You are here

Understanding What It Is to Be Human

The next plenary session at AoIR 2012 starts with Daniel Miller, who describes enthnography as often grand in its ambitions, but sometimes a little parochial in its work – how do you go about developing some of the wider theory about technology and what it means to be human, for example? What needs to happen here is a move between the broad and the specific.

Anthropologists see the substance of being human in social relations; how can technology, as an external factor, be related to this? Work on the use of communication technologies by disabled people points towards possible directions: it shows how people use these technologies to present themselves in different ways, and works against the more conservative perspective which sees each new technology as reducing human interaction by taking away certain communicative cues. The study of communication through new technologies, in fact, can reveal how previous forms of communication were themselves mediated in specific ways.

Daniel's recent research on the uses of Skype, for example, points to the fact that Skype users are often drawn towards the screen inset which shows themselves communicating – enabling them to observe themselves as they talk to the other person, thus providing cues which had not previously been available. But we cannot define being human on this basis – rather, we can define it as a set of latencies which may or may not be attained in any specific communicative situations.

Daniel's current work on communication by terminal cancer patients in a UK hospice points to the potential of social media for communication by people who are for some reason losing mobility. The palliative care offered in the hospice positions these final moments as a part of life, and explores what it means to be human in this situation. Patients using social media express and share their relationships with death, and their experience of dying; others are glad to be relieved of the need to come to terms with new forms of technology, and even of the human technologies of bodily functions.

The ideal of the theory of attainment is to integrate a latency of humanity with a mobility in the integration of communications – just maybe this may be able to finesse our understanding of what it is to be human.