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Book details of 'How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics'

TitleHow We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics
Author(s)N. Katherine Hayles, Katherine Hayles
PublishedFebruary 1999
PublisherUniversity of Chicago Press
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Score: score: 3.0 ***--  Vote for this book

The Virtual Bookcase Reviews of 'How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics':

Reviewer wrote:
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 --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Reviewer Rob Slade wrote:
It is ironic that literature has a prominent place in the subtitle (Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics) and the material in this book. The writing is dense and sometimes almost unreadable. Unlike many books with such a writing style, this does not indicate a lack of ideas: rather the reverse. A number of concepts tend to be implied by the wording, although few are actually supported. Chapter one, while it does not provide us with a solid definition of posthuman, does present a number of characteristics of the term. Information is vital (while the material is immaterial), conciousness is irrelevant, the body (any body) is a replaceable prosthesis, and the human and computer are interchangeable. Interestingly, the text dances around, but never actually examines, the classic "soul good/body bad" dualism. The assertion is made, in chapter two, that literature is informed and molded by the form of the writing, but supporting arguments are unclear. The Macy cybernetics conferences are reviewed in chapter three, which also outlines intriguing material on the technically unwarranted prominence of neural nets in artificial intelligence research. Hidden in the analysis of Weiner's work and thought, in chapter four, is the striking notion that he saw all information as analogous (and therefore suspect) while accepting and using the rather imprecise analogies from thermodynamics and entropy. Chapter five seems to look at speech or text as a kind of prosthesis: a "false limb" of communication. The idea of life as "organization" is examined in chapter six. From my background in the field of virus research, this idea is problematic: how specific do we get in differentiating types of life? Generally speaking, researchers say that one virus is distinct from another if there is a difference of one bit. So much fiction is involved with all the discussions, that a chapter, seven, on the work of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is unsurprising. Chapter eight proposes that "embodied" knowledge is somehow unique and affected by its embodiment since it is hard to describe. Again, what do we do about the field of psycholinguistics, since kinesthetic knowledge has no words? Chapter nine talks about artificial life. Four novels are analyzed, in chapter ten, on the basis of a semiotic square flawed by having orthogonal axes. Finally, there is a conclusion without conclusions in chapter eleven. While some interesting ideas are presented in the book, it is extraordinarily demanding of the reader. The glacial pace and requirement for intense concentration seem less arbitrary and calculated than in other, similar, works, but still appear to be aimed at some "in group" rather than the general public. A bit of effort in terms of readability and an attempt to make the work more accessible to non-specialists would increase the value substantially. copyright Robert M. Slade, 2002

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Book description:

In this age of DNA computers and artificial intelligence, information is becoming disembodied even as the "bodies" that once carried it vanish into virtuality. While some marvel at these changes, envisioning consciousness downloaded into a computer or humans "beamed" Star Trek-style, others view them with horror, seeing monsters brooding in the machines. In How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles separates hype from fact, investigating the fate of embodiment in an information age. Hayles relates three interwoven stories: how information lost its body, that is, how it came to be conceptualized as an entity separate from the material forms that carry it; the cultural and technological construction of the cyborg; and the dismantling of the liberal humanist "subject" in cybernetic discourse, along with the emergence of the "posthuman." Ranging widely across the history of technology, cultural studies, and literary criticism, Hayles shows what had to be erased, forgotten, and elided to conceive of information as a disembodied entity. Thus she moves from the post-World War II Macy Conferences on cybernetics to the 1952 novel Limbo by cybernetics aficionado Bernard Wolfe; from the concept of self-making to Philip K. Dick's literary explorations of hallucination and reality; and from artificial life to postmodern novels exploring the implications of seeing humans as cybernetic systems. Although becoming posthuman can be nightmarish, Hayles shows how it can also be liberating. From the birth of cybernetics to artificial life, How We Became Posthuman provides an indispensable account of how we arrived in our virtual age, and of where we might go from here.

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