Becoming a Person

In a previous post, I describe the notion of personhood.

I’m browsing skincare online when a chat window pops up from the bottom left corner of my screen.

>Hi! I’m Jessica. Is there anything I can help you with today?

I hesitate. The cynic in me is unsure, to begin with, whether this is one of those useless bots who will “refer” me in endless cycles to imaginary “colleagues”, none of whom can answer my query, or if there’s an actual person on the other end of the line, waiting, desperately, for someone to reply.

I decide to write back.

>Do you ship to Australia?

>Sorry, I can’t answer that. Let me refer you to one of my colleagues.

OK, “Jessica”, if that’s even your real name, refer me to one of your “colleagues”, or should I say, fellow bot

>Hi! I’m Gabby. Jessica forwarded your conversation to me. We do ship to Australia, but it’ll take a bit longer, around 2-3 weeks.

Well. She’s real. “She”? I couldn’t possibly know for sure. I was raised on the Internet playing avatar-based games, and spent the latter half of my teenhood in cyberspace communities; assuming an embodiment that doesn’t match one’s own is nothing new to me. How do I know that the skincare company isn’t just exploiting the probable femininity of their customer base? And, yeah, isn’t it weird that the majority of robot assistants – Siri, Alexa, Cortana – are “female”?

If this encounter with the unknown (and indeed, unknowable) seems familiar to you, you may also have ventured tentatively to imagine who else is “really” behind the screen. Like my mum, when she first discovered I was hanging out on the Internet: “Who are you really talking to?” It could be a bot, a human being with a real or fabricated persona, multiple people masquerading as a single user, or the reverse – a single person commanding multiple accounts.

A catfish, surprised by your sudden appearance on this blog. In the context of online dating, a “catfish” denotes a fictional persona created to lure others into a relationship.

Growing up, I spent most days at home with my sister watching VCRs, reading, and spending countless hours watching her play video games.

I was appointed the all-important role of repeatedly mashing a key to unleash a flurry of attacks on monsters who were just out of counter-attacking range in a certain side-scrolling massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG).

I remember my sister being married in-game to another user in the U.S., a guy named Nate, who would send her in-game gifts that cost real-life money. My 10-year-old brain, primed to squawk “stranger danger!” at any unfamiliar interaction, couldn’t comprehend the exchange. They had never met in real life, never even seen a photo of each other, and the extent of their marriage beyond the game consisted of MSN chats and illustrations of their avatars dating that my sister made.

Boellstorff’s (2008) exploration of intimacy, sexuality and love in the online virtual world Second Life prompted me to reflect on the virtuality-reality continuum; do virtual feelings mirror or eventuate in real feelings? What kinds of activity, both online and off, might “sustain or threaten the gap between actual and virtual?” (p. 172) For example, Turkle (1995, p. 241) observed that a person in a real-life relationship participating in an erotic online role-play who had no intention to de-virtualise (i.e. make real) the in-game romance, didn’t consider this an act of infidelity. Is this because the roles weren’t considered persons, merely characters in a fictional play?

On the other hand, Boellstorff found that a genuine emotional and romantic bond formed online would very much constitute cheating on one’s partner; in fact, some felt that it would be “worse to cheat [online] than in [real life],” because in “[real life] it’s a physical thing, but here it’s your mind.” (2008, p. 172).

Josan Gonzalez

Throughout my teens, I was a user of a microblogging platform and became friends with people from all over the world. I finally appreciated the kind of relationship you can have with only a username and text on a screen: as Tufekci calls it, “words without bodies” (2012, p. 32). I ended up meeting some of these friends in real life (thankfully no catfishes), and I’ve stayed in contact with many of them on other social media platforms.

In 2018, the exposure of Russian-sponsored propaganda campaigns that resulted in the termination of 201 accounts stunned our community. Documents had been leaked from the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a pro-Kremlin group labelled a “troll farm”. The documents revealed that Internet sockpuppets (online identities intended to deceive) were involved in a disinformation effort to sway American political discourse with propaganda geared specifically to Black American youth.

I remember in the aftermath of this event, some people expressed disbelief at having ever imagined a sense of friendship or solidarity with these accounts. They felt betrayed because they had actively endowed credibility and personhood and opened their community up to beings that were not really persons at all.

The online realm illustrates the plurality of personhood, not merely because it offers another platform for performing the self, but also because these varied manifestations of personhood have always existed in other less systematic forms that couldn’t exploit personhood in the same way. In thinking as we sometimes do in binaries of selves – the “self as a body” and the “self that is built by society” (Durkheim 1914, p. 318) – virtuality provides different ways for “being a person”…for better or worse.


Boellstorff, T 2015, Coming of age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton University Press.

Durkheim, É 1914, ‘Le Dualisme de la nature humaine et ses conditions sociales’, in Durkheim 1970, pp. 314-332; trans. 2005, Durkheimian Studies no. 11, pp. 35-45.

Tufekci, Z 2012, ‘We were always human’, in N Whitehead & M Wesch (eds.), Human No More, University Press of Colorado.

Turkle, S 2011, Life on the Screen. Simon and Schuster.

See also:

Maddie’s article, Subtle Diasporic Traits, for more insight into how the online is altering conceptions of the anthropological field.

Is Posthumanism The End of Anthropology?

Giovanni Maisto

The prefix “post” denotes after-ness: posthumous, postgraduate, postmodernism.

So what business does anthropology have in investigating the posthuman?

First, a clarification: there are two distinct definitions of posthumanism currently in use, both of which I find intensely interesting.

Cannon, an informant in the linked article, on biohacking.

Nick Bostrom in Why I Want to Be a Posthuman When I Grow Up (2008) defines a posthuman as someone who has transcended the mental and physical limits of the human form, through genetic enhancements and technologies presently available to us, also known as “biohacking” (“DIY biology”). By limiting methods of bio-modification to those in current use, Bostrom distinguishes posthumanism from the abstract and distant imaginings of a sci-fi universe. This notion of posthumanism is related to transhumanism, which can be seen as a movement “in transit” toward the ultimate goal of reaching a posthuman future by attempting to supersede the human condition as we know it (Birnbacher 2008, p. 95).

On the other hand, N. Katherine Hayles’ (1999) definition of posthumanism is situated in critical social theory and is in reaction to liberal humanism, a philosophical movement introduced by Enlightenment thinkers in the late 17th-century that conceived the human subject as a rational, unitary, autonomous, and stable being. These might sound like good characteristics, but the Enlightenment’s conception of liberal humanism was based on a racist and colonialist exclusionary project that precluded “the savage, the animal, the inferior, and the superstitious from the fully human” (Whitehead 2012, p. 225). It’s clear, then, why anthropologists seek a more pluralistic conception of the human subject.

Firstly, Hayles’ posthumanism privileges information over corporeality; it views having a body “as an accident of history, rather than an inevitability of life” (1999, p. 2). Second, contrary to the rational human model purported by Enlightenment thinkers, consciousness isn’t the most important part of being human. Third, all bodies are an original prosthesis, and technology is just a prosthetic extension of ourselves. Fourth, the human body is able to be merged seamlessly with intelligent machines, and “there is no essential difference between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism” (1999, p. 3).

So, you’re thinking: is there really no difference between humans and robots? Is this the end of us?

Not quite. As Hayles asserts, “the posthuman does not really mean the end of humanity. It signals instead the end of a certain conception of the human, a conception that may have applied, at best, to that fraction of humanity who had the wealth, power, and leisure to conceptualize themselves as autonomous beings exercising their will through individual agency and choice.” (1999, p. 286, emphasis added)

The post in posthuman therefore refers to the pluralistic conceptions of the human subject that critical social theorists seek to replace the singular, stable humanist model presented by the Enlightenment. Such alternatives include the cyborg, proposed by Donna Haraway (1991), which breaks down the boundaries between animal and human, organism and machine, and physical and non-physical.

So how can posthumanism, in both senses of the word, be studied anthropologically? Can anthropologists employ fieldwork methods like ethnography and participant observation on cyborgs? Where is “the field“, what is “the culture”, and is there a protocol for ethics?

For both Bostrom and Hayles, the subject respectively becomes the no-longer-human and the no-longer-humanist. Posthumanism has not merely expanded the scope of what constitutes humanhood, it has questioned the entire notion of humanhood as a bounded concept, and following this, anthropology should accommodate new notions of “the field”, culture, and ethics.


Birnbacher, D 2008, ‘Posthumanity, Transhumanism and Human Nature’, in B Gordijn & R Chadwick (eds.), Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity, Springer, pp. 95-106.

Bostrom, N 2008, ‘Why I Want to be a Posthuman when I Grow Up’, in B Gordijn & R Chadwick (eds.), Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity, Springer, pp. 107-136.

Haraway, D 1991, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, pp. 149-182.

Hayles, NK 2008, How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. University of Chicago Press.

Whitehead, NL and Wesch, M (eds.) 2012, Human No More: digital subjectivities, unhuman subjects, and the end of anthropology. University Press of Colorado.