HOW W E B E C A M E
Virtual Bodies in
N. KATHERINE HAYLES
The Universiry of Chicago Press
Chicago er London
N. KATHERINE HAYLES is professor of English at the University of California, Los
Angeles. She holds degrees in both chemistry and English. She is the author of The
Cosmic Web: Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century
(1984) and Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science
(1990) and is the editor of Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and
Science ( 1991), the last published by the University of Chicago Press.
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637
The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London
© 1999 by The University of Chicago
All rights reserved. Published 1999
Printed in the United States of America
08 07 06 05 04 03 02 01 00 3 4 5
ISBN (cloth): 0-226-32145-2
ISBN (paper): 0-226-32146-0
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hayles, N. Katherine.
How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics,
literature, and informatics IN. Katherine Hayles.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN: 0-226-32145-2 (cloth: alk. paper).- ISBN: 0-226-32146-0
(pbk.: alk. paper)
1. Artificial intelligence. 2. Cybernetics. 3. Computer science.
4. Virtual reality. 5. Virtual reality in literature. I. Title.
003′ . .5-dc21 98-36459
@The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the
American National Standard for the Information Sciences-Permanence of Paper for
Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1992.
Acknou;leclgments I ix
Prologue I xi
l. Toward Embodied Virtuality I 1
2. Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers I 25
3. Contesting for the Bodyoflnformation: The MacyConferences
on Cybernetics I 50
4. Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled: Norbert \Viener
and Cybernetic Anxiety I 84
5. From Hyphen to Splice: Cybernetic Syntax in Limbo I 113
6. The Second Wave of Cybernetics: From Reflexivity
to Self-Organization I 131
7. Turning Reality Inside Out and Right Side Out: Boundary \Vork in
the Mid-Sixties Novels ofPhilip K. Dick I 160
8. The Materialityoflnformatics I 192
9. Narratives of Artificial Life I 222
10. The Semiotics ofVirtuality: Mapping the Posthuman I 247
11. Conclusion: \Vhat Does It Mean to Be Posthuman? I 283
Notes I 293
Index I 32.5
You are alone in the room, except for two computer terminals flickering in
the dim light. You use the terminals to communicate with two entities in another
room, whom you cannot see. Relying solely on their responses to your
questions, you must decide which is the man, which the woman. Or, in another
version of the famous “imitation game” proposed by Alan Turing in
his classic 1950 paper “Computer Machinery and Intelligence,” you use
the responses to decide which is the human, which the machine. 1 One of
the entities wants to help you guess correctly. His/her/its best strategy,
Turing suggested, may be to answer your questions truthfully. The other
entity wants to mislead you. He/she/it will try to reproduce through the
words that appear on your terminal the characteristics of the other entity.
Your job is to pose questions that can distinguish verbal performance from
embodied reality. If you cannot tell the intelligent machine from the intelligent
human, your failure proves, Turing argued, that machines can think.
Here, at the inaugural moment of the computer age, the erasure of embodiment
is performed so that “intelligence” becomes a property of the
formal manipulation of symbols rather than enaction in the human lifeworld.
The Turing test was to set the agenda for artificial intelligence for the
next three decades. In the push to achieve machines that can think, researchers
performed again and again the erasure of embodiment at the
heart of the Turing test. All that mattered was the formal generation and
manipulation of informational patterns. Aiding this process was a definition
of information, formalized by Claude Shannon and Nor bert Wiener,
that conceptualized information as an entity distinct from the substrates
carrying it. From this formulation, it was a small step to think ofinformation
as a kind ofbodiless fluid that could flow between different substrates without
loss of meaning or form. Writing nearly four decades after Turing, Hans
xii I Prologue
Moravec proposed that human identity is essentially an informational pattern
rather than an embodied enaction. The proposition can be demonstrated,
he suggested, by downloading human consciousness into a
computer, and he imagined a scenario designed to show that this was in
principle possible. The Moravec test, if I may call it that, is the logical successor
to the Turing test. Whereas the Turing test was designed to show that
machines can perform the thinking previously considered to be an exclusive
capacity of the human mind, the Moravec test was designed to show
that machines can become the repository of human consciousness-that
machines can, for all practical purposes, become human beings. You are
the cyborg, and the cyborg is you.
In the progression from Turing to Moravec, the part of the Turing test
that historically has been foregrounded is the distinction between thinking
human and thinking machine. Often forgotten is the first example Turing
offered of distinguishing between a man and a woman. If your failure to distinguish
correctly between human and machine proves that machines can
think, what does it prove if you fail to distinguish woman from man? Why
does gender appear in this primal scene of humans meeting their evolutionary
successors, intelligent machines? What do gendered bodies have to
do with the erasure of embodiment and the subsequent merging of machine
and human intelligence in the figure of the cyborg?
In his thoughtful and perceptive intellectual biography of Turing,
Andrew Hodges suggests that Turing’s predilection was always to deal with
the world as if it were a formal puzzle.2 To a remarkable extent, Hodges
says, Turing was blind to the distinction between saying and doing. Turing
fundamentally did not understand that “questions involving sex, society,
politics or secrets would demonstrate how what it was possible for people to
say might be limited not by puzzle-solving intelligence but by the restrictions
on what might be done” (pp. 423-24). In a fine insight, Hodges suggests
that “the discrete state machine, communicating by teleprinter alone,
was like an ideal for [Turing’s] own life, in which he would be left alone in a
room of his own, to deal with the outside world solely by rational argument.
It was the embodiment of a perfect J. S. Mill liberal, concentrating upon the
free will and free speech of the individual” (p. 425). Turing’s later embroilment
with the police and court system over the question of his homosexuality
played out, in a different key, the assumptions embodied in the Turing
test. His conviction and the court-ordered hormone treatments for his homosexuality
tragically demonstrated the importance of doing over saying
in the coercive order of a homophobic society with the power to enforce its
will upon the bodies ofits citizens.
Prologue I xiii
The perceptiveness of
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