Review of N.
Katherine Hayles, How We Became
Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. 350 pp.
Alan C. Elms
of this intriguing book is more ironic than accurate. “We” by no means refers to all of us, but to
certain scholars and writers who have applied cybernetics and information
theory to human beings. “Became” is not
(yet) to be taken in a literal sense even for those cyberneticists and their
ilk; rather, it means began to think of
themselves and/or others as.
“Posthuman” remains a slippery word throughout the book, but it mainly
means existing as patterns of
information. The title’s “How” is
its most straightforward word: Hayles provides us with a historical account
(augmented by numerous side excursions) of the shifts in thinking about the
essence of humanity by these information scientists and others through half a
century. Hayles wants to help the rest
of us understand such thinking, not so much to make us true believers as to
warn us about its errors and excesses.
to the most extreme versions of such “posthuman” thinking, the essence of any
human’s existence can (at least theoretically) be downloaded into a computer
and transmitted across vast distances of space or time. Such concepts of light-speed travel and
effective immortality are widespread in science fiction, but they have also
been promulgated by such serious thinkers as Hans Moravec and Christopher
Langton. Langton, for example, has
asserted that “the ‘logical form’ of an organism can be separated from its
material basis of construction, and that ‘aliveness’ will be found to be a
property of the former, not of the latter” (quoted by Hayles, p. 231).
regards such assumptions, applied to humans, as a threat to “the values of
liberal humanism—a coherent, rational self, the right of that self to autonomy
and freedom, and a sense of agency linked with a belief in enlightened
self-interest” (pp. 85-86). Hayles does
not care much for liberal humanism, which is too closely linked with capitalism
and other bad things. But she is
concerned that the prevailing posthuman concepts wrongly ignore the influence
of “embodiment” on our humanity. Each of
us does not merely live in a body,
from which we could be extracted and downloaded into a computer with no great
loss. Instead, each of us is a body, including not only the
wetware of our brains but much else that comes from being a uniquely physical
human in a uniquely physical environment.
Hayles’s semi-heroes in this book is the neurophysiologist-turned-psychoanalyst
Lawrence Kubie. Kubie tried to persuade
the participants in several early cybernetics conferences that their
information-focused models of human nature were highly simplified abstractions
of “complex psychological phenomena,” omitting such things as unconscious
motives and neurotic needs (p. 72). The
conference participants were not persuaded; instead, they seem to have grown
increasingly uneasy at Kubie’s insistence that being human involves much more
than rational information-processing.
Current versions of cognitive and evolutionary psychology may include
the kinds of “hot cognitions” and body-imbedded motives that Kubie’s (and
Freud’s) arguments foreshadowed. But in
other areas of the mind sciences, prevailing visions of posthumanity continue
to valorize the clean abstractions of computer-intelligence analogies.
writes largely in a critical-theory language that requires close (and sometimes
exhausting) attention. She is easier to
follow when she discusses the lovingly embodied details of several science
fiction novels chosen to illustrate various ways to conceptualize the
posthuman. She argues, finally, that a
restrained form of posthumanism may be good for us—one in which “a dynamic
partnership between humans and intelligent machines replaces the liberal
humanist subject’s manifest destiny to dominate and control nature” (p.
288). That part of her argument is not
well developed. But her explication of
the supposedly nonfictional writings of speculative information scientists
should help alert the rest of us to the dangers of wild posthumanism. Perhaps a few true believers will be willing
to have their brains sliced and diced and downloaded as part of the great
posthuman advance. The rest of us will
wisely hold onto our bodies and our plain humanity for as long as we can.
the Journal of the History of the
Sciences, 36 (2), 2000,