With something like 10 percent of the population already dependent on doodads like digital pacemakers, cochlear implants, and artificial skin, the era of the cyborg has clearly arrived. Ever since Donna
Haraway’s celebrated 1985 “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” human-machine hybrids have been fetishized by some theorists, especially those intent on dismantling hoary humanist narratives of subjectivity, agency, and consciousness. But too often the pressing implications of tomorrow’s technologically enhanced human beings have been buried beneath an impenetrable haze of theory-babble and leather-clad posturing.
Thankfully, N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman provides a rigorous and historical framework for grappling with the cyborg, which Hayles replaces with the more all-purpose “posthuman.” Long one of the most sensible voices in cybertheoryland, Hayles spent much of the 1990s tracing the history, philosophy, and literary permutations of cybernetics, an interdisciplinary postwar science devoted to analyzing both the animal and mechanical kingdoms as self-organizing systems based around information flows and feedback loops. How We Became Posthuman is the result of her archaeology, and though Hayles devotes far too many pages to lit crit (she’s a professor of English at UCLA), she has written a deeply insightful and significant investigation of how cybernetics gradually reshaped the boundaries of the human. For Hayles, the posthuman is not just some Edward Scissorhands amalgamation of gizmos and flesh, but a new kind of subjectivity, one that undercuts the centrality of consciousness and erodes the distinction between humans and machines.
With clear if dry prose, Hayles maps the overlapping waves of cybernetic ideas that lie behind this psychic shift. The first wave, famously championed by Norbert Wiener at the dawn of the Cold War, used a language of circuits, feedback, and data flow to describe how systems organic and technological kept their act together in the face of the universe’s tendency toward entropy. Central to this project was the technical notion of information. As Hayles puts it, information lost its body and became transcendental stuff that could “circulate unchanged among different material substrates.” This notion— that information is more essential than its physical contexts— undergirds the information age. As Hayles argues, it pulls us from a world defined by the presence and absence of material forms into a world flickering between pattern and randomness, signal and noise.
By eroding the distinction between man and machine, cybernetics not only welcomed technology into the loop of being but undermined the coherence of the consciousness we used to think was in charge. For the humanist, the subject both owns and knows itself, and Hayles argues that this model doesn’t fare well in a world defined by complex systems and the logic of technoscience. To prove her argument, Hayles turns to speculative fiction and shows how the feedback loops of techno-subjectivity gradually unravel in the novels of Philip K. Dick, William Burroughs, and Neal Stephenson. Hayles is particularly inspired when writing about Burroughs, whose The Ticket That Exploded cuts and splices the speaking self through the technological figure of magnetic tape. But compared to the clarity and heft of her discussions of philosophy and science, Hayles’s literary criticism sometimes groans like the professorial machinery it is.
How We Became Posthuman is far more compelling when its author probes the problems of technological identity from within technoscience itself. For example, one of the great questions of cybernetics loops around the human subject: what happens when the observer of a system is factored into the system itself? Hayles follows this ouroboros-like question into a fascinating discussion of the “second wave” cybernetic theories of Gregory Bateson, Humberto Maturana, and Francisco Varela, all of whom first came to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s. Giving up the bird’s-eye view of earlier cyberneticians, these thinkers attempted to systematically and dispassionately describe the self-reflexive activity of the mind in nature, which partly creates the world it sees. One of Hayles’s great contributions is to bring this strange Vulcan Zen, with its deeply holistic picture of cognition, back into the light.
According to Hayles, today’s “third
wavers” largely spurn such philosophical reflections; they are more interested in programming Darwinian computer simulations that, following the archetype of Artificial Life, attempt to reproduce the logic of organic life by allowing codes to “evolve” inside the petri dish of a PC. Hayles shows how the field uses the rhetoric of organicism to package its abstract algorithms for outsiders. Yet Artificial Life erases the primary role that physical bodies play in real life. Though recognizing the value of this strategy, Hayles rightly attacks its ideological pretensions. “Just because information has lost its body does not mean that humans and the world have lost theirs.”
In contrast, Hayles embraces the “resistant materialities of embodiment,” a stance that pits her against many a trendy theorist; she writes that future generations will be stupefied by “the postmodern orthodoxy that the body is primarily, if not entirely, a linguistic and discursive construction.” But Hayles does not reject the delirious possibilities of life with brainy machines in the name of some romantic return to nature and the soul. “If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality.” This is indeed the challenge. And though How We Became Posthuman is not the cyborg handbook we still require, it does clarify and shape the question that all of us should now be chewing over: if we are now posthuman, than what kind of posthumans will we be?