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How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, and: Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World (review)
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Technology and Culture 41.2 (2000) 392-395

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Book Review

How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics

Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World *

How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, by N. Katherine Hayles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. xiv+350; notes/references, index. $49 (cloth); $18 (paper).

Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World, by Stefan Helmreich. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. xii+314; illustrations, notes/references, bibliography, index. $29.95.

Historians of material technology will not find a lot to get their teeth into in these two books about some of the nonclassical sciences that have developed since World War II. But those interested in technology and culture, to coin a phrase, might find them suggestive, especially How We Became Posthuman. If you like plain English and straightforward presentation--if you are not, for example, terribly keen on the "semiotic square"--then you might find the book hard going. N. Katherine Hayles's prose tends to overheat theoretically, and perhaps she has bitten off more than one can easily chew. But her book is rich and thought-provoking.

Hayles likes to write about science and literature, and about resonances between them. Her style, juxtaposing examples of the two, recalls the zeitgeist school of historiography, but her position (spelled out at greater length in her earlier Chaos Bound [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990]) is a postmodern variant. If the modernist zeitgeist was a unitary miasmatic cause of developments in different spheres of culture, Hayles's zeitgeists are continually made and unmade by situated actors, including Hayles herself. Not content to report on the spirits of the age, she wants to interfere with their becoming. She is concerned here with that odd science called cybernetics, which has, since World War II, called into question the distinctiveness of being human. Cybernetics (1) emphasized the feedback loops running from the environment through the human body and back again, thus challenging our ideas about human boundaries and autonomy; (2) understood the brain as a neural network, a logical diagram, potentially realizable in all sorts of materials, not just organic ones; and (3) formalized what brains and machines do in the same information-theoretic terms. Once you start thinking like a cybernetician, therefore, you are on the way [End Page 392] to becoming "posthuman"--less impressed than you were with the singularity of the human and more interested in similarities and crossovers among people, animals, and machines--precisely the view that Hayles ascribes to a deliberately imprecise "we" in her book.

"Posthumanity" is not necessarily a bad thing. Following Donna Haraway, Hayles sees it as having a positive potential in freeing our imaginations from the hold of old dualisms and associated patterns of domination. But posthumanity can have a dark side, too. Haraway associates this with global capitalism and militarism, but Hayles's bĂȘte noire is Hans Moravec, the computer scientist who talks about downloading consciousness into a computer. This equation of human-ness with disembodied information looks like another male trick to feminists tired of the devaluation of women's bodily labor (from having babies to all the menial tasks that have traditionally made the "life of the mind" of the male scientist possible).

To put it crudely, then, Hayles wants to promote an embodied posthumanism and to fend off the Moravecian "nightmare" (p. 1). To this end, much of How We Became Posthuman is devoted to discussions of how scientists have struggled with notions of embodiment and information, in three waves, as she calls them, in the history of cybernetics: a first wave associated with the name of Norbert Wiener; a second wave from the 1970s onward, associated with Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela's idea of autopoiesis; and a third, 1990s, wave emblematized by work on artificial life. Hayles notes the different conceptions of the body and information that have surfaced in each wave, and...