Monday, February 13, 2012

Reading, Thinking, & Reflecting Post - 2/13

The reading assignment for this week was to read 1/3 of the canonical text. The text I am reading is called How We Became Post-Human: Virtual  Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics by N. Katherine Hailes.

One of the first things I found most interesting about this particular text as compared to the others I have read for this course so far is the focus on how the concept of virtuality and the existence of the cyborg relates to human consciousness and identity. I began the book by reading the Prologue, which sort of set the stage and started introducing the rationale framework for the text.  One of the first things I encountered was a discussion about The Turing Test (p.g xi).  The Turing Test is essentially a test to see if humans can tell the difference between human responses and computer responses.  The test is meant to demonstrate "intelligence" of the machine, and to show evidence that computers can think.  I tried to search for more information on the Turing Test, but a lot of it was very technical, so I actually found a video that explains it in layman's terms (...thanks to the power of TV):

While researching the Turing Test, I found a couple of other interesting related articles, specifically related to Siri and the Apple iPhone.  I suppose one reason why the Turing Test jumped out at me is because I am an ESL teacher, and I recently heard one of my students make a comment that said, "Siri is the best 'conversation partner' ever!"  The first question that came to my mind was, "Talking to Siri is better than talking to a real live American human being?!" The next questions were related to the authenticity of responses - are they accurate? Are they meaningful?  Does Siri respond to questions in the same way a human would?  Does is matter?  I found a couple of articles (among many) that address some of these questions: Apple iPhone, Turing Test and Siri and the Turing Test.

The point that jumped out at me in the Prologue was related to gender identity and artificial intelligence (pgs. xii-xiii).  I found it so interesting that issues of sexuality and gender came into play - I suppose I had never thought of it before, but apparently, this is a hot topic (no pun intended).  When I did a Google Image search using the terms "sexy cyborg," there were 750,000 hits!

Finally, the concept of "embodiment" was introduced (pg. xiv). The importance of this concept is reiterated throughoug the book.  Essentially, the concept of "embodiment" is the belief that "intelligence requires a body."  On February 6, 2012, MIT published an article in its online journal that essentially stated that the definition of embodiment in this sense is too limited, and that we must consider a "broader view of computation" when considering the "notion of intelligence." I also found another paper that explores issues related to embodiment by aruging for "interaction, participation, and adaptation" in addition to the traditional view of the "intelligent robot" in the physical sense.

"Beam me up, Scotty!"
My China Connection
Chapter 1 of the book focused almost completely on "Embodied Virtuality," and .  The author describes that she came across three "interrelated stories" through her research, which ultimately led to a definition of the posthuman. These interrelated stories follow the journey of how information lost its body, how the cyborg was created as a technological artifact and cultural icon, and how the human is giving way to a different construction called the posthuman. The author defined the posthuman by outlining a number of assumptions (pg 2-3):
  1. Informational pattern is more important than the embodiment of information.
  2. Consciousness is not as important as we have traditionally thought.
  3. "The body is a prosthesis."
  4. "The human being can be articulated through intelligent machines."

Photo from the 10th Annual Macy Conference on Cybernetics

Chapter 1 also introduced the Macy Conference on Cybernetics, which were interdisciplinary meetings held from 1943 to 1954.  "These meetings... were instrumental in forging a new paradigm. To succeed, they needed a theory of information ([Shannon]), a model of neural functioning that showed how neurons worked as information-processing system ([McCulloch]), computers that processed binary code and could... reproduce themselves, thus reinforcing the analogy with biological systems ([von Neumann]), and a visionary who could articulate the larger implications of the cybernetic paradigm and make clear its cosmetic significance (pg 7)."  In Chapter 1, there is also a definition of virtuality, which is defined as the "cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns (pg 13-14)."
This text focuses heavily on the concept of "information" - what it is, how it should be embodied/materialized (or not), etc. - and therefore fits well with the key concept of Information from Key Concepts and Pattern from Lingua Fracta.  It also fits well with Interface and Interactivity from Key Concepts and Performance from Lingua Fracta. With regard to the layout of the book, it is organized in terms of the three "waves of cybernetics," all of which use the living being as an analogy for the intelligent machine.  The first focuses on homeostasis or feedback loops (pg 8), the second focuses on reflexivity (pgs 9-10), and the third focues on self-organization (artificial life) (pg 11).   

Chapter 2 was called "Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifier," and it primarily discussed informatics, and how there is a trend toward considering information in terms of pattern/randomness, as opposed to presence/absence, as well as considering its patterns of transfer.  Flickering signifiers were described by Lacan as being created by information technologies and characterized "by their tendency toward unexpected metamorphoses, attenuations, and dispersions (pg 30)." The author goes on to say that "flickering signification brings together language with a psychodynamics based on the symbolic moment when the human confronts the posthuman." To be honest, I am a little bit confused about what exactly a "flickering signifier" is and what it means, so I need to look into this a little further.

 Chapter 3 was called "Contesting for the Body of Information: The Macy Conferences on Cybernetics."  This chapter introduced the first wave of cybernetics, which focused on the idea of homeostasis and the analogy that can be drawn between feedback loops in living beings and feedback loops in machines as an argument for the disembodied medium as related to information (pg 50-51).  The author referred to Claude Shannon's definition of information "as a probability function with no dimensions, no materiality, and no necessary connection with meaning (pg 52)."


Hailes, N. Katherine. How We Became Post-Human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.


  1. GREAT job using the post to engage the reading. I think that image you found to represent Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifying was GREAT!
    For the course wiki page you'll want to expand those connections/thinking/reflections between what you are reading and the course key terms.

  2. Laura, I've learned so much from your post. You do such a great job outlining and discussing the major ideas of the first few chapters of Hailes's book (definitely makes me want to read more!). I had never heard of the Turing test either and appreciate the laymen video you provide to help explain it. The notion of sex and cyborgs really intrigues me and reminds me of the attraction Rick Deckard (DADES) has for the andys Rachel and Luba Luft. But, herein lies the nature of sexual fantasy, I suppose.

    Although, having said that, Rick Deckard's attraction to the women androids seems fueled by a desire to connect and to feel, ironically so since the androids are unable to empathize. And, he struggles with just how lifelike the women androids are, how in every other way besides the human ability to empathize, they are perfect simulations of human women and can simulate the human sexual experience. Interestingly, the Turing test precedes the fictitious tests of DADES.

  3. Hi Laura,

    Great blog! Great minds must think alike since we have the same blog template!

    "The next questions were related to the authenticity of responses - are they accurate? Are they meaningful? Does Siri respond to questions in the same way a human would? Does is matter?"

    The first things I thought of was this:

    And then Sheldon's response:

    “Well done Dr. Kuthrapali. You’ve taken a great evolutionary leap by abandoning human interaction and allowing yourself to romantically bond with a soulless machine. Kudos!”

    But seriously, this question of the authenticity of human to machine relationships is one that I have struggled with as well.

    My question is: if the human has the same emotional connection as he or she would to a human, does it matter that the machine is inorganic? If the nature of relationships is to be equally beneficial for both partners, than the relationship can be seen as one-sided, possibly selfish or self-indulgent, and lacking in potential fulfillment. However, if the nature of relationships is more along the lines of Castells' netowrked individualism where the goal of interaction is personal gain, not communal gain, than that relationship is perfectly acceptable.

    I can't help but feel tentative about giving my blessing to human/machine relationships as being fully authentic - no matter how adamant the person is about the fulfillment he or she feels. Something is lost in the absence of face-to-face in a shared space (not digital) that the human needs. I don't know what that it, but it is the intangible feeling that is there. I am not ready to let that go for a cyborg - no matter how sexy.