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How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics Paperback – February 15, 1999

ISBN-13: 978-0226321462 ISBN-10: 0226321460 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 364 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (February 15, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226321460
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226321462
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #212,241 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

The title of this scholarly yet remarkably accessible slice of contemporary cultural history has a whiff of paradox about it: what can it mean, exactly, to say that we humans have become something other than human? The answer, Katherine Hayles explains, lies not in ourselves but in our tools. Ever since the invention of electronic computers five decades ago, these powerful new machines have inspired a shift in how we define ourselves both as individuals and as a species.

Hayles tracks this shift across the history of avant-garde computer theory, starting with Norbert Weiner and other early "cyberneticists," who were the first to systematically explore the similarities between living and computing systems. Hayles's study ends with artificial-life specialists, many of whom no longer even bother to distinguish between life forms and computers. Along the way she shows these thinkers struggling to reconcile their traditional, Western notions of human identity with the unsettling, cyborg directions in which their own work seems to be leading humanity.

This is more than just the story of a geek elite, however. Hayles looks at cybernetically inspired science fiction by the likes of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson to show how the larger culture grapples with the same issues that dog the technologists. She also draws lucidly on her own broad grasp of contemporary philosophy both to contextualize those issues and to contend with them herself. The result is a fascinating introduction--and a valuable addition--to one of the most important currents in recent intellectual history. --Julian Dibbell

About the Author

N. Katherine Hayles is a postmodern literary critic, most notable for her contribution to the fields of literature and science, electronic literature, and American literature. She is professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Program in Literature at Duke University.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By C. S. Webster on April 19, 2002
Format: Paperback
In this book of panoramic scope Hayles considers no less than the fate of the human race. In a rich and detailed discussion ranging from the science fiction of Greg Bear and Philip K. Dick to the science of Norbert Wiener's cybernetics and Claude Shannon's information theory, Hayles traces the changing conception of human consciousness and claims that a great many of us are already posthuman. A posthuman is someone who has been reconstructed in some sense, either physically or mentally, such that he or she exceeds, or believes they can exceed, the boundaries of a human. About ten percent of Americans can be considered cyborgs in the technical sense by virtue of having some kind of artificial implant - these people would qualify as posthuman since they have compensated for some limitation of their bodies through technological augmentation. However, Hayles claims that to be posthuman no prosthesis is necessary, simply the way in which we think about ourselves as conscious agents needs to change. The advent of Shannon's information theory has led to the modern convention of treating information as if it were entirely non-physical. If this idea is applied to the information in our heads - that is, the collection of memories that make each of us unique - then we quickly arrive at the conclusion that our consciousness can be uploaded into a computer, decanted into a robot-body, or even backed-up onto computer disk, giving us eternal life.
This is the story of how information lost its body and it is an idea which is now well established in Western culture and technology. Yet, Hayles believes it to be misguided. Any informational pattern, be it pebbles on the beach or electrons whizzing across the internet, must have a physical embodiment to exist.
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52 of 59 people found the following review helpful By Neal Stanifer on December 1, 1999
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Finally, a well-informed, razor-smart analysis of the cultural evolution of information as we (mis)understand it today. Hayles does for information and cybernetics what Foucault has done for sexuality, madness and the penal system, and she does it in a way that is thorough-going, highly contemporary, and enjoyable. Hayles offers the paradoxically devastating thesis that, in our visions of information, in our approaches to cybernetics, and in our handling of our own place in the world, Western culture has been hurtling down the wrong path. We have forgotten the physical. Worse, in order to forget the physical, to elide our own bodies, we had to forget or disregard a mountain of evidence. Not content to let us remain ignorant, Hayles recalls that evidence for us, shows us where we've come from, where we are, and offers some insight into where we're going. This is one of those books that you will tell all your friends about.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Roger D. Launius VINE VOICE on October 23, 2005
Format: Paperback
This is an important, impressive, and infuriating book that should be read by all those interested in the posthuman movement, the possibility of a cyborg future, and the nature of cyberspace. I agree with other reviewers that it is a penetrating analysis of the cultural revolution taking place in information and what it means for human (and posthuman) society. It is important as a powerful statement of the post-modern concern with embodiment and what that might portend for the future of humanity. It is impressive as a wide-ranging analysis of the inter-linkages of technology, culture, and the human body. It is infuriating because of the jargon-filled text and convoluted nature of the writing. That last criticism is one that is generic for post-modern works such as this, and certainly not a specific criticism of this book.

UCLA professor of English N. Katherine Hayles makes the case that the body (or lack thereof) is central to this posthuman future. She notes that the body is lost in the information age, as disembodied voices/knowledge/data came to dominate thinking about a posthuman evolutionary stage. She also explores the development of the concept of the cyborg, and what the merger of humans and machines might eventually come to mean. She undertakes the analysis through a series of case studies. One of the best of them is her chapter on the science fiction of Philip K. Dick, whose novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" was made into the classic feature film "Blade Runner." His obsession with artificial life, and by extension "real" life, consumed much of Dick's writing and has much to say about the essence of the posthuman.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Clear Pilot on March 2, 1999
Format: Paperback
Read this book to see how an American writes in that obtuse French post-modern style. She covers the psybernetic/media territory from 1943 to 1999 the best I've ever seen. Zig-zags from Gregory Bateson & Alan Turing on to William Gibson and covers the very interesting idea that "information" probably does not exist like we generally think of it...a la Franciso Varela. Most importantly, She retreives Embodiment as the fundamental ground of all consciousness..that no feature of consciousness is ever not physical and even "information"-bits & bytes on/in the 'Net... cyber"space" is always embodied in servers/fiber optic lines/memory storage magnetic fields,etc.
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