First Monday

Digital sustainability and the human: A posthumanist approach by Jeonghyun Lee

In the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs), humans and technology are binary subjects; one determines the other. Technology is treated as either an enabler of economic growth, efficient business and social innovation, or a disabler of human dignity, human employment, and human freedom. In this binary understanding of humans and technology, ironically, humans face the most significant risk in digital transformation. Choosing technology or humanity does not support a sustainable future. This paper explores the theoretical understanding of the human and technology in a posthumanist approach to defining digital sustainability. By examining the human and technology concept in the posthumanist approach, this paper envisions human subjects in relational surroundings, including the digital, providing ways of sustainable living through co-constitutive entanglements with emerging technologies.


Theoretical framework: Posthumanism
The legacy of liberal humanism
Digital sustainability and posthuman




During a year of global upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘digital transformation’ becomes a catchphrase for many countries to minimize social contacts without economic loss. The United Nations (UN) acknowledged the global trend. They launched the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation ( that guides global action plans for “advancing a safer, more equitable digital world, one which will lead to a brighter and more prosperous future for all” (United Nations, 2020). This paper explores posthuman theories to suggest the new model of the human and technology in the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Posthumanist theory offers new boundaries between the human and the non-human (the animal, the technological, and the environment), critiquing anthropocentric understanding of human agency (Bolter, 2016). This new epistemology offers a productive understanding of technology that affects our socio-technical engagements with sustainable developments.

In most social discourse, even in the UN’s SDGs, humans and technology are treated as binary subjects in the deterministic understanding. Technology is treated as either an enabler of economic growth, efficient business and social innovation, or a disabler of human dignity, human employment and human freedom. In this binary understanding of humans and technology, ironically, humans seem to face the most considerable risk in digital transformation. Therefore, the global society explores how human subjects can have more agency over ‘digital tools’ to avoid losing human dignity over technology.

This technology/human dualism implies the humanist ideal of ‘Man’ that is exceptional and universal over all creatures on the planet. Since the early Renaissance, human has been placed at the center of everything as an autonomous agent that observes and uncovers universal laws of nature, technology, and other non-human actors. For posthuman scholarships, ‘Man’ is no longer a universal value but becomes “Man the brand” [1] or “Ex-Man” [2]. Posthumanist scholars move away from the unified, enlightened and Eurocentric assumptions about ‘Man’ that have generated “structural distinctions and inequalities among different categories of humans” and non-humans (Braidotti, 2013).

Especially with the current prevalence of digital technologies and media, recent scholarships question the liberal human subject. For example, Bruno Latour, John Law and many other scholars in the field of science and technology studies (STS) argue that the dichotomies between society and nature and human and non-human are “modern constitution” based on western scientific thinking (Latour, 1993). Instead, they developed actor-network theory (ANT), which addresses hybrids of human and non-human actors that science itself has produced. Similarly, posthuman media studies questions the human-centric conceptualization of “culture” in cultural studies. While the humanistic tradition of commitment to “the people,” most perspectives in posthuman media studies have emphasized the materiality of technologies that conditions human experience, perception and knowledge. A materialist understanding of media explores how physicality shapes social relations and cultural forms (Bollmer, 2015). Likewise, science and technology are not independent of social relations, but they shape “culture” and/or human practices.

With these critiques in mind, this paper theoretically explores the new sustainability model in digital transformation, building on a posthumanist approach to humans and technology. Instead of ‘Man,’ posthumanist emphasizes a new spectrum of posthuman becoming, which is always situated and partial in subject formation’s complex and ongoing process. The subject formation is always relational, involving non-humans and technological media (Braidotti, 2019). This paper aims to provide a theoretical framework for sustainability in digital transformations, not guided by liberal humanism, to envision a socio-technical synthesis of sustainable developments.

This paper first reviews recent scholarships in posthumans as a theoretical framework to show how posthuman theories have replaced the anthropocentric understanding of ‘Man.’ Then, the following section critiques the liberal humanist assumptions guiding the UN’s understanding of digital transformation and sustainability. I argue that the “people-centered” approach presumes a deterministic understanding of technology and the ‘liberal human,’ which forces us to choose technology or humanity. The last section envisions what it means to be sustainable in a posthumanist frame that admits intertwining and co-evolving the human and the technical. By exploring a theoretical framework for digital sustainability in a posthumanist approach, this paper envisions the new model of human subjects in its relational surroundings, including the digital, which provides us with sustainable living ways by conducting responsibility and ethical accountability of technological engagements.



Theoretical framework: Posthumanism

Humans have always lived in a hybrid environment surrounded by artificial and natural objects. The artificial and the natural are not separate realms, nor are artificial objects simply instruments with which to conquer the natural; instead, they constitute a dynamic system that conditions human experience and existence. And precisely because the artificial is constantly developing toward greater concretization, it demands constant reflection on its singular historical condition. [3]

With futuristic images of cyborgs, the term posthuman might invoke inhuman that is deprived of humanity. The posthuman does not argue that we are no longer human. However, it questions the anthropocentric constraints of humanism built on dichotomies of thought, such as subject and object, active and passive, human and machine (Hayles, 1999). As Hui (2016) addressed, the posthuman approach emphasizes “who we are as human beings in relation to the other-than-human world” that we have inhabited [4]. The posthuman thesis moves away from the privilege of human being over the other-than-human world, arguing that human is always hybrid with a surrounded environment, which has been conditions of human experience, existence, and evolution. Human has always had an intimate and co-constitutive entanglement with artificial and natural objects, including technologies.

Since the era of modernist art and politics, the autonomous and enlightened human agent had been the paradigm of Western society until poststructuralism and postmodernism emerged in the late twentieth century. The ‘human’ as the universal measure of all things implies the standard and ideal ‘Man’ that appeared in Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ (Figure 1). The ‘Man’ is an autonomous, self-disciplined, rational and inherently moral subject consistent with the Eurocentric belief of rationality and universality of culture. This appealing to the ‘human’ always discriminates ‘Other,’ non-European, less cultured and of different species, gender, race and class. Scholars of poststructuralism and postmodernism, including Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Jean-François Lyotard and Fredric Jameson, critiqued the modernist truth — the universal value of aesthetics, epistemology, and rational human being.


Leonardo Vitruvian Man
Figure 1: Leonardo’s ‘Vitruvian Man’. Source:


These anti-humanistic reactions of poststructuralism and postmodernism have profoundly influenced posthumanist theory. In addition, other philosophical inquiries, such as Gilles Deleuze, F&eacut;lix Guattari and Bernard Stiegler, strengthen the posthumanist argument of the human subject that is a nomadic, immanent, and transversal assemblage between multiple actors, including technological media and other non-humans. In the posthuman thesis, technologies are not developed by the privileged positions of humans, but technologies evolve in tandem with human evolutions. As Stiegler theorized in his idea of “epiphylogenesis,” all evolutions happen in tandem with mutual constitutive construction of technology and human [5]. According to Stiegler, past technical objects always existed in us, like genetic codes that affect how humans come into being. For example, human memory practices are inherently associated with technologies and techniques that exteriorize human memories, starting with (or before) drawing and writing in ancient times to contemporary social media usage.

In the entanglement with the other-than-human-world, posthuman subjects are always synthetic. With an emphasis on a fluctuating and unsettled production of selves operating between our organic bodies and material surroundings, posthumanist theories prefer to discuss hybrid and heterogeneous becoming, rather than an anthropocentric and autonomous human being (Bennett, 2010; Deleuze, 1987; Deleuze and Guattari, 2004; Hayles, 1999; Hui, 2016). Thus, posthuman theories understand a subject as a historical becoming, which intertwines with technologies that exteriorize our memory and condition our experience, as Stiegler (1998) argues through his term “technogenesis” and “epiphylogenesis.”

With a posthumanist approach, a human subject is no longer privileged as the only agent shaping culture and society. Rather, it is embedded in and co-produced with technological materiality. Following this posthumanist understanding, “culture” is always socio-technical in that the social field is not independent of the technical field. “Culture” becomes a socio-technical field, “populated not only by bodies, social groups, and institutions but by socio-technical machines, including media” [6].

A long-standing tradition of human centrality is now in question in the digital transformation that brings digital technologies ambient and ubiquitous. The phrase ‘digital transformation’ has been widely used in the business field to describe an organizational and structural shift to digital technologies, such as big data, analytics, digital infrastructures, cloud computing, mobile media and artificial intelligence (Vial, 2019). As the term implied, digital transformation refers to unique changes ushered by digital technologies; it no longer belongs solely to business. With structural changes in other sectors of society, including e-governance, online education and online delivery service, digital transformation becomes a new paradigm for the twenty-first century, making digital technologies primary to the human experience. In what follows, I examine how the social understanding of digital transformation still follows the anthropocentric tradition of human and technology, specifically in the UN’s positions.



The legacy of liberal humanism

With the global emphasis on digital transformation, the UN recently made efforts to integrate digital technologies into their plan for sustainable development. Even though the current format of SDGs does not explicitly indicate digital technologies in the text, the UN reacts to their blueprint of digital sustainability by launching additional organizations and documents for emerging technologies. This section aims to critique how the UN’s SDGs implicitly assume the primacy of liberalism, challenging two major concepts guiding the UN’s blueprint of digital sustainability: human rights and technology.

Human rights

Seventy-six years ago, the United Nations Charter witnessed a generation of global wars and depressions that harmed fundamental human rights and dignity. On 10 December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly in Paris proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a milestone document in human rights history. The document set out 30 articles of fundamental human rights and freedoms that should be universally protected. Over the decades, human rights have always been the UN’s priority in their activities and policy guidelines.

The UDHR is an epic document in the history of protecting fundamental freedoms and rights of individuals, which proclaims standards of human rights for all peoples and all nations. After the Second World War followed by social and economic depression, the UN organized the panel with representatives of different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions and drafted international human rights law. The foundation of this body of law — the Charter of United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — was proclaimed and adopted by the General Assembly in Paris in 1948. The UDHR has been the most translated document in the world, becoming a guide for independence and democracy. Table 1 shows 30 articles of the UDHR and the fundamental idea for each article.


Table 1: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
ArticleKey ideaContents
1Freedom and dignityAll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
2No discriminationEveryone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
3Right to life, liberty, personal securityEveryone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
4Freedom from slaveryNo one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
5Freedom from torture and degrading treatmentNo one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
6Right to recognition as a person before the lawEveryone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
7Right to equality before the lawAll are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
8Right to remedy by competent tribunalEveryone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.
9Freedom from arbitrary arrest and exileNo one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
10Right to a fair public hearingEveryone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.
11Right to be considered innocent until proven guilty
  1. Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.
  2. No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.
12Freedom from interference with privacy, family, home and correspondenceNo one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
13Right to free movement in and out of the country
  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
  2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
14Right to asylum in other countries from persecution
  1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
  2. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
15Right to a nationality and the freedom to change it
  1. Everyone has the right to a nationality.
  2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.
16Right to marriage and family
  1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to find a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state.
17Right to own property
  1. Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
  2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.
18Freedom of belief and religionEveryone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
19Freedom of opinion and informationEveryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
20Right of peaceful assembly and association
  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
  2. No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
21Right to participate in government and free election
  1. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
  2. Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
  3. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
22Right to social securityEveryone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.
23Right to desirable work and to join trade unions
  1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
24Right to rest and leisureEveryone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
25Right to adequate living standard
  1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
  2. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
26Right to education
  1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
  3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
27Right to participate in the cultural life of the community
  1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
  2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
28Right to social order that articulates this documentEveryone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.
29Community duties essential to free and full development
  1. Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
  2. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
  3. These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
30Freedom from State and personal interference in the above rightsNothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.


At its establishment, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was not a treaty posing legal obligations to member states. The General Assembly, not each nation, approved the Declaration; thus, it did not initially have legal responsibility. Despite widespread ratification across member states, there had been many variations in compliance among member states because of an absence of consensus on critical values between cultures (Langford, 2018).

To overcome these inherent limits of UDHR, the UN has gradually applied human rights law to all its policies and programs. The universal human rights law provide specific standards for vulnerable and marginalized groups, including women, children, people with disabilities and minorities. Along with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the UDHR forms the International Bill of Human Rights, explaining the obligations of governments and member states to promote human rights. As the focal UN organization for human rights activities, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) responds to severe violations of human rights law across member states. Following the International Bill of Human Rights, the General Assembly established the Human Rights Council on 15 March 2006, becoming an essential UN intergovernmental body composed of 47 state representatives for human rights. The council reviews human rights records of all 192 UN member states every four years to ensure universally equal treatment of individuals and groups in every country.

Since the establishment of UDHR, the human rights standard has been the fundamental guideline for all its documents and action plans. However, the initial human rights treaty assumes the liberal ‘Man’ in the Western context. In the tradition of humanism, the position of a human has been privileged as a rational, self-disciplinary, and logical subject. This human turned out to be white, male and able to exploit all other life forms (Braidotti, 2011; Fox and Alldred, 2019). Without considering the unequal distribution of political and material resources and opportunities between the privileged white ‘Man’ and others, the 30 articles define vague human rights arguments assuming moral and active human subjects of all kinds. As Neocosmos (2009) argued, being a citizen does not necessarily mean that all subjects can bear rights conferred by the state, as in human rights discourse. Instead, citizens should become active and liberal agents by engaging as activists and militants to achieve their human rights [7]. For some populations and nations, participatory citizenship, such as free elections, free speech, unionization and association, is impossible for marginalized and exploited individuals without shifting structural power relations. Human rights disempower the social subaltern and privilege experts, such as elites, professionals and lawyers who can master the new language to participate through their material and political resources (Langford, 2018).


These human rights standards are fundamental to the UN’s conceptualization of development. In 1986, the UN declared the Right to Development, which will become the foundation of SDGs. The Right to Development proclaimed that everyone is “entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural, and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.” The Declaration puts people at the center of the development process by assuring meaningful participation, enjoyment of development and distribution in the text. The UN’s emphasis on people and human rights permeates the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which commits all member states’ coherent efforts toward an inclusive, sustainable, prosperous and resilient future for people and the planet. The UN has strongly emphasized a human rights-based approach to development, imagining a world where no one is left behind.

By emphasizing people-centered prosperity and development, the United Nations member states adopted the 2030 agenda for sustainable development in 2015. The 2030 agenda for sustainable development (see Figure 2) provides “a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future,” outlining 17 goals, 169 targets, and 304 indicators.


UN 2030 sustainable development goals
Figure 2: The UN’s 2030 sustainable development goals.


Before SDGs, millennium development goals (MDGs) addressed the first sets of global goals from 2000 to 2015. In 2016, SDGs succeeded the eight goals of MDGs by scaling up the goals and promoting local and regional engagements. While MDGs were articulated in the dichotomy of the “developing” and “developed” countries, SDGs provide a universal picture of what “development” would look like for all UN member states through regional and subnational participation. SDGs’ 17 goals reflect the structures of economy, environment and society that need to be balancing each other.

The United Nations specifies that the 2030 agenda for sustainable development address plans of action for people, the planet and prosperity. Among all targets of SDGs, the UN’s higher emphasis on the human is evident across the agenda. Because of its basis on liberal humanism, the conceptualizations of ‘development’ also presumes the participation of ‘Man’ and developed states that can have free participation, equal distribution of resources, and enjoyment of development. For ‘other’ member states, the UN provides the developmental support to achieve “development” in the sense of liberal humanism. Based on “people-centered” goals and targets, SDGs are grounded in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties (United Nations, 2015). Supported by international human rights law, SDGs are designed to terminate human rights violations, such as poverty and hunger at all levels, and ensure human fulfillment of their dignity, equality and a right to live in a healthy environment.

The global interest in digital transformation generates much scholarly attention to technological developments. The Fourth Revolution is the central discourse describing the new paradigm of a global economy that innovative information and communication technology (ICT) is leading (World Economic Forum, 2016; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], 2016; ElMassah and Mohieldin, 2020). The same focus on human rights applies to understand emerging technologies. In his call to action for human rights published in 2020, the UN Secretary-General pointed out that frontier technologies are too often used to violate human rights by serving as tools for surveillance, repression, censorship and online harassment. With an aim that all people benefit from digital technologies, the Secretary-General advocates applying the human rights frameworks to standards and principles for digital technologies (United Nations, 2020).

In July 2018, the UN Secretary-General organized the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, which aimed to examine the global optimization of digital technologies. The Panel’s findings included the following recommendations (United Nations, High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, 2019):

  1. Building an inclusive digital economy and society
  2. Developing human and institutional capacity
  3. Protecting human rights and human agency
  4. Promoting digital trust, security, and stability
  5. Fostering global digital cooperation

After eight round tables, on 11 June 2020, the UN Secretary-General published specific guidelines for digital technologies, “Roadmap for digital cooperation,” which addresses a range of challenges and recommended actions related to digital technologies for the post-pandemic era (United Nations, 2020).

The Secretary-General’s “Roadmap for Digital Cooperation” outlined areas of concern in digital transformation, and provided suggestions to strengthen SDGs in the age of digital technologies for all UN member states and relevant stakeholders such as private sectors, members of civil society, international organizations, academic institutions and technical communities. In all concerns and suggestions, human agency was given a priority.

In the digital roadmap, the UN Secretary-General addressed that human rights “exist online as they do offline and have to be respected in full” [8]. Even though existing human rights treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter, were signed in pre-digital ages, the UN clarified that international human rights frameworks are robust even for the digital age. Thus, the same standards of human rights apply to many global efforts to set the standards for the digital transformation, for example, Nigeria’s Digital Rights and Freedom Bill, the UNICEF’s Guidance on Children’s Rights in the Digital Age, and UNESCO’s Human Rights-based AI Ethics for the Global Standards (United Nations, 2020).

Since the first amendment of international human rights laws, UN guidelines emphasize human agency over other non-human things. Human agency and human rights — based on liberal humanism — have guided the UN’s understanding of emerging technologies and sustainability. When digital technologies proliferated, the UN treated technology as a tool of liberal humans that might help or harm the prosperous future of humans.

The anthropocentric assumptions tend to consider digital technologies as preconditions for achieving or hampering SDGs that are highly based on technological determinism. Its emphasis on liberal human rights underestimates its relations with other worlds, which include technologies. In the current human-centered approach, the guidelines focus on a concern that liberal humans might lose their positions and rights due to emerging technologies. The global standards of digital technologies, generated by the UN, establish a list of human values to monitor technological development and how that development might violate the UDHR.

However, humans never exist alone. Even before the UDHR, humans were in hybrid environments that included technologies. Even before the rise of digital technologies, humans have always been hybrid or heterogeneous beings. The current anthropocentric discussions on how digital technologies violate human rights and human agency are too narrow to understand relational capacities between humans and non-human entities, including digital technologies.



Digital sustainability and posthuman

An anthropocentric emphasis on human rights frames the UN’s digital transformation blueprint, which places human dignity over technology and economic growth as primary concerns. Accordingly, people-centered SDGs are mainly concerned with protecting the liberal human from technological developments that might threaten human agency. UN policy-making mainly involves developing additional standards, such AI ethics. However, the posthumanist approach provides new insights that acknowledge mutual dependence with digital technologies.

The recent attention to posthumanism encourages scholars to re-conceptualize environmental sustainability. The posthumanist sets a post-anthropocentric ontology of environment in posthumanism and material feminism. This perspective argues that we must acknowledge the physical capacities of non-human matter and re-position humans in its ecosystem to foster contextual sustainability of all beings (Cielemęcka and Daigle, 2019; Fox and Alldred, 2019). We must understand the human in its ecosystem as a hybrid entangled with digital technologies. The primary question should be how to create digital sustainability through posthumans affected by digital technologies instead of protecting (liberal) human rights in digital transformation.

With the posthumanist approach, digital technologies are integral to (post)humans entangled simultaneously in cultural, social, geographical and affective assemblages. Therefore, digital sustainability should aim to enhance the capacities of all elements through individual and organizational actions of posthumans. It is too narrow that we only understand digital technologies as mere tools helping us achieve SDGs or violate human rights. Digital technologies are already entangled with humans by affecting how we come into being in evolving dimensions of environment, society and economy.

To develop an alternative posthumanist understanding of digital sustainability, we need to study what humans and non-humans do relationally, a perspective beyond unidimensional concerns of human-technology interaction. By recognizing that all capacities of humans are always context dependent, sustainability becomes an aspiration understood as “a flow of multiple effects that produces capacities and potential in (post)human and non-human matter” (Fox and Alldred, 2019). With this posthumanist understanding in mind, digital sustainability goes beyond the sustainable digital transformation of ‘human’ potential. Instead, digital sustainability acknowledges the arrangements of digital technologies, (post)humans, and surrounding environments to enhance capacities by affecting and being affected by each other for sustainable futures.

With posthumanist arguments, I understand digital sustainability as a mode of ‘posthuman becoming’ that addresses a broader concern with material potentials of digital technologies to pursue sustainable futures. A sustainable future indicates an intergenerational continuity of diversity in ecological, political, economic and affective dimensions. We, as posthumans, should experiment and practice interactions promoting actions that can enhance potentials of sustainable futures for our assemblages. For posthumans, not liberal ‘Man,’ a practice of digital sustainability should speak to inequities between (post)humans engendered by unequal distributions of material and political resources between race, gender, income, culture, geographical region and body’s abilities.

Digital sustainability does not utilize technologies for human prosperity or develop innovative technologies in order to enhance surviving in the future. Instead, digital sustainability is intergenerational and interdisciplinary care of posthumanist entanglement with digital technologies. We must admit that digital technologies are embodied in our daily lives to change our capacities and conditions of experiences. The human, the primary axis of SDGs, is already intermingled with technologies in a context defined by a multiplicity of non-human agencies. Digital sustainability builds on a shift in the SDGs’ anthropocentric perspectives to posthumanist possibilities, offering a more critical, cultural and contextual sustainability assessment. This approach reconceptualizes digital transformations that promote responsibility and ethical accountability of technological engagements.




As this paper has shown, the current understanding of sustainability in SDGs and the UN’s digital policy sets humans apart from environments and technologies. The belief that humans are autonomous beings independent of tools and surrounding environments is an anthropocentric bias. The belief causes human/technology dualism and technological determinism that considers technology the most important source of change for people and the planet. Also, the term human itself does not inclusively encompass the diversities of humankind. Despite acknowledging the historical progress on achieving equality and social justice, anthropocentrism aggregates all kinds of human diversities into the same category of ‘Man,’ obscuring inequalities between races, genders, incomes, abilities, cultures and geographical regions.

The application of the modern legacy, the ‘Man’ representing Western, white, male and rich humans, we might cause or overlook emerging issues on human exploitation, the digital divide between global North and South, digital exclusion of bodies with disabilities and gender bias in artificial intelligence. The anthropocentric assumption would lead us to a non-sustainable future that we inevitably choose between humanity and technologies.

This paper synthesizes human/non-human and culture/technology dualisms to open up new perspectives on sustainability and establish theoretical parameters of digital sustainability in a posthumanist approach. The posthumanist approach situates (post)human as co-constitutive elements of assemblage that is not independent of technologies. The human subject is always historical, inhabiting co-constitutive entanglements with non-human entities. Thus, humans and non-humans are relational and contextual by affecting and being affected by each other. The posthuman goals of sustainable development are not some capacities contributing to human agency and human rights. Instead, the posthuman thesis emphasizes the relational potential for becoming and the unknown capacities of (post)human and non-human matters to achieve sustainability. The narrow interest in human agency cannot embrace the scope of digital sustainability.

Digital sustainability is not just integrating digital technologies into the current format of SDGs nor overemphasizing human agency. In our digitally sustainable assemblage, there’s more than humans and technologies. There are many (post)human and non-human elements, such as digital technologies, digital infrastructures, digital literacy and (post)humans with different races, genders, nationalities, abilities and cultures. We need to pay attention to the relational contingency between those elements for their capacities to be sustainable.

Digital sustainability addresses a broader concern with material potentials of sustainability and speaks to inequities between (post)humans, such as race, gender, income, culture and geography. Moving away from types of privileges, we need to promote local actions fostering sustainability in digital transformation and cross-cultural programs to re-distribute capacities between genders, races, nationalities, abilities and geographies. The UN’s recent plans on narrowing digital divides across geographical regions, gender, age and abilities suggest potential convergence with posthuman digital sustainability. However, further support is needed for individuals and organizations to practice responsible and accountable posthuman actions such as developing mobile applications tracking one’s carbon footprint, being responsible for data security or organizational initiatives challenging against digital discrimination. End of article


About the author

Jeonghyun Lee is an ICTD Fellow at the United Nations University Institute in Macau.
E-mail: jeonghyun [at] unu [dot] edu



1. Haraway, 1997, p. 74; cited in Braidotti, 2018, p. 5.

2. Massumi, 1998, p. 60.

3. Hui, 2016, p. 1.

4. Adams and Thompson, 2016, p. 5.

5. Stiegler, 1998, p. 140.

6. Wiley and Elam, 2018, p. 208.

7. Neocosmos, 2009, p. 276.

8. United Nations, 2020, p. 14.



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Editorial history

Received 10 September 2021; accepted 8 October 2021.

Copyright © 2021, Jeonghyun Lee. All Rights Reserved.

Digital sustainability and the human: A posthumanist approach
by Jeonghyun Lee.
First Monday, Volume 26, Number 11 - 1 November 2021