Katherine Hayles:

"How We Became Post-Human" (1999)

(Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Hayles has written a complex and erudite book on the hidden premises and visible consequences of the information age. Ultimately, her thesis is summarized by a sentence in the prologue: "thought is a much broader cognitive function depending for its specificities on the embodied form enacting it". Rewritten in plain English, it means that you cannot separate your "i" from the body that you inhabit. Her nightmare is "a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being". Her dream is a society in which we "understand ourselves as embodied creatures living within and through embodied worlds and embodied words."

Hayles shows how Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, John von Neumann together with other pioneers of the program of intelligent machines created, spread and fueled the influential notion that information can circulate from one substance to another without losing any property ("how information lost its body").

These founders of cybernetics regularly convened from 1946 until 1953 at the Macy Conference on Cybernetics, that sometimes occurred twice a year (Hayles erroneously states that these conferences started in 1943 and ended in 1954). Speakers at the first conference were: John von Neumann (computer science), Norbert Wiener (mathematics), Walter Pitts (mathematics), Arturo Rosenblueth (physiology), Rafael Lorente de No (neurophysiology), Ralph Gerard (neurophysiology), Warren McCulloch (neuropsychiatry), Gregory Bateson (anthropology), Margaret Mead (anthropology), Heinrich Kluever (psychology), Molly Harrower (psychology), Lawrence Kubie (psychoanalysis), Filmer Northrop (philosophy), Lawrence Frank (sociology), and Paul Lazarsfeld (sociology). The list of speakers is important because otherwise people would think the Macy group only consisted of mathematicians, when in fact it included even a psychiatrist, a philosopher, two sociologists, two psychologists and two anthropologists. Hayles may be right about the consequences of those conferences, but it would be unfair to assume that those consequences were due to the premises.

Today, the ultimate manifestation of this trend is the utopian theories about uploading one's mind to the "cloud" and the dystopian theories that we might be living in a simulated world. Quote: "Virtual reality technologies are fascinating because they make visually immediate the perception that a world of information exists parallel to the real world". (Her definition of "virtuality" is vague and/or impossible to understand like most of her definitions, but, for what it's worth, "Virtuality is the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns").

She argues that Cybernetics, as well as the parallel Information Theory developed by Claude Shannon at about the same time, were the by-product of a cultural context ("The time was ripe for theories that reified information") and that gets explained only much later (in chapter four) when she outlines a parallel between self-regulating machinery and ideas embedded in Adam Smith's self-regulating free-market system and in the spirit of liberalism (democracy and decentrelized control as a form of self-regulating society) and when she refers to Mark Seltzer's study that 19th century society had started counting bodies as statistics (what he called "dematerialized materialism").

The same fate of virtualization is happening to the book (another medium of information transmission just like the human body), which is being replaced by a file. After yet another confusing and abstruse definition, this time of "informatics" ("the technologies of information as well as the biological, social, linguistic, and cultural changes that initiate, accompany, and complicate their development"), Hayles ventures into a discussion on how "information technologies... fundamentally alter the relation of signified to signifier". Hayles maintains that within informatics "a signifier on one level becomes a signified on the next-higher level." Hayles' "flickering signifier" is an extension of Lacan's "floating signifier", caused by to the "textual fluidity" that is introduced in the realm of informatics. (Note for those not familiar with semiotics: Ferdinand Saussure argued that what matters is not the signified but the differences among signifiers themselves; Jacques Lacan expanded on Saussure and argued that signifieds don't exist, that there is no a-priori signified, that signifieds are products of signifiers, and, in addition, that there is no stable relationship between two signifiers, and therefore that the bond between signifier and signified is temporary). The fact that she gives any credibility to Lacan as a thinker does not bode well for the rest of the book.

Hayles characterizes the bodily world as a world in which one can contrast presence and absence, and the virtual world of information technologies as a world in which one contrasts pattern and randomness. She objects to this trend that pattern and presence can coexist, and they should in fact be viewed as complementary. "Information, like humanity, cannot exist apart from the embodiment that brings it into being as a material entity in the world; and embodiment is always instantiated, local, and specific."

The weakest part of her writing is always where she "proves" her theses, in this case by examining the literary output of the information society, a grand total of... one novel (as usual, Gibson's "Neuromancer"); and then by casually mentioning fashionable writers of her time such as Burroughs and Calvino as somehow predating themes of cyber-novels.

An important concept that she uses throughout the book is "reflexivity", defined in an obscure sentence that i think means: when something becomes part of the system it generated. Examples she mentions: Godel's coding technique, Escher's drawings, Borges' "The Circular Ruins", the Constitution of the USA (whose goal is to produce the very people it presupposes to exist).

She thinks that Cybernetics shifted towards "reflexivity" in the 1960s, attributing the origin of "second-order cybernetics" to Austrian physicist Heinz von Foerster, who wrote "a brain is required to write a theory of a brain) and to Bateson, who organized a conference in 1968 centered on the notion that the observer cannot be left out of the theory. The Macy conference had "decontextualized" information focusing on "what information is", whereas second-order cybernetics focused on "what information does", following the example of Donald MacKay. Hayles sides with the psychiatrist Lawrence Kubie, who was opposed to the program of Cybernetics, and not with McCulloch, who famously attacked psychoanalysis in "The Past of a Delusion" (1953), basically describing Freud and his followers as charlatans (to which Kubie retorted that McCulloch needed to see a psychiatrist).

That's when Maturana and Varela happened. Hayles thinks that their work was fundamental in order to push cybernetics outside its own boundaries and to recover the "reflexive" component. She spends quite a few pages describing how Maturana's original theory had problems coexisting with the theory of evolution and with genetics. Maturana himself argued that evolution and reproduction are not necessary features of life, not as necessary as autopoiesis. Maturana viewed DNA as a technical detail only, and ignored the sensory-motor aspect of life. Varela expanded autopoiesis to include the body in its full sensory-motor glory, therefore rediscovering the importance of the body for cognition. And therefore Varela is her hero in the third wave of Cybernetics.

The second part of the book moves on to analyze cultural artifacts (mostly science-fiction novels) that relate to the idea of the cyborg. Caution should be exerted here too. Jules Verne is not as representative as Kafka or Rilke of the zeitgeist of his age. Choosing to analyze only science-fiction books (Wolfe's "Limbo", Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? " William Burroughs' "Ticket that Exploded", Stephenson's "Snow Crash" and the likes) is fine if one limits her conclusions to the realm of science fiction; extrapolating those conclusions to the society at large might be as big an exaggeration as extrapolating a pop star's lyrics to the foreign policy of her time. Poets and philosophers tend to be better witnesses and predictors of social moods. Honestly, it feels like Hayles was dying to review these novels and ended up writing the whole book as an excuse to squeeze in these reviews.

The third and last part of the book focuses on the "post-human condition", one that privileges information over matter. This is the stage at which the difference between bodily reality and virtual simulation becomes blurred.

Hayles here tackles the issues related to calling a piece of software "alive" and a simulation a "world". Her conclusions are a big vague. She warns against interpreting the post-human as anti-human (it doesn't have to be that way), and even echoes Bruno Latour that maybe we've always been post-human.

Personally, i disagree that the disembodied virtualization of the individual is what is happening today. First of all, i don't think that there is a significant movement towards understanding human consciousness as mere patterns of information. I think what is happening today, in the age when people have lost faith in supernatural religion, is a quest for the immortality of our consciousness and, due to the limitations of medicine, this results in a quest for some other way to keep consciousness alive while medicine figures out a way to resurrect my rapidly decaying and soon to be dead body. Hayles is not obviously one of these people, as she dreams of a society that "recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being", a society, in other words, of individuals who are proud and happy to die.

The book is certainly a fascinating read, full of intelligent commentary and overflowing with quotations from the specialistic literature. However, there are problems.

To start with, one has to be careful how to read her apparently powerful comments, often written in an obscure language designed for maximum sensationalism but minimal critique. For example, she writes "It is a useful corrective to remember that 70 percent of the world's population has never made a telephone call." And this was 1999. From which source did she get that number?

For example, at the very beginning of the book she reminds the reader that "Turing's test" (for how we can decide whether a machine is intelligent) was a variation on a popular parlor game (the "imitation game") in which a "judge" had to guess the gender of two hidden people (one a man and the other one a woman) by writing questions to them and reading both their answers. Hayles, in criticizing the value of the Turing test, asks "what does it prove if you fail to distinguish woman from man" in the original parlor game? That is a trick question. What distinguishes a male from a female is a set of bodily organs, that result in visible bodily differences and slightly different bodily movements. If i cannot see you, i cannot tell. The nature of that Victorian-age parlor game was chauvinistic. It implicitly assumed that the hidden woman would have a hard time giving answers as smart as the hidden man's. The challenge was not only for the "judge" to figure out which hidden person is the man and which hidden person is the woman: the challenge was also for the hidden woman to be as "smart" as the hidden man in giving her replies (and perhaps a symmetric challenge was for the hidden man to give dumb answers in order to fool the judge). Back in those days most women would not have been able to articulate a serious thought in response to a question about politics or science. Smart women capable of having a conversation with men were still a rarity. When Hayles compares the Turing test (meant to test the intelligence of a machine) with the original parlor game (meant to test the ability of a woman to pretend to be a man, and viceversa), Hayles is distorting the experiment. If i play that parlor game in my house with friends, i would not be able to tell who is the man and who is the woman because my friends have the same general education and the same general interest in world affairs. Within my circle of friends, gender does not determine who is better at cooking, cleaning and sewing; gender does not determine who is better at discussing politics, science and math. Today the "imitation game" is boring. It might make more sense to play the "imitation game" based on nationality or profession, rather than gender (as in "guess who is the Italian and who is the German", regardless of gender). When Turing adapted that parlor game, i suspect that in his mind the game was about "can a woman be as intelligent as a man"; hence the extension to "can a machine be as intelligent as a man"? Hopefully, today we live in a society in which that parlor game cannot be applied to determining whether women are intelligent. Hence the apparently innocent question that Hayles asks "what does it prove if you fail to distinguish woman from man"? has a simple answer: nothing. The natural way to tell who is a woman and who is a man is to look at their bodies. When the bodies are hidden, you cannot tell who is whom from their intellectual abilities because their intellectual abilities (in any society that gives women equal rights to education, work, etc) are the same. The Turing test may or may not make sense, but the imitation game definitely does not make sense anymore.

It does take patience to read Hayles' English, i.e. sentences such as "The posthuman subject is an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction." (I suspect that this definition can be applied equally well to pre-human and human subjects: it says absolutely nothing but it says it in complicated terms). Or "incorporated knowledge retains improvisational elements that make it contextual rather than abstract".

But the main problem is that she focuses on a minor repertory of artifacts to examine the broad issue of "virtualization" of our bodies. She hardly mentions Turing, the early "electronic brains", and, more importantly, the whole history of Artificial Intelligence, not to mention the business history of the computer industry that led to IBM's mainframes, Apple's personal computers, Google's search engine and Facebook's social network. These appear as footnores in a narrative that Hayles tends to focus on what she knows best, for example, the Macy Conference (that actually had very little influence on either the intellectual debate or the technological progress of the last 50 years). It is like someone analyzing classical Greek civilization and omitting Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and focusing disproportionally on a relatively obscure phenomenon like the Eleusinian Mysteries. Just because most people have never learned of the latter it doesn't mean that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are irrelevant.


Other books and articles of this kind (listed chronologically):


Ihab Hassan: "Prometheus as Performer" (1977)
George Trow: "Within the Context of No Context" (1978)
Donna Haraway: "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" (1985)
Otto Mayr: "Authority, Liberty, and Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe " (1986)
James Beniger: "The Control Revolution" (1986)
David Harvey: "The Condition of Postmodernity" (1989)
Katherine Hayles: "Chaos Bound" (1990)
Constance Penley and Andrew Ross: "Technoculture" (1991)
Bruno Latour: "Nous n'avons jamais ete Modernes/ We Have Never Been Modern" (1991)
Mark Seltzer: "Bodies and Machines" (1992)
Richard Lanham: "The Electronic Word (1994)
Walter Fontana: "Beyond Digital Naturalism" (1994)
Robert Markley: "Boundaries - Mathematics, Alienation and the Metaphysics of Cyberspace" (1996)
Friedrich Kittler: "Discourse Networks" (1996)
Bill Nichols: "The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems" (1996)
And see the general history of cybernetic culture


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