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Introductory thoughts on Posthumanism and Beauty or Posthuman Beauty

The first time I heard the term Posthuman was Natasha Vita More’s Primo Posthuman. Her figure fascinated me and I thought I understood what the image meant. This was back in 2007. It is now three years later and here I am writing this blog about my own understanding of posthumanism and beauty. To start, the person who has had a profound impact on my understanding has been Donna Haraway. I read Primate Visions and Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature with fervor, along with about 12 other books from a variety of disciplines. After I read these books I was not sure what knowledge I had acquired. At that point I needed to walk away and just let it stew, as my advisor says. What in the world did these books have to do with what I wanted to know? They fit, but how did they fit for my perspective.

Over time, I realized what the key was to my own understanding. On page, 196 and 334 of Primate Visions, there is reference to the tools of early primate females, the baby-sling and the containers for carrying things that these female primates invented to make their lives easier, and these inventions were right alongside male created weaponry tools. These baby-slings and modern cosmetic surgery or other technology adaptations for women were a revelation. I was a converted cyborg feminist or, now I’m thinking, posthuman feminist. I love the liminal space and the intersections.

Now, I sometimes get snide looks or wrinkled faces when I bring up Haraway and I do not care. The understandings of feminism I had held up until my introduction to Haraway left me distant to wanting to identify myself in that way. Now, I embrace it, because what it means to me is a feminine understanding of humans, culture and technology, the key being the inclusion of technology to our understanding of humans and culture. This is posthumanism to me. It is an academic approach that includes technology in various forms as viable variables to understanding society and culture.

My understanding of cosmetic surgery has been opened. Now I see it clearer as a technological choice that we have. The importance in understanding the adoption is the cultural effects. This is important too, not just the ethics, but the ramifications. Cosmetic surgery is nothing new to our society by any means; however are we studying the effects thoroughly? These effects benefit those who choose to undergo the surgery and the surgeons who are willing to offer their expertise.

This is not limited to cosmetic procedures. We have the power to take control of our bodies and we are doing this from the banal to the extreme. I had a great conversation with a dear friend the other day about how we are both really redheads on the inside. Neither of us are natural redheads and we prefer different shades, but on the inside, we are redheads. This color on our heads expresses that person inside us we know is there. Another dear friend loves heels like mad. It could be snowing or raining or she has to walk 10 miles, but she is always in heels. This is an augmentation of her natural structure. She is a taller person and these “foot extensions” are a beautiful, they are an adorable selections of heels, extension of who she is. Look at The Apprentice. On the show, virtually every female is in heels. We all know or are these women, and I do not mean to leave any other human representation out, but I am still beginning this deep understanding and I am starting with what I am, a woman. I will venture out and apply outward from there with due time. To apply a theory it has to be tested and perfected over time, which I will need to do in pieces.

Therefore, this is where I am: the study of posthuman beauty. The wondrous interplay of (wo)man, technology and culture (particularly film and advertising) has me in a flurry to unravel the narrative of what this has to tell us about ourselves and any other sentience we may later introduce.

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Body parts get options: which one will you choose?

Research on making off-the-shelf body parts a reality came out this week in an article at Telegraph.co.uk, “Banks of off-the-shelf body parts could be created for transplants: researcher

“Scientists are perfecting ways of creating bare ‘scaffold’ building blocks of body parts which can then be used as a frame for a patient’s own cells to grow around.”

This brings up an interesting discussion to have. If off-the-shelf body parts become a viable option, does that also mean the option for what type of body part we want is an option? With this option, will there be a divide between those who prefer replacement limbs metal and plastic vs. blood and bone?

You lose an arm you are getting ready for surgery and the surgeon comes in to talk about the options: A) you can have a bionic prosthetic arm or B) you can have an arm similar to the one you have. What do you choose?

The decision is hard, which limb will you choose?

Moreover, why? I did a little anecdotal experiment in my home and asked my 11 yr old which he would prefer. His response was:

“I’d like to be a normal human not a ¾ human robotic” “Like to be more of a human than a robot”

My 4 yr old daughter’s response:

“Bionicle. Cause I want to be strong. I’ve never been strong before”

Now, these are kids and this is anecdotal, but the point is that there is more to it than choosing plastic or bone. It’s a choice of being more than human, “Bionicle”, and being Other, the inhuman. So why do we need a choice? It’s a choice that defines what you want your “human” self to be. We don’t have the same preference on hair, teeth, breasts, etc. We have options. So it seems that when an option for a biologically replicated arm comes about, then we have the right to choose what parts we want or don’t want on our bodies.

With the prosthetic arm, you can have increased capabilities. In addition to these capabilities, a prosthetic arm is customizable. As prosthetic skin options improve so do the aesthetic options. Think Aimee Mullins.

Multiple leg options

You can have a different arm for every occasion.

In the February 2010 issue of Fast Company, they had an article “Super Human”. It was about emergence of envy and sexiness towards those with prosthetics. I was honestly a little bit jealous of Carrie Davis’ sexy black arm in the magazine.

Carrie Davis in Fast Company

My arm will never look as good as hers does, even if I dipped it in latex and even then, not nearly as sexy. A great image captures what it can be to have options with your prosthetics. The article interviews Hugh Herr who has a lot to say about the potential for prosthetics that are not just limited to function, but are opened up to enhanced capabilities and appearance.

Now, the option discussed in the Telegraph.co.uk article. You can have artificial or you can have essentially “your” arm back. It does what you can do now. The capabilities are the same and the options are relatively limited, at least for now.

Looking at the option again, does this expand to a deeper decision? Referring back to my anecdotal example, do we want explicitly to be part robot? I am completely for the option, but like any form of body modification or enhancement, I think people have the right to have this option. What we can take away then is that we are on our way to having options and therefore need to have the right to choose what we want based on our needs and desires. It is handy for a surgeon to have access to parts for replacement, but people should have the option to choose what replacement part they want, or at the very least the option to discuss it with the surgeon beforehand. This is only the one of many questions and issues to discuss.

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Women and Posthumanity: The future looks large and sexy

The body has a lot of change to go through on the path to post-humanity. There is a lot of room for improvement and enhancement. Even with all of these cool improvements and enhancements though, my cynical side emerges. While these would be great, are we giving ourselves too much credit that the choices we will make on the route to post-humanity will be practical? Isn’t society a little more vain that that? Seriously? The desire for youth and beauty is by no means a new phenomenon. However, I was caught off guard, just a bit when I was forwarded a video of an interview with Tom Ford, the fashion designer and director of the film A Single Man.  In the video  Tom talks about women being posthuman and makes some good points in the interview all of which tied in to a paper I wrote on cosmetic surgery awhile back.

He mentions that breasts today do not bear any resemblance to what actual breasts look like. He is right, they try to look natural, but the key word is “try”. Several points that his statement make me think of is, if they are unnatural looking why do we want them to look natural? As a woman who has a genetic predisposition on the higher end of the size curve, I do not understand. The unnatural version of natural looks nothing like my own natural ones, even if we are the same cup size. I have friends who fall in to the same category that I do and talked to them about it and they agree. There is a level of insecurity, but it is not insecurity about size, but about gravity. The posthuman breasts go against the body’s natural inclination to succumb to gravitational pull, if you will. My friends and I however cannot pay to fight gravity; we are left to lesser forms of posthuman enhancements such as the push-up bra. This leads to my second point about Tom’s statement: actual breasts. Is the desirable path one where breasts do not bear any resemblance to natural breasts? Form over function. Breasts work, but do we still need them to work in the same way?

We have formula now, that while it can in no way match breast milk, it does work and many women use it. It is an alternative. Before you send me any hate comments, I breastfed all three of my children, not for a year, but I did. I did eventually switch over to formula. Regardless, if we want surreally attractive breasts, does the functionality need to remain the same or will sex and sexual appeal transition to be the exclusive function.

As adults, we can talk and think about these types of questions and issues, but what about the young girls. Tom Ford makes another point in the video that girls are seeing the adults with their unnatural breasts and think that they need to get their breasts done. He goes on to mention that we have lost touch with what a real breast actually looks like. Again, as adults that is one thing, as a young girl it’s another. In the adoption of the posthuman form are we taking critical examination of what images and ideas we are passing on to the next generation. Further examination though should include the messages conveyed and the impact of these messages on young girls. When thinking about the posthuman woman, the girls of today, how will their lives change by the choices made today. They could very possibly choose to go against the grain of the constructions of beautiful breasts and choose the au natural route. Insecurity about breast size is a facet of growing up that girls deal with. Plastic surgery enables them to address these insecurities, but what do they gain and what does it solve? Large unnatural breasts are not something a mother can pass on to her daughters naturally, it will require, at this point in time, a monetary investment of perpetuation within culture.

Tom points out that we are becoming our own art by manipulating our bodies and creating them the way we want them to look. He also says that it desexualizes, comparing these beautiful bodies to cars. Since they are so glossy, polished and an idealized form of perfection, they are too scary and not human. I would love to hear the answers to the questions he poses about after these surgeries of breast enhancement does it help ones sex life? Or is it intimidating? A body in its artistic form is admirable at a distance without touching. Not like a ball of clay where you want to get your hands dirty and really play with it intensely

Last night, as I was thinking about what I was going to say in the piece I turned on VH1, yes, I think it is a valuable source for pop culture insight. It did not fail me. The show that I turned on was “VH1News Presents: Plastic Surgery Obsession”. It fit in perfectly with what I was thinking and wanted to say, without the reference to post-humanism. The show is about the rise in popularity of plastic surgery, in and now out of Hollywood. The show supports both the new ideals of women’s bodies and that the younger generation is picking up these ideals. The fact that VH1 aired the show, despite a voyeuristic appeal that shows like this have, says something about what we want to see on TV. Finally, at the end of the episode the show touched on males and cosmetic surgery. Tom Ford did not talk about the men being posthuman in his interview, or at least the clip I heard, but VH1 talked about how tricky it was for men to undergo plastic surgery and come out of it looking “natural”. Does this mean that with women getting around 98% of the plastic surgeries they are more willing to transition to a posthuman form or is it just easier for them? What does this mean and how does this reflect on men? Are men going to, can they follow the same path as women? These are interesting questions to think about in addition to the critical examinations of the decisions of women. I look forward to hearing and thoughts.

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Keeping up, staying ahead and what I want for Xmas

As I’ve grown “up” in years alone, I’ve noticed that Christmas has become that time of year when I select my gifts carefully. Because of this I also try to not mention potential gift ideas unless they are ones I really want. This year is particularly selective I love technology, as those who know me are aware. I want what’s great and fabulous and new, BUT I also have my own needs in mind whenever I adopt a new technology. I get excited and want to buy immediately, but that’s not always the way to go I’ve found. I found a way to write better and the method I was employing was a trial. It would have cost me almost $200 to buy the first version and stick with it. That was a heavy decision for me to make around Christmas when I have kids to think of. So I waited and did some researching and did some serious thinking about what aspect of the software I was using I truly needed to become more productive and efficient.  I’m glad I waited. By narrowing down my needs I cut out a LOT of unnecessary steps I was employing in my process. Not only that I saved myself $200 because I found what I needed for free online. And no, I’m not revealing my method yet, that’s why there are no hyperlinks. I’m not done, I’m going to use the software this weekend and see if it works, if not, I’m going to improve my system. Whatever I adopt I want it to benefit my life by making me more productive, efficient, etc. So I’ve now turned my attention away from my writing to my reading and notetaking.

This year I’m in a PhD program and I want to be at the top of my game. Any technological advantage I can handle I want to incorporate, within my means of course. Given these parameters and desires, I have three things on my radar for consideration this year: Kindle 2, Nook and LiveScribe. For my purposes, this is how they break down for functioning in the world of a grad student.

Kindle 2 and Nook:

In one semester I have went through over a ream of paper, part of an expensive toner cartridge, almost two boxes of file folders and filled almost and entire drawer with these files. This is just for my classwork, this does not include my dissertation research which I am going to be starting on soon. I could not help to think with all the thoughts out there in the world no one has come up with a better system for this! So I started examining the Kindle & Nook. I need something that not only holds books, they both seem to do this just fine according to their websites. My needs though are a system that lets me use my multiple PDFs and do so in a really intensive way. I need to highlight important passages, I need to make notes about the passages and I need to take these PDFs back out of the device on to my computer so that I can search through them when I write my papers. It’s a tall order and I have went back and forth between the two devices for weeks now.

I like that the Nook has a way for me to use my memory card, so I can download my PDFs from class and then put them right in to the Nook to read. Kindle, from what I’ve seen has a more complicated process. Both allow me to highlight and write notes in the margin. It seems the feature difference for this is the Kindle’s keyboard vs the on screen keyboard for the Nook. Which would be best when wanting to make elaborate in-depth comments in the margins??

I lean to the Nook, but I’m worried that they released this device too quickly, I’m going to get it, then next summer they are going to improve it and I’ll be left screwed. I’ve already read random comments about them doing this, this does not reassure me in to purchasing their device. So I am left to debate still if I want to get the Nook that seems to satiate my desires, but will leave me and be outdated in a matter of months? Or do I go with the tried, true and tested Kindle who might not quite meet my desires, but I know isn’t leaving me any time soon? I’ll ask you…

Finally, let’s look at the LiveScribe. I take a lot of notes, as grad students do. I write them in my notebook, hope I heard them correctly from the professor, or copy them from another writing. Regardless I write a lot. After I’m done writing and I start writing a paper I transcribe EVERYTHING in to my computer. This makes everything searchable and allows me to connect thoughts I might otherwise have not seen because they were buried in my notes. I’m a busy girl and I want time to know more and understand more. So I found the LiveScribe, it allows me to handwrite my notes and then come home and upload them in to my computer, instead of transcribing them. NOTE: for all those of you out there who say “why not just type the damn things in to your computer and be done with it?” Well: 1. I like writing them, it helps with my retention of the information when I’m not just spewing out my own, 2. It’s annoying when you are in a tiny room of people trying to have a discussion to hear ‘tap, tap, tap’ on the laptop, 3. With writing I don’t have to be as linear as I do with typing, and with this pen I can write anywhere on the page. I have a lot of random ideas, musings, and inspirations in class or on the road. I don’t want these to be lost I want them to stand out on the page with stars and lights.

After typing this paragraph I really want one, but I want to hear thoughts and comments from people who’ve had them or know about them. Are there drawbacks, is it heavy when writing for a long time? I’m all ears.

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Artificial Intelligence and "Waking Life"

I am little late to the scene, but I recently read Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman. A fantastic read for those who haven’t read it yet. In the book he talks about several movies which I am going to try to watch. The first one I watched was Waking Life. Wow, I’m glad I saw this movie. I was a little disappointed by the ending, but hey, the rest of the movie was incredible. What was really fascinating for me was the ideas this film conjured up and questions that I had as I watched it.

This inspired me to post this blog because I am curious if any of you know any of these answers, since you are a thoughtful bunch.
The first of which pertains to artificial intelligence and robots. It was great to read Mike Treder’s article today Making Dogs Smarter than Humans about creating articial intelligence like our good best friends, dogs. Well-timed for what I’m asking I think. I was wondering if time would be or is a dimension for artificial intelligence or robots? Do these ‘minds’ know time as it passes or will/are they a creation that will transcend this dimension? Does time apply to them other than the needs of us humans?
In Futurama, Bender is unaware of time. In Neuromancer the artificial intelligence, Armitage, and The Dixie Flatline also have no concept of time, it’s a joke even, “where have you been?”
And if artificial intelligence doesn’t ‘know’ or need time, then what are the affects for us? If there are any. What does this mean? If anything.

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Thoughts inspired by the news of the day

School should teach or at least educate in science and the cool facets of technology and science. Show kids the wonder and beauty of it, to appreciate it for what it is. I know we need to know the meat and bones of it. I know that. But for all my years of science in school, I didn’t truly appreciate it until I was older, when it was shown to me in a new interesting light. The fascination was a drug for me. I fell in love with fractals, dimensions, virtuality, flowers, animals, everything around is a wonder. Something I pass on to my kids. It didn’t make me want to become a scientist that is not my area to be in. But there are others areas of science to be involved in. That is why I was drawn to the IEET. So that I can do what I’m good at, this is examining and talking about ethics and emerging technologies. Those that can do and those that can’t teach, I can’t so I’m a grad student and a journalist for h+. It satisfies my loves and passions. But going back to what I was saying about science. There is so beauty, mystery and excitement to be had by those involved in teaching and exploring science and its wonders. People dedicate their lives to one solitary thing that may or may not affect us all and even then that affect may be small or large. It doesn’t matter though. Kids I don’t know if they get that. There are roles models in sports and there are the people on TV that they see. But in school are they getting this? Are they getting that there are people out there doing fantastical explorations of minute things? Is science a part of our culture? Technology is, but only on an adoption level. The hype is created and the adoption comes after. Does society think about what technology should be or what they want? Or do they wait for the “creators” to come up with it and the marketers to tell them what they want and why? Do they depend on people to filter through these decisions for them in a back seat approach to their lives? What if a great invention comes along without any funding or marketing and dies, does anyone care? A global catastrophic risk is something I know, but don’t understand enough. This doesn’t make it unimportant, if fact I think it is important for people, me included to know more about.

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"Autonomous Killing Machines"

This post is in response to “Engineering Politics”
by Christopher Csikszentmihalyi in the Sep/Oct 2007 issue of Good Magazine
http://www.goodmagazine.com/section/Provocations/engineering_politics

I liked this article because it is why I got involved with the IEET in the first place. I think the author’s concerns are valid, I held similar ones myself, but his understanding of the effort to communicate to the general public comes up a bit short. (DARPA excluded from this, what they are doing, well, only those involved know). Christopher refers to the military’s drive to come up with “autonomous killing machines”, and while I don’t doubt that somewhat (always err on the side of caution), the military drives quite a bit of the emerging technologies that we have in our lives today. Hummer’s were not made for the suburbs or driving to the mall, they were made for combat, like Jeeps. The military had a need and the scientists, engineers and thinkers fulfilled that need. Once it became commonplace for the military and they worked most of the kinks out, they sell commercially, because some people fell the need to drive a ginormous tank of gas to take their kids to school.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with the military pushing for “autonomous killing machines”, ok, so I have a problem with the “killing machines” part. But after this summer, I have a more belief in the engineers behind it, and those that I don’t, again that’s why the IEET is around. It’s for the “Ethics and Emerging Technologies” to think and do for the technology and society, to talk about it openly and question things beforehand. Christopher writes that “Progressives need to get involved in research, design, and production” we are, the general public on the other hand, may not be interested in paying attention however.

For one, the websites that I have been too are full of open information; anyone who is interested can read about, say, what happened this weekend at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence about the Singularity. It’s not a secret. Jamais Casico put out his transcripts from his speech on his blog, not just what he thought he would say, but what he actually said, because he went back to revise it and repost. This is open. After Transvision 2007, George Dvorsky took and wrote reflections on several of the speakers on his blog, and got quite a response to it all.

What I see is that there is an effort to disseminate what information is available to the public. If the public was interested they could’ve went to two very affordable conferences, Human Rights for the 21st Century (East Coast) and SIAI conference (West coast), and TV07 (Midwest, whoo!), which was more expensive, but worth the price for the celebrity speakers and numerous other notable presentations, not to mention other speeches out there that have been available across the country and globe from the fine people that are part of the think tanks and engineers of the emerging technologies. They travel a lot to give speeches and disseminate what they spend the rest of their time learning and knowing, primarily knowing. They are the doers, not those sent on their behalfs.

Christopher’s conclusion in the article is “But such changes will only take place if we work to connect models of a just society to specific technical directions. And if we find more progressives who aren’t afraid of a little math.” I’m honestly afraid of a little math, but that isn’t enough to stop me from caring about all of this and becoming involved. I disagree that it is the engineers alone who “determine whether a product abets democracy or totalitarianism, whether it treats its user as a worker or as a human being.” True they are the creators, but there is interest before the creation, in the conceptual stages when ideas are being tossed around, while the technology is in process of being created.

If anyone was interested in the engineering stages, they had opportunities this summer to get up to a microphone and question the creator of their choice, which was taken advantage of by several in the audience at TV07. Or, if these same questioners sat in the audience and listened to the speeches that were given and heard what I heard they may have a different understanding of those out there making this technology reality. What I didn’t hear was that the technology was being created to destroy ourselves in the future. And if this was the case, they put on a pretty good show of convincing me of the opposite. I heard that they were aware of this concern and talked about it and included it as part of the discussion. As a skeptic of “autonomous AI” I understand other’s fears of the technologies on a personal level, however, becoming an engineer isn’t happening for me in the near future, and this is what Christopher didn’t include in his discussion, options. That just knowing, being aware of the conversations, or in them, is also an option that may help change and affect the overall larger picture.

Don’t think me too harsh, I must applaud him for hopefully starting a dialogue for the magazine’s audience. The audience appears to be a younger and more open-minded group. This is the type of press that is both helpful and hurtful to communicators within the emerging technologies community. Referring to my above statement of information being out there and open, it happens mainly on the internet. Eventually, the discussion needs to be viewed by the general public which means off the net and into the mass media and popular culture, and I know that this may irk some of you, since it is an academic arena. Again, as someone, who is submersed in learning more about this daily, I need to learn more. The article tells others, unfortunately not that the IEET is out there, but that the technological evolution is.

Most people I speak with are not completely comfortable about all of this. It is unfortunate, but the only comfortable place there is to discuss is online, thus my urge to franticly type this. If I talked to anyone else there is an eye roll and a “uh-huh” complete lack of interest. It is troubling that the general public is not aware, but the technology is sneaking in to their daily lives. I read Our Molecular Future by Douglas Mulhall last year and was fascinated by the future technologies he discussed. And then I went to the dreaded Wal-mart last week, another topic for another day in itself, in the make-up aisle, what did I see?? Why the electronic paper I thought I wouldn’t see for quite awhile. It was on a L’Oreal or Revlon section (not too effective as I didn’t remember that part). I stood and stared and looked behind it for the plugs, cables, etc. and none. I was astonished that it was moving and just like a screen from a computer and as thin as a coin. I watched and no one else that I saw took pause, it was another ad in a sea of make-up.

I guess overall, the communication is out there, just not in the way that people notice, the technology is out there, again, just not in a way to notice, the problem is that when they do notice, as things will evolve, there will be questions. Maybe not on the small things that are the build-up to the greater technologies, but to the “autonomous killing machines” that, like the Hummer will eventually make to a commercial state where they can protect ones home. Or there will be questions when something happens in a negative manner, a mistake or a learning curve, if you will, like how we learned about the Hindenburg or Titanic. This is what causes me to be involved. Everything has trials and tribulations. I like to think however that, with people like those in the IEET, the discussion of the ethics will go out to the public before the commercialization.

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