Monday, February 27, 2012

Reading, Thinking, & Reflecting Post - 2/27

Last week, we were not required to post about the readings from our canonical text, so this week I will be posting about my reflections from the last 2/3 of the text. I annotated the book quite heavily, so I will have to do my best in narrowing down the point of interest that I would like to comment on for the purposes of this blog post.

I suppose I will begin by providing a brief summary of each chapter in How We Became Post-Human.  Chapter Four continued with the discussion of the first wave of cybernetics by exploring Norbert Wiener's theories with regard to the relationship between cybernetics and liberal humanism.  Chapter Five connected the theories of the first wave of cybernetics with a piece of literature, which was Limbo by Bernard Wolfe. Chapter Six introduced the second wave of cybernetics, which is defined by the shift to the concept of reflexivity, and discussed the theories of Humberto Maturana and Fransicso Varela extensively.  Chapter Seven then connected the theories of the second wave of evolution to a piece of literature, which was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. Chapter Eight moved into the third wave of cybernetics, which is characterized by issues regarding the materiality of informatics and the need for embodiment of information (or not). Chapter Nine continued with the third wave of cybernetics and went into a detailed discussion of Artificial Life that was framed around the debate of embodiment vs. disembodiment. Chapter Ten referred back to literature by discussing text such as Blood Music by Greg Bear, Terminal Games by Cole Perriman, Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers, and Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson. Chapter Eleven provided an overal summary and conclusion for the text.

This book was an enjoyable read, albeit dense with theory at times, and I really liked how Hayles tied literature in as a way to expand on the theories - it made for a great change of pace throughout this text, and reading about the fictional worlds created by each author really drove the points of each theory home.  I was especially excited to read the in-depth theoretical analysis of DADoES.  Thanks to How We Became Posthuman, my reading list has expanded considerably.

Since the text was basically broken into three sections, I will do the same for this post...


The First Wave of Cybernetics

"Analogy is not merely an ornament of language but is a powerful conceptual mode that constitutes meaning through relation... When analogy is used to constitute agents in cybernetic discourse, it makes an end run around questions of essence, for objects are constructed through their relations to other objects." (pg. 91)

I really enjoyed this quote about analogy, and it reminds me a lot of what we learned about in sociolinguistics when we talked about prototypical schema clouds in the field of cognitive linguistics. Essentially, the theory in linguistics, based on work by Piaget, posits that people form "schema clouds" of meaning that people assign complex meanings to words based on associations they make with a prototypical concept of that word based on their prior experiences with it. I was able to make a further connection with this theory when Hayles was discussing Wiener's theory further by making a connection between the key concepts of pattern and perception by stating that "perception does not reflect reality directly but rather relies on transformations that preserve a pattern across multiple sensory modalities and neural interfaces." (pg 98)

"Analogy is thus constituted as a universal exchange system that allows data to move across boundaries. It is the lingua franca of a world (re)constructed through relation rather than grasped in essence." (pg. 98)

Schema cloud for the word "egg"
What's important about Wiener's theory with regard to analogy is that he had a great concern with boundaries. In other words, he wanted to be sure that the "cybernetic machine" would "reinforce rather than threaten the autonomous self." (pg. 105)

The Second Wave of Cybernetics

The discussion of the second wave of cybernetics was introducted in Chapter Six with reference to a classic article called "What the Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain" by Lettvin, et. al.  One of the authors of that paper was Humberto Maturana.  He and Francisco Varela worked together extensively to determine the role of the observer, and they believed that observers "create [preexisting systems] through the very act of observing them."

"A frog's visual system does not so much represent reality as construct it." (pg. 131)
Again, perception was a key concept that I could connect to the discussion, because the theorists argue that the existence of reality is directly related to self-organized beings perceive reality (pg. 133). In addition to self-organization, which was defined as "living systems [operating] within the boundaries of an organization that closes in on itself and leaves the world on the outside (pg. 136)."  Autopoiesis was another major concept tossed around in this chapter, which is defined as "the circularity of [a being's] organization that makes a living system a unit of interactions." 

According to Maturana, a living system can be defined through autopoietic self-organization.  There is a clear difference in this way of thinking as compared to the that of the first wave of cybernetics.  The first wave of cybernetics is concerned with the liberal humanist "notion of possessive individualism, [which is] the idea that subjects are individuals first and foremost because they own themselves (pg. 145)," whereas autopioetic theory from the second wave of cybernetics states that "living systems are living because they instantiate organizational closure." It is interesting because before reading this book, I could never think of a machine as "living," but once I started reading about different concepts and theories about what it actually means to "be alive," my mind started to open. 

Honestly, I feel like this course is opening my mind quite significantly in that regard.  When I was an undergraduate, I majored in Wildlife Biology.  In my animal behavior and communication classes, as well as in classes dealing with evolutionary biology, we were basically told that the basic purpose of the life is to survive and reproduce.  Maturana and Varela's theory of autopoeisis bumps up against the theory of biological evolution, so it was a little difficult for me to swallow at first, but I found some interesting similarities as I read on, which I will discuss further when I move into the third wave of cybernetics. 

The Third Wave of Cybernetics

The third wave of cybernetics is focused on the notion that "materiality is secondary to the logical structures it encodes." In other words, the third wave is concerned with the issue of "embodiment." "

"In contrast to the body, embodiment is contextual enmeshed within the specifics of place, time, physiology, and culture, which together compose enactment, ...whereas the body is an idealized form that gestures toward a Platonic reality."

Chapter Nine spoke in great detail about Artificial Life. Artificial Life is "the study of man-made systems that exhibit behaviors characteristic of natural living systems... It is concerned with the analysis of living organisms by attempting to synthesize life-like behaviors within computers and other artificial media (pg 232)." Artificial life is not to be confused with artificial intelligence.  Artificial life "sees cognition as the operation of nervous systems," while artificial intelligence "envisions cognition as the operation of logic (pg 238)." Typically, artificial life "programs are considered to be simulations (pg 234)," and it can be "divided into three research fronts: wetware, hardware, and software (pg 225)."

Again, as a biogist, there was an interesting point that stuck out to me.  On pg. 226, there was an explanation of how DNA can be compared to binary code.  I found an interesting article called, "DNA seen through the eye of a coder -or- If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail," which plays with the analogy of DNA as a code (or vice versa).

There are so many points that I did not cover in my post - I barely scratched the surface.  I'm hoping to revisit more of the theories and theorists related to the posthuman as I work on the canonical text wiki page with Cheri.  For now, I will close with a of video I found on YouTube that are related to cybernetics. It is kind of funny because of the German audio and post-apocalyptic soundstrack...


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. Laura - Thanks for the very detailed summary and discussion of your canonical text. Although you claim you "just scratched the surface," I think you've saved me the trouble of reading it myself! I've been interested in Hayles' ideas since reading New Media: The Key Concepts, so I enjoyed your thorough post.

    The parallels between science and cybernetics raise some fascinating implications, such as the similarity of DNA and Binary coding. I agree with your approach of examining the physical aspects of cybernetics. When abstract theories become concrete, their tenor often changes. In this case, you illustrate how cybernetic theory - particularly the distinction between "artificial life" and "artificial intelligence" -- becomes much more real when the "simulation" exists physically. That reality makes me uncomfortable, probably because of all the sci-fi I've consumed in my lifetime.

    Technology may surprise me, but I can't imagine that human beings will ever have the ability to create "artificial life" in any genuine sense. The more I learn about the human body and mind, the more I realize how irreducibly complex and individualized both can be. I'm sure science will generate some "life-like" computer interfaces, robots, etc., but I don't think anything will ever replicate a human being's capacity for creative, dynamic thought.

    Thanks for stimulating these ideas!

  2. Laura,

    Great post, Laura! Thank you for being so thorough. Hayles has been on my list of people to read, and this helps me to see whether or not her key concepts are related to my research. I agree the creepy music on the You Tube video is, well, creepy.

    I find your background in science to be especially fascinating given that you chose this text. When you question what is "live," I also think of other posts by those in our class who are talking about what is "human." I think our mediated selves cause us to find ways to qualify presence in ways that pre-mediated selves don't require. We can no longer take the body, our physical presence, as a given. So, we are pressed to account for presence in other ways, but how?

    Your mention of embodiment in the third wave of cybernetics is something I would like to look into. My research often leads me to new media texts that talk about sound as embodied, however, many fail to really characterize what that means. Embodied as, "contextual enmeshed within the specifics of place, time, physiology, and culture, which together compose enactment" suggests that this is complex. Such complexity opens the door for socio-cultural theories that account for context, demographics, and culture, however, it continues to grey the concept of embodiment itself.


  3. I concur with the others that this post is thorough and engaging and that your perspective (having come from a wildlife biology background) gives us a fresh angle on these ideas. I can imagine this type of book that links literature with new media concepts would act as a good "hinge" for students straddling the New Media vs. Rhetorical tracks in this program. The idea that a frog constructs what it sees is very similar to what is covered in this video on ASIMO, a robot several centers are studying right now:

    (I couldn't get Blogspot to embed it, but you can still copy/paste it into a browser).

    Enjoy the video and thanks again for a great post!