on 3 May 2002
In this book of panoramic scope Hayles considers no less than the fate of the human race. In a rich and detailed discussion ranging from the science fiction of Greg Bear and Philip K. Dick to the science of Norbert Wiener's cybernetics and Claude Shannon's information theory, Hayles traces the changing conception of human consciousness and claims that a great many of us are already posthuman. A posthuman is someone who has been reconstructed in some sense, either physically or mentally, such that he or she exceeds, or believes they can exceed, the boundaries of a human. About ten percent of Americans can be considered cyborgs in the technical sense by virtue of having some kind of artificial implant - these people would qualify as posthuman since they have compensated for some limitation of their bodies through technological augmentation. However, Hayles claims that to be posthuman no prosthesis is necessary, simply the way in which we think about ourselves as conscious agents needs to change. The advent of Shannon's information theory has led to the modern convention of treating information as if it were entirely non-physical. If this idea is applied to the information in our heads - that is, the collection of memories that make each of us unique - then we quickly arrive at the conclusion that our consciousness can be uploaded into a computer, decanted into a robot-body, or even backed-up onto computer disk, giving us eternal life.
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.
on 10 May 2013
If you are looking for a book that discusses cloned figures in science fiction then this book may not be for you as Hayles' focus is on cybernetics, informatics and how these have affected the concept of 'human' and 'nonhuman'. In spite of this, her introductions and conclusions, in which she makes general comments about the posthuman figure and how they can function in literature are very compelling. Hayles argues that there is no paradigm in how the posthuman figure can be portrayed; the posthuman can either be exciting because it opens up new ways of looking at what being human means, or the poshuman can be a fearful figure because their presence suggests the end of mankind. The posthuman figure also reflects the fears and hopes of generations and so they can evolve over time. However, such evolution is a continuum and there are no sharp breaks or distinctions in changes to how the posthuman is conceived. The book is very interesting and I would definitely recommend it to any student studying science fiction, or science in fiction.
on 17 February 1999
HOW WE BECAME POSTHUMAN by N. Katherine Hayles (Chicago, $18, paper) explores the relation between the computer revolution and our changing ideas of what it means to be a human being. Her pet theme: how information became an entity in itself, divorced from the material that carries it, in both science and literature. Norbert Wiener meets P.K. Dick. (p. 178)
on 3 March 1999
Read this book to see how an American writes in that obtuse French post-modern style. She covers the psybernetic/media territory from 1943 to 1999 the best I've ever seen. Zig-zags from Gregory Bateson & Alan Turing on to William Gibson and covers the very interesting idea that "information" probably does not exist like we generally think of it...a la Franciso Varela. Most importantly, She retreives Embodiment as the fundamental ground of all consciousness..that no feature of consciousness is ever not physical and even "information"-bits & bytes on/in the 'Net... cyber"space" is always embodied in servers/fiber optic lines/memory storage magnetic fields,etc.