Spotlight on Dr. Judy Ehrentraut's PhD Dissertation on Posthumanism and Technology

Dr. Judy Ehrentraut's PhD dissertation is an exploration of posthumanisms through digital artifacts, arguing for a theoretical frame called "inclusive posthumanism" that accounts for the ways individuals intersect with technology. She successfully defended her dissertation on November 29th, 2019, completing her requirements and obtaining her PhD in English Language and Literature.

Dr. Ehrentraut's dissertation opens with a literature review of posthumanism that includes perspectives of subjectivities, transhumanism, and techno anxiety. She deconstructs this foundation to look at alternative structures that make fewer assumptions about life enhancement or prescribed subjectivity.

According to her research "inclusive posthumanism" still leverages concepts from posthumanism that reimagine a convergence of nature and artifice, but differs in that it doesn't foreclose on putting a value on the human-technological connection.

Ehrentraut looks at a sample of science-fiction narratives to flesh out nuances of what she calls "bad posthumanism" so that she can set parameters for what "inclusive posthumanism" should move away from. Her findings show that a popular pattern for sci-fi is to imagine utopic human-technology interactions, and then descend into a dystopia.

Depictions of dystopias resulting from human-technological interactions leave an impression in our society that we can't coexist successfully with technology. To deconstruct and explore an inclusive posthumanist response as a research question, Ehrentraut looks at smartphones as an object text to ask, "how do we function with them?"

"Smartphones are demonized because they're said to cause absent presence," says Ehrentraut, "but, really, this creates an unrealistic standard of authenticity". Ehrentraut's research urges us to realize that there is no one way to be authentically present, and that humans entangle with their technologies in different ways, based on their specific needs or wants.

Her research explores many ways that communities with disabilities assemble with and through technology. She cites artful research projects, like "EM-BRACE" by Chun-Shan Yi, and concert interpretation for ASL-literate audiences. 

Looking at art is important in this context because art encourages humans to reinterpret their relationship to technology and living environments. Ultimately, she emphasizes that inclusive posthumanism suggests that designing for disability shouldn't push for normativity but should design for a dynamic entanglement.

Ehrentraut's conclusion was that we should embrace an inclusive posthumanism where individual, dynamic entanglements with technology are encouraged and supported. To get there, we must be critical of techno-anxiety that forgets that tech functions in a human world.

Dr. Ehrentraut's committee included Dr. Isabel Pederson from Ontario Tech University, Dr. Dan Vogel, Professor at the Cheriton School of Computer Science at UW, and Drs. Aimee Morrison, Neil Randall, and Marcel O'Gorman (supervisor) from the English Department.

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