‘In their ten-thousand, three hundred and ninth year of marriage, Leila and Jasim began contemplating death. They had known love, raised children, and witnessed the flourishing generations of their offspring. They had travelled to a dozen worlds and lived among a thousand cultures. They had educated themselves many times over, proved theorems, and acquired and abandoned artistic sensibilities and skills. They had not lived in every conceivable manner, far from it, but what room would there be for the multitude if each individual tried to exhaust the permutations of existence? There were some experiences, they agreed, that everyone should try, and others that only a handful of people in all of time need bother with. They had no wish to give up their idiosyncrasies, no wish to uproot their personalities from the niches they had settled in long ago, let alone start cranking mechanically through some tedious enumeration of all the other people they might have been. They had been themselves, and for that they had done, more or less, enough. Before dying, though, they wanted to attempt something grand and audacious.’ – Greg Egan, ‘Riding the Crocodile’, 2005.
This lecture is an introduction to a cluster of ideas that relate to the two terms ‘transhuman’ and ‘posthuman’. The relationship between these terms and Internet media is founded firstly in the idea that one prospect for the future of human beings is greater connectivity through electronic networks via brain-machine-interfaces, or even that future human beings could live as software in virtual environments. Secondly, posthuman theory suggests that our idea of what it is to be human is changing now as a result of existing technologies such as the Internet. We are on one level material, physical, embodied beings. But on another level we are networked, information based creatures – our perception and cognition already reliant on computers and other machines with which we surround ourselves. According to Katherine Hayles (2006), one theorist working in this area, posthuman theory sees us as ‘seamlessly integrated’ with machines – that the boundaries between human and machine are blurring, and concepts such as ‘human’, ‘intelligence’ and ‘individual’ require re-definition as a result. Hayles argues that ‘a historically specific construction called the human being is giving way to a different construct called the posthuman’ (Hayles, 2004).
Transhumanism is an ‘ism’ – it’s a movement, an ideology, based on the idea that human beings can and should employ technological means to enhance human bodies and minds. This means employing biotechnology, nanotechnology and other techniques to extend the human being. One focus of the movement is longevity – the extension of the human lifespan, and even the attaining of immortality. Transhumanism can also mean transforming the human body, senses and mind, through the improvement of medical technologies, the use of prosthetics, the incorporation of technology such as nanotechnology and computing into the human body, the idea of neural interfaces – devices that directly link the mind or the body with machines, or with electronic networks such as the Internet.
Posthuman theory is distinct from transhumanism in that it is an emerging academic discipline rather than a set of beliefs about the future direction of humanity. Many eminent scientists are working on transhuman projects. But the role of posthuman theorists is in interrogating the transhuman ideology, looking at the implications of the idea that technology is changing the human body and mind.
Fiction and the Transhuman
Some of the most developed notions of transhumanity and post-humanity are found in fiction – in speculative works that envision and explore environments in which humans might live in the future. The concept of artificial intelligence as found in the works of Philip K. Dick has the unsettling attribute of appearing more human – or humane – than the intelligence of human characters. You might be familiar with Dick’s work through films made from his books such as Total Recall, Bladerunner, and A Scanner Darkly. In Now Wait for Last Year a doctor called Eric Sweetscent questions the robot driver of a flying taxi on a moral quandary he faces… a brief excerpt…
To the cab he said suddenly, ‘If your wife were sick-‘
‘I have no wife, sir,’ the cab said. ‘Automatic Mechanisms never marry; everyone knows that.’
‘All right,’ Eric agreed. ‘If you were me, and your wife were sick, desperately so, with no hope of recovery, would you leave her? Or would you stay with her, even if you had traveled ten years into the future and knew for an absolute certainty that the damage to her brain could never be reversed?
And staying with her would mean-‘
‘I can see what you mean, sir,’ the cab broke in. ‘It would mean no other life for you beyond caring for her.’
‘That’s right,’ Eric said.
‘I’d stay with her,’ the cab decided.
‘Because,’ the cab said, ‘life is composed of reality configurations so constituted. To abandon herwould be to say, I can’t endure reality as such. I have to have uniquely special easier conditions.’
‘I think I agree,’ Eric said after a time. ‘I think I will stay with her.’
‘God bless you, sir,’ the cab said. ‘I can see that you’re a good man.’
(Dick, 1966, p.131)
In a set of novels concerning a civilisation called ‘the Culture’ that has been capable of space flight for eight thousand years, Iain M. Banks explores the utopian worlds of human-like – or transhumanlike – beings who live until they choose to die, who can change gender over a period of a few months just by thinking about it. They have the Internet – or a version of it – an implanted device called a neural lace that gives them access to almost any conceivable piece of information… one character decides to have his Internet implant removed for a festival…
‘He’d resolved to have his neural lace removed for the month of the Festival, deciding that as this year’s theme was Primitivism he ought to give up some aspect of his amendments. … It was oddly liberating to have to ask things or people for information and not know precisely what the time was, and where he was located. But it also meant that he was forced to rely on his own memory for things like peoples names. And how imperfect was the unassisted human memory (he’d forgotten)! He’d thought of having his wings removed too, at least partly to show that he was taking part in the spirit of the festival, but in the end he’d stuck with them’ (Banks, 1988, pp.188-9).
South Australian writer Greg Egan has made a second career – he’s also a mathematician – of considering posthuman cultures in the form of novels. His books written over the past fifteen years are set progressively further and further into the future.
In Konishi, every home-born citizen was grown from a mind seed, a string of instruction codes like a digital genome. The first mind seeds had been translated from DNA nine centuries before, when the polis founders had invented the Shaper programming language to recreate the essential processes of neuroembryology in software. – Greg Egan, ‘Orphanogenesis’, from ‘Diaspora’, 1999.
At the beginning of Greg Egan’s book Permutation City – set in the fairly near future – fifty years or so – a scientist is running a series of experiments on a version of his consciousness he has downloaded to or modelled on computer. He runs the programme continuously, then again so that it runs only every second second, then only one second in ten. Then he sends parts of the data to different servers around the world and runs the programme again. The point of the experiment is to establish whether these changes have any perceptible effect for the consciousness inside the programme – the version of himself that he has copied to computer. There is none – the copied version’s experience is smooth and continuous.
The technology proves effective for the creation of a kind of afterlife. People are downloaded or copied at the point of death. But there is a social divide based on wealth – a digital divide. Those who can afford it live at real time, and can communicate freely with the corporeal world beyond their servers. But those who are less well off can only afford to experience one in ten or one in a hundred or one in a thousand moments, and so live out of synch with external human history, the outside world rushing along at great speed.
In another Greg Egan novel, Diaspora, a kind of expansion of human beings from Earth into the universe is depicted. But the central characters of the novel are not human in the sense that we would recognise it – in fact they refer to our kind of human as a ‘flesher’. The post-human citizens of Greg Egan’s future have three choices as to how they live out their nearly immortal lives – as ‘fleshers’, taking human form, as ‘Gleisner robots’ – in synthetic bodies that are impervious to the hostile environment of space, or on one of the polises – cities – that circle stars distant from Earth.
The polises are servers – big servers. The citizens live in information form – like the downloaded consciousness – they live online, appearing as they wish, as representations of their own devising they live in totally manufactured virtual environments.
..there came a time in the development of every civilisation – which lasted long enough – when its inhabitants could record their mind-state, effectively taking a reading of the person’s personality which could be stored, duplicated, read, transmitted and, ultimately, installed into any suitably complex and enabled device or organism.
… Most societies subscribed to the technologies involved and changed to deal with the consequences. In places like the Culture the consequences were that people could take back ups of themselves if they were about to do something dangerous, they could create mind-state versions of themselves which could be used to deliver messages or undertake a multiplicity of experiences in a variety of places and in an assortment of physical or virtual forms, they could entirely transfer their original personality into a different body or device
– Iain M. Banks, ‘Look to Windward’, p. 163.
These ideas may seem fanciful, but they are taken seriously by transhumanists. The World Transhumanist Association website (transhumanism.org, 2008) asserts that the organisation stands ‘for the ethical use of technology to extend human capabilities.’
Some transhuman research is not directly relevant for us in this subject – based on nanotechnology and bioengineering, the replacement and improvement of body parts.
One technology discussed by the WTA that is relevant is the idea of ‘neural prosthetics’, devices that are implanted into the brain in order to repair or enhance normal human perception and cognition. The first applications for these technologies, like many others, are medical – for example, implanted devices to restore reliable memory to Alzheimer’s victims. One example of neural prosthesis – the cochlear implant – has already given us the ability to restore hearing. The retinal implant intended to restore sight to blind people is another neural prosthesis in development. It was chosen by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as one of the best of the ideas put forward at the 20/20 summit held recently in Canberra. Other existing neural implants are currently being made available for the suppression of seizures in patients with severe epilepsy.
In the long run, though, prosthesis may be used to enhance rather than restore human cabilities. A significant step towards this kind of application came early this year when double-amputee and runner Oscar Pistorius was denied a place at the Beijing Olympics because his carbon-fibre prosthetic feet were deemed to give him an unfair advantage over ‘purely human competitors’(Topolsky, 2008). Question is, how long is it before people with no impairment choose prosthesis to improve their biological, ‘natural’ bodies?
In terms of neural prosthetics, the same question can be asked. Prosthetics could be used not just to repair memory, but to vastly improve it. Prosthetics might be able to hook us up to the Internet via thought. There are potential professional applications, such as allowing journalists to use their eyes as cameras, and send the recorded images to an external hard drive somewhere, an option Greg Egan (1995) explores in another novel, Distress. Will people take up these options when it becomes a matter of convenience?
Writer Charlie Stross (2007) considers the applications of artificial memory envisioning a future in which everyone has a ‘lifelog’, a recorded database that stores everything we’ve ever seen or heard.
‘Initially, it’ll be edge cases. Police officers on duty: it’d be great to record everything they see, as evidence. Folks with early stage neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimers: with voice tagging and some sophisticated searching, it’s a memory prosthesis.
Add optical character recognition on the fly for any text you look at, speech-to-text for anything you say, and it’s all indexed and searchable. “What was the title of the book I looked at and wanted to remember last Thursday at 3pm?”
Think of it as Google for real life’ (Stross, 2007)
One hyperlink on the World Transhumanist Association website links to a page of articles concerning a more significant application of mind-machine interfaces – the possibility of an electronic afterlife – of immortality. The Cybernetic Manifesto, a document among those accessible from this page, states:
‘The successes of science make it possible for us to raise the banner of cybernetic immortality. The idea is that the human being is, in the last analysis, a certain form of organization of matter. … This organization can survive a partial — perhaps, even a complete — change of the material from which it is built. Most of the knowledge acquired by an individual still disappears at biological death. Only a tiny part of that knowledge is stored outside the brain or transmitted to other individuals. Further evolution would be much more efficient if all knowledge acquired through experience could be maintained … This requires an effective immortality of the cognitive systems defining individual and collective minds: what would survive is not the material substrate (body or brain), but its cybernetic organization.’ (Turchin & Joslyn, 1989).
Two additional technologies are proposed here. The first is ‘whole brain emulation’, the idea that the operations of the human brain could be modelled in every detail – that a brain like structure can be created on a computer, as a combination of hardware and software. This technology might facilitate ‘mind uploading’, as explored in Greg Egan’s Permutation City – the idea that a mind – the contents of a biological brain – could be uploaded to a computer.
‘Uploading by the Nanoreplacement Procedure:
In this proposal, billions of microscopic machines are injected into the brain, where they take up residence in or near the neurons. Each machine monitors the input/output activity of its neuron, until it is able to predict perfectly how the neuron will respond. At that point, it kills the neuron and takes its place.’ (Strout, 1995)
In January a rhesus monkey named Idoya did what no other creature has done before: she made a robot walk just by thinking about it. All Idoya had to do was imagine taking a step, and the robot would actually take it. At the behest of signals sent over the Internet from electrodes in Idoya’s brain, the 200-pound robot began to walk on a treadmill in Kyoto, Japan. This while the monkey was on the other side of the world—in Miguel Nicolelis’s lab at the Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University in Durham, NC. This telekinetic remote control was the latest achievement made possible by Nicolelis’s research on a novel brain-machine interface
– Gibson, 2008
So how close are we to realizing these technologies? In one sense, not that close.
The BlueBrain project (bluebrain.epfl.ch, 2008) – think Bluetooth for brains – has two aims related to the ideas I’ve just mentioned – whole brain emulation, and the development of neural prostheses, or more specifically in this case Brain-Machine Interfaces. The computer used for the project – ‘Blue Gene’ – is made up of 8,000 high powered computer processers. Currently they can model about 10,000 neurons – the molecules that perform computation in the brain. That’s almost one processor per neuron, and these processors are much much more powerful than a Pentium 4.2 chip. This gives us some idea of the extraordinary capacity of the brain, given that we all have trillions of neurons operating in concert. A researcher on the project says that ‘in the brain, every molecule is a powerful computer and we would need to simulate the structure and function of trillions upon trillions of molecules as well as all the rules that govern how they interact. You would literally need computers that are trillions of times bigger and faster than anything existing today’ (bluebrain.epfl.ch, 2008). For the near future, then, any kind of brain emulator will model only parts of the brain, or model the brain in very low resolution.
The ‘blue gene’ computer, and others run by researchers working on similar projects, are useful, however, for modeling and mapping parts of the brain. This is the first step towards creating neural implants or prostheses that could enhance particular aspects of brain function, such as memory.
The part of the brain that handles memory, the hippocampus, is the focus of a team of researchers working at the University of Southern California under Ted Berger (Huang, 2003). According to Berger the flow of information in the hippocampus is relatively simple compared with other parts of the brain. Their plan is to create a synthetic hippocampus. They’re currently experimenting with rats, who apparently have a hippocampus structured similarly to the human version. They are working on diverting electrical signals from the rats brains into their synthetic hippocampus, and then sending the signals back into the brains. It’s hoped the end result will be the same as if the rat had processed the signal itself. The next step will be the development of a chip to be tested in animals, including primates. The actual hippocampus will be ‘deactivated’ to see if the chip can do the same job. The final stage will involve implanting the chip in a healthy animal with a functioning hippocampus to test whether it can augment memory function.
Another similar project is aimed at the part of the brain that controls motor functions, testing whether these areas can be wired up to control robotic limbs. In one experiment in 2001 a monkey, by thinking about walking, controlled the walking of a robot half way around the world at the time (Gibson, 2008). The current research is aimed at giving people with paralysis control over prosthetic limbs and over computer-aided communication devices.
Two pieces of evidence this research is being taken seriously…
First, in 2004 the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency put $24 million into brain machine interface and neural prosthesis research. That’s the DARPA that brought you the early computer networking technology that led to the Internet. DARPA programme manager Alan Rudolph says that as a result of the research there could be ‘transformational consequences for defense and society’ (Huang, 2003).
Secondly, two years ago Microsoft was awarded U.S. Patent 6754472 which bears the title ‘Method and apparatus for transmitting power and data using the human body.’ The patent could grant the company exclusive rights to the body’s ability to act as a computer network. (Smith & Morra, 2007).
More personal experiments in the transhuman experience are also underway. Artist Stelarc is one pioneer in terms of transhuman ideas made flesh. Stelarc has announced in previous years that his ideal reshaping of the human body involves removing almost all organs, and replacing the digestive and respiratory systems with photosynthetic skin. People would be space-travel ready, with a much tougher exterior and able to absorb energy directly from the sun. For the moment Stelarc is experimenting with slightly less radical departures from human-normal…
Kevin Warwick is another such pioneer…
‘We had my implant which linked my nervous system electrically directly with the computer and onto the internet, and my wife Irina, who also had electrodes pushed into her nervous system to link her nervous system to the computer and the internet …We had an electrical circuit which linked us directly, so that when she moved her hand, the neural signals from her brain went from her nervous system and appeared on my nervous system, and therefore up to my brain.
So her brain signals travelled electrically to stimulate my nervous system and brain, and when she moved her hand three times, I felt in my brain three pulses, and my brain recognised that my wife was communicating with me. It was the world’s first purely electronic communication from brain to brain, and therefore the basis for thought communication.’ (Warwick, cited in Earls, 2006)
Before I move on to how post-humanists interrogate these ideas, a brief aside into a dystopian fictional treatment of cyborgs and a transhuman future, this from the anime classic Ghost in the Shell. The first scene you’ll see involves an unfortunate individual who has had his memory attacked and undermined by a hacker. The second involves the two main characters, both police officers and cyborgs, enhanced so that they can carry out their policing work more effectively.
As I said posthuman theorists, as opposed to transhumans, are involved in an emergent field aimed at considering the ways in which technology is changing our concept of the human being. As inGhost in the Shell they are looking at the philosophical ideas that underpin the notions that our technology changes us, and that it changes our conception of what we, as human beings, are.
Jaron Lanier is one theorist who is intensely critical of the transhumanist movement, and sceptical of some of the claims for the fast-tracking of human evolution by technological means. Lanier (2000) is in particular critical of what he sees as a set of interlocking beliefs that together he calls ‘cybernetic totalism’ – this is how he characterises this technologically determinist belief system:
…biology and physics will merge with computer science (becoming
biotechnology and nanotechnology), resulting in life and the physical universe
becoming mercurial; achieving the supposed nature of computer software.
Furthermore, all of this will happen very soon! Since computers are improving so quickly, they will overwhelm all the other cybernetic processes, like people, and will fundamentally change the nature of what’s going on in the familiar neighborhood of Earth at some moment when a new “criticality” is achieved- maybe in about the year 2020. To be a human after that moment will be either impossible or something very different than we now can know.
– Jaron Lanier, Half a Manifesto, 2000.
One critique he raises is that, as he says ‘the cybernetic totalists – the transhumanists’ have confused ideal computers with real computers: ‘Real computers are completely different from the ideal computers of theory. They break for reasons that are not always analyzable, and they seem to intrinsically resist many of our endeavors to improve them. … We imagine “pure” cybernetic systems but we can only prove we know how to build fairly dysfunctional ones… Cybernetic Totalists live with their heads in the future and are willing to accept obvious flaws in present software in support of a fantasy world that might never appear. If anything, there’s a reverse Moore’s Law observable in software: As processors become faster and memory becomes cheaper, software becomes correspondingly slower and more bloated, using up all available resources. … our core techniques and technologies for software simply haven’t kept up with hardware. Making a problem twice as large usually makes it take a lot more than twice as long to solve. Just as some newborn race of superintelligent robots are about to consume all humanity, our dear old species will likely be saved by a Windows crash’ (Lanier, 2000).
As I was talking blithely before about uploading human minds to computers, you might have thought hang on, there’s a problem with this idea.. with the notion that immortality can be achieved by uploading every detail of the brain and mind to a computer. It can be argued there’s more than one problem here. First, the copy is not necessarily the original person – it’s a copy. Second, can a person be reduced to the kind of informational or cybernetic pattern that can be copied? Isn’t there some ineffable part of us – a soul, a ghost in the machine – that defies codification?
Greg Egan (1995, pp.201-220) has written a short story in which people have a kind of chip – called a ‘jewel’ or a ‘dual’ implanted in their brains, that records all neural processes for the first decades of a person’s life. When they reach the age of thirtyish they undergo a further operation in which the jewel, which contains the complete neural structure of the individual, is switched with the organic brain, which is removed. The jewel becomes the person. In Egan’s story a thirty-something man who has not undertaken the change is surprised when his body starts taking actions on its own, ignoring his will, his instructions. He thinks he knows what’s happened – something’s gone wrong and the jewel has taken over, automatically, leaving him trapped as a passenger in his own mind. When the appointment for the operation to switch is made, he believes he’s about to disappear. After the operation, though, he wakes up in full control of his body again. As it turns out ‘he’ was always the jewel..the copy. The ‘real’ human being has been replaced, and he is the replacement.
Lanier (2000) voices a further criticism that has bearing on this utopian dream of cybernetic immortality. It assumes, he suggests ‘that people are no more than cybernetic patterns.’ The idea of uploading a human mind to a machine suggests that information, including memories, thoughts, perceptions – all information is independent of the context in which it is produced, that it is objective. The further implication here is – as some of the theorists Lanier calls cybernetic totalists argue – ‘that subjective experience either doesn’t exist, or is unimportant because it is some sort of ambient or peripheral effect.’
Talking of one theorist, Daniel Dennett, Lanier says ‘He would state that humans were simply specialized computers, and that imposing some fundamental ontological distinction between humans and computers was a sentimental waste of time. “But don’t you experience your life? Isn’t experience something apart from what you could measure in a computer?”, I would say. My debating opponent would typically say something like “Experience is just an illusion. Cybernetic Totalists, says Lanier, ‘can look at culture and see “memes”, or autonomous mental tropes that compete for brain space in humans somewhat like viruses.’ But Lanier argues ‘I don’t think you can measure the function or even the existence of a computer without a cultural context for it.’
This critique of transhuman ideals represents one significant point of contention in post-human theory – the extent to which information can exist objectively, independently of a context. But whether or not you believe that the future of humanity lies in an electronic afterlife, and whole brain emulation, the idea that our concept of the human is changing remains – it is not dependent on such radical transformations of the human being itself. According to some theorists we are already post-human, our physical and cognitive systems already intertwined with prosthetic extensions of our bodies, senses and minds. In this context a different idea of prosthesis means that our ideas of identity and the individual are already altered as a result of the integration of technology and the human being.
The posthuman subject is an amalgam, a collection of heterogenous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction.
– Hayles, 1999.
In the contemporary period, computation emerges as a crucial aspect of the entwined dynamical hierarchies that structure and energize relational dynamics. As inhabitants of globally interconnected networks, we are joined in a dynamic co-evolutionary spiral with intelligent machines as well as with the other biological species with whom we share the planet.
– Hayles, 2006.
Additional dimensions to the concept of prosthesis are raised in the introduction to the volume The Prosthetic Impulse (2007). Editors of the book, Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra, say in the introduction that the essays within:
‘do not simply examine the ways in which the body is extended or enhanced by prosthetic technologies but also explore the ways that the body and technology come into contact with one another and are integrated, fused, reciprocal, and parasitic. This understanding of prosthesis might include discussions of contact with old or new communication technologies—from the telegraph, the automated typing machine, and the telephone to the mouse, the computer screen, and video conferencing; from air conditioning to virtual environments … from robotics and genetics to hacker culture; from electronic lighting to telematic networks; from teledildonics to military hardware; … from pacemakers to artificial wombs; from glasses, telescopes, microscopes, and the camera obscura to more recent ocular prosthesis such as virtual-reality gaming and other immersive technologies’
(Smith and Morra, 2007)
In an era of contact lenses, pacemakers, the beginnings of neural interface technology, the ubiquitous mobile phone, it can be imagined how technology could be further integrated into the human body – the inside of a pair of glasses could be used as a screen for the internet, for example, or the inside of a contact lens. Ultimately, Internet access could be provided by virtue of implants – computer technology incorporated into the body. But to make the case that human and machine are integrated – that machines are prosthetic extensions of ourselves – the machines do not necessarily have to be incorporated into the body, or the human mind incorporated into a machine.
If the idea of prosthesis can be extended to existing technologies that as McLuhan said extend our senses and our capabilities – from cars to computers, web cameras and telephones – the question can be raised as to whether the boundaries of what constitutes the human being have shifted. As the theorist Allucquère Rosanne Stone (cited in Smith & Morra, 2007, p.6) suggests, this technology has begun to make it difficult to tell where the edges lie, between individuals and their technology, between the person and communication prostheses. If these technologies can be seen in some ways as a part of an extended human body, can technology also be seen as an extension of or in co-operation with the human mind?
If in the future people have access to the Internet immediately, instantaneously, without logging on to a computer, to a plastic box.. how might it be used, how might it be more closely incorporated into our daily lives? The use of the calculator, for example, means that many people no longer learn or remember how to perform basic mathematical operations. The division of large numbers, for example, is an operation performed in a moment and without mental effort on a calculator.
How many people here can still do long division mentally or by hand? The shift to the use of calculators is a matter of greater efficiency from one perspective – it saves people time and effort. From another perspective, the use of a calculator to find a sum represents the outsourcing of thinking – the outsourcing of mental operations performed by the brain to a technological device – becoming an operation performed outside the traditional limits of the body. Take as a further example the memory banks of a mobile telephone. How many people here commit to memory the phone numbers of their friends and family? Increasingly there’s no need, because the numbers are stored electronically on a piece of technology which is always with us. We’ve outsourced this component of our memories to machines.
If individuals have instantaneous Internet access, it can be seen that much more of our ‘memory’ could be outsourced to machines, along with other cognitive operations. Trying to remember the name of an actor from a film you just saw? Quicker to use the Internet Movie Database to find the information. Trying to remember the name of a street a particular shop is on? Quicker to use the internet than to wait until the information comes to you naturally. Need a quote for an essay in an exam? Why struggle to remember or reconstruct the quote by yourself? With an internet implant, or just a wired up contact lens you can perfectly every time using the Internet. As the technological tools used by people regularly become more and more integrated and more and more advanced, it may become harder and harder to tell where the technology stops and we – human beings – begin.
One theorist working in this area, Greg Bateson, asks his students to consider the following question ‘Is a blind man’s cane a part of the man?’ (Bateson cited in Hayles, 2004) If the answer to this question is ‘yes’, then we might also ask is our mobile phone a part of ourselves? When we use the Internet to see vision from a web camera half way around the world, should we consider this ‘eye’ a temporary part of a human being? If we use Google to obtain a piece of information we’ve forgotten, is Google then a part of our memory – operating in place of the internal memory system?
This is one conception of artificial intelligence, but one very different from the idea of independent super-intelligent machines. Bits of software – software agents – bits of code – perform functions that process information for human beings – the processes we don’t bother, or don’t have time to perform ourselves. These are ‘intelligent’ functions, but here machines are part of an intelligent network in which human beings are also involved. Machines cannot think for themselves, but they are becoming a part of our cognition. given the amount of information we are confronted with in daily life it can be argued we are increasingly incapable of performing cognitive tasks without assistance from machines.
One implication here is that humans and machines are blending – becoming indistinguishable, symbiotic, and co-operative. Hayles (2004) suggests that even in reading electronic texts not only is the computer playing an intelligent role, the reader acts as a ‘cyborg’ – a thing part made of flesh and part of machine:
‘Modern-day computers perform cognitively sophisticated acts when they
collaborate with human users to create electronic hypertexts. These frequently
include acts of interpretation, as when the computer decides how
to display text in a browser independent of choices the user makes. It is no
longer a question of whether computers are intelligent. Any cognizer that
can perform the acts of evaluation, judgment, synthesis, and analysis exhibited
by expert systems and autonomous agent software programs should
prima facie be considered intelligent.’ (Hayles, 2004)
This idea of networked intelligence, and of networked human beings is called ‘distributed cognition.’ Hayles again…
‘When we read electronic hypertexts, we do so in environments that include
the computer as an active cognizer performing sophisticated acts of interpretation
and representation. Thus cognition is distributed not only between
writer, reader, and designer (who may or may not be separate people)
but also between humans and machines (which may or may not be regarded
as separate entities). … the reader necessarily is constructed as a cyborg, spliced
into an integrated circuit with one or more intelligent machines.’ (Hayles, 2004)
So machines are not necessarily intelligent in themselves. But they are involved in wider processes in which intelligence is crucial. Hayles argues that our machines are in this sense a part of a broader ‘organism’, in one sense, when they are involved in such processes, and that the organism in question is intelligence.
It is not a question of whether the posthuman will arrive but what forms it will take when it does. In this dizzying cascade of posthuman visitations, an area of contestation that remains vitally under-determined is embodiment. Should the body be seen as evolutionary baggage that we are about to toss out as we vault into the brave new world of the posthuman? Or does embodiment continue to be essential to human thought and being?
– Hayles, ‘How We Became Posthuman’, 1999
Hayles argues that an extreme posthuman view – a transhumanist view – considers the mind an information processing system that is independent of its environment. According to this perspective it is convenient to consider that ‘the body is the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born’ (Hayles, 1999, pp.2-3). But then, as Hayles observes, all conceptions of what it is to be human are constructions, and the meaning of the human ‘has never been entirely stable or universally accepted.’
Hayles suggests that what we are leaving behind is a specifically Western concept of the human being developed at the time of the Enlightenment. This concept is founded on political theory that grants inalienable human rights to the individual and makes them the principle agents in society and culture, and the work of philosophers – in particular Descartes, who made the assertion ‘cogito, ergo sum’ – I think, therefore I am – placing the individual mind at the centre of human identity.
We may therefore be beginning to construct a post-human idea of the human as a part of a distributed cognitive network, an integrated kind of intelligence. But we construct this idea just as, several centuries ago, another set of theorists, another group of human beings, constructed the ‘liberal humanist subject’ – the idea of humanity that we have inherited, and that precedes the post human.
One one level Hayles, then, accepts the idea of the mind – at the centre of an organism that controls a series of prostheses, the first of which is the human body. This concept allows for the extension of our idea of what a human being is – and the blurring of the boundaries between human and machine, with the idea of distributed cognition. But she is sceptical of the transhumanist argument that this Cartesian core of the human being – the self-aware mind – can be stripped away or removed from the body and remain intact. She rejects Dennett’s idea that subjective experience is illusory. This view, she says, ‘is a formation to be interrogated rather than something simply to be believed or disbelieved, accepted or rejected’ (Hayles, 2006).
One reviewer of Hayles’s book How We Became Posthuman says that the focus of the book is ‘on the debates between two powerful schools of thought in the history of this research: the abstractionists, for whom information (and thus the “stuff” of intelligence, life, and consciousness) is independent of its particular manifestation in matter, and the theorists of embodiment, for whom information must be conceived in its particular incarnations … The reviewer argues that ‘Hayles is openly of the body’s party, and the body in question is, for her, always, implicitly, human’ (Csicsery-Ronay, 1999).
Katherine Hayles, therefore, is focused on the distinction between ‘embodied’ and ‘disembodied’ post-human evolution – whether post-humanity means leaving our bodies behind or integrating new senses, new capabilities, into our existing bodies.
Hayles’ and Lanier’s perspectives, both represent an acceptance to some degree of the increasingly intertwined future of humans and machines, but they are radically different to the transhuman perspective. Lanier suggests that cybernetic totalism is the ultimate in technological determinism, that, like Marxism, it represents complete submission to a particular historical imperative – to the idea that our future is predetermined, and in this case represents submission to the machine – to a cybernetic future.
According to Hayles’ version of posthumanity, though, two points are essential – first, that ‘the future of humans will increasingly be entangled with intelligent machines’, and second ‘that embodiments will still matter in some sense, however virtual or cyborgian they become.’
This focus on an embodied posthumanity suggests that as we move into a ‘posthuman’ or ‘transhuman’ future is we have a choice as to how we integrate technology into our lives, and the ways in which we allow our technology to change us. From this perspective the field of posthuman theory is the debating ground upon which we will decide how far we submit to the integration between human and machine, and to what extent old ideas of identity, individuality, and humanity are preserved.
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