There are already two cliches when it comes to op-eds on the post-Covid future. One is obvious: the claim that the pandemic has “changed everything.” Analysts in many fields, from Fintech to branding to politics, have all seen the current crisis as a millennial moment. Some have even claimed that it will finally usher in the era of post-humanism that techno-utopians have been predicting for decades.
What unites these ideas, beyond their eagerness to see the pandemic as an abrupt break with the past, is the second cliché. This is a profound sense of optimism. Read through the prophecies on what our world will look like after coronavirus, and you’ll be struck by how great things will be. Governments will finally tackle climate change. Human rights will be secured for all. We will finally leave the shackles of our human bodies.
In the interests of balance, allow me to offer an alternative view. One in which, rather than the virus heralding a utopia, it accelerates a decade-long process in which individuals lose their connection with society, and in which politics – as we know it – ceases to exist. Bear with me. Because this is kind of a big deal.
First, let’s take a deeper look at the optimism that has characterized speculation on the post-Covid future. At a superficial level, there has been an explosion of opinion on what our world will look like after the virus has passed on. There have also been some attempts to analyze the deeper, more philosophical impact of the virus. One of the best comes from Mario Gabriele in a recent article for TechCrunch.
Gabriele argues, pretty convincingly, that the Covid-19 crisis has hugely accelerated a move to post-humanism. Put briefly, post-humanism challenges the notion that humans are currently, or will be in the future, the only agents of the moral world. Post-humanists argue that in our technologically mediated future, understanding the world as a moral hierarchy and placing humans at the top of it will no longer make sense.
In the context of Covid-19, Gabriele argues that now “the post-human era is beginning in earnest.” He points out that the lockdown and shelter-in-place orders that were implemented around the world caused a huge spike in online activity, sometimes on surprising platforms. Nintendo saw millions turn to Animal Crossing to socialize, trade virtual assets and host both weddings and conferences, while Travis Scott’s surreal performance inside of Fortnite attracted 12.3 million concurrent views, and 27.7 million unique attendees.
Read the article (as I suggest you should) and you’ll see that for Gabriele this revolution is undoubtedly one of the positive impacts of the virus. "Our physical bodies are optimized like an OS," he says, and "as love sheds its carnality, new opportunities will emerge. Humans will find meaning in new modes of self-expression, discover purpose beyond work (or reclassify what work means), [and] re-engineer [their] physical limits."
There are two major problems with the post-human society envisaged by Gabriele and his fellow utopians. One is that, given the prevalence and power of surveillance systems today, none of his post-human super-beings will have a private life. The second issue, and the other side of the same coin, is that none will have a political life either.
Let's take the lack of a private life first. As a cybersecurity analyst, I can't help but feel that the kind of "radical freedom" predicted by the proponents of post-humanism is deeply old-fashioned. It seems to belong to the early days of the web, when many of us believed that we were creating a uniquely free and open space, rather than the web of today, which is arguably the most sophisticated surveillance tool in history.
It gets worse. Even if we could shut down the massive state surveillance apparatus that tracks our every click, we still wouldn't be unobserved. Cybersecurity professionals have been locked in an arms race with hackers for much of the past 30 years, but here's one thing that the analysts won't tell you: they are losing.
The unfortunate outcome of these dual threats is that it's currently impossible to imagine a post-human future in which citizens are able to realize their human right to privacy. But as bad as that might be, it pales in comparison to a much bigger problem: the end of politics as we know it.
Let me explain. A long line of scholars of Western political systems – from Aritstotle to Karl Popper to Hannah Arendt – have seen the public sphere as a necessary part of the proper functioning of democracy. Without the ability to engage in free discussions with our fellow citizens, they argue, democracy (and politics as we know it) will die.
This, I would argue, is exactly what post-humanism represents. Though proponents of the concept point to the fact that many online platforms explicitly encourage political debate, they fail to recognize the fatal flaw in this argument: that the “citizens” that make up these “mico-polities” are self-selecting. In other words, the kind of “interest communities” that are such a big part of the lives of younger generations are not the public sphere made manifest: they are the opposite.
You don’t have to look far for evidence of this. Gabriele even acknowledges that in many of these communities “we are showcasing even the darker aspects of our nature … with some on Animal Crossing bullying and torturing villagers they deem ugly.” But the political implications of this fragmentation go much further than this kind of bullying. Micro-communities, of the type that post-humanists are fans of, are major catalysts for political extremism and polarization.
There is a huge irony, of course, in the fact that it might be a worldwide pandemic that finally shatters our societies into tiny, insular, interest communities. The experience of Covid-19 has affected almost every citizen in almost every state, in a world in which this kind of unifying event is becoming increasingly rare. But by far the most terrifying outcome of the virus has been the way that debate about it was fragmented across thousands of online platforms, and the simultaneous popularity of conspiracy theories about it.
If this is a glimpse of our post-human future, you’ll forgive me for wanting to stay human for now.
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