A Brief Introduction on How Technology and Ecology are entangled in Posthumanism

by Michelle Geraerts

Have you ever seen robots that communicate with nonhuman animals and plants, or heard of machines that are programmed to learn from their natural environments? Have you ever encountered technologies that collaborate with nonhuman species? It is not very likely that you have, considering how dominant modes of thinking in the West have a history of putting the human species at center stage – and in sharp contrast to some entity called ‘nature’ – when it comes to framing, designing, programming and using technologies.

I had not learned about environmental machine learning until about a year ago, when I encountered artistic research projects of several artists working on the intersection of ecology and technology. Such works connect to a recent shift in the humanities and social sciences that calls for  a more embedded understanding of the intricate relationships between the human and the non-human, in which both artificial nonhumans (e.g. technologies, plastic) and organic nonhumans (e.g. animals, bacteria) are taken more seriously. ‘Posthumanism’ can be positioned within such a shift. It holds relevant ideas for the present through its re-imagining of established categories and its challenging of centrisms – still a scarce, yet urgently needed stance. This article is a brief inquiry into posthumanism as philosophical and artistic framework for thought ánd action, illustrated by an art project that puts this theory into practice. Nevermore-A-Matic (2016), a self-learning robotic objects that communicates with ravens and humans about the end of the world, made by artist Ian Ingram, is a playful yet serious work that reveals the untenability of assumed dichotomies.

Posthumanism: rethinking our anthropocentric legacies

Rigid categories or dualisms like human/nonhuman, culture/nature, artificial/natural are rooted in a Western ideological legacy. For centuries, notions of human self-reliance or ecological independency, coincided by the idea that there is an entity called ‘nature’, separate from and subordinate to humans, have contributed to an anthropocentric worldview, reinforcing the assumption that humans are superior to other beings. It is such a mode of thinking, as Timothy Morton has argued, that has led to major imbalances in ecological flows, connected strongly to socio-cultural issues of power and inequity. 1

The hazardous impact of human activities on the environment has made a sprint from the start of the industrial revolution onwards. Since then, technological developments have rapidly increased in scale and complexity, at the high cost of human induced ecological devastation in the form of deforestation, mass species extinction and the rise of sea levels. Discussions on how to name this time period (Anthropocene? Capitalocene? Chthulucene?) 2 are omnipresent, but whichever name is used, it appears to be a time heavily shaped by the impactful changes that both ecological devastation and technological advancement bring about.

These changes make that the so-called ‘artificial’ and ‘natural’ realms are entangling and hybridizing continuously. Think of technological enhancements of the human body; the development of cultured meat and biomimicry; the effects of electronics, plastics and e-waste on the environment; the creation of new ‘wilderness’ areas; or the computerized monitoring of ecosystems. Is it not remarkable, then, that the ‘artificial’ realm of human-made materials has been and still is dichotomised so often as opposed to the ‘natural’ realm of biology, climate and geology? In other words: why do we divide that which is made so strongly from that which grows? Fueled by today’s fast-paced developments in biotechnology, information technology and the cognitives sciences, such rigid boundaries are starting to blur. The question then arises how to reconstruct our ideas in a way that captures the complex web of entanglements that make up our world?

To answer such a question, I turn to posthumanism as a philosophical framework intending to overcome human primacy. The emphasis of posthumanism goes beyond the human species, but this does not mean that human or social issues are dismissed or ignored – on the contrary, the starting point of posthuman thinking is, according to Rosi Braidotti, to critically acknowledge ‘the extent to which lofty European ideals of Enlightenment-based rational progress and emancipation rest on the world-historical phenomena of colonialism, imperialist conquest, and trade in slaves, women, animals, and earth resources’3

Here, the position of the human shifts out of the center (and centrality overall is dismissed), to become one-out-of-many agents within a complex system of relations.4

Built on these reflections, posthumanism forms a suitable starting point for thinking relational, beyond the boundaries drawn by dualisms. Such an attempt to broaden the focus of ideas and action requires empathy and imagination. Braidotti calls for a ‘process ontology’, as a way to think in relations rather than substances, in nomadic practices rather than fixed truths. 5

In a similar vein, biologist, philosopher and feminist scientist Donna Haraway proposes a way of thinking and acting beyond individualist ways of relating to human and nonhuman others by calling for sympoiesis, literally meaning ‘making-with’.6 In tune with posthuman ways of surpassing set categories, sympoiesis describes ‘collectively-producing systems that do not have self-defined spatial or temporal boundaries’.7 It stands for an active stance, a commitment to collaboration of all different beings on earth, with current urgencies being far more than just human urgencies. Opposing anthropocentrism – embracing sympoiesis – is to understand our inclusion in the earth’s ecology ‘as one being among others’. 8 What I find appealing about these approaches is their creativity and the speculative character that it allows. I take this potential for the creation of new worlds and understandings on the interconnectedness between nature, the human, and technology as able to challenge long-established worldviews.

However, it does not end at reformulations of thought or theoretical pondering: posthumanism is also, as Braidotti writes, ‘a way of living more intensely, by increasing one’s potentia’.9 It is a praxis, because ‘the “what” is the “how”’ – what we imagine possible futures to be like is closely connected to how we act and thus shape them.10 Our actions as humans in a globalised world have spread to exceed the ‘political, social and biological human realms’ onto multidimensional connections that would only be limited by essentialist, reductionist or biased anthropocentric thought. 11 The ways in which we view the world shape the way we act in the world. Posthumanism offers a view on the world that critically exceeds old boundaries and human centeredness, while opening up to a complexity-embracing praxis.

New alliances

Although technology is not the main focus of posthumanism (and of course, posthuman foci shift all the time) the historical and ontological dimension of technology is important for properly understanding the posthuman agenda.12 With its reflections on power relations and social inequalities of past, present and future, posthumanism is cautious towards any kind of primacy (not only human primacy), such as that of machines.13 Today’s advanced technologies – as opposed to pre-cybernetic machines – are complex, invisible, self-moving, self-learning, or autonomous (think of software, AI, sensor networks, etc.). Moreover, they are full of hidden layers of ethics and power relations that require critical assessment.14

 Technology has many faces and effects, and therefore needs to be approached critically and nuanced. It is, however, easy to forget the layers of human bias that are built into today’s technologies. Humans’ inert stance towards what happens ‘behind-the-screens’ of smart technologies tends to result in the idea that they are objective or neutral. This lack of critical engagement turns them into ‘black boxes’ beyond human understanding, also popularly imagined as new intelligences ‘taking over the world’. Potentially, the posthumanist approach makes us ‘slightly more familiar with and consequently less anxious about the untapped possibilities of the technologically mediated, gene-centered world of today’. 15 Critical modes of thinking help oppose overly optimistic ecomodernist ideas that the world is ‘makeable’ (e.g. geo-engineering) and utopian imaginations of the future in which only solutions matter. We could be concerned with ‘possibilities of partial recuperation and getting on together’ in a more modest sense that takes into account the past and present.16

Ian Ingram’s robot Nevermore-A-Matic (2016) sparked my imagination about what sympoiesis might look like in practice, and how a technological object could become an integrated agent in the nonhuman-human mesh. Ingram studied how ravens wipe their beaks across branches as a gesture to their congeners, showing they are nervous, well-fed, or bored. He built a robotic, bird-like machine that makes the same movements, knowing when to communicate to nearby birds thanks to its sensor and self-learning recognition software. It sends out different messages to fellow birds about its state of being, and for humans who know Morse code, the robot is transferring a message of constant grief, telling stories of the end of the world. Ingram regards the robot as an agent in itself, with several layers: ‘A degree of what it’s doing is for humans, a degree of what it’s doing is for ravens, a degree of what it’s doing is for neither humans, nor ravens’.17

Self-learning, autonomous environmental machines currently enter the world as species that humans and nonhumans coexist with, blurring the lines between the grown and made. They are capable of having programmed knowledge, and of creating their own new memories through sensors and artificial neural networks. If humans can surpass their hubristic and stubborn belief that they are the only species capable of such things as remembering, imagining and grieving, many opportunities open up for multispecies resurgence. 

Humans have been coexisting and collaborating with advanced technologies for quite some time now. Why not render these same interactions between, nonhuman animals and technologies? A misunderstanding in human-machine relationships can be found in anthropomorphic projections on machines, expecting them to act, learn and think in similar ways as humans. Ingram’s non-anthropocentric self-learning robot might help imagine how advanced technologies could be autonomous and well-adapted to their environmental elements and complexities, but in their own, nonhuman ways. Taking such artistic approaches seriously could create a more socially and environmentally sensible integration of that which we thought of as belonging only to the artificial realm.

Towards an entangled understanding of artificial and organic realms

Leaving behind old and taken-for-granted anthropocentric thought patterns that contributed largely to current environmental and social crises, posthumanism offers a mode of thinking and acting that is inclusive, critical, nomadic and complexity-embracing. In a time in which ‘mutual contaminations and interspecies breeding […] give birth to rich new alliances’18 artistic and scientific inquiries like Ingram’s environmental machines are more relevant than ever. They blur the lines between the artificial and the organic, demonstrating how to exceed old categorical boundaries. These new alliances are urgently needed in the entangled 21st century world, with nuclear power plants, electronic waste, wireless connections across the globe, intelligent software, animals adapting to urban environments, climate refugees, plastic-eating bacteria, monocultures, renewable energy sources and plastic islands: we have a myriad of new companion species to be accountable for, take care of and collaborate with. Posthuman thought and artistic praxis help us understand this unprecedented complexity of interspecies relations, and understanding makes us capable of responsible action.