Part of my summer reading has been N. Katherine Hayles very interesting and stimulating book, How We Became Posthuman – Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. The book details the rise of the informational logic of life from the rise of the cybernetic paradigm in the late 1940s and onwards. Hayles writes the book in order to caution against a disembodied and anti-material view of information. She details how an informational mode of thinking came to foreground pattern and randomness over presence and absence, and gave way to a systematic devaluation of materiality and embodiment. As she notes in the introduction:
“A defining characteristic of the present cultural moment is the belief that information can circulate unchanged among different material substrates. It is not for nothing that ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ has become a cultural icon for the global information society.”
What I find most striking in reading the book, however, is that despite it only being published a little more than a decade ago, it gave me an odd feeling of a cautionary vision of a future that never arrived. The science fiction dreams of downloading our consciousness to neural networks or of humanity being overtaken by artificial intelligence or other such visions of a digital world just does not seem to hold the same purchase in our collective unconsciousness today . The undercurrent of fear about the catastrophic effects of a complete disregard for the qualities of embodiment that motivates How We Became Posthuman seems less dramatic a decade later. Partly, I think, because we have woken up inside an object, not a digital mirage.
I am also inclined to read Hayles’ book in this way because I have been reading a series of articles about Marshall McLuhan, who would have turned 100 recently (you can read some of them here and here ). McLuhans ideas about the medium being the message sheds new light on why the future did not turn out exactly as the informationalists envisioned.
Having all the information in the world at ones fingertips turned out, at the end of the day, not to be particularly interesting in itself. Rather, the interesting bit is how the interactions between the materiality of the informational medium change our embodied materiality – a standpoint Hayles would be in complete agreement with, I believe. That which makes us different is not the information itself but the forms of life engendered by the materiality of technology.As Douglas Coupland noted in the Guardian recently: “Let’s face it, Google isn’t making us stupider, it’s simply making us realise that omniscience is actually slightly boring.”
In a sense, then, reading Katherine Hayles’ book confirmed the sense that we have entered a post-informational age, in which information in itself is of less interest than the material forms and routes the information takes. The medium is the message might seem a bit like a cliché but we are only beginning to scratch the surface of what this insight actually might mean for the way we live. Technology changes us not through its content, but through its form – because we are form through and through.