- 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: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #142,976 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics 1st Edition
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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
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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.
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.