How we became posthuman by N. Katherine Hayles

After I had recently posted some notes from the net to an essay about the transhumanist movement and later to the skepticism about not-quite-unrelated-yet-almost-orthogonal idea of super-intelligence, I recalled that the top three (out of the dozens of) unfinished posts for this web page relates to similar themes. The oldest is an own essay on AI, then there are two reviews of critiques (in the proper sense) of technology: N. Katherine Hayles’s How we became posthuman, and Langdon Winner’s The whale and the reactor.

Both books are very much worth your time. Perhaps my essay will be too if I can get back to my mind-set of 2012 and actually finish it. My review of The whale and the reactor is currently just a long, very long, list of notes provoked at almost every page of that book. Far from done, however when I went back to check the status of How we became posthuman it looked almost 2/3 done. I remember writing the text in a coffee shop near 1st Street and Lonsdale Avenue in North Vancouver a couple of years ago, a month or so after finishing the book,  however, the next day I ran in to some really interesting mathematical models which needed to be looked at, and my review never got finished. I decided to quote it here and post it as it is. This is a really interesting discussion about posthumansim, cybernetics, and embodiment. Anyway, here it goes:

When I finished reading How we became posthuman – Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics by N. Katherine Hayles in early March it was an almost 15 year on-and-off process coming to an end. I read a review of the book sometime around 1999 or in the early new millennium. I can’t remember if I got much out of the review, but I understood one thing: this book contained clues to some of the things that had been on my mind for a couple of years. I had been programming for much of my teenage years, just finishing a Masters in CS at the time, and already spent five years on the Internet by then. Extrapolating my experiences, I kept wondering about how the human would transition to information. I wasn’t equipped with knowledge of even looking for an answer – I’m likely still not – but I like someone groping in the darkness I found a handhold. Something I knew I wanted to know more about.

I remember ordering and picking up How we became posthuman from the excellent Uppsala English Bookshop (you should drop in if you are in Uppsala, I haven’t been there in a while, but they used to be excellent, and I am sure they still are). However, when I started reading I got nowhere. Actually, I persisted for the first 150 pages or so, and while I was able to commit a set of keywords and names to memory, Hayles point’s where lost on me. I simply did not have the background and basic knowledge in any of the fields needed. The text draws its knowledge from Literature, Sociology, and Philosophy, while I had mathematical skills and hands on experience with information (well virtual hands on, I should say).  The language was so foreign to me, so academic, that it hardly seemed like the English I though I had a passing knowledge of.

I had to give up.

But only temporarily; How we became posthuman was always there in the background. I tried again while working on my Ph.D, then once more five years ago. Each time I got a bit more, but put the book away. Then I started once more in January, and simply ploughed through it. The book was still the same, but this time it was almost a walk in the park. I guess we never stop learning.

I actually wasn’t sure I was going to write about How we became posthuman here. I have so many notes that I hardly don’t know where to start. But, then I listened to an old (2011) podcast from Studio 360 called The Posthuman Future. While the topic podcast didn’t pique my interest – it very quickly introduced the work of a transhumanism inspired artist – I reacted to the arguments presented against the concept of transhumanism by Prof. Hurlbut of Stanford. The podcast was rather short, so I guess the chance that Hurlbut’s words were edited down is of course very real. Then my critique is not of him but of the editor. In any case, the arguments were on the form of value grounds. For instance, that if someone would live a very long life they would have so many great-great grand children that it would be impossible to know them all.

Of all possible consequences of extended longevity – and there are quite a selection to pick from (what about resource shortage for instance) –  this seems like a quite banal one. For starters the ageing of first time parenthood in the western world is causing an equivalent problem but in the reverse direction already: fewer will know their grandparents, or at least get to know them at an age where they are fit to join their grandchildren in the same activities as in earlier times. Isn’t this a threat to the same values? Yes, transhumanism will clearly change society, and perhaps not to the better, but in that case not knowing all of ones grandchildren might not be the biggest of issues. (Given that one would want grandchildren if one lived forever.)

In any case, Hurlbut’s arguments are probably much more refined than presented in that short podcast. His basic stance seemed to me in any case to be that we should not hurry to fast out of the human condition ( “then we could very easily disrupt the setting in which human life has its greatest meaning”). That is a point worth thinking about.

Because, there are valid concerns about tranhumanism, and many interesting ways of looking at the concept. With that, its time to return to N. Katherine Hayles, and How we became posthuman: in my opinion this is a much better critique of transhumanism. (OK, to be fair to Prof. Hurlbut, he got three sentences or so in a podcast. ) The critique is in the tradition of Literature and Sociology in first hand, and not from the natural sciences (though Hayles has a very good grip on those as well).

Hayles’s says that embodiment – how s process, cybernetic circuit, or a mind is realized – matters, and she is very interested in how the concept of information evolved during the twentieth century to our current point where we naturally regard medium and information as separate. Central to her discussion is also the question of what will happen to the concept of humanism as we regard our bodies as tools made up of replaceable parts. These are interesting but complicated questions, and as  Hayles consider them we are taken on a journey through literature and the history of the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics. I found the whole text incredibly interesting and very much worth the learning process required for me to get through it.

I had never much considered the concept of subjectivity for instance or how it was affected by the advent of liberal humanism, and while I had to grapple with the concept for quite a bit, I found it an interesting part of How We Became Posthuman.

It is however the discussions on embodiment which in my opinion is the most interesting parts. With cybernetic thinking it is easy to extrapolate to the conclusion that the body does not matter, in the sense that it can be replaced by other substance performing the same functions (e.g. the classic cyborg from popular culture as a meld between man and machine). Transfer of minds is central to transhumanism for instance, and stems from the logical step that as the mind is a phenomenon created by information processes in a brain it should in theory be possible to capture the complete state at one instant, transfer it to another information processing machine (such as a computer) running the same processes and continue the simulation. (There is of course a much more nuanced and interesting discussion behind this simple concept. Starting with many thought experiments related to the Philosopher’s Brain in A Vat, but I’ll save most of that for some other time.) Most critique of these concepts fall back on mystic or religious concepts; on souls or selves that can not be captured. Consequently they fall flat. Embodiment however is a question worth taking serious. That is, can we be so sure that the body is replaceable? Should not the flesh – the implementation and embodiment – have a place in the discussion of the posthuman?

I believe this is a very interesting question, and one which is very important to ask. From my own perspective I do think of things as information processes. I am too much a child of the computer age and came to cybernetics  fifty years after its conception, led by thoughts spawned by programming and culture. I do see the mind as a process. The consciousness as a dynamic process. Moreover, it must be in a stable or semi-stable state, robust. Our ‘selves’ change over time, as we get older, learn. Experience change the state of the system, but it usually doesn’t end the consciousness. That is a ‘shock’ to the system may change us (or even make us insane) but it is relatively rare that it would change the system so much that the conscious experience stops. The mind has to be resilient, at least if there is any evolutionary benefit to experiencing consciousness.

Anyway, my point is that the phase space for the process of mind might be quite nice, and that of course the process is computable, describable using mathematics.

The thing is – with this argument it does seem theoretically possible to transfer a consciousness. I concur. But is it practically achievable?  It seems clear to me that if it was possible to transfer a brain state, a ‘nudge’ would happen in state space. In the new medium the evolution will not be exactly the same as in the old one, and in effect be a different person. However would it also move out of the nice region where a conscious experience happens? I don’t know. However we might not even get as far as that. Again can it really be done in our physical world, or is there perhaps some emergent property of the body that makes it impractical or even impossible to read the state, or to simulate the inputs for the new process to a high enough accuracy?

In my opinion these are the kind of questions that Hayles asks, but from a completely different angle, considering the social and humanistic sciences. She puts a specific focus on literature, something I feel is very important as not only is there a feedback loop between culture (especially science fiction) and social, scientific, and technical trends, but I would argue that this feedback happens at an increasing rate. Not only do we see imaginative reflections of scientific discoveries in popular culture, but these fantasies increasingly drive innovation.

This is one of the many reasons why How We Became Posthuman is such an interesting read. Its treatment of both the history of cybernetics and information theory, the consequences for humanism, and the reflections in society (seen through literature) is really interesting.

 

Well, that is it. Not only a review, also some other stuff, and the word ‘interesting’ is probably overused. Still. Good book.

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