Merging the Human with the Machine
01 August 2018
This is an edited version of a Monash University assignment for Digital Literatures from 27 September 2015
The original essay was Runner Up for the 2015 Monash University Best Third Year Essay in Digital Literatures.
Katherine Hayles writes that digital literature heralds three effects: a ‘networked environment in which individual selves blend into a collectivity, human boundaries blur as people merge with technological apparatus, and cultural formations are reconfigured to reflect and embody a cyborgian reality (‘Deeper into the Machine: The Future of Electronic Literature.’ Culture Machine 5, 2003). Can these claims be supported?
Back in the 1970s, when I was eight years old, growing up amidst the mountains and green meadows in the Austrian Tirol, my science-obsessed city cousin said to me: “In the future there will be robots everywhere and intelligent machines will think for us.” I remember how frightened I was at this shocking prospect of sharing my natural world with cold machines. Of course, as it turns out my cousin was not delusional and in fact quite accurate with his prediction. It is true that the human race constantly strives to improve, enhance and innovate. Not only do we now have robots (although in a domestic setting this is mainly restricted to the likes of robotic vacuum cleaners) and ‘smart’ machines, it has become and is increasingly becoming more apparent that humans are ‘merging’ with technology within a kind of cyborgian society.
There are of course many examples of the physical merging of technology with humans, from basic reading glasses or dental fillings, prostheses or computer chip implants, to the sophisticated use of nano-technology or genetic manipulation. It seems my early bio-conservatism has not abated, because I believe that the current prediction by Professor Yuval Noah Harari (The Telegraph, 2015), “Humans will become God-like cyborgs within 200 years”, contradicts what it means to be human. The way in which I will look at this cyborgian merging, however, is more of a conceptual and symbolic sense. In this essay I highlight how in most cases, according to N. Katherine Hayles (2003:6), digital literature heralds three effects: a “networked environment in which individual selves blend into a collectivity, human boundaries blur as people merge with technological apparatus, and cultural formations are reconfigured to reflect and embody a cyborgian reality.” My essay will examine Shelley Jackson’s "Patchwork Girl", Steve Schalchlin’s "Living in the Bonus Round" and some Twitter fictions, through the lens of posthumanism and cyborg theories in order to establish how electronic literatures impact on our contemporary lives.
Electronic or digital literature is literature that is “digital born”, meaning textual works created on and meant for reading on a computer, and generally excluding print literature that has been digitized (Hayles, 2008:3). First generation hypertext fiction, one of the earliest forms of electronic literature pre-World Wide Web (1980s-mid 1990s), includes Michael Joyce’s "afternoon: a story", Stuart Moulthorp’s "Victory Garden", and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl. These hypertext fictions were written utilising software called Storyspace and are characterised by multi-linear (rhizomatic) linking structures and by containing blocks of texts called ‘lexia’. Reading hypertext is a very different experience to reading an analogue text because the reader is dropped in media res and becomes part author of the narrative (Poletti, 2015).
In Patchwork Girl the ‘graveyard’ lexia says, “I am buried here. You can resurrect me, but only piecemeal. If you want to see the whole, you will have to sew me together yourself.” The sewing together represents the physical assembling of body parts of the monster as well as the metaphorical putting together of the story. Clicking on flesh parts (300+ pieces) takes the reader to different lexias, whereas the scars (400+ stitches) represent hyperlinks (Poletti, 2015). Patchwork Girl is multivocal and is characterised by its multiplicity of authors. Sometimes Mary Shelley of the original Frankenstein narrates, sometimes the monster, and the reader becomes author or re-writer by idiosyncratically arranging the lexias and ultimately the whole story. At all times the reader is aware of its metafictionality because of extensive use of intertextuality or being addressed directly. For example in the ‘sources’ lexia, the character says, “At certain places in this web I have lapsed without notice into another’s voice, into direct quote or fudged restatement,” and “A much-quoted book is Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine… I recommend you buy a copy for yourself.”
Jackson is bringing the reader into the story - or the ‘web’ – as she is inviting the individual reader to re-write it him/herself and thereby to blend into the collectivity of the voices. However, I do not feel convinced that the interactive nature of this hypertext effectively achieves this blending, because, even though the reader is actively involved in shaping the structure of the story, each lexia and all of its words and links have already been written and pre-programmed; being a co-author in this sense is illusionary, in my mind. I do believe one of Patchwork Girl’s most remarkable aspects is the way in which it functions as multiple mirrors, particularly how it holds the mirror up to its own problematic status. As Landow (in Bolter, 2001:157) succinctly says, “Patchwork Girl is both a visual and verbal collage.” The rhizomatic structure of hypertext, its use of “bricolage, assembling a profile from disparate parts and allowing other users to recombine it differently” (Smith & Watson, 2014:91) is mirrored in the way lexias and body parts are assembled - in a non-linear way and without seemingly no end and no beginning; a web in which one can get lost, feel blind at times and crave structure. This is aptly shown in the lexia called ‘this writing’, where the character feels lost in the “electronic space”, compared to a material book:
“…But where am I now? I am in a here and present moment that has no history and no expectations of the future… Though I could list my past moments, they would remain discrete…hence without shape, without end, without story. Or with as many stories as I care to put together.”
Patchwork Girl has certainly shown that, with the advent of electronic literature, “the computer is changing the relationship of the author to the text and of both author and text to the reader” (Bolter in Nunberg, 1993:15). Looking at a computer screen (or tablet or smartphone) cannot give you the same reading experience as reading a book can. Firstly, and this to me was evident in working through Patchwork Girl, it is almost impossible to get completely immersed and absorbed when reading digitally. Hayles’ argument that “human boundaries blur as people merge with technological apparatus” is problematic here because the omnipresent awareness of the medium by the constant need to click had the opposite effect on me. In contrast, I agree with Poulet’s “phenomenal disappearance of the book”, when you get so immersed in a book that you don’t even notice its materiality anymore. He says, “The book is no longer a material reality… it has become a series of words, of images, of ideas which in their turn begin to exist” (in Nunberg, 1993:17).
Hopefully the day will never come when physical books are entirely replaced by digital literature. Yet Kurzweil (in Nunberg, 1993:13) predicts such a thing: “The paper book will be obsolescent by the early twenty-first century.” I am not fully convinced that “the replacement of the book by the computer will lead to an efflorescence of new discursive genres that are more versatile, more expressive, and more democratic than traditional print form”, as posited by Nunberg (1993:15). There is nothing quite like the sensory experience of touching or smelling of an old masterpiece of literature. I do however agree with Bolter, that “The computer is changing the cultural status of writing as well as the method of producing books” (in Nunberg, 1993:15). As well as the aforementioned hypertext fiction Patchwork Girl, where the reader takes a more active role, the advent of the World Wide Web has certainly helped to cement this cultural change. The examples of an online blog and Twitter fiction aptly show this cultural change.
Living in the Bonus Round, created by Steve Schalchlin in March 1996, was one of the world’s first Aids blogs. On the front side panel of the blog, Schalchlin says it began “as a dying man’s cry to be noticed” and “because I was too sick at the time to do much else, the diary gave me a chance to just tell everything that was going on with me.” He also initially used the blog to talk about the musical ‘The Last Session’, of which he was the co-writer. The blog offers Schalchlin the opportunity for social activism as he addresses discrimination against homosexuals and misconceptions about Aids. In the process of constructing his blog, he also ‘constructs’ an authentic identity, even though he will sometimes leave things out (for example when he briefly brakes up with his partner Jim in 1997, which he reveals much later).
Smith & Watson (2014:75) argue that the constructed or narrated ‘I’ is “not identical with its flesh-and-bone maker” or narrating ‘I’. Schalklin’s narrating ‘I’ is the self-reflexive, genuine, sensitive-to-change guy with a sense of humour (“So I went to the hospital yesterday and had new blood drawn by the cute guy who does it very painlessly”, 2 Apr 1996) and who posts updates as they happen. The narrated ‘I’ is Steve the character who is religious, slightly arrogant but grateful, contemplative and loves music. Outside the text it is his historical ‘I’ that authenticates him empirically by mentioning real street names, public places, people’s names and providing hyperlinks to videos and professional engagements. His philosophical or ideological ‘I’ incorporates ideas about his personhood, his hope for survival and the idea that Aids doesn’t cancel out humanity. So, even though there are many ways to prove the authenticity of Steve Schalchlin and what he has to say, Smith & Watson (71) argue that what the reader sees is not the ‘true’ or ‘real’ essence of the person, it is a manufactured self because “all self-presentation is performative where authenticity is an effect, not an essence.” I argue that this is not necessarily different form a print book version of life writing. However, in digital life writing the computer becomes a kind of cyborgian extension of the diary-writer where diary entries are made as soon as they are lived. In this way it fits into Hayles’ argument that “human boundaries blur as people merge with technological apparatus”. Also, the fact that readers can comment on the blog entries and thereby participate in the story satisfies another part of Hayles’ argument, that by being a networked environment, “individual selves blend into a collectivity.”
This brings me to another networked environment - the social media site Twitter. Twitter was set up in 2006, originally as a micro-messaging news service, which restricts each message, or tweet, to 140 characters. Many authors have embraced several different styles of Twitter fiction. In “Black Box” Jennifer Egan tells the story of a ‘cyborgian’ female spy from the future. The protagonist is cyborgian because she has various implants that lets her record images (through a chip in her eye) and audio (through an implant in her ear). In this way she becomes a ‘Black Box’ recorder, a blend of human and technology. “Black Box” reads like a guidebook for spies offering tips on how to behave and interpret life. Teju Cole, who authored “Small Fates”, uses the Twitter platform to construct super-concise, self-contained and ‘fait-divers’-style micro-narratives. Barthes (1972) defines the fait-divers as an unclassifiable, unorganised, privative, immanent non-political, often shocking news story usually about crime in which causality is deviated. The fait-divers strike us with a sense of astonishment and surprise because we look for one cause but another –a much smaller cause that seems unrelational to the bigger effect – appears.
"It is true that Chidi, of Anambra, beheaded his aunt Margaret, but it wasn’t for a ritual. He just couldn’t stand the woman." (Small Fates, 8 Sep11).
"In Isolo, Arowolo, 30, easy-going, never one to meddle in other people’s affairs, thrust a knife into his wife and left it there." (Small Fates, 30 Jun 11).
Barthes (194) says “a god prowls behind the fait-divers”, because meaning in the fait-divers is asserted precisely because of its deliberately constructed composition of antithesis or paradox. This and other forms of inversion are common occurrences within digital literature. Ekphrasis in traditional rhetoric is the description in prose or poetry of an artistic object or striking visual scene – it is the attempt to capture the visual in words. Within new media, where for example a newspaper is turned into a multimedia screen, traditional rhetorical practice is inverted, as images are given the task of explaining words, rather than the reverse (Bolter, 1996:264). Using another discourse, Lee Manovich (2001:229) argues that while narrative is the dominant form of print literature, database is the native idiom of the computer. He says that “the database of choices from which narrative is constructed (the paradigm) is implicit, while the actual narrative (the syntagm) is explicit”, whereas new media reverse this relationship (Manovich:231). Database is given material existence, while narrative is dematerialised; paradigm is real, syntagm is virtual. It can be argued that this kind of reversing of previously known ways of approaching narrative and reality can destabilise our sense of self and our views of what it means to be human.
This returns us back to Hayles’ argument about digital literature’s effect on the human ‘self’. Using the ‘cyborgian self’ as a metaphorical construct to elucidate the interdependent relationship between humanity and technology, Borer (2002:6) argues that the self belongs in the “realm of discourse” rather than a “real thing”. McLuhan’s philosophy of technology claims that “electronic media function as extensions of our senses, creating a ‘sensory balance’ between the internal and the external” (in Borer:9). For Giddens (1991:32), “globalisation and self-identity are two poles of the local and global in the conditions of high modernity” where “for the first time in history the self and society are interrelated in a global context.” Borer (30), being a proponent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism, claims, “The self can only become a self through the interaction with, and responsiveness of, others”. However, I depart from this existentialist belief that there is only ‘nominal essence’ where existence precedes essence, and instead agree with Ursula K. Le Guin’s Daoist belief in an innate essence or what Le Guin calls ‘real essence’ (Burns, 2008:244).
In conclusion, whilst I agree with Hayles’ suggestion and other proponents of radical posthumanism, that we must accept our ‘cyborgian’ existence, I take a more ‘bio-conservative’ view (or as Van Den Eede calls it – ‘dystopic posthumanism’). I agree with Fukuyama and Sandel (in Ven Den Eede, 2015:153) that “there remains some intrinsic value within the human being outside the realm of technology, to cherish and safeguard.”
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