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

Katherine Hayles
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press
Cloth: ISBN 0-226-32145-2; Paper: ISBN 0-226-32146-0

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Reviewed by
David Byrne
Department of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Durham, Durham, DH1 3JT.

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I first encountered Katherine Hayles through her book Chaos Bound (Hayles 1990) where she asserted very clearly that:

I am not [her emphasis] arguing that the science of chaos is the originary site from which chaotics emanates into the culture. Rather, both the literary and scientific manifestations of chaotics are involved in feedback loops with the culture. They help to create the context that energizes the questions they ask; at the same time they also ask questions energized by the context.' (1991, p. 7)

That is what Hayles is concerned with. She is a Professor of English who trained as a chemist; she works on the recursive relationships between science, cultural forms and literary representations; and she does it very well indeed. This book is an important example that combines literary criticism with a sustained narrative about the history of information as object and tool of science. To use Hayles' terminology, it is about the emergence of a notion of distributed cognition. The book has a central theme and that is the danger and horror of 'the erasure of embodiment' ... 'performed so that "intelligence" becomes a property of the formal manipulation of symbols rather than enaction in the human life world.' (p. xi) There is a crucial corollary of this concern - Hayles' explicit recognition that whilst virtual representations of the world have engaged with complexity, they have done so in a way which abstracts from reality, imposing simplification on an inherently complex world.

The form of the book conveys the modality of Hayles' approach to these issues. The narrative of the disembodiment of information is interwoven with a literary criticism of fiction, essentially science fiction, which corresponds to the stages in the development of systemic information. Hayles employs the archaeological device of seriation to depict her narrative of cybernetics, depicting first the post-war era of homeostasis - drawing particularly on the experiences of the Macy conferences, then exploring the biological discussions of autopoeisis and finally reviewing the character of virtuality as understood in terms of emergence. She explicitly asserts that she is not writing a history but in fact this is an intellectual history of some force and significance. The conceptual development is related to the personalities and the times and the interaction of personalities with each other and with historical and intellectual context in a way that both fascinates and informs. One of the major drawbacks of scientism is that new practitioners tend to come to its techniques and modes of understanding without any real grasp of intellectual history and the relationship of that intellectual history to broader cultural and social forces. (This is particularly true in the massively overspecialised education system of the contemporary UK.) Hayles gives us intellectual history in spades and sets out connections and new directions whilst reminding us of old ones. I am going back to Bateson's Ecology of Mind (Bateson 1972) after reading this and will certainly read his daughter Catherine's In Our Own Metaphor as well (Bateson 1991).

In a way the book could have worked without the literary material, but Hayles is a professor of English and must be allowed to practice her trade and certainly the literary chapters reinforce the intellectual history. This is particularly the case for science fiction buffs like me - I remain convinced that Philip K. Dick will be among the literary classics when current Booker prize winners have the status that three volume Victorian romances now have. There is an enormous resonance here and Hayles rings it out loud and true.

That said, I think the literary criticism is not the most important element in this text after Hayles own priority of embodiment. Hayles is not just engaged in cultural archaeology. She is, as she was in her earlier work, engaged in critique of direction. The following is perhaps the single most important passage I have read since the publication of this book and it certainly has influenced all my own work subsequently. It is of particular significance for simulators. In it Hayles is contesting the separation of the material from the informational - the general text of which her insistence on embodiment is the human instance:

'My strategy is to complicate the leap from embodied reality to abstract information by pointing to moments when the assumptions involved in this move were contested by other researchers in the field and so became especially visible [the subject of her intellectual history]. The point of highlighting such moments is to make clear how much had to be erased to arrive at such abstractions as bodiless information. Abstraction is of course an essential component in all theorising, for no real theory can account for the infinite multiplicity of our interactions with the real. But when we make moves that erase the world's multiplicity, we risk losing sight of the variegated leaves, fractal branchings, and particular bark textures that make up the forest. In the pages that follow I will identify two moves in particular that played important roles in constructing the information/materiality hierarchy. Irreverently, I think of them as the Platonic backhand and forehand.
The Platonic backhand works by inferring from the world's noisy multiplicity a simplified abstraction. So far so good: this is what theorising should do. The problem comes when the move circles around to constitute the abstraction as the originary form from which the world's multiplicity derives. Then complexity appears as a 'fuzzing up' of an essential reality rather than as a manifestation of the world's holistic nature. Whereas the Platonic backhand has a history dating back to the Greeks, the Platonic forehand is more recent. To reach fully developed form, it required the assistance of powerful computers. This move starts from simplified abstractions and, using simulation techniques such as genetic algorithms, evolves a multiplicity sufficiently complex that it can be seen as a world of its own. The two moves thus make their play in opposite directions. The backhand goes from noisy multiplicity to reductive simplicity, whereas the forehand swings from simplicity to multiplicity. They share a common ideology - privileging the abstract as the Real and downplaying the importance of material instantiation. When they work together, they lay the groundwork for a new variation on an ancient game, in which disembodied information becomes the ultimate Platonic Form.' (1999, pp. 12-13)

Hayles (p. 13) describes her approach as modelled on that of Toni Morrison in Beloved, as a 'rememory' in which she will try (and in my view succeeds admirably) to reconnect things which have become disconnected and will reach out towards a complexity which can never be represented in terms of disembodied information.

Simulation is a technique which engenders complexity but simulators, still working in contexts where reduction and mathematical formalism remain dominant, continue to be reluctant to grasp the implications of complexity. They know complexity cannot be expressed in terms of mathematical formalism - that they cannot generate universal laws expressed as systems of simultaneous equations. Instead, they turn to another kind of universalism - the general rule which develops into local emergence and local particularity, but which can serve as a universal engine if not as a universal description. Cilliers (1998) ought to have put the kibosh on this sort of thing but it goes on and on, exemplified by Holland's understanding of Emergence (Holland 1998) and very often associated with rational choice theory. Subsequent to reading Hayles, I read Lakoff and Johnson's Philosophy in the Flesh (1999), the subtitle of which is 'The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought'. I now read her arguments, informed in part as they are by the earlier work of those two authors, through that prism. Certainly those authors' discussion of rational action theory can readily be extended to mere rule driven agent based simulation systems.

The insistence on simplification of complexity in simulation can actually be thought about using another of the terms Hayles imports from archaeology - that of a skeuomorph - a design feature which no longer has any function but served some purpose in earlier periods. She considers that in her seriation of cybernetics, skeumorphs served as threshold devices smoothing the transitions in understanding and (in consequence) method. This is convincing but I would suggest that we might extend the term to consider 'simplification' as a kind of meta-skeuomorph which keeps simulation as acceptable scientism despite the profound anti simplification content of the whole idea of complexity, the inexorable character of the real as opposed to the artificial.

There are two reasons why people engaged in simulation should read Hayles' vivid and important book. The first is that all science - in the sense of Nauk/Wissenschaft and not the impoverished content of the word science in English - is path dependent. It has a history and the grasping of that history is important in understanding the nature of contemporary social practice. This is not a hard constructionist point - it is not an assertion that science is merely a reification of a set of social practices without connection with the world. Hayles, although she never uses the word, is a realist - albeit a realist who is working with the cognitive science derived notion of embodied realism that informs Lakoff and Johnson's work. Science is not, just, a social game. Whether you agree with the implications of localism and complexity or not, if you are a scientist engaged in carrying out simulations you need to know the story she tells and Hayles is a wonderful story teller. The second is the implication of the idea of the Platonic forehand. There is more to this than critique. Hayles picks up Harraway's idea of the cyborg and Hutchin's concept of distributed cognition (and the consequent resolution of Searle's Chinese Room problem) to argue that we are engaged with our tools in a way which extends both our cognition and capacity for action. The archetype of Prometheus that is so central to human understanding of agency in nature is associated with our capacity to know - with the curse Eve imposed upon us. Knowing and acting are not separated. This is Mary Catherine Bateson's point: that we do not know the world directly but through the metaphor we are for it ourselves. To think in this wayfor me makes simulations and other IT based approaches not instruments separate from us but cyborg extensions of ourselves - tools through which we extend our cognitive capacities. This book does not close down simulation. It opens up our way of seeing what it is and what it might be.


BATESON G. 1972. Towards an Ecology of Mind. Ballantine Books, New York, NY.

BATESON M. C. 1991 [1972]. Our Own Metaphor A Personal Account of a Conference on the Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

CILLIERS P. 1998. Complexity and Postmodernism. Routledge, London. [JASSS review.]

HAYLES N. K. 1990. Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

HOLLAND J. H. 1998. Emergence: From Chaos to Order. Addison-Wesley, Redwood City, CA.

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© Copyright Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 2001