Week 9 summary

I think I can best summarise my scattered thoughts over the past week with a quote from my undergrad Anthropology professor: ‘Invention is the mother of necessity’.

He was speaking in terms of biological evolution, but this concept quite nicely hints at a nexus joining those much maligned categorisations of the real, the ideal and the virtual.

To start with, the ‘natural’ state of humans is problematised biologically: evolution is all about adaptation to the outside world, regardless of whether is was created by ourselves or not, or whether we want to adapt or not. Moreover, it is driven by anomalies: ‘informational’ mistakes–accidental inventions–that eventually came to be necessary to survival, and necessary to be called human (and not neanderthal, etc.).

From this point of view, the ‘cyborg’ is as unremarkable as a grey moth in Birmingham. The invention process just added another step–there was the accident of a gene that made us capable of considering using animal skin to keep us warm; we just had to enact it. Ditto building shelters, fire, weapons, vehicles, farms, radios, Facebook (more or less). It’s just the complexity of the current invention system that tricks us into thinking that our latest adaptations are ‘unnatural’ or ‘abnormal’.

And the complexity can also be understood in ‘natural’ terms. Dawkin’s ‘meme’ seems to have had a cultural resurgence in helping to define social media phenomena, and is a pithy way of thinking about evolution in post-human terms as the adaptation of a complex [of anything] to inventions external to it (if anything is really external in this sense) and of its own making. Crucially, this is a completely dynamic complex; it doesn’t stop evolving, moving, changing.

I’m arguing here as if ‘post-human’ is a description of how things ‘really’ are, and we’re only just realising it now. I don’t think that’s quite right. First, I’m using the ‘nature’ argument mostly as a challenge to the mystification of the cyborg–not necessarily to say ‘whatever is, is right’. But I’m also aware that a self-satisfied ‘we’ve finally got it all figured out now’ is precisely what post-humanism is not. So I’ll just leave post-humanism as a potentially useful way to perceive…stuff…

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Information age

I certainly found Hayles more comprehensible than Haraway (which brought me much pleasure in itself…). I ‘ve just highlighted a few points that struck me:

  • The concept of information as disembodied. I’d never thought about this before, particularly to the extreme that Shannon suggested. I think if someone had presented me with this view outside of this context, there’s a 50-50 chance I would have completely accepted it (either in a simplistic way, because info isn’t tactile, or in a semantic way, because it’s only interpretation that makes the various 1s and 0s that form an Excel spreadsheet, for example, ‘informative’–which seems relevant to McKay’s argument); I could have rejected it just as easily on the grounds that Hayles discusses, or because I don’t know enough about neuroscience or computers to decide for myself whether ideas or data files are material or not…! And I think my ambiguity betrays a pervasive cultural attitude about information, whether it’s a both/and idea (sometimes information is material, sometimes it’s not), a typology (this type of information is material, that type is not) or, again, a semantic riddle (e.g. is it only ‘information’ when it is material, but something else when it’s not?).
  • The body as incidental to consciousness. This is of course connected to the first point, but is interesting as a possible link between humanism and posthumanism (p. 4); is Hayles implying toward the end that this is a skeuomorph–a strangely significant leftover from an older philosophy? It doesn’t seem to me that this disembodiment factors into Haraway’s cyborg or Pickering’s posthuman…rather the reverse…
  • The experience of an information/material duality is a culturally limited phenomenon. Hayles points this out clearly, and I think we could take it further to say that much information is only information (I know I’m playing the ‘meaning’ card again, but it seems to keep resurfacing) if it can be translated materially. Impoverished people could be given access to the world’s data on disease cures, agricultural techniques, manufacturing processes…insider stock market tips, my PIN and internet banking password, the PM’s private email address…but without the material objects to make use of this information, or to offer it to people who can, it really is just a collection of blots of ink, 0s and 1s, vibrations of air molecules.
  • But what does all this have to do with education? After blagging my way through an explanation of what I’d been reading this past week, I was confronted by this question. The answer that I pulled agilely out of the hat was that it gives pause to our usual ways of perceiving the entire learning process. To be fair, this goes back to IDEL discussions, and the example of Aristotle’s concern that writing things down spelled (so to speak) the end of good education. But what I pulled from Haraway, Hayles and Pickering was that not only does the typical education process artificially separate fields of study which are really all intertwined, but it presupposes that both these subjects and the students themselves are (as far as learning is concerned) disembodied–Platonic forms of information that can be exchanged and compared, decontextualised, to each other. Examples could range from a spelling test to an economics seminar discussion on stock market fluctuations. In the first case, the actual knowledge being tested is decontextualised, but a part of the cyborg (the dictionary or spell checker) has also been amputated. In the second case, the seminar leader may expect the students to look at socio-cultural factors, the psychology of traders, the history of market economies, etc.–but only in a distilled form in line with the learning outcomes of the course…and, in a live seminar situation, all from the students’ own heads. The simpler version of this is nothing new: would you rather have a doctor who was good at cramming for an exam, or who knew where to look for the latest information?
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The World of Tomorrow

I don’t advocate watching this whole video (regardless of what a smaller member of my household might say), but for about three minutes starting here: The World of Yesterday; it’s interesting to see a few ideas that have become ubiquitous in science fiction to the extent that they can be casually referenced in a rather innocuous children’s show.

Apart from the cyborg children, robot guards and time machine, what I’m interested in is the off-hand reference to the ‘information age’. Somehow from the perspective of the future, this seems to beg the question: was there less information in the past? is it just that access to the information was limited, and/or that the information was dispersed? is information manufactured (i.e., does this follow on from the ages of machines and technology?), or is it rather collected? what comes after the ‘information age’?

The manufacturing versus collecting, I think, is particularly pertinent to Hayles’ discussion of the nature of information–did the shopping habits of Tesco customers always exist as as unused information, or did the information only come into being when it was collected via clubcards? And was it always material in the form of the products individuals bought, or did it only take material form when recorded in a computer…or printed out for the marketing department?

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Don’t know how convinced I am by this…they include terribly idiosyncratic terms like ‘rubbish’ and ‘Bieber’ ; ) But there are some interesting tidbits, not least the assumption that these tweeters are communities, and also some really emergent cultural grammars as well.

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Church of Fools

Steph’s post on papal intrigue made me think (in a rhizomic way, of course) about this site, a virtual church. This seems to highlight the porous relationships among the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional, and between humans and digital creations, especially as traditional physical religious spaces are meant to point (in some way) to something non-tangible…

On another tangent, this is linked to the Ship of Fools site, which perhaps suggests the pastoral idea of the church as community more than a pixeled nave…although perhaps loses something in the architecture of a discussion board?

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The Talking Shoe

Pair this with some Google Goggles and an iWatch and you’ve got the latest spring cyborg! (But do they get along?)

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This Article Generating Thousands Of Dollars In Ad Revenue Simply By Mentioning New iPad

This seemed appropriate for a discussion of where a person ends and technology begins–fits quite well with Pickering’s temporal emergence. And it adds a new dimension to speech act theory :)

Also, if it had been real, what would my reposting do…?


I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess

These are my notes and reflections about the Haraway chapter, in no particular order or rationalisation…

For the first few pages I felt like I was reading James Joyce (and much amused by a later reference to the same). I’m not sure if the style changed or I just got used to it, but I think it also had something to do with my pretty much complete lack of knowledge about feminist theory/history/tropes. I didn’t feel like I was a member of the community Haraway was addressing (online or off!).

Maybe this is why one of the points under ‘State’ struck me: ‘invisibility of different social groups to each other’ (p.50). I felt that the ‘book audience’ was a social group that was invisible to me; not that I would not be interested in the same things they were, or that I might disagree with them politically or socially, but that I didn’t have the assets that I would have needed to be a member. And I think this is closely related to Haraway’s problematisation of ‘unity’. As identity is neither one-dimensional nor static, uniting a group based on a single, unchanging identifier is (at least) unsatisfactory. Her mention of affinity groups (p.38), then, struck a chord as far as our conversations over the last couple weeks about what defines community and whether and how much identity is involved… Obviously I didn’t have the right ‘affinities’.

But Haraway seems to struggle with this a bit, which is perhaps why I noticed it more. For example, from my uninitiated perspective, I felt that ‘developing feminist science/technology politics in alliance with anti-military science facility conversion action groups’ or the ‘welding’ of ‘personal preferences and cultural tendencies’ onto politics (for middle-class professionals) (p. 49) was unification on the assumption that ‘if you have affinity A, then you’ll probably have affinities B and C’). This didn’t seem to fit in with the heterogeneous cyborg at all. There’s a high likelihood that I’m missing the point, but I’m concerned that it might be more difficult to sustain messy plurality than Haraway sometimes intimates. Haraway certainly doesn’t try to hide her potential subjectivism, but it is interesting to see it creep in unexpectedly, as when she generalises from specifically American issues.

I found the insistence on questioning the existence of an objective ‘organic or natural standpoint’ (p.39) especially applicable to conversations around online/offline duality. I was wondering if this relates to survival. Several times Haraway makes it clear that the aim of the cyborg is survival (p. 49, 53, 54) but I’m not sure if this is meant to be the aim so much as the explanation of a process of natural selection by which the people who are the best at being cyborgs are more likely to survive…? Or if it’s meant to be conscious survival, it does seem to suggest a curious Machiavellianism. Or is it the survival of an evolving kind of cyborg feminism? Or something else?