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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 2002
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. The importance of embodiment is also being discovered in fields such as neurology and experimental robotics. A surprisingly large amount of the information processing essential for being a responsive agent in the world goes on in body parts such as nerves, the spine and the proprioception of joints - our powerful human consciousness is a relatively recent add-on.
Hayles argues that future posthumans will not be the ethereal information-beings of much of current science fiction, but they will certainly have a much more intimate relationship with computers than we do today. In terms of information flows, a collection of humans and computers contains no boundaries between one and the next. As computers approach the complexity of our bodies and information becomes more important to our work and leisure, humans and computers will become more compatible with each other and there will be an increasing potential for one to collapse into the other. Whether this is to the detriment or betterment of humanity represents a cross-roads which urgently needs to be addressed. Hayles is well aware that technology issues such as these currently concern relatively few people - the majority of the world's population has yet to make their first phone call. Yet, now is precisely when such issues need to be aired before our posthuman futures are set in stone as either assimilated components in a vast machine or as free agents with powerful human-integrated technology at our disposal.
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52 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 1999
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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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 23, 2005
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.

The most challenging and interesting part of this book is Hayles argument that Homo sapiens as a species are endangered in ways we have never conceptualized. Hayles notes that the rise of artificial life will lead to the next stage of the evolution of life on Earth. "If the name of the game is processing information," she writes, "it is only a matter of time until intelligent machines replace us as our evolutionary heirs. Whether we decide to fight them or join them by becoming computers ourselves, the days of the human race are numbered" (p. 243). The author does not view this with serious trepidation. As her last sentence in the book states: "Although some current versions of the posthuman point toward the anti-human and the apocalyptic, we can craft others that will be conducive to the long-range survival of humans and of the other life-forms, biological and artificial, with whom we share the planet and ourselves" (p. 291).

I think Hayles would agree with the Borg's slogan, "resistance is futile," but not with the dystopian concept of the human future it offers.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
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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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2002
When the U.S. president called our war against terrorism a new kind of war--a war of information instead of a traditional war--I was struck by the similarity between what he said and what Hayles wrote a couple years earlier in How We Became Posthuman.
Hayles describes how:
1) information is more important than physical presence
2) consciousness is only part of what makes us human
3) we can think of the body as a prosthesis
4) humans and intelligent machines merge seamlessly
The book is well written, accessible, and has been very useful to me in my PhD literary studies. I highly recommend it!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2012
My low rating is not for the text itself, but for the kindle formatting. Normally, one would be able to transfer between each chapter by using the arrow buttons, but this e-book provides no links to be able to do that. This seems like very lazy e-book formatting. I wish I had just bought the physical copy.

The text itself is excellent. If you are interested in this subject, N. Katherine Hayles is a fantastic writer who explains the posthuman very well.
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on March 31, 2013
As we consider drug use for higher scores on high-stakes test, become blasé about dental implants, expect prosthetics to have electronic nerves, and keep our smartphones as close as our pocket handkerchiefs, Hayles's insight into posthuman expectations are of huge value. It's not an easy read, nor is it particularly balanced, but there are some striking points here, especially about embodiment. Well worth reading.
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on August 14, 2015
Insightful, well-researched, and very clear, considering the material she explores. In multipying [her (introductory)] references [Hayles] does not muddle [her] discourse but, on the contrary, weaves a net that tightens its originality. I particularly enjoyed reading Philip K. Dick's Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch through her lens.
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on December 7, 2013
Really good theory text. Not even necessary for my course work, I just ended up wanting another of her books for research and edification.
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on May 22, 2015
tough to read but very interesting!
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