How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. By N.
KATHERINE HAYLES. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. xiv+350. $49.00(cloth);
$18.00(paper). ISBN 0-226-32145-2 (cloth); 0-226-32146-0 (paper).
This book examines the relationship between human beings and their tools. In the modern era, both scientists and science fiction writers have sketched futures where machines would inherit humanness and human history: human beings would become as obsolete as dinosaurs. Many of these visions have been dystopias. Hayles proposes in this book a well-reasoned, feminist critique of the roots of our cybernetic future and argues that a different future can be crafted that avoids the desire of mastery, the objectivist account of science and the imperialist project of subduing nature.
The purpose of this book is to examine how cybernetics and, in particular, information technology modifies our view of ourselves and our relationships with our machines. Three themes are examined: how information lost its body, how the cyborg was constructed in the postwar years as a technological artifact and cultural icon, and how the human became the posthuman. Posthuman in this context refers to the usurpation of the human by the mechanical: Machines take on human traits. Hayles recounts the impetus of her study in the literature of futurology where it is argued that it would be possible to download human consciousness into a computer. "How would it be possible to separate the mind from the body?" she asked.
The answer to this question involves a detailed analysis of the foundation era of cybernetics and the personages of Norbert Weiner, John von Neumann, Claude Shannon, and Warren McCulloch at the annual Josian Macy conferences. The purpose of this conference was to formulate the central concepts that would coalesce into a theory of communication and control applying equally to animals, humans and machines. Shannon supplied the theory of information, to which was added a model of neural functioning that considered human neurons as information-processing systems, plus von Neumann's binary computers. The driving assumption of these three conceptual frames is that humans were little more than information processing entities who are essentially similar to intelligent machines.
Complementing Hayles' analysis of the origins of cybernetics is a discussion of classic science fiction texts that trade in many of these same ideas. She discusses Bernard Wolfe's underground classic, Limbo, which imagines a postwar society that equates aggression with the ability to move. Cybernetics enhance the ability to move, and provides a striking metaphor of the permeable boundary between the human and the machine. She also discusses several Philip K. Dick novels written from 1962 to 1966, including We can build you, Do androids dream of electric sheep?, Dr. Bloodmoney, and Ubik, all of which provide another set of texts through which the multiple implications of the posthuman are explored.
Although some current versions of the posthuman point toward the antihuman and the apocalyptic, Hayles argues that we can craft another vision that will be conducive to the long-range survival of humans and the other life-forms, biological and artificial with whom we share the planet and ourselves. She bases her optimism on the recognition that the body is a physical structure whose constraints and possibilities have been formed by an evolutionary history that intelligent machines do not share. The reality of computer-intensive environments is that the limiting factor is not bandwidth, storage space or manipulations per second. The limiting factor is human attention. Thus the initial question of downloading human consciousness into a computer becomes transmuted into a question of formulating human discrimination, analysis and attention into a computer algorithm. Can it be done? Her plea in this book is that we humans not submit our control to that machine intelligence.
I recommend this book to anyone who wishes to survey cultural history in the late 20th century and understand the relationship of the human and the machine. Hayles argues that we have always been posthuman, in that humans have always been tool users and we have always extended the boundaries of the human by the use of tools. Hayles argues that a more humanistic future awaits us if we become conscious of the roots of cybernetics and fully recognize its cultural assumptions.
Terrence A. Brooks