Arthur Kroker, Exits to the Posthuman Future. Cambridge: Polity, 2014; 224 pages; ISBN: 978-0-7456-7163-5.
Reviewed by Aaron Landry, Humber College
In Exits to the Posthuman Future, Arthur Kroker examines the future in the context of “accelerated technological innovation” (11). The book is neither utopian nor dystopian, but rather presents us with a set of possibilities and directions. Kroker, influenced by theorists such as Foucault, McLuhan, and Virilio, utilizes three key concepts to analyze the posthuman future: acceleration, drift, and crash. His writing style is comparable to McLuhan in its emphasis on the oracular exploration of possibilities rather than systematic linear argumentation, which makes sense given the subject matter—the frenzied multi-faceted implications of technological development—but it results, in many cases, in a lack of clarity regarding to what is actually being argued for.
The central argument of the book is that in the posthuman context in which we find ourselves, “the power of technology turns back on itself,” undermining concepts like subjectivity and privacy. (7) For Kroker, the posthuman future is already with us. The rapid pace of technological innovation—and one can see concrete examples of this in genetic engineering and the ubiquity of social networking technologies—is greeted with utopian promise, Kroker claims that there is a growing uncertainty, not only about our final destination, but also about how to understand it.
In every technological development, there is danger as well as redemptive power. He points toward the ambiguities involved with the possibilities offered by the iPhone application that syncs your heart with your smartphone or the possibility of printing organs. In this latter case, despite the promised health benefits, Kroker states that life itself may become the “fatal remainder” in that we can endlessly print new organs such that we become a species of the living dead. (10) There are four dimensions to the uncertainty of this posthuman future. First, digitally, while we are promised an ever-increasing range of digitized existence, we are simultaneously fascinated by elements of a lost humanity: zombies, fantasy, avatars, and robots. The second sense is political. On the one hand, global capitalism continues to strengthen its reach and where difficulties appear, it promotes economic austerity. By contrast, at the grassroots level, there is increasing radicalization, especially among the marginalized. Such people and groups are rethinking what justice looks like in an advanced technological society. Third, economically, there is the now familiar pull between “old-fashioned primitive capitalism” (3) with its reliance on extracting fossil fuels and the desire for an environmentally sustainable economy, in part predicated on technological innovation. Finally, ideologically, there is an ever-increasing divide between defenders of the status quo—state security, labor austerity—and those emerging out of a legitimization crisis, such as the Occupy Movement, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter.
Kroker examines the exits to a posthuman future using three concepts: acceleration, drift, and crash. In terms of acceleration, innovations in technology have enabled the human mind to access far more information than it can on its own. In Chapter Two, Kroker looks at five different “exits.” We will examine two. In the first exit, Kroker uses a short story by Susan Dominus entitled “Inseparable” about conjoined twins who share a “thalamic bridge” joining their brains. What one twin sees is visualized by her sister moments later. Kroker asks whether or not this is what it means to be human today. In particular, it highlights the “enigmatic meaning of connectivity itself.” (36) In another exit, Kroker rehearses the story Wafaa Bilal, a professor and artist who had a camera embedded into the back of his head, snapping photographs every sixty seconds and uploading them on the internet. The artist insists that although we may physically reside in a particular place, we are often psychologically elsewhere. This example is just one of many that reflects the theme of acceleration, as digital devices and technological breakthroughs engender manifold subjectivities impossible to imagine beforehand. In fact, acceleration reflects the deep correlation between technology and speed.
This acceleration, prophesied by theorists like McLuhan and Virilio, is only the first step. Eventually, according to Kroker, technological acceleration has been replaced by drift culture, which is “volatilizing society, crashing boundaries, undermining the traditional division of species, transforming experience into a subjectless universe of data points, penetrating the membrane of the organic with flows of data, electrifying the metallic” and ending the archaic references of power, God, truth, and so on. (15) The term “drift culture” is metaphorically related to genetic drift, which is one of the randomizing features of biological evolution. Genetic drift occurs according to chance and is one of the ingredients to genetic diversity. Drift culture, like its forebear acceleration, is unpredictable.
Kroker analyzes five senses of drift – code, history, archive, screen, and media. In the case of archive drift, for example, social media has radically altered both its form and content. What is the future of the archive? For Kroker, “digital culture is always liminal” (81) and what is often most important is precisely what the archive has left out. Relatedly, the future will see a blurring of the distinction between future and past. This is because our entire lives will be continuously archived such that we will trapped in an echo chamber of our own as well as technology’s invention.
Finally, in crash, there is the slow suicide of technological collapse. Chapter Eight examines the concept of the drone, both its engineering sophistication as well as its ethical challenges. Kroker alludes to Heidegger on technology, noting that he was correct to claim that human identity has invariably been shaped by technology. But for Kroker, Heidegger failed to see that the reverse is also true, namely that technology is invariably shaped by humans. Perhaps technology’s destiny is a human one—drones. In other words, drones will not evolve away from what it means to be human, but will become increasingly humanlike in the development and refinement of affect. In this way, Kroker argues we will have entered the “age of perverse drones.” (120) Kroker ornately sketches a possible future where drones become more humanlike and humans become more drone-like. Not for the first time in the book, Kroker fails to adequately ground this possible future.
In Chapter Nine, Kroker analyzes how technological change is deployed and conceptualized in contemporary politics. He introduces the concept of Guardian Liberalism, which he argues is epitomized in a number of Barack Obama’s speeches. Guardian Liberalism fuses “distant technology and cold violence” all the while brought to life by an absolutist sense of good and evil. (123) It is also faith-based in the broad sense of struggling to bring more good into the world. It is within this context that Obama situates the concept of the “just war.” Unlike Gandhi and King, Obama thinks non-violence cannot always stop the promulgation of evil in the world. This demonstrates what Kroker calls Obama’s tragic sense of politics. What does all this have to do with technology? For Kroker, the guardian state is deeply technocratic in that it is used to achieve security and military goals.
In the penultimate chapter, Kroker interrogates the media theory of McLuhan, specifically his “tragic technological ethics.” (174) McLuhan’s account of technology and media is highly complex and cannot be easily categorized as either “utopian” or “dystopian.” His nuanced position can inform our understanding of the posthuman present and future. Consider McLuhan’s concept of the tetrad: enhancement, retrieval, obsolescence, and reversal. Kroker points out that there is also a dark side to this concept, that what is enhanced, for example, also reveals what has been lost, silenced, and marginalized. Kroker goes on to analyze the way that the concept of “sustainability” has become such a contested notion. It has become such an overused term that it is increasingly a “floating signifier without fixed content.” (186) The concept can even be reversed when deployed in the service of a capitalist system predicated on maximizing profits. As a possible and improved alternative, Kroker’s cites Nancy Turner’s metaphor of “the Earth’s blanket,” a concept ultimately stemming from Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. As Kroker contends, if “the earth is a blanket,” then hydrofracking and other new violent forms of resource extraction are morally reprehensible. (187)
The appropriate audience for this book is a specialist in media theory, someone who is well versed in McLuhan, Foucault, and Virilio, amongst others. His argument, however, often collapses the different concepts of different thinkers into the same thought. This is obviously intentional as the book is transparently composed in an evocative style, presumably hoping to trigger a similar reaction in the reader. The issue is that it quite easily slips into obscurity. There are some important analyses contained within the book, such as the analyses of acceleration, drift, crash, Obama’s Guardian Liberalism, and McLuhan, but Kroker’s style is an obstacle to be overcome.