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Rae Carlson
A Presley Pathography
On Cordwainer Smith
Erikson's History
Elvis: Twinless Twin
Obedience in Retrospect
The Psychologist as Biographer
Posthumanity How?
Rebellious Laterborns

Posthumanity How?                                 

Review of N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.  350 pp.  Paper, $18.00.

Alan C. Elms

            The title 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.

            According 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).

            Hayles 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.

            One of 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.

            Hayles 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.




                                                                        [From the Journal of the History of the

                                                                        Behavioral Sciences, 36 (2), 2000, 192-193.]

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