How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics

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9780226321462: How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics
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In this age of DNA computers and artificial intelligence, information is becoming disembodied even as the "bodies" that once carried it vanish into virtuality. While some marvel at these changes, envisioning consciousness downloaded into a computer or humans "beamed" Star Trek-style, others view them with horror, seeing monsters brooding in the machines. In How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles separates hype from fact, investigating the fate of embodiment in an information age.

Hayles relates three interwoven stories: how information lost its body, that is, how it came to be conceptualized as an entity separate from the material forms that carry it; the cultural and technological construction of the cyborg; and the dismantling of the liberal humanist "subject" in cybernetic discourse, along with the emergence of the "posthuman."

Ranging widely across the history of technology, cultural studies, and literary criticism, Hayles shows what had to be erased, forgotten, and elided to conceive of information as a disembodied entity. Thus she moves from the post-World War II Macy Conferences on cybernetics to the 1952 novel Limbo by cybernetics aficionado Bernard Wolfe; from the concept of self-making to Philip K. Dick's literary explorations of hallucination and reality; and from artificial life to postmodern novels exploring the implications of seeing humans as cybernetic systems.

Although becoming posthuman can be nightmarish, Hayles shows how it can also be liberating. From the birth of cybernetics to artificial life, How We Became Posthuman provides an indispensable account of how we arrived in our virtual age, and of where we might go from here.

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The title of this scholarly yet remarkably accessible slice of contemporary cultural history has a whiff of paradox about it: what can it mean, exactly, to say that we humans have become something other than human? The answer, Katherine Hayles explains, lies not in ourselves but in our tools. Ever since the invention of electronic computers five decades ago, these powerful new machines have inspired a shift in how we define ourselves both as individuals and as a species.

Hayles tracks this shift across the history of avant-garde computer theory, starting with Norbert Weiner and other early "cyberneticists," who were the first to systematically explore the similarities between living and computing systems. Hayles's study ends with artificial-life specialists, many of whom no longer even bother to distinguish between life forms and computers. Along the way she shows these thinkers struggling to reconcile their traditional, Western notions of human identity with the unsettling, cyborg directions in which their own work seems to be leading humanity.

This is more than just the story of a geek elite, however. Hayles looks at cybernetically inspired science fiction by the likes of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson to show how the larger culture grapples with the same issues that dog the technologists. She also draws lucidly on her own broad grasp of contemporary philosophy both to contextualize those issues and to contend with them herself. The result is a fascinating introduction--and a valuable addition--to one of the most important currents in recent intellectual history. --Julian Dibbell

About the Author:

N. Katherine Hayles is a postmodern literary critic and the James B. Duke Professor of Literature at Duke University.

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