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Adapting Design Methods for a Posthuman World

In the third quarter of the twentieth century, three monumental changes occurred, inseparable in nature, that would set humanity rapidly on its course toward our position today: in desperate need of posthuman-centered design methodology.

First, we began our current geological epoch: the Anthropocene. This unofficial but widely used term marks the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth, typically regarded as beginning at the drop of the first atomic bomb in 1945 (Zalasiewicz, 2015). 

Second, in response to this human epoch came a proliferation of words beginning with “post:” post-industrial, post-imperial, post-modern, etc. In his book The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm characterizes this nomenclature in the late twentieth century as a point of profound consciousness: “In this way, the greatest and most dramatic, rapid and universal transformation in human history entered the consciousness of reflective minds who lived through it” (1995, p. 288). That is to say: at that point in history, humanity stopped and truly saw time — not flowing around us but crystallized into a single point significant enough to demarcate anything after it with a prefix (Williams, 2017).

Third, the mid to late twentieth century was also when human-centered design as we know it today came to be. In the United States, designers like Buckminster Fuller were beginning to take small steps away from engineering to establish design as its own field. They took a scientific approach, developing systemic methods for recognizing and solving design problems. At the same time, Scandinavian designers were beginning to develop a contrary approach: cooperative design, which allowed for non-expert intervention across the design process (Szczepanska, 2017). These ideas laid the groundwork for the human-centered design that we are familiar with today, combining explicitly in the late 1970s and early 1980s (See: Don Norman’s user-centered design and the founding of IDEO).

These three intertwined events — the beginning of humans making serious environmental impact, the inception of a new collective human consciousness, and the formation of human-centered design methodologies — would unknowingly push the human race down a path of no return. The end of which threatens to dethrone humanity at the top of the intelligence food-chain: the singularity and the birth of the posthuman.

Despite the massive technological leaps of the twentieth century, many computer scientists including futurist Ray Kurzweil predict the twenty-first century will hold over 20,000 years of technological progress as compared to today’s rate (Kurzweil, 2001). To that end, experts expect the average laptop to have comparable computational power to that of human intelligence as soon as 2030 (Faste, 2016). The dawn of intelligence that far surpasses humans is on the horizon and with it comes the posthuman. Whether synthetic artificial intelligence, augmented human biology, or digitally uploaded and enhanced human consciousness, posthumans describe “possible future beings whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards” (HumanityPlus, 2019, sec. 3). The term does not imply the end of the human race as we know it today but rather presents a new distinction.

Perhaps ironically, the imminence of the posthuman is in direct opposition to the events that brought humanity here in the first place: the Anthropocene and human-centered design values. Making processes easier, more convenient, and more satisfactory for their user is what has driven all of technological innovation. But the existence of the posthuman is in itself a critique of philosophical humanism whose pillars are reminiscent of human-centered design: giving agency and autonomy to humans, the apex of all existence.

Posthumanism calls the bluff on humanity’s exceptionalism and instrumentalism. In the future, as the bar for intelligence ascends way above our reach, humans as we know them now will be practically unintelligible from any other lifeform. At the very least, humanity will no longer be at the center of all conscious actions (Colomina & Wigley, 2016). It will be at this time that our human-centered design methods will begin to fail us. The binary nature of humanism—natural versus artificial, living versus nonliving, tool versus operator, etc.,—will become flattened in light of a higher perspective currently unimaginable. There will be a need for design strategies beyond these false binaries during this time of transition: when humans still exist in the age of the posthuman. I posit that designers can deliberately evolve current human-centered design methodologies to prepare humanity for a posthuman world.

Modern Methodological Springboards

The best place to establish new posthuman methodology is in modern-day material semiotics. The cornerstone of this field is the devaluing of humanity to focus on relationships (Law, 2009). The most well-known version of material semiotics is Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory (ANT). ANT works as a toolkit of methods and sensibilities that equates all things—objects, animals, environments, machines, ideas, time, humans, etc.,—and states that they do not exist beyond the relationships between them (Law, 2009). Designers should situate posthuman methods within this mindset because it parallels the post-singularity flattened world (Gorlay, 2015).

Another prominent mentality in material semiotics is distributed cognition. This theory states that cognitive processes—decision making, memory, learning, etc.,—can be shared across a social group, internal and external (material or environmental) structures, and even through time (Hutchins, 2000). Donna Haraway, a key figure in the early imaginings of the posthuman, mirrors this same ideology in her writings. In her seminal essay A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway points to three crucial boundary breakdowns that open the door for posthuman speculation: the blurring of lines between human and animal, organism and machine, and the physical and nonphysical (Haraway, 2006). For the purposes of this paper, I have situated speculative posthuman methods within those three boundary breakdowns.

Human and Animal

Perhaps the easiest place to begin speculating posthuman design methods is with non-human animals. The exponential increasing of posthuman intelligence will flatten the intellectual landscape of all other biological beings. Simply put: once posthumans are in the picture, the intellectual difference between modern humans and insects will be indistinguishable. At that stage, a non-anthropocentric perspective will not only be helpful but required to recognize the true impact and potential of designed artifacts.

Decentering the human in the design process can be fairly simple because much of the methods currently used can already include any sentient being. Take Temple Grandin for example, who pioneered designed systems for animals. Being mildly autistic, Grandin likened her picture-based cognitive processes to that of animals and leveraged this empathy to build better slaughterhouses, among other animal-centric machines (Grandin, 1997). DiSalvo and Lukens (2011) list multiple precedents of non-anthropocentric designs in their contribution to From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen. Their examples include Natalie Jeremijenko’s 2007 project OOZ, in which a designed space encourages human and willing animal interaction, and Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada’s 2008 work Animal Superpowers, in which sensory-enhancing wearables for humans mimic the visual and tangible experiences of a variety of animals (DiSalvo & Lukens, 2011). All of these examples exhibit an intentional consideration for other living organisms and challenge the exclusivity of human-centered design.

Organism and Machine

Once designers understand the power of including all organisms in their methodology, they can expand their empathy and empowerment across non-sentient things. ANT embeds agency in relationships between things so humans and objects have the same agency capacity: “purposeful action and intentionality may not be properties of objects, but they are also not properties of human either. They are properties of collectives of human and non-humans” (Latour, 2000, as cited in Bettany et al., 2014, p. 1545). Furthermore, as Colomina and Wigley (2016) point out, there is nothing more human than technology because we build them as extensions of ourselves like prosthetics. And the line between tools and their users becomes more ambiguous as the tools themselves gain increasing levels of independent intelligence.

How can designers adapt their methods for the whole human, including their technological appendages? The first step is to recognize the reciprocal relationship between technology and its user. Humans change their behavior to suit technology’s limitations and technology changes in turn to their behavior. Faste postulates that technology, as it becomes more pervasive and seamless, will render a person’s innermost desires, motivation, and identity “tangible as explicit and actionable cues” (2016, para. 11). A majority of current user-centered design methods serve as an interface to truly learn about people’s psyche. These methods will need to evolve beyond the reductive use of objects as interfaces and appreciate their power to manifest self-actualization.

Physical and Nonphysical

The final and most difficult boundary for humans to comprehend is that of the physical plane. As technology becomes “smarter,” it becomes more ubiquitous and invisible by design. Some of the most essential pieces of the world today aren’t physical but made of signals, electromagnetic waves, and energies— what Donna Haraway called “sunshine” machines (Haraway, 2006). The posthuman will live in this immaterial realm unburdened by embodiment.

While modern humans may never be as fluid as their posthuman counterparts, they have the opportunity to augment design methods with the affordances of a nonphysical outlook. For example, Faste (2016) notes how future computing can make all possibly imagined scenarios inhabitable. That is: designers could experience infinite simulations of alternative histories and futures before committing to any real-world action. Technology in a posthuman world would, in essence, give people a chance to shake hands with their former or future selves. Designers could perform evaluative design methods in tandem with creative generation and could measure previously unforeseen long-term effects even in short-term contexts, such as rapid prototyping. Time is just one of the many physical constraints that designers can overcome in a posthuman future.

If futurist experts like Ray Kurzweil are correct, the singularity is likely to happen at least within the next 50 years, if not by 2045 (Kurzweil, 2017). We are on the verge of another “dramatic, rapid and universal transformation,” as Hobsbawm (1995, p. 288) were to put it, marked by epochal “post-” in posthuman. But this time, what is entering our collective consciousness challenges consciousness in itself. The posthuman world will redefine what it means to be human— making explicit the nuanced human ecology of the biological, technological, and incorporeal. Design as we know it will need to adapt to survive in such an unfamiliar environment. But that is what design does best. ︎

Bettany, S. M., Kerrane, B., & Hogg, M. K. (2014). The material-semiotics of fatherhood: The co-emergence of technology and contemporary fatherhood. Journal of business research, 67(7), 1544-1551.

Colomina, B., & Wigley, M. (2016). Are we human?: The archaeology of design. Zürich, Switzerland: Lars Müller

DiSalvo, C., & Lukens, J. (2011). Nonanthropocentrism and the nonhuman in design: Possibilities for designing new forms of engagement with and through technology. From social butterfly to engaged citizen: Urban informatics, social media, ubiquitous computing, and mobile technology to support citizen engagement, 421.

Faste, H. (2016, June 9). A post-human world is Coming. Design has never mattered more. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/3060742/a-post-human-world-is-coming-design-has-never-mattered-more

Gourlay, L. (2015). Posthuman texts: nonhuman actors, mediators and the digital university. Social Semiotics, 25(4), 484-500.

Grandin, T. (1997, November). Thinking the way animals do: Insights from a person with a singular understanding. Temple Grandin. https://www.grandin.com/references/thinking.animals.html

Haraway, D. (2006). A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late 20th century. In The international handbook of virtual learning environments (pp. 117-158). Springer, Dordrecht.

Hobsbawm, E. J., & Cumming, M. (1995). Age of extremes: the short twentieth century, 1914-1991. London: Abacus.

Hutchins, E. (2000). Distributed cognition. International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences. Elsevier Science, 138.

Kurzweil, R. (2001, March 7). The law of accelerating returns. Kurzweil: Accelerating Intelligence. https://www.kurzweilai.net/the-law-of-accelerating-returns

Kurzweil, R. (2017, March 14). Ray Kurzweil claims singularity will happen by 2045. Futurism. https://www.kurzweilai.net/futurism-ray-kurzweil-claims-singularity-will-happen-by-2045

Law, J. (2009). Actor network theory and material semiotics. The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, 141–158. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781444304992

Szczepanska, J. (2017, January 3). Design thinking origin story. Medium. https://medium.com/@szczpanks/design-thinking-where-it-came-from-and-the-type-of-people-who-made-it-all-happen-dc3a05411e53

Williams, R. (2017). Redesigning design. New Geographies, 9, 12–19. https://www.gsd.harvard.edu/publication/new-geographies-09-posthuman/

Zalasiewicz, J., Waters, C. N., Williams, M., Barnosky, A. D., Cearreta, A., Crutzen, P., ... & Haff, P. K. (2015). When did the Anthropocene begin? A mid-twentieth century boundary level is stratigraphically optimal. Quaternary International, 383, 196-203.