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Like Myles, I was a bit surprised to read Hayles’ critique of cybernetics’ disembodiment of information after reading Wiener’s book, which seems deeply invested in biological, bodily considerations and is (for the most part) careful not to overstate the similarities between humans and machines or argue for their inevitable fusing (“When I compare the living organism with such a machine, I do not for a moment mean that the specific physical, chemical, and spiritual processes of life as we ordinarily know it are the same as those of life imitating machines. I mean simply that they both can exemplify locally anti-entropic processes…” (32)).

But one can certainly find statements in Wiener’s work that support Hayles’ claim: just before Wiener discusses the possibility of transmitting a “pattern” that would constitute a human over a telegraph line, he writes: “It is the pattern maintained by the homeostasis, which is the touchstone of our personal identity. Our tissues change as we live: the food we eat and the air we breathe become flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, and the momentary elements of our flesh and bone pass out of our body every day with our excreta. We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves” (96, my italics). And a few pages later: “To recapitulate: the individuality of the body is that of a flame rather than that of a stone, of a form rather than of a bit of substance. This forms can be modified and duplicated, although at present we know only how to duplicate it over a short distance” (102).

I understand Wiener’s point to be a sort of “ship of Theseus” argument applied to the human body: the specific atoms a human is composed of cannot be what makes them themselves if the atoms are replaced periodically. The human essence must inhere in something else, which Wiener would like to call a pattern or process. Is he actually arguing that information is more central to humanity than the body or consciousness? I suppose my larger question is: what is so essential/central about embodiment, and why does Hayles want to defend it? Why might she want “a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by the fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being”? (5). And don’t new forms of media modify the body, extending it in various ways?

Even if I’m a little caught up on the details (perhaps I’m too steeped in an intellectual framework that assumes information is immaterial to fully grasp it), I find Hayles’ critique compelling. But to what extent is it specific to this instance of the separation of information and the body — or should it be applied to mathematical abstraction in general (as she alludes to on page 12, briefly defending abstraction)?

Shannon’s version of information theory was agreed upon, according to Hayles, because of its “reliable quantification and theoretical generality”— basically, it was a useful abstraction that allowed theorems to be proven and systems to be designed and built (18). It seems to me that the same sort of critique could be made of most abstractions academics use to tame the real-word complexity of the systems they study. Can abstraction, as an intellectual tool, be indicted for its potential political ramifications? (What comes to mind here are the simplistic models of Chicago school economics taught in introductory classes, and how conclusions one might draw from them might lead to bad policies that cause real harm.)

And one last thought: when I was reading Hayles’ work, I kept returning to Silicon Valley’s metaphor of the year (maybe decade): the cloud! It’s a perfectly posthuman concept — it allows us to think of the internet in terms of abstract, amorphous bodies of information, conveniently eliding the labor and massive global infrastructure that allow it to function.

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