Lifestream wrap-up

The deletions and duplications of feeds in my lifestream tell a story of travelling a great distance. I started my lifestream with the metaphor of travel and will end it on that same note. I have left some of the duplications as a reminder of the bumps in the road. The journey became less bumpy at an almost imperceptible point and indeed became pleasant; I think the turning point was Edwards (2010), which somehow helped to free my deep bond to text and print. Finally I was able to look at the landscape and enjoy the scenery. I was able eventually to stop along the way and explore pathways off the beaten track, a sure sign of a growth in confidence.

In the hills of Lluidas Vale, far from the city

As I look back at the lifestream I see what it has enabled. The ability to interact with my colleagues on the course has been a distinct advantage; I suspect that we all wish we had more time to stay on some topics but the pace of the course meant moving along smartly, all the time juggling several other strands of life.

The exposure to peers with different skills and approaches, as well as professional experiences, has been phenomenal. This has done more than any written explanations could to show the range of possibilities available on the Web for expressing ideas. It has also spotlighted for me how much depends on our cultural backgrounds; on a course such as this I have kept at the forefront of my thoughts the fact that I am in a minority position in terms of cultural forms of expression and I find this restricts what I use as I think some things would require explanation, which could lead to a loss of spontaneity and stride in the conveyance of the idea.

I started out using mainly the Google reader as I could not get my delicious feed to work for a while. I added StumbleUpon but it took a while to discover how to add from it. I’ve used Twitter more on this course than on IDEL but I would say not optimally. Tumblr and Goodreads complete my external feeds. At times there were pieces of information I wish I could easily share but these were not “feedable”. At times, what I eventually fed was not exactly what I wanted to feed. I suspect that if I were more adept with some of the social media I would have found a way around this. I have not used any audio or video feeds, simply because I felt I did not have the skills (or the time) to explore and experiment with them. I believe I will continue to use Tumblr, however, which will allow me to experiment and explore.

My activities on the lifestream reveal my unquenchable fascination with issues of survival, I think, whether it be of books or of websites. My interest in mergers and competition among social media companies is part of this. How to manage the proliferation of social media is also of concern and linked to this is learning about appropriate tool selection, which is reflected in the lifestream. Social media in politics and activism, issues of freedom of speech such as copyright, imprisonment of dissidents and fallibility of information on the Internet are also among my concerns. Always conscious of the dearth of information on my own context in the online environment, I have also tried to relate the tools of social media to my context. Grappling with the cyborg and the posthuman is also revealed in my lifestream, although my actual feeds do not reflect the amount of time spent exploring the Internet.

In the Wikileaks drama I see the convergence of metaphors of destruction and salvation as posited by Johnson and it represents for me a kind of climax to one strand of my lifestream. Tied to this metaphor is the privacy issue of surveillance as illustrated by art teacher Wafaa Bilal’s implanting of a camera in the back of his head. Sherry Turkle’s soon to be published work Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (January 2011), also represents the culmination of another lifestream thread for me, bringing together the paradox of digital life.

Lifestreaming has now become part of me. While I won’t chase every tool I see, I certainly will think of them and their affordances in a different way. This has implications for my professional life as well as my personal life. I have a greater appreciation of visual and social media. My sense of connection to our tools has indeed been heightened (Haraway 1999, 2007, p. 55).

I end on a musical note with Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari:

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Published in: on December 12, 2010 at 11:01 pm Comments (0)
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Lifestream issues

My Google reader feed has issues. Unable to access the feeds from the lifestream. All others seem to be working, up to this point.

Published in: on at 10:33 pm Comments (0)

Lifestream summaries

Charmaine, the juggling act

Posting weekly summaries turned out to be part of a juggling act for me and this particular ball was dropped many times. I’m trying to catch it now.

September 20-September 27

In this week I was trying to do it on my own – figure out the lifestream, that is. I attempted to share items in Google reader but was not successful. These are reflected as “Generated feed for “”, and so I lost those. I suspect it was items on Facebook’s crash, which sent its users round the world into a state of panic. I was thinking about the fallibility of technology and the danger of complete dependence on it for sustenance of all kinds.

September 27-October 3

In this week, with the help of Jen and Sian, I was successful in having my blog posting seen and in feeding content from Google reader. I tweeted a link on the role of social media in activism with Libya’s shut down of a domain whose content it claimed violated Sharia law. Lehrer, the author of the article, disagreed with the views of Malcolm Gladwell that “weak ties” such as offered by social media could not “build a revolution”. While he agreed that such claims were “overhyped”, he felt they had a role to play.

October 4-October 10

By this week, I was exploring the Internet with greater interest for content for my lifestream. In so doing, I was interested in seeing what cartoons were easily available. I was already impressed with Martin’s cartoons, and thought at that point that he had found them somewhere. I soon realised that they were his very own brilliant creations.

I also continued to pay attention to the matter of activism through social media, following a debate on the matter that included persons such as Howard Rheingold. It became clear that social media can have an influential role in activism. The structure of the debate was also of interest to me, and led me to think about how such a debate structure could be used in an education environment.

Privacy, piracy and copyright were also reflected in this week’s lifestream, concerns I carry throughout the course. Restrictions were placed on the use of Creative Commons by the CBC; thus defeating the purpose of Creative Commons but also highlighting the fact that its restriction on commercial use of materials has implications for the way some users may wish to use its materials. The survival of the book was also reflected this week.

I felt like I had hit paydirt when I found the BBC’s piece titled “Why everyone has to be a historian int he digital age”. It ventilated the matter of how the historian of the future will gather evidence, highlighting the volatility of the web-based information which, for the most part, is not produced with history in mind.

By this week I had also begun to think about the presence or absence of my own geographical region in the discourse on social and digital media. I decided to look at this through my local newspapers and fed from the online version of one of them into my lifestream.

October 11-October 17

This week I was still very much into Google reader as I was finding items that helped me continue to explore my concern for books. The highlight of the week, however, was finding out that Skype had launched a version that it had been testing for a while, which allows for group video calls for Windows users. Mac users will have to wait a while for this. As I use Skype for meetings in my work environment and our course coordinators and tutors also use it, this was good news as persons using the Windows platform can see each other and possibly demonstrate or role play as required in some courses, of course within the limits.

I have three different perspectives on the same topic in this week also, on the matter of Amazon’s Kindle Singles, described by one writer as a digital pamphlet. I noted to myself that Amazon was trying to keep itself in the competition in relation to e-readers, as the number of them continues to grow.

October 18-October 24

This week I tried StumbleUpon but it did not appear in the week. It appeared later, when I figured out how to feed from it. When it did not appear, I fed it from Google reader. Again, this week, I fed the same subject twice, from different sources, aiming to get different perspectives on how Twitter is being used in Jamaica. I was now in business with delicious, too, this week.

The business side of social media was reflected this week also with talk of a buyout of Linden Labs of Second Life fame.

My contemplations on how to manage social media and how to use the basic ones properly were also reflected in this week’s feeds.

I found the article from the BBC on digital art fascinating, and was inspired to feed it by the Sterne (2006) reading. The writer of the article, Bill Thompson, talks about us living in a hybrid world.

The possible connection between voting and social media was also raised this week as I wondered what social media was now not expected to solve.

October 25-October 31

This week was not very active in the lifestream as I got down to business with the virtual micro-ethnography. Google’s making video chat available in gmail was a welcome item, as this is useful to me both in personal and professional life, providing another means of communication within an enclosed space.

November 1-November 7

The walled and wall-less web was mooted in my lifestream this week with very interesting arguments made both pro and con. Wrapped up in this article are the binaries of openness and enclosure, represented by the drive of capitalism pitted against the movement to “free up” the web even more.

This week I was also preoccupied with the impending rainmaker, Tomás, which threatened to deliver another body blow to Jamaica, following Nicole a few weeks earlier.

Bill Thompson’s BBC piece on the impact of digital publishing on the book trade was a welcome article, raising some salient issues in this digital age.

By far, however, for me the most compelling item was Google’s admission of error on its map, which led to a build-up of hostility between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Neither humans nor machines are perfect. I liked Google’s approach to the matter – its admission of error and the history lesson.

November 8-November 14

I published my virtual ethnography this week and felt I had learnt quite a lot from the exercise about the affordances of the Internet.

This week marked a turning point for me with the readings on cyborgs and posthumans. I did quite a bit of surfing for suitable content for my lifestream but I did not take to the images I found online for the most part. The practical example of professor Warwick’s use of cyborg technology was helpful. It was interesting to note that Warwick wants to become a better human. My entry on genuine cyborg technologies was also useful in focussing the business of cyborg technologies.

Also in this week, online activism came face to face with the political status quo in the case of the Egyptian blogger who completed his prison sentence but remained in jail.

On the 12th I made several entries using both Twitter and delicious, returning to the fallibility of humans and machines in the matter of another border dispute. I also found the article on tool selection useful, hence my inclusion of it.

November 15-November 21

In this week I brought social media use to a practical level, looking at applications in education and business. Freedom of access was also raised in relation to China. Wikipedia’s efforts to stay free were also highlighted.

November 22-November 28

In this week I focussed on blogging on the readings on cyborgs and posthumans and shared via Twitter a clip on cyborg beetles. I posted my posthuman pedagogy task and was pleased to see the feedback it generated.

The popularity of the mobile web was also noted in an item, particularly among the young.

November 29-December 6

Having got the readings on cyborgs and posthumans out of the way, I looked around for more feeds. I used StumpleUpon in this week and I was satisfied with the outcome. I entered information related to teaching and learning and continued to explore the issue of the walled versus the wall-less garden.

I experienced Tumblr and like it very much for its simplicity and the cleanness of its appearance. I have entered quotations that I want to be able to find at a later point.

Wikileaks came to prominence, and for me this issue was a culmination of perspectives encountered and noted in my lifestream as it developed. With Wikileaks in the news, much more content now exists concerning cyber-security; I placed only one.

Activism got its own website in Jumo, I note, courtesy of Facebook. Concerns over the market share of newspapers as a result of competition from digital media were also reflected this week.

I decided on my assignment topic this week also, in consultation with Sian.

December 7-December 12

An interesting piece on online reading habits should be useful in my work environment. I also paid attention to cyborg pedagogy this week and introduced myself to Goodreads, which I like.

Still on the lookout for useful content on cyborgs, I saw on television the story of the professor who has implanted a camera in the back of his head and have therefore added content on his experiment, which also raises security issues.

On literacy

The missing link

This posting has been long in coming, going back to weeks 3 and 4. Somehow, I could not get it together, as I felt I had not made the required connections. Perhaps I was trying to pull too many things together at once.

In a previous posting I had promised to return to the topic of literacies ( When I look at my lifestream and the links fed into it, I see a preoccupation on my part with text, print, reading and media. This is an area that has defined me, if I think about it, from ever since, hence my focus on it. I think it might have been limiting also, as I was at a loss at first to “see” how to manoeuvre around some of the media available on this course and I became impatient. This has changed, as I am more willing to step outside of my safe zone of text and to experiment.

The readings on literacy span a range of perspectives and disciplines. From transliteracy, to digital visual literacy, to visual culture, to design culture, to electronic literacy, the writers grapple with the breadth of digital means of conveying information that co-exist with, rival or seek to supplant (depending on your perspective) print and the place these media occupy in social, academic and economic life. The dominant view is that new theories and explanations are needed to help us understand our current world where social relations are based on digital media.

Kress (2004) examines the changes resulting from the ubiquity of digital media and shows the difference between the mode of representation, writing and image, and the media of dissemination, book and screen. He notes that how we write and how we read have changed as a result of the social and representational changes and the notion of the author as authority has been de-centred. Kress raises the question of whether “depiction is a better means of dealing with the world than writing or speech can be?” He also asks, “Would the next generation of children actually be much more attuned to truth through the specificity of depiction rather than the vagueness of word? And would it not be a better situation if we could all be authors of apt and accurate representations?” (p. 21).

While Spalter and van Dam (2008) feel that it is important for young people to understand the “principles underlying the tools they so readily adopt” (p. 94), and thus make connections between types of visual technology and their use, Merchant (2007, p. 247) is more concerned about ensuring that students’ digital literacy skills, brought into the school, are properly valued and understood as literacy. Spalter and van Dam note the power of the image and point out that we “must become more critical interpreters of visual information” (p. 94) since digital images can be altered. They espouse the view that there is a need for better visual education and examine the scattered disciplines within which digital literacy is taught and learnt. They cite the example of their experimental course in digital visual literacy, which took a multidisciplinary approach, and conclude that digital visual literacy should be added to the traditional literacies “as a basic skill required for educated citizens and productive participants in the knowledge economy of the 21st century” (p. 100-101). Merchant (2007, p. 253) plugs for a critical digital literacy

We need innovative work in digital literacy, particularly in educational settings, to investigate the implications of new forms of social-networking, knowledge-sharing and knowledge-building. … because of the pervasive nature of digital technology, the commercial interest that is invested in it, and the largely unregulated content of Internet-based sources, we also need to begin to sketch out what a critical digital literacy might look like.

In their article published in the same year as Merchant (2007), Thomas, Joseph, Laccetti, Mason, Perril and Pullinger (2007) posit transliteracy as a “unifying perspective on what it means to be literate in the twenty-first century” (p. 1). This is defined as “the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing amd orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social media” (p. 2). I am drawn to this way of looking at literacy, as it encompasses the various ways in which people express their lives and share information. Transliteracy takes a long view across time.  As stated by the authors, they see transliteracy as including digital literacy and media literacy.

In the discourse on the various literacies, it is in the espousal of transliteracy that I can see the blowing of the abeng (an instrument made from the horn of a bull and used for sending messages by Maroon people) as a form of literacy. I could see the beating of the drum for the purpose of sending messages in this way also. Both instruments were used in the period of slavery in the Jamaica. In fact, the beating of the drum was banned as it was recognised that this was a means of sending messages. One has to be taught how to blow the abeng and how to use the drum/s in this fashion.

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Overall, the readings on literacy were effective in framing the world in which we operate as digital inhabitants.

The readings on pedagogy

The need for education and learning to be disturbing and challenging and the place of the body in the teaching and learning experience are themes that run through Usher and Edwards (1998), McWilliam and Palmer (1995), Angus, Cook and Evans (2001) and Bayne (2010). These are examined through various manifestations of the cyborg and its role in education.

Usher and Edwards (1998) examine the impact of cyberspace on text and knowledge creation and how cyberspace affects forms of interaction. For them, the cyborg is significant for its “hybridity, its embodiment (literally) of the breakdown or blurring of boundaries between nature and culture, technology and nature, bodies and subjects, active agents and involuntary machines” (p. 3). For education, this enables a “restructuring of those hitherto bounded oppositions of formal/informal, teacher/student, classroom/home, print text/electronic text which play such an important part in defining educational ‘spaces of enclosure’” (p. 3). The relationship between students and teachers can be reconfigured through the availability of information to all and the authors see availability and access to information as relieving teachers of their traditional roles as content providers in favour of becoming what we call in our environment facilitators; this role sees the teacher “framing questions” to ensure that learners critically interrogate the text (p. 4). The democratic possibilities of cyberspace are also recognised but the authors point out that: “… cyberspace, although participative, is not inherently democratic” (p. 5). They also point out what they see as some drawbacks of cyberspace such as “utopian libertarian technophilia” (Gabilondo 1995, quoted in Usher and Edwards, 1998, p. 5) and disconnection from real life.

McWilliam and Palmer (1995) explore the effect of technology on the physical bodies involved in teaching, those of the teacher and the student. They argue that

The anatomical body remains the means by which we experience the world, but the way we currently deal with it is to relegate it to the margins of our activities, ie, we place it at the end of a number of communication technologies where we expect it to teach and learn in the same way as if it were still in the lecture room. But our teaching ‘bodies’ and learning ‘bodies’ are capable of transmutation as the distinctions between the corporeal body of student and teacher and the technology itself become blurred (p. 33).

They speculated that, “in this increasing technologising of pedagogy in tertiary education, we may become cyborgs, ie, creatures with no bodies or all bodies” (p. 33). By Haraway’s reckoning, we already were by the time McWilliam and Palmer wrote.

Angus, Cook and Evans (2001) describe a radical pedagogical approach used in a geography course. They call this “cyborg pedagogy,” as students experienced how humans and non-humans are connected. The main pillars of this pedagogy are situated learning, cyborg ontology and border pedagogy (p. 197), the first two attributed to Haraway and the third based upon her work. The authors’ description of Haraway’s critique of traditional pedagogical approaches are faithful to her critique of feminism and capitalism in A Cyborg Manifesto (2007, 1999), where she is critical of the traditional dualisms of Western thought. Here, the authors say that she is critical of “both totalising knowledge of scientific objectivity and the relativising knowledge of social constructionism” (p. 197). According to the authors, Haraway argues that

… a ‘responsible’ and more ‘objective’ scientific knowledge of the world is one which is grounded, embodied and locatable in a ‘knowing self (which) is partial in all its guises, never finished, whole, simply there and original; it is always constructed and stitched together imperfectly, and therefore able to joining with another (sic), to see together without claiming to be another (Haraway, 19996, p. 119, quoted in Angus, Cook and Evans, p. 198).

The authors’ description of border pedagogy resembles experiential learning in its assumption that learners bring knowledge and experiences to the learning environment. Border pedagogy “works to critique and build upon that situated knowledge” (p. 199). Journal writing is used as a technique for getting students to apply this approach. From the authors’ description of the experience of their student, Geoff, it is clear that Geoff experienced discomfort in his learning, something Edwards would support: “challenging and confronting students with otherness and difference”, an approach that “involves transcendental violence as it creates difficult situations” (Edwards 2010, p. 13). According to the authors, the student experienced a change in his writing style and his outlook became that of a “messy cyborg, still figuring things out, loving and hating it all at once” (p. 200).

Bayne (2010) extends this discussion further than all the above authors as she brings this discussion to a practical level through her discussion of “uncanny pedagogies”. Through student comments on their Second Life experience, she explores the impact of the uncanny on learning and concludes that thinking of the uncanny in terms of its implications for digital learning “gives a positive inflection to the themes of deathliness, ghostliness, troublesomeness and uncertainty, one which meshes well with contemporary thinking on the nature and purpose of higher education” (p. 11).

A Cyborg Manifesto – My Reading

I have found it interesting how the literature on cyborgs and posthumans draws on science fiction. Sometimes I wonder which came first – the theory or the sci fi (Is that a chicken-and-egg scenario?)? It was prominent in Haraway (1999, 2007), which I finally managed to finish reading, having left it for last as the print is so tiny. I almost needed a second pair of glasses imposed upon the present pair. I liked the reminder of the tug at the boundaries delivered by Greek mythology (p. 56), reminding us that in Western culture, the blurring of the boundaries is not new.

It seems to me that Haraway’s main concern was about feminist theorising. The cyborg image was used in service to her critique of feminist theorising (as a feminist), which she found to be limiting, just as limiting as male-centred theories that have dominated Western thinking and that are based on capitalism and militarism. She used the cyborg image to show that the dualisms commonly used to explain our existence cause us to miss important “reality” (p. 57). Her second purpose I think is best quoted:

… taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skilful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts. (p. 57)

She believes that our lives cannot be seen as simplistic unities; totalities are not necessary (p. 51). It is in the partialities that there are real connections, in partialities exemplified by her exploration of “women of colour”, as an instance. She doesn’t believe that contradictions can be resolved or need to be resolved.

She examines the role of writing as the technology of the cyborg, pointing out that “Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism” (p. 54). The cyborg seeks to find voice/s and is not reliant on the centre, speaking from the margins. Therefore, those perceived as Other have become part of mainstream, is how I see it.

Her statement that our sense of connection to our tools has been heightened led me to think of the Second Life experience, where I experienced a heightened sense of self in relation to the technology and the image on the computer screen.

If I had not already been convinced that there are infinite possibilities for interpreting and theorising my identity as a Jamaican, black, woman, mother, worker, student, daughter, friend … Haraway (2007, 1999) and Hayles (1999) would have succeeded. As regards being a cyborg, not having thought about myself in that light before, I can see the point she is making, that:

… a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints (p. 38).

Considered this way, I can say that I qualify.

EDC Assignment topic

I have decided to examine how digital culture is being constructed in two daily newspapers in Jamaica. I want to look at advertisements, articles (locally produced and foreign ones) and editorials and comments which might reveal how our newspapers are constructing digital culture, some dimensions of which have fairly recent been making appearances in our newspapers. I will use both the analog and digital versions of the newspapers and will use one week’s run of both papers, as suggested by Sian. In our highly stratified society, I hope to see how class and status are represented in relation to digital media and whether there is recognition of educational value for digital media.

I hope to try something different for the presentation of the assignment, such as creating an online book, but if that will end up trying my patience… it will be the blog. I hope I’ll have some illustrations, though.

Does that sound interesting?

Published in: on November 30, 2010 at 2:19 am Comments (2)
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Posthuman task: Going back in time to test the posthuman – ancient engineering

I’m not sure whether this is a posthuman task but here goes:

Technology is the nonhuman that extends us into posthuman. So have we been posthuman before? How do we explain the building technology of Machu Picchu ( : The site) and the Pyramids (Egypt) ( in posthuman terms?

Drawing of a pyramid (Egypt


I stand to be corrected if this is not a posthuman task. Please feel free to disagree with me.

This approach [to education] involves transcendental violence as it creates difficult situations, but it is only through these that coming into presence becomes possible (Edwards 2010, p. 13).

Machu Picchu, Peru

Published in: on November 26, 2010 at 10:38 am Comments (7)
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Edwards (2010)

Gosh! So many words! I know this was an experiment but… I got something from it though: the urge to experiment with a word cloud. Nothing sophisticated to rival anything Martin, Dennis, James or Jeremy (did I miss anyone?) could do, but I was finally bold enough to experiment myself with a word cloud, as a result.

I want to look at Edwards (2010) from two perspectives: the form and the substance.

As an experiment using text, I found this effective. His intention was to hold the attention and that he achieved; hard to read though, as he very well knew it would be. Also effective I found was the placement of the binaries on page 8. They stood out for me as I read on and experienced them being repeated throughout the article. He removed the boundaries in writing as he interwove standard sentences (more easily understood) with the experimental prose. Eye-opening.

However, what did he use so many words to say?

Edwards makes a plug for re-thinking the purpose of education and encourages experimentation as a means of continuing to question the purpose of education. In this regard, he supports “different gatherings and the entry of the non-human and material into enactments of education to a greater extent” (p. 15) to bring about the “pedagogy of invention” he wishes to “gather” (p. 13).

I must say that the greater value of his article for me was in representing experimenting in the writing, as the ideas posited are of course, not new. Different words, many more words, but essentially the discussion was about the place of liminality in learning – “challenging and confronting students with otherness and difference”, an approach that “involves transcendental violence as it creates difficult situations” (p. 13).

As highlighted to different degrees by colleagues Michael, James and Noreen, we have experienced this “transcendental violence” (did we come out virtually bruised and bloodied?) on this programme through our intensive engagement and experimentation with non-human “forces”, in Second Life for example.

To respond to Michael’s posting:

What about creating liminal movement, across boundary movement without first establishing the familiar, ie the boundary itself? How do we know that we have crossed and ultimately does it matter? There is something about liminality that strikes me that it only works if the boundary has been established, if there are thresholds to be crossed. A posthuman pedagogy ignoring or crossing them easily might eliminate that construct for learning. Then we would need a post-post human pedagogy.

I agree with you on the need for the boundary and the possible effect of its absence.

In reading Edwards, however, my thoughts kept going back to Badmington (2003) who likens humanism to the hydra; decapitation led to ‘recapitation’: “Apocalyptic accounts of the end of ‘Man,’ it seems to me, ignore humanism’s capacity for regeneration and, quite literally, recapitulation” (p. 11). Experimenting must lead to something, mustn’t it? What is the ‘thing’ that it will lead to? When the separation, gathering and mixing have taken place (“separations are particular enactments of gathering and mixing” Edwards 2010, p. 10), what is the result? What is the meaning to be made? So instead of Michael’s post-post human pedagogy, is it a return to a regenerated humanism?

And now my word cloud. Most of the words came from Edwards’ list on page 8. However, I felt it was important to add ‘responsibility’ and a couple of others that were not part of his binaries. So here goes:

Experimenting with Edwards (2010)

Overturning and reinforcing my certainties – the posthuman

Jen was right. The readings for weeks 6 and 7 were like nothing I had ever before encountered. They were very challenging to read as the style of writing as well as the topics were … alien, shall I say? It helped to read about the writers themselves. The sketchy Wikipedia biographical piece on Katherine Hayles and the links associated with it revealed her background in chemistry and subsequent training in English Literature, and her research focus on “relations between science, literature, and technology”. Thus, her contributions to the field of electronic literature made sense.

Uncertainty about the direction of the chapter, especially for someone who had eschewed any interest in sci-fi, was rife. But as I read, I saw that Hayles (1999) was not in any way supporting the annihilation of human beings. What a relief! The chapter actually provided lots of food for thought. There are several interesting threads in the chapter, for me.

Hayles actually traces the history of the theories that led to the supremacy of the ideas surrounding the posthuman. She explains the posthuman using four characteristic assumptions (pp. 2–3): (1) the supremacy of informational pattern over materiality, (2) consciousness, which is the essence of humanity, as an insignificant part of the whole, (3) the body as a prosthesis which can be replaced with other prostheses as part of a continuing process, (4) as a result of the other three assumptions, human being “can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines” and there is no difference between “bodily existence and computer simulation” (p. 3). For Hayles,

the construction of the posthuman does not require the subject to be a literal cyborg. Whether or not interventions have been made on the body, new models of subjectivity emerging from such fields as cognitive science and artificial life imply that even a biologically unaltered Homo sapiens counts as posthuman. The defining characteristics involve the construction of subjectivity, not the presence of nonbiological components (p. 4).

From this explanation of the posthuman my understanding is that the posthuman is a stage of knowledge development that has moved us beyond what was known as human capacity, supported by technological aids which are seen as extending capacity.

Hayles’ historical sketch of “how we became posthuman” is interesting; it supports my views on how those with greater power and influence come to dominate in whatever sphere of life – whether it be politics, knowledge, economics, technological innovation or any other sphere. She examines in depth the ideas that surfaced at the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, which started in 1943, and showed how the idea that humans are information-processing entities (p. 7) similar in essence to intelligent machines came to be formulated. Key ideas generated from each “wave” of cybernetics show how other ideas were built upon these. For example, Hayles connects the idea of the feedback loop with that of reflexivity, which she terms a “threatening and subversive idea” (p. 8) because “it confuses and entangles the boundaries we impose on the world in order to make sense of that world. Reflexivity tends notoriously towards infinite regress” (pp. 8-9). This was part of the second wave of cybernetics. The third wave saw the rise of the idea of self-organisation “not merely as the (re)production of internal organization but as the springboard to emergence” (p. 11).

For me, Hayles argues convincingly that materiality and information cannot be separated. She shows, as she puts it, “what had to be elided, suppressed, and forgotten to make information lose its body” (p. 13). I can relate to this “losing” of some ideas for others to survive as this has been the history of knowledge production and of the construction of identity of which I cannot but be aware, being from a former colony which continues to struggle for self-identification and “rememory” as Hayles describes it (p. 13), borrowing from Toni Morrison.

I also find value in Hayles’ comment that “it can be a shock to remember that for information to exist, it must always be instantiated in a medium, whether that medium is the page from the Bell Laboratories Journal … or the cathode ray tube on which virtual worlds are imaged” (p. 13).

Am I a Medium?

I appreciate Hayles’ background in literature as it enables her to use metaphors in a way that really help to clarify the complex ideas she holds under the microscope: “In the history of cybernetics, ideas were rarely made up out of whole cloth. Rather, they were fabricated in a pattern of overlapping replication and innovation, a pattern I call ‘seriation’…” (p. 14). She discusses seriation to explain how cybernetics developed through the Macy Conferences and to show how “certain ideas came to be associated with each other. Through a cumulative process that continued across several years of discussions, these ideas were seen as mutually entailing each other until, like love and marriage, they were viewed by the participants as naturally going together” (p. 15). This view seems to be shared by Haraway (2007), though expressed differently.

Hayles examines the definition of information posited by theorist Claude Shannon in 1948 and shows how Shannon came to define information as a pattern rather than a presence, thus “encoding the distinction between materiality and information that was … becoming important in molecular biology during this period” (p. 18). It is interesting to see that there were persons who disagreed with the separation of information from context and meaning, taking the view that this made the theory too narrow to be a general theory of communication (p. 19).

Hayles recognises the importance of virtuality, noting that it is most advanced where power is most concentrated (p. 20). Though written more than 10 years ago, this is still so, although it has at the same time permeated countries across the globe.

For me, just as important and enthralling as her discussion of how we became posthuman is her elucidation of how some theories and ideas come to take precedence over others, thus leading us down a particular path of development, in this case the path of the virtual, digital world. Her stocks rose with me when I read this:

… my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands that human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival (p. 5).

I prefer to think of the world in that way. Not that it would matter to Hayles that she rose in my estimation but … maybe the argument matters to my skeleton? :-)