What Does It Really Mean to Be Human?

Information Management: A Proposal (Provocation)

It’s clear reading this piece (and watching his TED talk) Tim Berners-Lee was simply trying to solve problems around communication, information sharing and data management when he created the World Wide Web. He’s so genuine, you almost forget the military implications.

I arrived to a similar place/question as Lisa (around what capitalism does to “free” things like the internet). More specifically I am interested in how “human” or the difference between human and machine gets branded nearly 30 years after the creation of the internet. How does it get communicated in a capitalist space?

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Marx, Harvey, and Engels – Is Money a Fatal Error?

In thinking about materialist theories of technology, a conscious effort to remember the Darwinian model of evolution is essential, especially for the work of Marx. David Harvey points out the total-system approach that lies beneath the detailed writings in Capital about labor, technology, class struggle, and nature. In “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” Engels provides an even more easily digestible explanation of how this total-system approach accounts for the origin of modern humans – an origin that, Engels argues, is causally linked to labor. Engels begins by stating “labour created man himself.” With the freedom to use their hands, early humans developed the ability to create tools, which led to use complex sounds for cooperation and sophisticated cognitive processes for planning. (This being the result of what he calls the “law of correlation of growth.”)

With these unique capabilities, man became master over nature. But, as tools evolved and themselves became increasingly sophisticated, the relationship between man and the process of production changed dramatically: a social division of class separated those who owned the means of production (capitalists) and those who provided the necessary labor for the creation of commodities (workers). This division was caused not by machinery but, rather, by the use of money as a store of value, which allowed capitalist to transform labor from the defining human characteristic by which subsistence is assured into a mechanism that fed itself on surplus value and profit through the exploitation of the working class.

Does Marx view money as a virus that has infected the Hegelian “totality” to which Harvey alludes? Or, is it an unexpected outcome of man’s mastery over nature produced by the law of correlation of growth? I cannot see a reasonable place for money as it exists in a capitalist society within a materialist view of human history; It occurred like a glitch in a computer system, focusing all attention – and intention – towards the repeated task of generating wealth ad infinitum with only momentary crashes that serve as system reboots. Marx would argue that this is how capitalist society becomes unsustainable eventually leading to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. But, the power that money holds and its effect on the system as a whole calls into question the validity of using a materialist theory as a framework for understanding the process of production.

What Is To Be Done? – Provocation

The question of “what is to be done?” is aptly used in the title of this published interview with Donna Haraway about her seminal feminist work A Cyborg Manifesto. Published in 1985, Manifesto brought together radical and socialist feminist theories to address the impact of technology and information systems on labor, race, and gender among other topics. The work was primarily a call to action, beckoning readers to abstain from pessimism regarding communications technologies and biotechnologies and a fetishizing of the organic, as well as to avoid what she calls the “blissed-out” futurist notions of human-machine hybridization that attempt to destroy humanity as an organic species. Instead, Haraway insists that humans are capable of reworlding the structures that comprise the various relationalities defining humanity while maintaining the histories and mythologies that preceded the rise of the cyborg.

Haraway uses this interview (published in 2006) to reflect on Manifesto in numerous ways including how her metaphoric cyborg allowed for a creation of the companion species – a more practical representation of personhood after the boundaries between man, animals, machines, and metaphysical qualities have been resolved. The issue of practicality – of instances where cyborg feminism has played out “on the ground” – becomes an important aspect of Manifesto after having read this interview because the latter emphasized that which can be realized through the unified theory as it is presented in the former. The work of reconfiguring gender outside the masculine/feminine binary without attempting to dissolve gender politics altogether and the creation of object-oriented ontology are possible products of Haraway’s Manifesto. But, I see few other repercussions in how humanity defines itself in relation to its hybridized composition (not to mention how personhood relates to technology and information) because individual agency has a limited reach and a social movement that acknowledges the diffusion of boundaries requires that the movement be through a collective, not a fragmented collection. Just as Haraway herself points out, the cyborg is frequently the offspring of the military complex, the commodified deconstruction of life, and of scientific culture. Thus, can the cyborg truly be free of origin and, therefore, free to participate in the production and reproduction of themselves and their societies?