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 bête 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 seeks to emphasize the costs (intellectual, moral, and political) entailed in editing the body out. As is her wont, interspersed with these discussions are her readings of novels. Without claiming any necessary causation in either direction, she seeks to draw out parallels between fiction and science, coupling Bernard Wolfe's Limbo with the first wave of cybernetics, Philip K. Dick's mid-1960s novels with the second, and works by Greg Bear, Cole Perriman, Richard Powers, and Neal Stephenson with the third. I rather resisted these readings at first, but I find that the associations Hayles makes have stuck in my mind. She is certainly right that Limbo (which I had not heard of before) is truly amazing both as a novel and as a document of the early days of cybernetics and the cold war.
I do not share Hayles's nightmares about disembodiment, but Stefan Helmreich's Silicon Second Nature helped me to see where they come from. From 1992 to 1997 Helmreich carried on an anthropological study of workers in artificial life (AL) at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, a leading center of AL research in the United States. At a mundane level, AL is about simulating life on computers: strings of binary digits mutate and cross with one another, reproducing some strings and giving rise to new ones. The simple idea is that we might gain insights into the processes of biological evolution this way. But the biggest surprise in Helmreich's book, for me at any rate, is that many AL scientists think of their work on a cosmic [End Page 393] scale. For them, that slew of bits really is life itself, not a simulation, life based on silicon rather than carbon. Worse (or better), since these bit-strings evolve as fast as the latest generation of processors will let them, they must surely, sooner or later, displace we humans from the top of the evolutionary tree (and probably from planet Earth). Serious disembodiment; information rampant.
Once the shock has worn off, Silicon Second Nature becomes less gripping. Helmreich, unlike Hayles, is obviously not captivated by the science he writes about. One learns little here about the technical practice of AL (John Holland's Hidden Order [Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1995] would be a place to start). There are only passing mentions of connections between work on AL and economic modeling at Santa Fe, and of the ways in which genetic algorithms (on which AL is based) are used to solve complex optimization problems. Most of this book is about the value-laden presuppositions that inform AL--stereotypically white, heterosexual, middle-class, male ones. This takes us back, of course, to feminist critiques of the Darwinian theory of carbon-based evolution. It is interesting that the critique carries over, if not surprising, given that AL simulations begin with a view of life as selfish genes (bit-strings) and nothing but selfish genes.
I have no doubt that Helmreich is to some degree right about the cultural patterning of AL, but his arguments and analyses are often forced. He notes, for example, that runs of Tierra, a well-known artificial world created by Tom Ray, "are begun by inoculating the soup of 60,000 instructions with a single individual of the 80 instruction ancestral genotype," and that Ray elsewhere describes that individual as a "seed." This leads Helmreich straight into a discussion of "Judeo-Christian narratives of creation and procreation," where "God, imagined as masculine, sparks the formless matter of earth with a kind of divine seed," and so on (including a quotation from Hayles on "male programmer mating with a female program"). However, we then learn that Ray also calls these ancestor-seeds "mothers" and succeeding generations "daughters." "This would seem to add a twist," remarks Helmreich, but evidently not enough to slow him down: "Reproduction remains about transmission of form, though this is now democratized to females. Parentage has become defined as an informational relation . . . a move that ensures that mothers and fathers are 'equal' on terms set by a masculine model" (pp. 114-16). This tendency to systematic rhetorical overkill runs through Helmreich's book, and even looms in an otherwise trivial historical mistake. Discussing the reference to gender in Alan Turing's original version of the Turing test, Helmreich parenthetically remarks that "Turing committed suicide in 1954 while in a U.K. prison serving time for being homosexual" (p. 246). Turing was convicted of "gross indecency" but was never jailed and died at home.
In his concluding chapter Helmreich seeks to escape from the cultural reductionism of the rest of the book and to find some positive potential in [End Page 394] AL, à la Haraway and Hayles. He discusses European variants of AL, exemplified for him (and Hayles) by the work of Francisco Varela, as more potent vehicles for challenging existing cultural presuppositions. He ends by making an analogy to drag acts as instances in which simulations challenge essentialist understandings of originals. But his heart does not seem to be in it, and he quickly reminds us that "In many contexts, male-to-female drag can stabilize heterosexual structures of desire in a deeply misogynist way" (p. 249).
Dr. Pickering teaches in the Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois.
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