I recently finished N. Katherine Hayles’s “How We Became Posthuman,” the latest in my yet-another-book-for-my-masters-thesis series. She writes an essential narrative of “how information lost its body,” providing an in-depth look at the history of cybernetics. If there is any critique of her work, which overall I really think is worthwhile, it can take one of two paths.
The first is, admittedly, a bit unfair, because it would have required her to correctly predict the future. Hayles, writing about the concepts of information and embodiment, relies a bit too heavily on the predominant and utopian ideas of the time – the late 1990s, when the Internet’s bubble was still growing. While she correctly believes how in an information-rich age, the “scarce commodity” becomes human attention, the fix, so to speak, is a proliferation of “intelligent machines” that she sees working like neural nets to “sort email, discarding unwatned messages and prioritizing the rest” by learning our email-reading behavior (pg. 287). Today, the closest we have to that is the spam filter, which work to an extent, but inevitably always sends to junk the one really important email you’ve been waiting for…
Another example of the kind of utopian, tech-driven bubble-makers at the time is something I’ve written about before: Wildfire. This telephony-based virtual assistant remembered your schedule, and could forward calls to the appropriate place (work, mobile) based on things like time of day, or screen your calls, and send certain people to voicemail, while putting others directly through. Today, Wildfire doesn’t exist (although the demo phone number still does!)
Why haven’t these technologies ever to come to fruition?
The most obvious answer is the Internet boom went bust. As Trebor Sholtz writes in his “History of the Social Web”:
All of this happened against the backdrop of a starting backlash of technology stocks in the financial markets, which indicated what later became known as the Dotcom Crash. The flashy WebbyAwards exemplify the “dotcom bubble”. Since 1995, it brought together thousands of people in costumes, with hired faux-paparazzi to make people feel important. The Internet was predicted to be the quick replacement of the post office, the fast way to cash in on markets all over the world. The perceptions of the evolution of markets on the Web were exaggerated. Venture capitalists (VC) poured millions into companies that had given up traditional business models, which led to some spectacular failures.
The tech industry went back to basics, and gave up on many of the utopian dreams of the time. Hayles, of course, can’t be blamed for not thinking this would all come to an end.
The second, and more important, critique I think can be made is that, through her reliance on science fiction as something of a metaphor for real-life, she makes the cyborg seem a bit too fantastic. While there is merit in this approach – she clearly draws connections between the cultural production that creates fiction and the kind that creates science, arguing much of the why and how around the concept of “information technology” exists (was determined…) because of the people who studied information technology. Bits and bytes are a construct that have as much to do with culture and social factors as they do about silicon chips.
That said, using Philip K. Dick and Bernard Wolfe’s “Limbo” to get at the materiality of information in our real lives can feel like a stretch, and perhaps even leads to the kind of conclusions and discourse about intelligent agents and neural nets when thinking about our cyborg selves.
A more helpful approach to cyborg theory, at least for me, can be found in Petersen’s “Mundane Cyborg Practice” (PW required…). In this work, Petersen grounds the materiality of information in the mundane ways we use the web, such as checking email, looking up recipes, and doing research:
However by focusing on the integration of the internet into everyday life, I wish to return cyborg (theory) to the direction of the mundane situations and connections. I do so in order to demonstrate that the cyborg is not just an exotic ﬁgure, and in its mundane form it can push our understanding of internet use in new directions. The mundane cyborg informs us about the practice of human-technology relations in the everyday lives of broadband users.
In this manner, Petersen removes the fantastic from the notion of the cyborg. It’s not that this idea of posthumanism “evokes terror” or “”excites pleasure” as Hayles describes (pg. 283); it’s more that we’ve adopted cyborg practices while hardly giving it all a second thought. By seeing the mundanity of the cyborg, it’s much more apparent how information technology has transgressed the borders of human/not-human, as it’s our reliance on technology in our everyday lives that has created our cyborg selves.
It’s how we cannot spell without spell-check, or write in cursive, or need wikipedia to help remember things that point to the cyborg turn we’ve taken.
In the first chapter of her work, Hayles talks about a future where it may be possible to “download human consciousness into a computer” (pg. 1). That’s exactly the wrong model. We’re not downloading our selves into our computers — we’re uploading our sociality. It’s in the upload where we find our posthumanism, in our blog posts and flickr comments and arguments on wiki discussion pages.
We’ve become cyborgs through our connectedness, by integrating the mundanity of our social lives with the mundanity of the social web.