The Human Body: Data Made Flesh?

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The Human Body – Data Made Flesh?

The title of this essay derives from the words uttered by the protagonist, Henry Case, in William Gibson’s novel ‘Neuromancer’ (1984). This metaphor, which equates the human body as mere data turned into flesh encompasses the theory that in an age of increasing focus on information technologies and the ways in which people interface with them, the boundary distinguishing an individual from their surroundings becomes blurred, if not shattered entirely. As University of Chicago’s William Fulton attests, we exist simply as information systems that happen to inhabit the material instantiation of our bodies, (Theories of Media, 2007).

However, one cannot enter discussion about the above topic without first alluding to the particular school of thought which harbours critical theory of this ilk. Exponents of this style of dictum would usually come under the banner of ‘Posthumanists’. The term itself, ‘Posthumanism’, is steeped in hyperbole in that it carries with it an ominous sense of foreboding in contemporary culture, where there is a strong case for the premise that society is becoming less ‘human’, as we retreat behind the veil of technology. To draw upon the direct translation of ‘post’ as ‘after’ would infer the meaning, ‘after-human’ which in some respects gives us a clearer understanding of the concept, as it tends to deal with the modern development of the integration of technology and biology and the human body. It is basically a notion that we, as humans are becoming increasingly embedded in technology and the technological environment that, in a sense, the paradigm of the ‘natural’ human being has shifted in meaning. Juxtaposed with this is the idea that as humans are more and more subsumed in technology, technology is becoming more and more human with advances in science and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Fukuyama advanced the concept of Posthumanism as a negative case: that of ‘anti-humanism’ or absence of humanism. He bemoans the transgression of “crucial moral boundaries” that have eroded the ethical distinctions between therapy and technological enhancement (Our Posthuman Future 2002). Gordijn & Chadwick describe a posthuman as a being that has at least one posthuman capacity i.e. a general central capacity greatly exceeding the maximum attainable by any current human being without recourse to new technological means (Why I Want to be a Posthuman when I Grow Up, 2006). Mc Luhan did not use the exact word but he predicted a future that dovetails succinctly with posthuman theories surrounding ‘cybernetics’ when he foretells a society whereby - to paraphrase Hayles’ theory of ‘reflexivity’ (1999) - that which has been used to generate a system is made to become part of the system it generates. McLuhan alluded to the ‘cybernetic’ possibility of human beings interfacing and entangling with machines on a neurological and functional level. Just as binoculars are an extension of the eye and clothes are an extension of the skin, then information technologies become McLuhan's extension of the mind. 

In this respect, the term ‘post-humanism’ has only really worked itself into contemporary critical discourse in the humanities and social sciences since the mid 1990s, over a decade after Mc Luhan’s death. However, it may be traced back to the Macy conferences on cybernetics from 1946 to 1953 and the invention of systems theory (What is Posthumanism?, Wolfe, 2010). At these conferences they converged on a new theoretical model for biological, mechanical and communicational processes that removed the human and Homo sapiens from any particular privileged position in relation to matters of meaning, information and cognition. The term ‘cybernetics’ had been coined by Wiener in the 1940s to denote “the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal.” Even at this early stage of technology there was a definitive study underway into the correlation...
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