that’s what ANT is all about.  That’s what viewing technological artifacts and environments as social actors can help us to understand. If elevators and car keys and thermostats and phones contain us or parts of us, and if we somehow also contain them (by knowing how to make the machines that know how to make them… or, at least, by knowing how to program and hack them), the differences between technology and person get folded up into a new network of identities. We need to understand what that network is, how it changes the way we see each other, and how it alters our identity as human.

If ever Actor-Network Theory becomes buzzworthy again, it may give transhumanism the foundation it needs to climb out of the Cheetos bag and into halls of power.

Woody Evans is a writer and private researcher from southern Mississippi.  You can find his work in American Libraries, Searcher Magazine, Juked, 971 Menu, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Journal of Evolution and Technology, and others.  His next book, Information Dynamics in Virtual Worlds, is due out from Chandos next Spring.  Find him on woodyevans.com.

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