Posts Tagged ‘ Neil Postman ’

Cyborgization = Evolution?

HuCo 500 – Weekly questions

Communications technologies and biotechnologies are the crucial tools recrafting our bodies. These tools embody and enforce new social relations for women world-wide. Technologies and scientific discourses can be partially understood as formalizations, i.e., as frozen moments, of the fluid social interactions constituting them, but they should also be viewed as instruments for enforcing meanings. The boundary is permeable between tool and myth, instrument and concept, historical systems of social relations and historical anatomies of possible bodies, including objects of knowledge. Indeed, myth and tool mutually constitute each other. (Haraway)

Throughout this course, I think my questions have demonstrated that I am particularly concerned with how technology fundamentally changes how we think.  Donna Haraway, a bit dramatically, states the obvious about the transformations that are occurring and have occurred in our society (or ‘politics’, in the sense that Haraway uses the word): that we are all socially constructed by the tools we rely on to shape our reality.  We are all cyborgs, already, since in many cases the tools have already been embodied; we use them to define ourselves.  They shape our mythology.  Take, for instance, the act of knowledge acquisition; the internet as technological development has changed how we process and evaluate information by making it almost universally accessible and mostly unfiltered, and by putting the means of production and mass-dissemination in the hands of the public.  The speed of communication has also affected how we process information; it has created social expectations, new conventions for interaction.  An individual of average intelligence from fifty years ago would have to struggle to make sense of our 21st century reality, and would likely experience a crippling anxiety just trying to keep up with what the individual of average intelligence today does effortlessly.[1] Arguably this could be said of any given time period, but I think the changes over time have never been so drastic or dramatic throughout human history than in the last two decades, and almost entirely due to how technology has transformed our lives.  My question is: where does such a paradigm lead?  What does it mean for us, as human beings, to become increasingly defined by our technologies (rather than defining them)?

This is the great secret of language: Because it comes from inside us, we believe it to be a direct, unedited, unbiased, apolitical expression of how the world is.  A machine, on the other hand, is outside of us, clearly created by us, modifiable by us… (Postman, 124-125)

Do machines that are communication devices (i.e. that facilitate the expression of language, interaction, the sharing of ideas verbally or visually/textually) take on the properties of language—that is, do we begin to internalize the machines, see them as extensions of our selves, as “direct, unedited, unbiased”—or, quite the opposite, do they afford us the opportunity of perceiving language as the technology that it is, with a set of assumptions about the world implicit in its construction?


Haraway, Donna (1991). “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge. pp.149-181.

Postman, Neil  (1993). “Invisible Technologies.” Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books. pp.123-143.

[1] A fascinating study would be to assess the level of anxiety and the struggle that Canadian immigrants from third world/under-developed countries face when confronted with the technologies and their social conventions.  It could perhaps help answer the question of how fundamental the change affected by technology is, in our perception of reality.

Agnotology – You mean ignorance isn’t bliss?

W I R E D | Clive Thompson on How More Info Leads to Less Knowledge

Normally, we expect society to progress, amassing deeper scientific understanding and basic facts every year. Knowledge only increases, right?

Robert Proctor doesn’t think so. A historian of science at Stanford, Proctor points out that when it comes to many contentious subjects, our usual relationship to information is reversed: Ignorance increases.

He has developed a word inspired by this trend: agnotology. Derived from the Greek root agnosis, it is “the study of culturally constructed ignorance.”

I had flashbacks of Neil Postman as I read this article. Arguably a different yet related concept is information-glut (or, perhaps more commonly, “information overload”): the notion that after a certain point the more information accumulates, the more chaos, uncertainty, and ignorance (rather than order, clarity, and knowledge) there is (Technopoly). As I recall, Postman posited this as something inevitable rather than driven by an actual desire to sow disinformation. He uses a story from Plato’s Phaedrus about the discovery of writing to illustrate his point. The god Theuth presents writing to the Egyptian King Thamus and describes how, by teaching it to his people, it would be “a sure receipt for memory and wisdom”. Thamus is less than enthused. He says to the god:

The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. (371-372)

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The Singularity Too: Edelson’s Law

Edelson’s Law says: “The number of important insights that are not being made is increasing exponentially with time.”

What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen? by Vernor Vinge

This would be the flipside of Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns (1999, The Age of Spiritual Machines), as well as a corrolary to Neil Postman‘s “information glut“.

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Who/What is Posthuman?

The first book on my reading list is Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman. She sums up the concerns of her book by describing how her research resolved itself into three categories:

  1. how information lost its body
  2. how the cyborg was created as a technological artifact and cultural icon
  3. how the historically specific construction called the human is giving way to a different construction called the posthuman.

Intersecting these three categories is the overarching project of rescuing embodiment in cybernetics and the posthuman paradigm.

What is the posthuman? According to Hayles it is a point of view that a) privileges informational pattern over material instantiation (biological body); b) considers consciousness as an evolutionary upstart trying to claim it is the whole show when in actuality it is only a minor sideshow; c) thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born; d) configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines. She adds that the posthuman signals a shift in assumptions about subjectivity, what it means to be an individual.

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