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As I mentioned in the previous post one of the plenary speakers at the SLSA conference that has just finished in Portland, Maine, was N. Katherine Hayles, who spoke on Friday night. As this was after my panel I was still recovering from “presentation stress”, so off the top of my head I find that I can hardly remember what happened at this session, except for the fact that it was closely related to the theory found in Hayles’ book, My Mother Was a Computer.
However, I did take some notes !
Given that the conference theme was “CODE”, it was unsurprising that Hayles’ talk stressed the need to take computation into account as fundamental rather than just peripheral to our understanding of the world. Hayles therefore spoke about concepts such as hierarchy versus heterarchy (?), intermediation, complexity and emergence. In particular she drew on the work of Douglas Hofstadter, not so much on his first tome Gödel Escher Bach, but more on his second, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought, and spoke about understanding cognition as recognition and the importance of analogy.
Having talked about programming and different codes, Hayles then moved to consider the idea that “the meaning of information is given by the process that interprets it” (Fredkin), and therefore an understanding of objects coming from processes.
These ideas were then brought together as Hayles talked about computers as providing a level of subcognition and the ground for analogies, which then allowed humans to work at the level of creating analogies between analogies. This supports the understanding that as humans engineer computers, computers re-engineer humans, in a constant process of coevolution.
Then there were some examples, all taken (I think) from Volume 1 of the Electronic Literature Collection, which looks really interesting.
Hayles also talked about the way that in the media intensive environment that young people experience they develop a talent for hyperattention, which does not prepare them to embrace the still more valued ability for deep attention that most university literacture courses stress in the close reading of novels. This is something I have heard talked about before, and yet I still often hear scholars complaining about their students not reading the novel they have been set each week !
Anyway, I hope that gives some sort of impression of what the plenary contained, incomplete I’m sure, but I hope not incorrect!
So, is this relevant for me?
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The cockroach controlled mobile robot created by Garnet Hertz. Above is his movie about the project, and below is one from Daily Planet.
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While this project has resulted in what is strictly a cyborg development, I think that it is interesting that Hertz sees the cockroach as the archetypal posthuman, a more literal successor to humanity “than Fukuyama, Stock or Hayles envisions”. I think this is related to my obsession with the importance of other-than-human robots.
It is pleasing that putting the cockroach in the robot alters people’s reactions to the roach. The cockroach becomes cool, rather than disgusting, although it still appears to be rather scary if it moves towards you!
Of course, I also like the way he is pleased to have “cornered the market” in “designing wearable technology or exoskeletons for cockroaches”. I also appreciate the idea that “after we’ve all killed each other in WWIII with biomimetic robots, the earth will be happily inhabited by cockroaches. These insects will need something to drive on all of the abandoned freeways.”