N. Katherine Hayles,
How We Became Posthuman
(University of Chicago Press, 1999)

An interesting statistic given in How We Became Posthuman is that about 10 percent of the current U.S. population is estimated to be cyborg in the technical sense -- that is people with electronic pacemakers, for example, or artificial joints. If the book's author, N. Katherine Hayles, had confined herself to this aspect of what it is to be posthuman, then a technical treatise on medical prosthesis/bionics would have resulted. Thankfully she did not.

Admittedly the word "science" is printed in bold type on the top left corner of the rear cover (presumably as an aid to its correct categorization on bookstore shelves). But it is not that simple. The author does indeed hold advanced degrees in science, but also in English literature, being in fact professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles.

There is science here (mainly cybernetics) and scientists (from cyberneticists to Freudians), as well as theories and theorists (from epistemology to information). Insights from this breath of scholarship are essential to the task of charting the extraordinary interactions that have been occurring at an accelerating pace since 1945 between the cultural, scientific and psychological aspects of cybernetics.

This technological/cultural enquiry, as proclaimed on that same rear cover, did not in itself attract me to this book. However, the promised detailed critiques of particular works of science fiction within the context of that enquiry, by an author with such dual qualifications, proved an irresistible draw.

How We Became Posthuman delivers on that promise, along with much, much more besides. The author undertakes a detailed examination of the technological foundation on which the grand edifice of present-day culture is built. (However, this is no starry-eyed technophilic paean; for example, the fact that 70 percent of the planet's current population has never even made a phone call is acknowledged.) From the beginning the author is clear about what exactly is meant by the term "posthuman" -- a point of view characterized by a perception of the body as the original prosthesis, and the augmentation of this body by seamless integration with intelligent machines.

As the title suggests the book is a description of a process of transition, and essential to this process are the three historical periods (or "waves") of cybernetic development identified by Hayles -- 1945 to 1960, 1960 to 1985, and 1985 to the present. Forming part of the analysis of the Second Wave period is the work of sf author Philip K. Dick, which is examined in the context of developments in cybernetics and their wider impact on human culture and humanity's image of itself. Anyone with anything more than a passing interest in SF is guaranteed to find this section of the book riveting. Even for anyone not familiar with Dick's work the analysis can be appreciated as a broad proclamation and demonstration of the potency of sf narrative in modern culture. Continuing to the Third Wave, works under similar detailed discussion include Greg Bears' Blood Music, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and Richard Power's Galatea 2.2.

The author persuasively argues that such narratives as these are important because they have qualities (chronological thrust, personified agents, located actions), which counter the perception of humans as something constituted essentially of abstract information, a perception which will inevitably lead to a disembodied, impoverished humanity.

How We Became Posthuman is by no means an easy read and not a book to pack for the beach this summer unless you are someone who can take in their stride such (infrequent) sentences as: "The development of cybernetics followed neither a Kuhnian model of incommensurable paradigms nor a Foucauldian model of sharp epistemic breaks." That said, it is a fascinating read, splicing as it does science (its history and the personalities who drove it) with fictional narrative (insightful readings of science fiction) to form a work whose complexity must of necessity reflect that which it seeks to describe, that is the ramifying consequences of humankind's ever accelerating attempt to splice itself, using the power of imagination as well as the actuality of technology, with its machines.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 20 August 2001

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