Technology and the Human Person   /   Fall 2002   /    Reviews

If the “Human” Is Finished, What Comes Next?: A Review Essay

Joseph E. Davis

In steps to an ecology of mind, the anthropologist and scientist Gregory Bateson repeatedly uses a simple example to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions about the body and the self. Consider, he says, a blind man with a stick. “Where,” Bateson asks, “does the blind man’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick?”1 If you answer the handle, if you assume that the man is defined by his physical boundaries, then, according to Bateson, you are wrong. In fact, for Bateson, “these questions are nonsense” because in the cybernetic viewpoint he is advocating, individuals are pathways for information; they are part of communicational systems “whose boundaries do not at all coincide with the boundaries either of the body or of what is popularly calledthe ‘self’ or ‘consciousness.’”22xBateson 319. The stick is an important pathway of information for locomotion, and so no boundary line between the stick and the man can be relevant to the communicational network of which both are part. In cybernetic theory, neither the boundaries of the body nor the self are stable; informational feedback loops can be both internal and external to the subject. Both humans and machine, in this view, are essentially information patterns, and so the distinction between them is blurred and even erased. Although the pioneers of cybernetics sometimes shrank from the implications of their theory for understanding human beings, others were not so shy, including science fiction writers and later theorists in the tradition.

Gregory Bateson was an important figure in the early stages of cybernetics and his blind-man-with-stick example nicely captures something of the radical implications of the theory for thinking about subjectivity. More recently, the cybernetic tradition has merged into new research programs in artificial life, cognitive science, and virtual technologies. In these fields, the underlying assumptions about human beings continue to evolve and be transformed. Indeed, according to N. Katherine Hayles and other scholars, the new assumptions represent a break with the rational and unified subject of post-Cartesian philosophy (the “human”) sufficient to warrant the term “posthuman.” In this sense, the “post” in posthuman refers to the superseding of one definition of the human with another. However, there is an alternative meaning of posthuman that takes the radical implications of the cybernetic tradition much further. In this more common meaning, the “post” in posthuman refers to the overcoming of human biological limitations by technological transformation. Humans will, in large part, become machines. In some visions of this “postbiological” future, intelligent machines even displace the human race entirely.

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