How We Became Posthuman


"Too often the pressing implications of tomorrow's technologically enhanced human beings have been buried beneath an impenetrable haze of theory-babble and leather-clad posturing. Thankfully, N. Katherine Hayles's How We Became Posthuman provides a rigorous and historical framework for grappling with the cyborg, which Hayles replaces with the more all-purpose 'posthuman.'…[Hayles] has written a deeply insightful and significant investigation of how cybernetics gradually reshaped the boundaries of the human."—Erik Davis, Village Voice

"Could it be possible someday for your mind, including your memories and your consciousness, to be downloaded into a computer?…In her important new book…Hayles examines how it became possible in the late 20th Century to formulate a question such as the one above, and she makes a case for why it's the wrong question to ask.…[She] traces the evolution over the last half-century of a radical reconception of what it means to be human and, indeed, even of what it means to be alive, a reconception unleashed by the interplay of humans and intelligent machines."—Susan Duhig, Chicago Tribune Books

"This is an incisive meditation on a major, often misunderstood aspect of the avant-garde in science fiction: the machine/human interface in all its unsettling, technicolor glories. The author is well positioned to bring informed critical engines to bear on a subject that will increasingly permeate our media and our minds. I recommend it highly."—Gregory Benford, author of Timescape and Cosm

"At a time when fallout from the 'science wars' continues to cast a pall over the American intellectual landscape, Hayles is a rare and welcome voice. She is a literary theorist at the University of California at Los Angeles who also holds an advanced degree in chemistry. Bridging the chasm between C. P. Snow's 'two cultures' with effortless grace, she has been for the past decade a leading writer on the interplay between science and literature.…The basis of this scrupulously researched work is a history of the cybernetic and informatic sciences, and the evolution of the concept of 'information' as something ontologically separate from any material substrate. Hayles traces the development of this vision through three distinct stages, beginning with the famous Macy conferences of the 1940s and 1950s (with participants such as Claude Shannon and Norbert Weiner), through the ideas of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela about 'autopoietic' self-organising systems, and on to more recent conceptions of virtual (or purely informatic) 'creatures,' 'agents' and human beings."—Margaret Wertheim, New Scientist

"Hayles's book continues to be widely praised and frequently cited. In academic discourse about the shift to the posthuman, it is likely to be influential for some time to come."—Barbara Warnick, Argumentation and Advocacy

Read an interview/dialogue with N. Katherine Hayles and Albert Borgmann, author of Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium.

An excerpt from
How We Became Posthuman
Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics
by N. Katherine Hayles



You are alone in the room, except for two computer terminals flickering in the dim light. You use the terminals to communicate with two entities in another room, whom you cannot see. Relying solely on their responses to your questions, you must decide which is the man, which the woman. Or, in another version of the famous "imitation game" proposed by Alan Turing in his classic 1950 paper "Computer Machinery and Intelligence," you use the responses to decide which is the human, which the machine.1 One of the entities wants to help you guess correctly. His/her/its best strategy, Turing suggested, may be to answer your questions truthfully. The other entity wants to mislead you. He/she/it will try to reproduce through the words that appear on your terminal the characteristics of the other entity. Your job is to pose questions that can distinguish verbal performance from embodied reality. If you cannot tell the intelligent machine from the intelligent human, your failure proves, Turing argued, that machines can think.

Here, at the inaugural moment of the computer age, the erasure of embodiment is performed so that "intelligence" becomes a property of the formal manipulation of symbols rather than enaction in the human lifeworld. The Turing test was to set the agenda for artificial intelligence for the next three decades. In the push to achieve machines that can think, researchers performed again and again the erasure of embodiment at the heart of the Turing test. All that mattered was the formal generation and manipulation of informational patterns. Aiding this process was a definition of information, formalized by Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener, that conceptualized information as an entity distinct from the substrates carrying it. From this formulation, it was a small step to think of information as a kind of bodiless fluid that could flow between different substrates without loss of meaning or form. Writing nearly four decades after Turing, Hans Moravec proposed that human identity is essentially an informational pattern rather than an embodied enaction. The proposition can be demonstrated, he suggested, by downloading human consciousness into a computer, and he imagined a scenario designed to show that this was in principle possible. The Moravec test, if I may call it that, is the logical successor to the Turing test. Whereas the Turing test was designed to show that machines can perform the thinking previously considered to be an exclusive capacity of the human mind, the Moravec test was designed to show that machines can become the repository of human consciousness—that machines can, for all practical purposes, become human beings. You are the cyborg, and the cyborg is you.

In the progression from Turing to Moravec, the part of the Turing test that historically has been foregrounded is the distinction between thinking human and thinking machine. Often forgotten is the first example Turing offered of distinguishing between a man and a woman. If your failure to distinguish correctly between human and machine proves that machines can think, what does it prove if you fail to distinguish woman from man? Why does gender appear in this primal scene of humans meeting their evolutionary successors, intelligent machines? What do gendered bodies have to do with the erasure of embodiment and the subsequent merging of machine and human intelligence in the figure of the cyborg?

In his thoughtful and perceptive intellectual biography of Turing, Andrew Hodges suggests that Turing's predilection was always to deal with the world as if it were a formal puzzle.2 To a remarkable extent, Hodges says, Turing was blind to the distinction between saying and doing. Turing fundamentally did not understand that "questions involving sex, society, politics or secrets would demonstrate how what it was possible for people to say might be limited not by puzzle-solving intelligence but by the restrictions on what might be done" (pp. 423-24). In a fine insight, Hodges suggests that "the discrete state machine, communicating by teleprinter alone, was like an ideal for [Turing's] own life, in which he would be left alone in a room of his own, to deal with the outside world solely by rational argument. It was the embodiment of a perfect J. S. Mill liberal, concentrating upon the free will and free speech of the individual" (p. 425). Turing's later embroilment with the police and court system over the question of his homosexuality played out, in a different key, the assumptions embodied in the Turing test. His conviction and the court-ordered hormone treatments for his homosexuality tragically demonstrated the importance of doing over saying in the coercive order of a homophobic society with the power to enforce its will upon the bodies of its citizens.

The perceptiveness of Hodges's biography notwithstanding, he gives a strange interpretation of Turing's inclusion of gender in the imitation game. Gender, according to Hodges, "was in fact a red herring, and one of the few passages of the paper that was not expressed with perfect lucidity. The whole point of this game was that a successful imitation of a woman's responses by a man would not prove anything. Gender depended on facts which were not reducible to sequences of symbols" (p. 415). In the paper itself, however, nowhere does Turing suggest that gender is meant as a counterexample; instead, he makes the two cases rhetorically parallel, indicating through symmetry, if nothing else, that the gender and the human/machine examples are meant to prove the same thing. Is this simply bad writing, as Hodges argues, an inability to express an intended opposition between the construction of gender and the construction of thought? Or, on the contrary, does the writing express a parallelism too explosive and subversive for Hodges to acknowledge?

If so, now we have two mysteries instead of one. Why does Turing include gender, and why does Hodges want to read this inclusion as indicating that, so far as gender is concerned, verbal performance cannot be equated with embodied reality? One way to frame these mysteries is to see them as attempts to transgress and reinforce the boundaries of the subject, respectively. By including gender, Turing implied that renegotiating the boundary between human and machine would involve more than transforming the question of "who can think" into "what can think." It would also necessarily bring into question other characteristics of the liberal subject, for it made the crucial move of distinguishing between the enacted body, present in the flesh on one side of the computer screen, and the represented body, produced through the verbal and semiotic markers constituting it in an electronic environment. This construction necessarily makes the subject into a cyborg, for the enacted and represented bodies are brought into conjunction through the technology that connects them. If you distinguish correctly which is the man and which the woman, you in effect reunite the enacted and the represented bodies into a single gender identity. The very existence of the test, however, implies that you may also make the wrong choice. Thus the test functions to create the possibility of a disjunction between the enacted and the represented bodies, regardless which choice you make. What the Turing test "proves" is that the overlay between the enacted and the represented bodies is no longer a natural inevitability but a contingent production, mediated by a technology that has become so entwined with the production of identity that it can no longer meaningfully be separated from the human subject. To pose the question of "what can think" inevitably also changes, in a reverse feedback loop, the terms of "who can think."

On this view, Hodges's reading of the gender test as nonsignifying with respect to identity can be seen as an attempt to safeguard the boundaries of the subject from precisely this kind of transformation, to insist that the existence of thinking machines will not necessarily affect what being human means. That Hodges's reading is a misreading indicates he is willing to practice violence upon the text to wrench meaning away from the direction toward which the Turing test points, back to safer ground where embodiment secures the univocality of gender. I think he is wrong about embodiment's securing the univocality of gender and wrong about its securing human identity, but right about the importance of putting embodiment back into the picture. What embodiment secures is not the distinction between male and female or between humans who can think and machines which cannot. Rather, embodiment makes clear that thought is a much broader cognitive function depending for its specificities on the embodied form enacting it. This realization, with all its exfoliating implications, is so broad in its effects and so deep in its consequences that it is transforming the liberal subject, regarded as the model of the human since the Enlightenment, into the posthuman.

Think of the Turing test as a magic trick. Like all good magic tricks, the test relies on getting you to accept at an early stage assumptions that will determine how you interpret what you see later. The important intervention comes not when you try to determine which is the man, the woman, or the machine. Rather, the important intervention comes much earlier, when the test puts you into a cybernetic circuit that splices your will, desire, and perception into a distributed cognitive system in which represented bodies are joined with enacted bodies through mutating and flexible machine interfaces. As you gaze at the flickering signifiers scrolling down the computer screens, no matter what identifications you assign to the embodied entities that you cannot see, you have already become posthuman.

1. Alan M. Turing, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," Mind 54 (1950): 433-57.
2. Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma of Intelligence (London: Unwin, 1985), pp. 415-25. I am indebted to Carol Wald for her insights into the relation between gender and artificial intelligence, the subject of her dissertation, and to her other writings on this question. I also owe her thanks for pointing out to me that Andrew Hodges dismisses Turing's use of gender as a logical flaw in his analysis of the Turing text.

Copyright notice:Excerpted from pages xi-xiv of How We Became Posthuman by N. Katherine Hayles, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1999 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

N. Katherine Hayles
How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics
©1999, 338 pages, 5 line drawings
Paper $19.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-32146-2

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for How We Became Posthuman.

See also: