CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, October 7th -- Roger B. Blumberg

The Human and the Posthuman

"We must .. not only describe virtue as a state of character, but also say what sort of state it is. We may remark, then, that every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well; e.g. the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well." Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter 6.

""The important thing is not, bang, you turn on the camera and somebody who has been blind for fifty years can see. That's just not reality," Humayun said. Retraining the brain is what's required. And not only retraining the brain but also retraining the brain to perceive at a lower resolution, since the input is not as detailed as what comes from a normal retina. Cochlear implants require a learning curve?about two months of intensive training?similar to that of the retinal prosthesis." from "The Bionic Eye," by Dr. Jerome Groopman, The New Yorker, September 29, 2003

Introduction: What Has Information Theory Got to Do With It?

Having finished The Human Condition, we should again imagine how Arendt might have read/interpreted a viewpoint like Moravec's. One idea is that she would have read ROBOT as an example of how, in the modern world, "thought became a function of the brain with the result that electronic instruments are found to fulfil functions [of thought] much better than we ever could."(322) Similarly, had she taken an interest in either Shannon's "A Mathematical Theory of Communication" or Turing's "Computing Machinery and Intelligence", I think it would have been as a symptom of the modern age rather than as a foundation for the "new and as yet unknown age."(6)

Perhaps the most striking contrast between Arendt and Hayles is the absence of either nostalgia or eulogy in the latter. Hayles does not ignore or trivialize the consequences of "how information lost its body," but she is interested in the birth of information theory as a transforming moment in history, and specifically in the history of how we (humans) think about and organize ourselves. The "posthuman" clearly represents the end of the "human", but How We Became Posthuman implies that there is no point in lamenting our alienation from older cultural concepts of the self or the world, because there is no going back.

But why was/is "information theory", and specifically the theory articulated by Shannon and developed so successfully, so significant (according to Hayles)? Let's begin at the beginning:

Hayle's How We Became Posthuman, Prologue

I do not wish to give the impression that I think there is no mystery about consciousness. There is, for instance, something of a paradox connected with any attempt to localise it. But I do not think these mysteries necessarily need to be solved before we can answer the question with which we are concerned in this paper.
A.M. Turing, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" (1950)

Like The Human Condition, Hayles book begins referring to other authors and other works almost immediately, and this can make reading her work not only difficult but annoying when these references are unfamiliar. How do you read (through) a text like this? Is there an identifiable thesis in the Prologue and, if so, are the references meant to motivate or justify that thesis?

Clearly the works by Moravec and Turing are crucial to understanding Hayles' motivation, so let's start with them. Although every computer scientist working (or unemployed) today is familiar with Turing's name and some description of the "Turing Test," comparatively few have read the original 1950 paper. Hayles makes much of what has been noticed and ignored in in the tradition that derives from that paper, and so let's examine Hayles' take on the real significance of the Turing Test (pp. xiii-xiv). Questions:

  1. What does Hayles mean by "the liberal subject"?
  2. How does Hayles' interpretation of the Turing Test (in the Prologue) relate to her interpretation of Moravec's claim(s) discussed at the start of "Toward Embodied Virtuality")?
  3. What has #2 to do with #1?

How We Became Posthuman, chapter 1

On page 13, Hayles writes:

"Virtuality is the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns."

How does this definition square with your own sense of the phrase "virtual reality" and the experiences you've had with simulations of one sort or the other?

Perhaps a good way to figure out the claims of Chapter 1 is to see if/how the sections related to Hayles earlier characterization of the "posthuman" as:

  1. privileging informational pattern over materiality in the identification of subjects, objects and activities
  2. thinking of consciousness as an epi-phenomenon
  3. thinking of the body as merely our original prosthesis
  4. thinking of humans and machines as seamlessly integratable.
For Next Time:: Read chapters 2 and 4 of How We Became Post-Human. Begin to think about a topic for your first paper, and come discuss it with me if you like; plan to post the WebCT account by next Thursday.

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