Hayles on Cybernetics

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Cybernetics.” Mitchell, W. J. T. and Mark B. N. Hansen, eds. Critical Terms for Media Studies. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2010.  146-156.

In this article Hayles suggests that media can be understood through materiality, technology, semiotics, and social contexts. The article examines these aspects of media through systems theory – exploring how information is produced, processed, and consumed in a world of new media. Hayles cites Gordon Pask’s definition of cybernetics “as the field concerned with information flows in all media, including biological, mechanical, and even cosmological systems.” Hayles further develops this definition through the use of Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener’s definition of information “as a function of message probabilities…detached from context and consequently from meaning.” Therefore information is disembodied. Hans Moravec goes as far as suggesting it will be possible to upload the human brain to a computer, allowing humans to move into a “postbiological era” which clearly influences much of Hayles’ work (such as this book).

Hayles breaks the history of cybernetics into a three-part progression covering 1943 to 1996. 1) 1943-1960: first order cybernetics, focusing on the separation between the organism/mechanism and their environment. 2) 1960-1985 reflexivity and autopoietic theory, introducing the observer as part of the system. 3)1985-1996 virtuality (coined by Hayles in 1996), Hayles claims that “human and animal bodies are media because they have the capacity to store, transmit and process information.” This moves into the current fourth phase with the ability of modern technology to cause virtual environments, or cyberspace, to become integrated into the “real world.”  Examples of this include the GUI (the graphic user interface, often created to mimic physical work spaces), augmented reality, and semantic web possibilities. These manifestations of virtuality are termed “mixed reality.” The third and fourth phases are imagined as a third-order cybernetics concentrated on the social and linguistic environments occupied by the observer (of these I am particularly interested in the construction of social networks).

Another interesting shift occurs through Edward Fredkin’s claim that “the meaning of information is given by the processes that interpret it,” including mechanical nonhuman processes. Hayles interprets this as significant because it “enables us to see these sub-cognitive and non-cognitive processes not just as contributing to a conscious thought but as themselves acts of interpretation and meaning.” This theory has radical repercussions within both literary and writing studies because this shift would refocus attention of the process of interpreting rather than on the interpretation as a product.

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