Apocalypses Nowish

About a month ago I started reading a book titled How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. More than any other book I’ve read recently, Posthuman profoundly changed the way I think about the world and sort of put into focus some themes that I have been interested in for a long time, but never took as seriously as I should have.

The funny thing is that I’ve had How We Became Posthuman for quite a few years. I purchased it during my senior year of college when I was writing a paper about the connections between “techno culture” and environmentalism (“while (i= 1){print (‘be sustainable’);} The Loop of Sustainability in Technology Culture”). I decided to go a different direction with the paper than I first anticipated, so the book sat on my shelf. When I recently read a book by Slavoj Zizek, I noticed he mentioned the book a few times (in regard to Hayles’ theory of “flickering signifiers”) and decided it might be time to finally read it.

Perhaps sometime soon I will review some of the more important (to me) and interesting aspects of the book, but for now, I’ll summarize it by saying:

Throughout much of the twentieth century, humans and machines have become increasingly intertwined via computers, telephones, the internet, etc. Not only has this changed the way we interact with others (phone conversations, e-mail, instant messaging, etc.), but also how we interact with ourselves. The liberal humanist view may be fading as we start to ask, “What does it mean to be alive?” — especially in light of semi-intelligent machines and our ability to create new forms of live (be it biological or within a computer).

I also learned about the fascinating American Society for Cybernetics, which is, as far as I can tell, one of the most progressive and challenging group of scientists out there. You would think that they would only be interested in the mathematics and electronics and whatnot of cybernetics, but they appear (based on Hayles’ descriptions) to be just as interested in the philosophy of artificial life.

Of note, I learned about an article titled “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain.” Hayles seems to think (and I agree) that this article has the potential to revolutionize science. Basically (and this is rather implicit in the article), the researches showed that a frog’s reality is constructed based on the way its eye sees the world.

Taking that a step farther, we can conclude that the human eye probably works the same way. So what we (and scientists) “observe” about the world, isn’t necessary the “real” world, but rather the brain’s construction of it. As I told my friend in an email:

if the frog’s way of seeing the world is different than humans’ (in that it doesn’t really notice stationary things and fast-moving things e.g. flies make more of an impact), then it is safe to assume that the way humans see the world isn’t really as “objective” as we think. further, when scientists make an observation, they are doing so within the constructed reality that we, as humans, have created within our brains. make sense? therefore the scientist is always part of the system he/she is observing and cannot make observations outside of it.

The big idea here is that science should be a reflexive practice, and that the scientist should always consider himself/herself as part of the system that is being observed since the very act of observation influences the world the scientist understands.

This reminds me, a bit, of the uncertainty principle — though I think I value the idea of reflexivity more. Based on my understanding, the uncertainty principle deals with the act of measuring something and the philosophical idea that something can never be accurately measured. The idea of reflexivity says that something cannot be measured because measuring is only an observation made by an individual with a subjective existence in the world — i.e. nothing is objective.

Another theoretical topic that seemed to be popular among the cyberneticists was the problem of defining “information.” Of all the theories presented, the one that made the most sense to me had to do with the value of the information based on probability. For example, a piece of information that says, “The sun will rise tomorrow” isn’t very valuable. The probability that the sun will rise tomorrow is pretty high, so that information doesn’t tell us much. A piece of information that says, “There are U.F.O.s at White House,” however, is much more valuable. Prior to obtaining that information, I would have never (err, most people, at least…) imagined that there would be U.F.O.s or that they might be on the White House lawn. Since that information tells us something with a low probability, it is worth a lot more.

In addition to learning about the demise of the liberal human subject and about how the frog’s eye constructs the frog’s reality, I was also introduced to some interesting people and books.

I swear, reading about what went on at some of those Macy Conferences was just fascinating. These scientists were not only truly ahead of their time, but could also be characters as well.

My favorite was Norbert Wiener — the “founder of cybernetics.” The Wikipedia article on him is great (especially the anecdotes!), so check that out — it does more justice to him than I could even attempt.

I was also somewhat surprised to see that Margaret Mead was also involved in the conferences. In fact, her husband, Gregory Bateson was quite an influential figure.

There was another guy who really interested me, but his name escapes me now. Perhaps I will update this later with information about him…

As for books, How We Became Posthuman generates a must-read list for any wannabe or tried-and-true geek. Hayles, who is an English professor, manages to uncover and critique some of the most intelligent and thought-provoking science fiction written (as far as I can tell).

For the most part, I’m not a huge science fiction fan. That is somewhat of a lie, because I am a fan, but a lot of it tends to be formulaic and not very interesting. When it comes to fiction, for example, the most sci-fi stuff I read is Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood. Oh, and I also like Ray Bradbury. I like my science fiction with a dose of political critique or dystopia.

That said, Hayles book has re-ignited my science fiction spark, and since reading Posthuman, I’ve been more accepting and acknowledging of my inner sci-fi geek.

For example, for whatever reason, I’ve been putting off reading Philip K. Dick for way too long. In Post Human, Hayles does an amazing reading of at least 3 or 4 of Dick’s stories. She analyzes frequent themes in Dick’s works such as the schizoid android, paranoia, dreams vs. reality, etc. — all within the context of what it means to be human and what Dick is saying about the evolution of humans into a posthuman existence.

Hayles’ analysis lead me to the Wikipedia article on Philip K. Dick (twin sister who died! Communism! sodium pentothal! visions! amphetamines!), which only made me more certain that I needed to get some of his books and to proclaim that PKD may, in fact, be my favorite author, despite the fact I hadn’t read anything by him. (Though: 1. I loved the movies Blade Runner and Total Recall — both of which PKD wrote the original stories that the films were based on; 2. I’ve been meaning to read something by PKD for a long time, I was just daunted by his enormous volume of work and not sure where to start.)

I have since acquired a first-edition paperback copy of Dr. Bloodmoney (and learned about first editions in the process), as well as a newer (so I can write and take notes in it) copy of Bloodmoney as well as Martian Time-Slip.

Another book that Hayles mentioned in Posthuman that I had to check-out was Limbo by Bernard Wolfe. The book is out of print, so I had to order a first-edition of it from eBay. I have yet to read it, but the storyline (apocalypse, people who intentionally remove their limbs, texts that are misinterpreted, etc.) definitely intrigues me.

All of this talk of cybernetics, the end of humans as we know ourselves, and sci-fi books by extremely imaginative authors, and the re-embracement of my inner sci-fi geek has made me realize that I am quite interested in the idea of an apocalypse and dystopic futures. That seems to be a thread that runs through all of the stuff that really piqued my interest in Posthuman.

To further investigate this theory, I ended up buying both The Terminator and T2: Judgment Day in order to see whether I could do a bit of close reading with them. (Yes, I am a huge nerd — in addition to a geek!) I probably need to watch them again (which I can, now that I own them), but I must say that T2 is better than the first movie and it definitely has a lot more back-story to it. I have yet to watch Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

I must share, however, that during T2 I started to tear up during the scene in which the atomic bomb drops and the kids on the playground are incinerated. As much as I am interested in the idea of a worldwide nuclear holocaust, the thought of that much death and destruction, en masse, absolutely saddens me. And then I started transposing that playground scene onto the moments when the U.S. dropped two bombs on Japan and I felt even worse.

Looking back, I realize that I have always been rather interested in the idea of apocalypse. From movies like Akira to video games like Final Fantasy 6 (FF3 US) and Chrono Trigger, I guess there has always been a part of me that enjoyed things with an apocalyptic element.

I’m not sure what to do with this recent self-realization and self-reflection, but it’s always exciting when a book causes so much intellectual activity in your head. I don’t think anything I’ve read in a long time has caused me to think about so much and in such different ways. It feels quite invigorating.

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