Pickering on science fiction and cybernetics

Historian of science, Andrew Pickering (who wrote Mangle of Practice) while reviewing How We Became Posthuman by Katherine Hayles (in Technology and Culture 41.2 (2000) 392-395) writes about science fiction and cybernetics:

“Posthumanity” is not necessarily a bad thing. Following Donna Haraway, Hayles sees it as having a positive potential in freeing our imaginations from the hold of old dualisms and associated patterns of domination. But posthumanity can have a dark side, too. Haraway associates this with global capitalism and militarism, but Hayles’s bête noire is Hans Moravec, the computer scientist who talks about downloading consciousness into a computer. This equation of human-ness with disembodied information looks like another male trick to feminists tired of the devaluation of women’s bodily labor (from having babies to all the menial tasks that have traditionally made the “life of the mind” of the male scientist possible).

To put it crudely, then, Hayles wants to promote an embodied posthumanism and to fend off the Moravecian “nightmare” (p. 1). To this end, much of How We Became Posthuman is devoted to discussions of how scientists have struggled with notions of embodiment and information, in three waves, as she calls them, in the history of cybernetics: a first wave associated with the name of Norbert Wiener; a second wave from the 1970s onward, associated with Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s idea of autopoiesis; and a third, 1990s, wave emblematized by work on artificial life. Hayles notes the different conceptions of the body and information that have surfaced in each wave, and seeks to emphasize the costs (intellectual, moral, and political) entailed in editing the body out. As is her wont, interspersed with these discussions are her readings of novels. Without claiming any necessary causation in either direction, she seeks to draw out parallels between fiction and science, coupling Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo with the first wave of cybernetics, Philip K. Dick’s mid-1960s novels with the second, and works by Greg Bear, Cole Perriman, Richard Powers, and Neal Stephenson with the third. I rather resisted these readings at first, but I find that the associations Hayles makes have stuck in my mind. She is certainly right that Limbo (which I had not heard of before) is truly amazing both as a novel and as a document of the early days of cybernetics and the cold war.

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