Posts Tagged ‘cyborg’

A Self-help Guide for Cyborgs: Reading N. K. Hayles

August 11, 2011

Review of N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999).

If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival (5).

Hayles’ title could be rewritten in the form of a question: How and when did we become posthuman? How and when did we acquire our virtual bodies? How has cybernetics, contemporary literature, and informatics altered what it means to be human? What have humans become? And what were we before this metamorphosis? Reading Hayles’ book is to step into an x-ray machine or to go under the surgeon’s knife, as the inner self or consciousness is exposed as a precarious construct. The scene I want to reference is familiar, having been played many times in film and television to the point that it can evoke humor and sell running shoes and energy drinks rather than cause viewers to recoil in horror. The character, male or female, is lying on an operating table. A close-up shows the character’s face, as the surgeon removes it to expose the inner workings of circuit boards and blinking lights. The president is a robot. The quarterback is a robot. The prostitute is a robot. The sheriff is a robot. The housewife is a robot. Are these revelatory scenes revelatory? Do they have any impact? Do they reveal anything that we don’t already know? Have we become complacent to the idea that human agency is nothing more than a fantasy? Hayles’ book refuses to be complacent, to let us go quietly into the night. It is as much a manifesto as Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto.” It demands that we wake from our cybernetic slumber, that we reboot. It would appear to be too late for the human. The question now is: How can we become better posthumans, better cyborgs?

Reading Hayles’ text as a self-help book for cyborgs is not as flippant as it may sound (even though the “self” is the main thing that is threatened with the ascendency of the cyborg). My aim is not to undermine the seriousness or depth of Hayles’ arguments. I am simply trying to reiterate her call for action in a manner that underscores the difficulty of telling people something that they refuse to hear. This refusal speaks to the tenacity of the liberal humanist subject and the general refusal to admit that computer technologies have radically changed what it means to be human. For Hayles this is primarily a story of loss, in which information displaces embodiment. Alongside the cyborg, cybernetics is an important component in this story. As Hayles explains, cybernetics was a product of WWII, developing from the tactics and system analysis used to improve antiaircraft guns. Its main concern is to identify recurring patterns shared between entities, regardless of their being organic or inorganic. The advocates of cybernetics saw it as a grand explanation, a way of understanding everything. Leading this call were group of American and European scientists, mathematicians, and psychologists, including Norbert Wiener, John von Neuman, Claude Shannon, Warren McCulloch, and Gregory Bateson. The aims and expectations of cybernetics were developed during a series of annual conferences held in New York. These aims would eventually “coalesce into a theory of communication and control applying equally to animals, humans, and machines. Retrospectively called the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, these meetings, held from 1943 to 1954, were instrumental in forging a new paradigm” (7). This paradigm was founded on the principle of feedback loops that emerge from the randomness or chaos of life to help evolve or streamline systems of knowing and being. For example, my knowledge of frogs in a pond is constantly being revised and streamlined based on the facts and data I acquire of frogs. Frogs are constantly communicating variations and patterns of “frogness” to me, while I am constantly communicating variations and patterns of humanness to potentially receptive frogs. Existence is thus envisioned as an exchange of information. For the Macy collective, “humans were to be seen primarily as information-processing entities who were essentially similar to intelligent machines” (7). In this arrangement the body and its senses took a backseat to the brain and cognition. The body became more of a housing and relay device rather than unified property that helped to define what means to be human. It was in this context that the cyborg, with its enhanced capabilities, rose to prominence.

My example of frog-pond cybernetics is meant to echo the prominent position the frog holds in the development of what is referred to as a second wave of cybernetics. As Hayles explains, the frog helped articulate the important idea of reflexivity:

It all started with a frog. In a classic article entitled “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain,” central players in the Macy group – including Warren McCulloch, Walter Pitts, and Jerry Lettvin – did pioneering work on a frog’s visual system. They demonstrated, with great elegance, that the frog’s visual system does not so much represent reality as construct it. What’s true for frogs must also hold for humans, for there is no reason to believe that the human neural system is uniquely constructed to show the world as it “really” is. (131)

These studies showed that frogs see the world as a reflection of what frogs need to see to interact with their environment. Frogs are able to see fast-moving objects but cannot see slow moving ones. This explains why frogs can capture darting insects with a relaxed flick of the tongue and are vulnerable to predators who slowly sneak up on them. A world of visible flies and invisible snakes is reflected back through receptors in frog’s eyes and through neurons in its brain so that they see their environment accordingly. The world, in other words, is made over to become, more or less, frog friendly. In this way the observer, human or frog, becomes central to the way the world unfolds. As a consequence of reflexivity, the world loses its solidity. Instead of a unified world of frogs and humans, cybernetics reveals an endless variety of interconnected worlds.

The notion of reflexivity caused a schism in cybernetics, with the first wave of thinkers on one side and the second wave on the other. The liberal humanist subject and how we are conventionally taught to understand the world around us was jeopardized by both waves but the second wave, with its emphasis on the observer and competing worldviews or ontologies, was seen by many of the founders of cybernetics as going too far. The main players in the second wave were two Chilean biologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Working together, the two men focused on the notion of autopoiesis as a ruling principle in the creation of life. Autopoiesis is the idea of self-making or self-creation that results because of the relays and exchange of information that circulate between entities. “A living system’s organization,” explains Hayles,”causes certain products to be produced, for example, nucleic acids. These products in turn produced the organizing characteristics of that living system” (136). Maturana and Varela’s argument that biology holds the key to understanding all life can hardly be called radical. What was radical was the extent that they carried this argument. Following on this line of thinking, they propose a revaluation of both life and thinking. “Living systems,” they famously declare, are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. This statement is valid for all organisms, with or without a nervous system” (“Autopoiesis and Cognition. The Realization of the Living,” 1980, p. 13). In this declaration Maturana and Varela boldly call on us to acknowledge that the lines separating humans, animals, and machines are mere window dressing. Such a shift in thinking is echoed in repeating science-fiction scenarios in which humans find themselves trapped in the consciousness of a cosmic computer.

Implicit to Maturana and Varela’s declaration is a devaluation of the liberal humanist subject, which can be read as a posthuman credo: As posthumans we can no longer hold onto ideas of mastery or uniqueness, as technology has long surpassed human limitations. The human, has effectively been pushed out of essential feedback loops and has been replaced by an entity that is neither super nor subhuman. How we come to meet and acknowledge the posthuman is one of the main strands of Hayles’ argument. In something of a recuperative gesture of her own, Hayles argues for an embodied posthumanism, one that insists on complexity and the materiality of experience. By foregrounding complexity and materiality, she contends, we will be able to forestall reductive narratives that attempt to reinscribe ideas of human control. In contrast to a reductive or pessimistic view of posthumanism, Hayles argues for a position that takes into account the feminist critique of science:

In this account, emergence replaces teleology; reflexive epistemology replaces objectivism, distributed cognition replaces autonomous will; embodiment replaces a body seen as a support system for the mind; and a dynamic partnership between humans and intelligence machines replaces the liberal humanist subject’s manifest destiny to dominate and control nature. (288)

With these concerns in mind, Hayles urges us to engage the posthuman. “The best possible time,” she states, “to contest for what the posthuman means is now, before the trains of thought it embodies have been laid down so firmly that it takes dynamite to change them” (291). Part of this engagement is to encourage us to be critical readers and consumers of science-fiction and technology. By not being seduced by fantasies of either human supremacy or total annihilation we can strive to be better posthumans. Again, this is no easy task. The self keeps on trucking down the road. We seem to take a certain pleasure in seeing ourselves as an account number, a user name, a barcode, a seeder, a leecher, an avatar, an email address, but we continue to struggle with the idea that we are responsible nodes in a vast network that extends far beyond the individual and the human.

Professor Borg

August 1, 2011

Professor Kevin Warwick: I don’t want to be a human, part of a subspecies. I want to be a cyborg.

On the Ethics of Oncomice

July 13, 2011

Review #5: Donna Haraway’s Modest­_Witness@Second­_Millenium.Female-Man_Meets_OncoMouse (1997)

The Passion of OncoMouse

Nostalgia for “pure research” in mythical ivory towers is worse than ahistorical and ideological. A better use of our time, critical skills, and imaginations might come from considering hope-giving, on-the-ground practices toward building a democratic technoscience taking place under our noses and in distant lands. We might try to figure out how to be interpellated into a different sort of molecular politics. (95)

Subtitled “Feminism and Technoscience,” this text is, like all of Haraway’s books, foremost about science in action. One of Haraway’s primary goals is to illustrate how science is a powerful form of socialization. She does this by tracing some of the discourse surrounding figures that have assumed a prominent place in both contemporary science and in popular cultural. These include the computer chip, the gene, the fetus, the cyborg, and the genetically modified Harvard oncomouse. Haraway also analyzes advertisements placed in science journals, material that is supposed to be read as clearly separate and incidental to the main content of the journal and to the important work of science. As her analysis shows, this supposedly “incidental” material does a fair bit of work in disseminating the conventional narratives and values of science. In ad after ad, we are shown how commerce, politics and science are thoroughly entwined.

Being critical of the clichéd and commonplace stories of science is part of Haraway’s call for a radical shift in scientific practice, one in which scientists are encouraged to “situate” and foreground the political and economic goals that influence their work. “Challenging the material-semiotic practices of technoscience,” states Haraway, “is in the interests of a deeper, broader, and more open scientific literacy, which this book will call situated knowledges” (11). For Haraway, this push to situate the production of scientific knowledge is a matter of fleshing out the various direct and indirect connections or nodal points that structure and fuel a given scientific project, field, or phenomenon. To this end, Haraway asserts:

Cells, organisms, and genes are not “discovered” in a vulgar realist sense, but they are not made up… The world takes shape in specific ways and cannot take shape just any way… For humans, a word like gene specifies a multifaceted set of interactions among people and nonhumans in historically contingent, practical, knowledge-making work. A gene is not a thing, much less a “master molecule” or a self-contained code. Instead, the term gene signifies a node of durable action where many actors, human and nonhuman, meet. (142)

What Haraway is insisting on is the active complexity of life, in which things acquire meaning as a result of difference. Instead of functioning as empty signifiers waiting for meaning to be inscribed to them, cells, genes and the other living properties that make our bodies are more akin to actors or agents that help to activate meaning making. While they do not possess fixed or intrinsic meaning that lies dormant waiting to be uncovered, they do have qualities that can be compared to other phenomena. How science arrives at and assess difference, will in turn, be different for different people and will depend on the different things they are looking for and the tools and methods that are deployed. Situated knowledge is to account for all these differences and to determine the ethics that our scientific findings contribute to.

For Haraway, science unfolds as a contest of meaning. To make this point, she rehearses some of the controversy surrounding the creation of the Harvard oncomouse, which is the name given to mice that have been modified with human genetic material to make them susceptible to cancer. The oncomouse not only generated debate about genetic modification but also about copyrighting life. While scientists at Harvard tried to represent the oncomouse as a breakthrough in the war against cancer, they were actively seeking a patent on the mouse to protect their investment. The situation was further muddied on April 12, 1988 when the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued Patent Number 4,736,866 to the assignee, the President and Fellows of Harvard. The patent recognizes the mouse as an invention, a human product, and as such the transgenic animal, or rather the procedure, became the intellectual property of the university. In the language of the patent, the mouse carries “a gene which has been introduced into the germline of the animal, or an ancestor of the animal, at an early (usually one-cell) developmental stage” (US Patent number 4,736,866).[1] The university eventually passed the patent on to Du Pont, the multinational giant that had financed the oncomouse project. Thus Du Pont, which has a long history of manufacturing such things as gunpowder, house and automobile paints, Freon, insecticides, pharmaceuticals, weapon-grade plutonium, and Kevlar vests, became the owner of the first trademarked animal.

While the question of what exactly the US patent covers has generated passionate ethical debates, it has generated surprisingly limited litigation. The only legal challenge to the Harvard patent occurred in Canada in 2002. After a lengthy court case, the Federal Supreme Court ruled against Harvard, overturning a decision made in a lower court in 2000 to recognize and honour Harvard’s American patent. In 2003 a modified Canadian patent was granted to Harvard, omitting the “composition of matter” claims on transgenic mice that the Supreme Court ruled against. By delineating these various tangents in the story of oncomouse, Haraway shows how the material-semiotic life embodied in this transgenic figure is far from being resolved.

It is also important to reference how Haraway presents the figure of oncomouse, along with the figure of the cyborg (the FemaleManÓ in her longwinded title), as queer. She does not shy away from the assertion that the anxieties and criticisms raised in opposition to genetic engineering echo the moral panic of sexism, racism, nationalism, and homophobia:

In opposing the production of transgenic organisms, and especially opposing their patenting and other forms of private commercial exploitation, committed activists appeal to notions such as the integrity of natural-kinds and the natural telos or self-defining purpose of all life forms. From this perspective, to mix and match genes as if organisms were legitimate raw material for redesign is to violate natural integrity at its vital core… I cannot help but hear in the biotechnology debates the unintended tones of fear of the alien and suspicion of the mixed. I hear a mystification of kind and purity akin to the doctrines of white racial hegemony and U.S. national integrity and purpose that so permeate North American culture and history. (60-61)

Haraway goes on to clarify that, while she opposes the “patenting of animals, human genes, and much plant genetic material” (62), she values genetic science and the sacrifice embodied in the figure of oncomouse and other lab animals. To this end, Haraway presents the oncomouse as a martyr:

OncoMouse is my sibling, and more properly, male or female, s/he is my sister… S/he is our scapegoat; s/he bears our suffering; s/he signifiers and enacts our mortality in a powerful, historically specific way that promises a culturally privileged kind of salvation – a “cure for cancer.” Whether I agree to her existence and use or not, s/he suffers, physically, repeatedly, and profoundly, that I and my sisters my life. (79)

This queer martyrdom is typical of the figures Haraway champions in her survey of technoscience. She is adamant in showing how the foundations of much of science, its establishment of norms and protocols, has been underwritten by an assortment of characters that have been configured as aberrant, queer, unsound, and dangerous.

By stressing the political making or construction of science, Haraway is not arguing that it is simply made-up or make-believe, a series of relational truths or ideological myths that can be substituted for one another. Matter is not that easily manipulated. For example, the gene has managed to stave off efforts to portray it as essentially selfish or as a clear indication of racial purity. Matter as a whole resists being reduced, fixed, and fetishized. Instead, as Haraway argues, matter and meaning enjoy a relational existence in which truths and livelihoods – ways of living – are made and unmade. Again, I want to stress that Haraway is not invoking a relativist position. There is a big difference in pointing out that life is relational and saying that truth is relative, that truth or reality is what we humans make of the world. Such hubris or arrogance, embodied in the claims of relativists and social constructionists, is very thing that Haraway is opposing. Humans do not go about structuring the world according to relative biases and beliefs (despite their best efforts). Instead, life resists our all-too-human inscriptions and what emerges is a much more engaging and unpredictable contest of meaning.

End notes:

[1] For US patent see