How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics

University of Chicago Press
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In this age of DNA computers and artificial intelligence, information is becoming disembodied even as the "bodies" that once carried it vanish into virtuality. While some marvel at these changes, envisioning consciousness downloaded into a computer or humans "beamed" Star Trek-style, others view them with horror, seeing monsters brooding in the machines. In How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles separates hype from fact, investigating the fate of embodiment in an information age.

Hayles relates three interwoven stories: how information lost its body, that is, how it came to be conceptualized as an entity separate from the material forms that carry it; the cultural and technological construction of the cyborg; and the dismantling of the liberal humanist "subject" in cybernetic discourse, along with the emergence of the "posthuman."

Ranging widely across the history of technology, cultural studies, and literary criticism, Hayles shows what had to be erased, forgotten, and elided to conceive of information as a disembodied entity. Thus she moves from the post-World War II Macy Conferences on cybernetics to the 1952 novel Limbo by cybernetics aficionado Bernard Wolfe; from the concept of self-making to Philip K. Dick's literary explorations of hallucination and reality; and from artificial life to postmodern novels exploring the implications of seeing humans as cybernetic systems.

Although becoming posthuman can be nightmarish, Hayles shows how it can also be liberating. From the birth of cybernetics to artificial life, How We Became Posthuman provides an indispensable account of how we arrived in our virtual age, and of where we might go from here.
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About the author

N. Katherine Hayles is Professor of English and Design/Media Arts at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
May 15, 2008
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Pages
364
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ISBN
9780226321394
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Language
English
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Genres
Computers / Computer Science
Computers / Cybernetics
Philosophy / General
Science / General
Science / History
Science / Philosophy & Social Aspects
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We live in a world, according to N. Katherine Hayles, where new languages are constantly emerging, proliferating, and fading into obsolescence. These are languages of our own making: the programming languages written in code for the intelligent machines we call computers. Hayles's latest exploration provides an exciting new way of understanding the relations between code and language and considers how their interactions have affected creative, technological, and artistic practices.

My Mother Was a Computer explores how the impact of code on everyday life has become comparable to that of speech and writing: language and code have grown more entangled, the lines that once separated humans from machines, analog from digital, and old technologies from new ones have become blurred. My Mother Was a Computer gives us the tools necessary to make sense of these complex relationships. Hayles argues that we live in an age of intermediation that challenges our ideas about language, subjectivity, literary objects, and textuality. This process of intermediation takes place where digital media interact with cultural practices associated with older media, and here Hayles sharply portrays such interactions: how code differs from speech; how electronic text differs from print; the effects of digital media on the idea of the self; the effects of digitality on printed books; our conceptions of computers as living beings; the possibility that human consciousness itself might be computational; and the subjective cosmology wherein humans see the universe through the lens of their own digital age.

We are the children of computers in more than one sense, and no critic has done more than N. Katherine Hayles to explain how these technologies define us and our culture. Heady and provocative, My Mother Was a Computer will be judged as her best work yet.
From Robocop to the Terminator to Eve 8, no image better captures our deepest fears about technology than the cyborg, the person who is both flesh and metal, brain and electronics. But philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark sees it differently. Cyborgs, he writes, are not something to be feared--we already are cyborgs. In Natural-Born Cyborgs, Clark argues that what makes humans so different from other species is our capacity to fully incorporate tools and supporting cultural practices into our existence. Technology as simple as writing on a sketchpad, as familiar as Google or a cellular phone, and as potentially revolutionary as mind-extending neural implants--all exploit our brains' astonishingly plastic nature. Our minds are primed to seek out and incorporate non-biological resources, so that we actually think and feel through our best technologies. Drawing on his expertise in cognitive science, Clark demonstrates that our sense of self and of physical presence can be expanded to a remarkable extent, placing the long-existing telephone and the emerging technology of telepresence on the same continuum. He explores ways in which we have adapted our lives to make use of technology (the measurement of time, for example, has wrought enormous changes in human existence), as well as ways in which increasingly fluid technologies can adapt to individual users during normal use. Bio-technological unions, Clark argues, are evolving with a speed never seen before in history. As we enter an age of wearable computers, sensory augmentation, wireless devices, intelligent environments, thought-controlled prosthetics, and rapid-fire information search and retrieval, the line between the user and her tools grows thinner day by day. "This double whammy of plastic brains and increasingly responsive and well-fitted tools creates an unprecedented opportunity for ever-closer kinds of human-machine merger," he writes, arguing that such a merger is entirely natural. A stunning new look at the human brain and the human self, Natural Born Cyborgs reveals how our technology is indeed inseparable from who we are and how we think.
“How do we think?” N. Katherine Hayles poses this question at the beginning of this bracing exploration of the idea that we think through, with, and alongside media. As the age of print passes and new technologies appear every day, this proposition has become far more complicated, particularly for the traditionally print-based disciplines in the humanities and qualitative social sciences. With a rift growing between digital scholarship and its print-based counterpart, Hayles argues for contemporary technogenesis—the belief that humans and technics are coevolving—and advocates for what she calls comparative media studies, a new approach to locating digital work within print traditions and vice versa. Hayles examines the evolution of the field from the traditional humanities and how the digital humanities are changing academic scholarship, research, teaching, and publication. She goes on to depict the neurological consequences of working in digital media, where skimming and scanning, or “hyper reading,” and analysis through machine algorithms are forms of reading as valid as close reading once was. Hayles contends that we must recognize all three types of reading and understand the limitations and possibilities of each. In addition to illustrating what a comparative media perspective entails, Hayles explores the technogenesis spiral in its full complexity. She considers the effects of early databases such as telegraph code books and confronts our changing perceptions of time and space in the digital age, illustrating this through three innovative digital productions—Steve Tomasula’s electronic novel, TOC; Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts; and Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions. Deepening our understanding of the extraordinary transformative powers digital technologies have placed in the hands of humanists, How We Think presents a cogent rationale for tackling the challenges facing the humanities today.
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