N. Katherine Hayles & the Idea of Posthumanism
In her work How We Become Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, literary critic N. Katherine Hayles elaborates on her belief that our present-day computer-mediated relationships meant an essential, complete change in the nature of humanity – in this way, Hayles says, we become “posthuman”. Posthumanity can be defined as some kind of entity which seeks to represent or, in some ways, reverse (through reconception) the human being. In Hayles’s studies, this spoken-of entity is the computer. In her prologue, she describes the studies of Alan Turing and Hans Moravec, which both dealt with computers and the human consciousness. Turing’s studies attempted to achieve machines that could think, saying that a situation in which one failed to tell the difference between two entities, one being an intelligent human and the other being an intelligent machine, would prove the idea that machines could properly think; the Moravec test similarly asserted that machines can becomes the storage place, perhaps the metaphorical brain, of human consciousness – thus bearing the notion that machines can become human beings. One of Hayles’s overall arguments in her work on posthumanism is that computers disembody us. As Hayles was once quoted as saying:
Increasingly the question is not whether we will become posthuman, for posthumanity is already here. Rather, the question is what kind of posthumans we will be.
The argument of posthumanism is a matter similar to one of the arguments found in The Shallows; that we now store memory and distribute our stream of consciousness to computer servers; thus, our reliance on these technologies changes the way we can access and process information.
Social Media – An Extension of Our Consciousness
Information can be defined as some type of knowledge communicated and/or received having to do with a particular situation or fact. When we attempt to “zoom in” on one aspect of information, social media is a good example, particularly in regard to the idea of our disembodiment.
Given this broad idea of “information”, one could argue that mediums of social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and even MySpace distribute and store information in that we the social media user post information about ourselves and our day-to-day activities (if we so choose) to an Internet server. In that we can add, follow, find and look for “friends” and thereby be able to stay connected with these friends, we are further accessing information from and about them through our social media feeds. The idea behind N. Katherine Hayles’s argument was that we are all sharing information, and that as long as we are “logged in” and using it, we are all using the same brain. Being “logged in” or staying connected via social media is the same idea, in that we are literally sharing information, in some form, with one another.
Marshall McLuhan said that all media technologies are extensions of ourselves (our physical and nervous systems), and that any of these extensions carry psychic and social repercussions. As Professor David Bobbitt of Wesleyan College further elaborates:
Thus, the wheel extends our feet, the phone extends our voice, television extends our eyes and ears, the computer extends our brain, and electronic media, in general, extend our central nervous system.
In specific regard to social repercussions, social media can be said to be an extension of us in that it has altered the way in which we go about socializing – an extension of our consciousness. Social networking sites such as Facebook disembody us in that we no longer need to be physically co-present with others in order to feel socially connected to them. Indeed, I am friends with people on Facebook I haven’t physically seen since 2010 but still feel connected with thanks to social media; in this way, social media obsolesces the physical space once necessary for us to socialize and stay connected.
How Social Media Makes Us Posthuman
Yet some would argue social media has gradually distorted the way in which we perceive and go about socializing. By creating something like a Facebook account, though with the intention to connect with others, we set ourselves up (or seek to do so) for feedback. Feedback on social media comes in the form of a “like”, a retweet, the acceptance of a friend request, the initiation of such a request, etc. As we touched upon in class, there is something curiously satisfying about the feedback we get from the extended consciousness of social media. The reasons for this might vary and are altogether unclear, though there is likely a minimized “risk” to being sociable than when in a physically co-present environment (no social awkwardness exists behind a computer screen). People feel much more comfortable being affectionate and complimentary via social media (i.e., the “truth is” Facebook game) than they would engaging in face-to-face communication, and it generally takes less effort and is both physically and socially easier to post or “like” something on Facebook than to go out in the physical world and speak directly to people.
In the nature of posthumanism, though we created social media, social media changes us and the way we interact. For some people, a Facebook “like” is held in higher regards than a physical compliment, feeling insulted when a particular person does not hit the “like” button though this inaction arguably meant no harm. It’s common to notice virtual friends going to desperate measures to acquire “likes” rather than enhance physical relationships. In this way, we might be growing accustomed to the idea that we need not be physically co-present with anyone in order to socialize.
In this same regard, take the video below, which seeks to aid anyone into acquiring over 100 likes on their Facebook status.
This also suggests a step toward posthumanism in that many no longer care about individual feedback and likes, but are more focused on a number to satisfy longing for our own feedback. Indeed, it subtly reflects the hypothetical question raised in class: You have 1000 Facebook friends, but any 100 of them are not actually human. Do you care? The attitude of the above post suggests that some people might be moving away from caring.