Hayles Talk

N. Katherine HaylesN. Katherine Hayles recently gave a talk about her new book, My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts, at HUMLab.

Mathematician Stephan Wolfram has recently proposed that many different kinds of complex systems, including human thought and action, can be modeled using cellular automata. These very simple computational systems have demonstrated that they are capable of generating complex patterns using simple rules. According to physicist Ed Fredkin, cellular automata underlie physical reality on a subatomic level; in his view, nature itself is software running on a Universal Computer. This presentation will look critically at these claims, asking whether we should consider them as physical models or as over-determined metaphors that would inevitably emerge in a historical period when computation is pervasive. This issue, and its proliferating implications, will be explored through Greg Egan’s print novel Permutation City, which imagines a world in which it is possible to simulate a person’s consciousness inside a computer, creating a Copy that has all the personality and memories of the original.

Here is a video stream & podcast of the event.

2 Responses to “Hayles Talk”

  1. 1 Mark Marino

    Thanks, Christy,
    Jeremy and I have seen a related talk at UC Riverside and at UCLA. In it, she positioned her latest book as the third in her trilogy: How We Became Posthuman and Writing Machines.

    Her premise of the computational universe is also the culmination of three stages (or “seriations”) of developments related to cybernetic systems since Norbert Wiener and the Macy Group (first wave, second wave, and virtuality).

    What impresses me most to this day, aside from her eloquence, is the way that the computational universe has marked a paradigm shift for her, an epistemological change that has left her seeing a different world, as computed. I wonder if you or anyone following this thread feel impacted at such a core level by any such visions of the makeup of our world.

    (Somewhere I have notes from the talk that I can post.)

  2. 2 Jeremy Douglass

    Mark, I’ve dug up some notes from that event, which I’m including below. I think I sent this to you last October - were they published on the global interfaces site, or something like that? If so, we could just link to the write-up there.

    A Space for aLiving: Notes on Hayles’ “Means and Metaphors”

    Living in Computational Spaces: Means and Metaphors
    N. Katherine Hayles
    English and Design/Media Arts, UCLA
    Hosted by University of California, Riverside
    Monday, October 4, 2004 12:00-1:30 PM

    Kate Hayles spoke to a full room of about 75 people on UCR campus as the inaugural talk in a series on the “global interface.” Series organizer and digital artist Mark Marino is a graduate student at UCR, and he got in touch with me to invite me to the event. Although the talk was advertised as “My Mother was a Computer” (the name of the Hayles book forthcoming in 2005), Kate Hayles performed two of the moves almost expected of influential thinkers caught in the midst of a major book project - she changed her title at the last moment and she spoke somewhat orthoginally to the “global interface” concept that is to guide the series.

    Before Hayles spoke, the series introduction sketched a brief riff on the theme “what is the global interface?” Some answeres included:

    - The cosmopolitan potential of networked connectivity
    - Social bonds unconstrained by physical spaces, (yet)
    - Interface localized at point of connection of a real body to a network

    Translated into a rally chant, that would be: We are material, we are potential, and we will be unconstrained! The tone was culturally progressive, socially optimisitic, body-positive, and a bit euphoric about the kind of globalism that aides knowledge work (as opposed to the kind that lays off steel workers). When you struggle with a Google News addiction that fuels political depression the way I do, euphoria is great. Only my political action committees and open source discussion groups periodically assuage my fears with reassurances that we are marching onwards towards victory, so a little positity from academia is always welcome.

    [ed.: elections on Nov. 2, 2004 elections confirmed the fears alluded to here]

    However Hayles’ new title, “Living in Computational Spaces” indicated the nature of her disconnect with the kind of post-colonial cultural rubric that might be implied by the phrase “global interface.” For Hayles, her area of investigation was not the extent to which digital human-machine interfaces circulated in culture per say, but the extent to which our cultures assumed reality itself to be digital - did physics function algorithmically? Was the cosmic substrate binary “all the way down”? Whether or not it was, what would our belief in reality mean to us and about us?

    Obviously, “our belief” depends on cultural context, and Hayles was interested specifically in the findings and explanations of top (or pop) mathematicians, physicists, and engineers, when considered in resonance with avant guard narrative and digital art. Indeed, Toby Miller’s introduction focused on Kate Hayles as scholar who “combines epistemological approaches both from the inside and the outside,” a kind of “disciminating magpie” whose forays across disciplines had left her with “many pasts, both dark and light.”

    These discriminating tastes are what draw me to her work and make her such a wonderful conduit between academic departments that often struggle to communicate. The discrimination is also the reason that Hayles can make it through a packed talk on “Living in Computational Spaces” without making a single reference to the recent “Matrix” film trilogy. Gratuitous “Matrix” references are left as an excercise to the reader, should one wish to re-present the key questions to one’s undergraduate seminar and justify them with a pop icon.

    Hayles commented beforehand that her talk was a reworking a spring keynote delivered for the 2004 UC Digital Cultures Graduate Conference at the UCLA Hammer Museum. I co-organized that conference with literature and eLiterature scholar Jessica Pressman, and the lecture that Hayles gave on the nature of complexity in science and literature became a touchstone for two days of interesting discussions.

    My audience-neighbor for both the UCLA and UCR events was digital artist, scholar, and creative writing instructor Noah Wardrip-Fruin, a graduate student at Brown University. He commented afterward that the progression in Hayles presentations from the first to the second event was striking, and I felt the same. Certainly the focus for Hayles in her second talk shifted away from interrogating the condition of complexity as technique in science and art and towards investigating the uses of complexity as “means and metaphor” — the preconditions necessary for complexity to arise as an emergent phenomenon and the struggle to understand systems from the inside out by modeling or describing them in terms of complexity.

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