Book details of 'How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics'
|Title||How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics|
|Author(s)||N. Katherine Hayles, Katherine Hayles|
|Publisher||University of Chicago Press|
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The Virtual Bookcase Reviews of 'How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics':
Reviewer amazon.com 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
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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