Transhumanism and the illusion of control

In a 2011 essay, Katherine Hayles defines transhumanism as the idea that “contemporary technosciences can enhance human capabilities and ameliorate or eliminate such traditional verities as mortality.” The essay was a follow-up to a book she had written over a decade earlier in which she first identified the emergence of this trend. At the time, she had called for a more balanced approach to technology, where we recognize the power it has to improve our lives but also understand its limits. “My dream is a version of  the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality,” she wrote.

I worry that her dream has not been realized. A few years ago my husband and I were struggling to conceive. Of course, I was constantly on Google looking up tips and tricks, so I started getting served all sorts of ads related to pregnancy. One that really stood out for me was from a femtech wearables start-up called Ava. The $270 device they were trying to sell basically told you when you were ovulating — exactly the same information you could get from a $15 pack of pee sticks! But their ads framed their product as though it was the answer to any fertility woes. They used vocabulary like “regain control” and even offered a “pregnancy guarantee or your money back.” I just used the Facebook Ads Library to see what types of ads they’re running, and it was exactly the same concept: positioning a (pretty basic technology) as some sort of salvation for people experiencing fertility problems.

Apologies for the slight delay in uploading — technology issues! (How ironic, given the topic.)

11 thoughts on “Transhumanism and the illusion of control

  1. Kelly Hammond

    I’m not sure what to thank you for first: your post’s compelling content, your openness in sharing personal struggles, or making me laugh with the use of the phrase “pee sticks.” Great all around.

    The Ava ad connects to so much we’ve discussed and read, from exploiting vulnerabilities gathered by our online presence to this week’s focus on the intersection of the body and technology. I see other layers here as well. Crenshaw would point out the layers of privilege: “Heather,” the focus of the Ava testimonial, is white, heterosexual, and can afford $270. I wonder if those factors are gleaned as part of a data profile and if other people saw different instances of that video depicting “Heathers” of different races or sexual orientations. I wonder, too, if the price changes, as it has for ads for some test-prep courses and mortgage rates. I see, too, another round of targeting in the money-back guarantee. What do they require as proof? Does one’s lack of pregnancy invite additional ads for different tools, such as more expensive fertility products?

    Finally, I can’t stop thinking about the message about what a woman is here. I know the word Ava most in the context of being a common female name, but it hearkens to ova (the Latin plural for eggs) and Eve (the Judeo-Christian first woman and therefore mother of humanity). Does this technology purport to help us women fill our biological and historically gendered destinies?

  2. Ryan Yaffee

    The picture in the advertisement is sharing a white heterosexual couple dress in “proper casual” wear. This stating there is a status of who this item is for. It is also sharing if you want to get pregnant in what is considered in white proper middle-class dignity; this is the item. This, instead, is replacing the doing of the undignified of peeing on the stick that no one knows or see, however, the person knows because they saw an ad to what better and “more dignified” people are doing.
    The item is sharing the way to control oneself of being improper is through the use of technology. Technology like this is the future of caring for oneself and being a proper person in society. The item also seems to share that technology has all the answers but check with your doctor first. This also creates confusion to the reader, it says it can help, but ask your doctor first?

  3. Camila Santander

    After syncing your ava to your phone, their website says: “3. SEE YOUR MOST FERTILE DAYS.
    Ava pinpoints your five best days to try for a baby as they’re taking place”. this message and others on their website do give women the sense that they are taking control of their bodies and their pregnancy. This is the idea with many new technologies today; we have many of these new technologies that will save us time, will save us the trouble of having to do more stuff. But how much more control are we gaining?
    I personally cannot relate so much to the pregnancy topic, but it blows my mind how Amazon can deliver some products the same day you order them!! The idea is amazing, but what are we doing with all that extra time? isn’t part of being human doing those small tasks? Of course, the idea is to love the convenience and keep spending our money on products we might not even need. Therefore, instead of gaining control, we are losing control and are not even aware of it.

  4. Melinda Byam

    Stephanie, thank you for sharing your story. From your post, I immediately think of our readings/discussion from earlier on in the class on women being targeted through the want of “control” over the bodies, control over their hunger, and now control over their fertility(?). The idea that if you buy into these products, the food satiates hunger, the wearable device, a woman can have full control over the essences that make them a woman (perfect body (and appetite) + baby = woman). I understand Hayles’ dilemma with transhumanism, this device is supposed to enhance human capabilities, but at the same time it perpetuates the same idea of woman to that of someone who should be able to have a baby with ease (to be able to conceive within six months).

  5. Tess

    I agree with Melinda and Camila on the idea of control- technology (FemTech in this care) is capitalizing on our human desires for control and predictability, and to a degree, the promises these technologies offer are an illusion constructed to attract consumers. How much “control” can we actually have over the body’s natural cycles, anyway? There is a mind/body tension in wanting to control the vessel you embody and the inherent element of bodily unpredictability. No matter how much control you think you have over your body, there are always opportunities for surprise, as anyone that has had an unexpected stomach bug or similar illness can attest to.

  6. Nick Schiff

    Your post brings up one of the big tensions at the heart of this week’s readings. Some authors, especially Haraway, seem to anticipate that innovation in technology that integrates with the body will bring about liberation and feminist power. Others, like Jillian Weise, cast doubt on this prospect. These ads for “Ava Women” confirm that, just like any other technological innovation, body-integrating products will be a battleground for various powers. Banal commercial products, which exist only to make profit (despite the blandishments of start-up founders), float somewhere across this nebulous moral ground.

  7. Amanda Filchock (she/her)

    Really insightful post that connects to so much from last week as well as this week’s readings. I agree with others who questioned how much control we really want these new devices to have on our bodies. I’m sure their terms and conditions are a landmine of interesting data usage. I also agree with others who point out the privilege one must have to be able to both purchase and use this product. Haraway would certainly be interested to know about this technology and I think would argue its benefits for feminism and squashing the patriarchy. She mentions how we already have become versions of cyborgs thanks to medical interventions, and this example specifically is for female reproductive health that’s trying to connect to a woman’s natural cycle but in a futuristic way that further blurs the boundaries of nature vs machine. Thank you for sharing your personal story with us!

  8. Carolle Pinkerton

    Hi Stephanie, I think that it happens a lot that products are made to be expensive when they could be sold much more cheaply like the example you shared. For the $270 version, it seems that you are paying for the nice packaging, sophisticated wording, and especially putting that much money in is paying for hope. Another example of something overpriced is dead sea mud which sells for $150 to $200 dollars in some shopping malls and on certain websites, but the same product could sell for $15-20 on Amazon. I think we tend to assume something has more value if it is more expensive.

  9. Catherine Winograd

    I agree with those above who commented that this product is playing on the vulnerabilities of the couple (or individual) who’s trying to get pregnant. It’s very appealing when you’re struggling with something that feels out of control to grasp at offers which promise a quick fix to problems of the “unruly body”. Here, the body is not becoming pregnant at the expected time and place, and the expensive device will regulate and change that situation. And, if it doesn’t work, you get your money back!

  10. Yohanna M Roa

    I think that one of the main problems with technology is its relationship with capitalism, because it distances itself from the possibilities of use for human benefit, even though this happens, even with vaccines and medicines.

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