posting by Terrie Lynn Thompson & Cathy Adams
Digital technologies have been catalyzing a seemingly endless series of shifts and adjustments to our professional and personal worlds. Few are immune. Educators grapple with one-to-one laptop classrooms, mobile learning, and learning analytics. Healthcare professionals depend on an increasingly vast complex of diagnostic tools, monitoring devices, and health informatics. Social science researchers engage a growing host of computational and communication technologies to conduct their inquiries—from Google Scholar to Qualitative Data Analysis (QDA) Software.
Daily routines, knowledge practices and decision-making are increasingly outsourced to software programs, big databases, algorithms, bots, and global circuitry to perform this work on our behalf. New demands, responsibilities and ethical tensions are emerging. Situated at the center of much that transpires today, the digital is indeed more than “just a tool”.
How do practitioners and researchers reckon with the way concerns and responsibilities are increasing distributed across networks of coded materialities? Posthumanism tells us that the borders between the who and the what are contingent and leaky. See our recent posting on this blog (Oct 22/2016) that explores posthumanism as a way of embracing one’s inner and outer cyborg.
Where, for example, does one’s responsibility begin and end if professional practices are increasing shared or outsourced to software programs? While some of our technology-human entanglements may be deliberate (e.g., practitioners may choose to use Facebook to engage their clients/students/patients), practices often also change in far more subtle and unseen ways as the tentacles of other “distant” actors (e.g., big data collected by Facebook may be used by unknown others) and practices (e.g., Facebook may connect practitioner and client/student/patient lives in unexpected ways) are manifest closer to home.
Near as well as far-reaching involvements—extending across both time and space—introduce new ethical tensions and responsibilities. Issues of agency distributed across actor-networks are complicated and condensed by powerful digital actors such as Google, learning analytics, and big databases. How may citizens begin to uncover, explore, and comment critically on what is happening when they cannot see inside the blackboxes of proprietary algorithms, let alone understand them if they were granted such access? Such questions point to a need for a more informed and educated global citizenry able to engage in debates about digital issues.
If we acknowledge that our practices—including our research methods—are necessarily performative and world making, and that our thinking, being and doing are always already infected today with the digital and its programs, how may we hope to act responsibly? If ontology and epistemology are intimately intertwined, and if knowledge is simultaneously enacted and discovered, what might ethics look like in such a situation?
Developing a posthumanist ethic necessarily involves grappling with the multiple implications of our hybrid, networked selves. The posthuman knows that adopting a digital technology means subscribing to its enhanced “eyes” … and also to its opinionated algorithms and complex decision-making structures that extend deep into the local and broadly into the global.
Distribution of agency must not be equated with distribution of responsibility. Ethics urgently needs to press beyond narrow conceptions of the stand-alone, autonomous human being towards what David Roden (2015) calls the networked Wide Human (WH).
At the root here is the recognition that ethics always involves cuts: yes to this, no to that. Posthumanism queries the many taken-for-granted cleavages that have undergirded western thought—subject/object, human/nonhuman, male/female, nature/culture, etc.—and throws us into a churning unbounded world of flowing, networked hybrids that associate and disassociate. Posthumanism means that the project of ethics must find new ground and begin anew: axiology is intimately intertwined with ontology and epistemology.
This posting is an excerpt from our recently published book:
Adams, C., & Thompson, T. L. (2017). Researching a Posthuman World: Interviews with Digital Objects. Basingstoke and London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Roden, D. (2015). Posthuman life: Philosophy at the edge of the human. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.