Science Fiction Studies

#121 = Volume 40, Part 3 = November 2013


Paweł Frelik

How We Think When We Think About Science Fiction

N. Katherine Hayles. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2012. xiv + 280 pp. $25 pbk.

There are few other scholars who have done as much to bridge the once yawning gap between the humanities and sciences as N. Katherine Hayles. This commitment makes her work also eminently relevant to science-fiction studies, and Hayles herself has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the genre in her reconciliatory project. Her latest study, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis, is no exception in this respect, although the connections do not necessarily proceed in the most obvious way.

The general project of the book can be summarized fairly succinctly in a series of interlocking assertions, but its sophistication lies, as always, in its details. Digital technologies have exerted tremendous impact on individuals, whose interactions with digital media are not merely cognitive but “have bodily effects on the physical level” (3). As a result, embodiment “takes the form of extended cognition, in which human agency and thought are enmeshed within larger networks that extend beyond the desktop computer into the environment” (3). In fact, for Hayles, “all cognition is embodied, which is to say that for humans, it exists throughout the body, not only in the neocortex. Moreover, it extends beyond the body’s boundaries in ways that challenge our ability to say where or even if cognitive networks end” (17). In order to expose layers of this intermeshing of digital media and embodiment, Hayles suggests three approaches: the strategies of digital humanities, the concept of technogenesis, and the discipline of spatial history. Even though relatively new, each of them is already diverse and multifaceted, and underlying them are much larger discussions of notions of attention, evolution, and space. Appropriately, the book is thus divided into three sections called “interludes,” the name suggesting for each a certain autonomy within the larger whole.

The first of the three symptoms of the changed relationship between humans and digital technologies is probably most familiar to SFS readers. A diverse set of strategies rather than a coherent discipline, and a field of study but also a reflection of lived experience, digital humanities has already entered its second generation, and attempting to summarize it in this review would be a sign of folly. Suffice it to say that all approaches under this umbrella seek to enhance or sometimes revolutionize such diverse fields as literary criticism, history, and sociology through the use of digital tools and media. While numerous introductory and advanced overviews already exist, Hayles’s chapter in How We Think is possibly one of the most approachable and, at the same time, comprehensive texts ever written on the subject. It delineates the field, unpacks some of its crucial concepts, and even showcases institutional tensions to which these new methodologies give rise.

The same interlude also comprises “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine,” which, apart from the titular promise, also introduces the concept of technogenesis, in many ways the centerpiece of the book. Hayles begins with the distinctions among various types of reading, and particularly between close reading that characterizes traditional humanities and fast or hyper reading that relies on sporadic sampling. Both also depend on various types of readerly attention—deep and hyper respectively. The two reading strategies are not necessarily mutually hostile: they normally occur separately and have “distinctive advantages and limitations,” but they can also be made “to interact synergically with one another” (74). In academia, traditional, deep-attention-oriented research has numerous uses, particularly in the humanities, but it cannot be denied that the sampling and scanning techniques used by such researchers as Franco Moretti or, more recently, Matthew L. Jockers can yield extremely valuable findings.

The next step in Hayles’s argument is her claim that these different types of cognition are embodied, encompassing “conscious, unconscious, and nonconscious processes” (55). A number of recent studies demonstrate that there is a correlation between the brain functions of someone close-reading as opposed to someone performing a Google search (66-68). In works like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2011), findings that hyperlinked reading leads to the degradation of comprehension inevitably fuel anti-media paranoia (Hayles 62-63). While Hayles herself naturally believes in such neural plasticity, she notes that the brain scans that demonstrate presumed deleterious effects are burdened with uncertainty due to the tentative connections between color-coding of the scans and specific cognitive processes. The testing environment and the software used for analysis introduce another layer of complication.

Hayles’s discussion of various types of reading and attention, embodiment, and digital media prepares the ground for the concept of technogenesis. Briefly, this can be defined as “the idea that human and technics have coevolved together” (10), particularly in the mechanism where “epigenetic changes in human biology can be accelerated by changes in the environment that make them even more adaptive, which leads to further epigenetic changes” (10). While the notion of interrelations between the evolution of humankind and human-produced technologies is hardly new, it is this embodied-ness demonstrated in neurological and cognitive research that invests the idea with a credibility often lacking in anecdotal evidence about Facebook users or video-game players. The model is also more complex than classical evolutionary scenarios that posit the environment as static, with organisms mostly changing to accommodate. Here the spiral of change is dual and the time scales much shorter due to neural plasticity at various levels, including unconscious perceptions. This, Hayles suggests, makes technogenesis a potent site for constructive interventions in the humanities as they turn to digital technologies (14), but she also soberly observes that “contemporary technogenesis, like evolution in general, is not about progress” and that it “offers no guarantees that the dynamic transformations taking place between humans and technics are moving in a positive direction” (81).

Hayles is also well aware of the political implications of her theory. Preempting possible charges that various digital media outlets can be easily manipulated, she notes that the “condescending view of media ... forecloses an important resource for contemporary self-fashioning, for using plasticity both to subvert and redirect the dominant order” (83). This is evidenced by such works as Rita Raley’s Tactical Media (2009) and practices in many corners of the digital-humanities community that reinvigorate and sometimes reboot institutionally enshrined research agendas and mechanisms. Later in the book, Hayles also boldly asserts that hyper-attention does not have to be perceived as a fall from the grace of deep attention but can be seen as “a positive adaptation that makes young people better suited to live in information-intensive environments” (99).

Discussion of the complex temporalities of technical objects is the focus of the second interlude of How We Think. This is crucial for understanding contemporary technogenesis as attention and the recognition that “nonconscious actions can pursue complex goals over an extended period of time” (94) inevitably involve various timescales. Drawing on Henri Bergson’s concept of duration and Gilbert Simondon’s explication of “regularities underlying transformations of what he called ‘technical beings’” (86), Hayles discusses the difference between measured and experienced time as it involves technologies in general and digital media in particular. Tying up various strands of her grand design, she also revisits the question of cognition in the distinction between embodied cognition that recognizes the crucial importance of the physical body and embedded cognition that emphasizes “the environment as crucial scaffolding and support for human cognition” (92).

There are two case studies in this interlude. The first is Steve Tomasula’s DVD novel TOC (2009), whose beauty and elegance can only be appreciated after one has experienced the work itself. In her extremely close reading, Hayles concludes that the text anticipates the inherent instability of temporal regimes in societies in which the speed of technogenetic change increases (120). To show that the process is not entirely new, her second case study analyzes telegraph code books, late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century publications, once ubiquitous (published in the hundreds of thousands), that demonstrate the complex interrelations between “epigenetic changes in human biology, technological innovations, cultural imaginaries, and linguistic, social, and economic changes” (123).

The third interlude of How We Think is devoted to the discussion of spatiality, in which Hayles applies the conceptions of “lively” space emerging from the work of Henri Lefebvre and Doreen Massey. These allow her to revisit the contentious struggle between narrative and database, most famously—but also, to a certain extent, erroneously, as she demonstrates —framed in Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media (2002). In the same way in which she introduced a détente between deep and hyper attention earlier in the book, Hayles shows how both modes of organizing and processing information are crucial for the discipline of spatial history, which capitalizes in equal measure on the narratives of traditional humanities and the findings generated with the tools provided by digital humanities. Although at least a portion of the theoretical introduction promises a more extended discussion of spatial-history projects (she does mention a few, albeit not in great detail), the two case studies in this interlude are Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts (2007) and Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions (2006). Both novels do indeed mobilize database aesthetics, and spatiality is strongly present in them in the form of typography and layouts, but their exact relationship with spatial history is not always clear. Part of the answer, to my mind, is that in the same way in which spatial history “conceptualizes place not as a fixed site with stable boundaries but rather as a dynamic set of interrelations in constant interaction with the wider world” (185), Hall and Danielewski recuperate the centrality of database in narrative—the former diegetically, the latter both diegetically and extra-diegetically.

How We Think ends rather abruptly with a coda that sums up the discussion of Danielewski’s experimental novel and one brief paragraph concluding the entire book. Additionally, the distribution of emphases among the interludes does not seem entirely logical: the first includes relatively large discussions of digital humanities and technogenesis; the second focuses on only one specific aspect of the latter process, its temporalities; while the third zooms out again to cover large territories of the new understanding of spatiality and the narrative-versus-database debate. Given the fearful symmetries of, for instance, My Mother Was a Computer (2005), this imbalance is rather unusual for Hayles, but perhaps this structure is, in fact, entirely logical in its reflection of the book’s themes. There is, of course, a sustained line of argument, but it is also possible to treat How We Think as if it were a database of sorts, in which any of the interludes can serve as an entry point into the examination of the mutual entanglements of humankind and its technics. Furthermore, the lack of a clear conclusion may be taken as a signal of argumentative open-endedness, in which there is really no closure as such since the process Hayles describes is, by its very nature, not only ongoing but also susceptible to rapid changes. And while Hayles does rely on traditional discursive presentation to demonstrate her points, a larger constellation of these points can be viewed from different perspectives and traversed from different directions, which leads to the question of the position of sf studies as one of many possible vantages.

At first, How We Think may seem to be one of the least science-fictional studies in Hayles’s brilliant oeuvre. The phrase “science fiction” does not occur even once in the text, and none of the textual case studies is strictly science fiction. (An argument could be made, though, in favor of Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, which Hayles wrote about for the special “Slipstream” issue of SFS in March 2011.) Still, I would like to suggest that, as a report on but also an exhortation for a certain novel perspective, How We Think can prove extremely important for our discipline.

Most immediately, the book’s philosophy of technology as well as the range of theoretical texts it deploys may be useful in critical analyses of sf texts—but this is exactly the type of old-school approach for whose revision Hayles calls. There are, however, certain resonances between the processes described in How We Think and the genre of science fiction. One becomes apparent when Hayles delineates the differences between types of reading. It could be argued that the study of genre literatures, and particularly science fiction with its highly developed generic self-reflexivity, has been for decades engaged in what Hayles and others call machine, hyper, or distant reading. After all, how different is that kind of attention from the attention to macro-level generic protocols, parabolas, and motifs and their constant permutations? On the other hand, many such analyses were conceptually generalizing but in practice relied on deep analyses of selected scenes or texts. One can only expect that with the actual use of digital tools for such analyses, and with the findings grounded in statistics, our perception of the genre and its dynamics during various periods could be valuably supplemented and enhanced.

How different would the history of the sf pulps or New Wave fanzines be if it were to take into account statistical data concerning publication details, thematic preoccupations, or even linguistic patterns? Some of such information—for instance, the gender ratio among authors—is obtainable using traditional paper-and-pencil methods, but there is so much more that we can only conjecture. Naturally, the most immediate obstacle is the lack of representative databases, often hindered by complicated copyright disputes, and undertakings such as the online Pulp Magazines Project are still spotty, but perhaps this is where the efforts should begin.

On another front, discussions of sf media are still predominantly defined by formalist and political readings. By emphasizing comparative media studies in How We Think, Hayles once again returns to her earlier preoccupation with materiality, which emerges when attention is turned to the inherent physicality of media objects and which promotes distinctive approaches to various media. Very little of such research in science fiction exists to date, but there are certainly models of how this can be done. Although informed by diverse agendas, brilliant recent works by Matthew Kirschenbaum and Lev Manovich bring to digital media (or metamedia, in Manovich’s case) the materialist emphasis borrowed from bibliographic study.

A very important aspect of digital humanities in general and spatial history in particular is the technique of visualization—could it also be applied to the histories of the future? To what extent could a visual, mapped reconstruction (necessarily creative, too) of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy (1984-90) contribute to our understanding of its narratives? What about sf video games, texts whose spatiality and temporality distinguish them from other sf media—are not these approaches far more productive than thematic analyses (often accompanied by handwringing) of Half-Life (1998-2007) or Dead Space (2008-2013)? Some projects have already been undertaken, such as Lostalgic, Santiago Ortiz’s website devoted to the TV show Lost (2004-10), and a website generating statistical graphs for Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1993-96) (see “Statistics”), but the opportunities are, at this point, almost endless. While many visualizations and mappings, such as Doctor Who infographics, are merely informative (see Skau), others can contribute new insights and even reconfigure the way research itself is done. It is not a stretch to assume that at least some of what Richard White says about the study of history can be applied to the study of fictional histories of the future: “Visualization and spatial history are not about producing illustrations or maps to communicate things that you have discovered by other means. It is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked” (qtd. in Hayles 197).

In their 2009 manifesto, Jeffrey Schnapp and Todd Presner suggest that while the first wave of digital humanities was quantitative in its reliance on the search and retrieval powers of databases, the second wave is qualitative, interpretive, experiential, emotive, and generative. As a field particularly attuned to the complexities of human-technology interactions, sf studies would seem to be ideally poised to recognize the potential this approach confers. How We Think certainly motivates us to think of sf scholarship as something other than classical, discursive essays (whose value, needless to say, is not in any way diminished). So, how can we think when we think about science fiction?

Jockers, Matthew L. Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2013.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2008.
Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. New York: Verso, 2007.
Ortiz, Santiago. Lostalgic. Online. 13 Aug. 2013.
The Pulp Magazines Project: An Archive of All Fiction Pulpwood Magazines from 1896-1946. Online. 23 Aug. 2013.
Schnapp, Jeffrey, and Todd Presner. “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0.” Humanities Blast: Engaged Digital Humanities Scholarship. 22 Jun. 2009. Online. 23 Aug. 2013.
Skau, Drew. “Timelord Timelines and Other Doctor Who Infographics.” Blog. Online. 23 Aug. 2013.
“Statistics: Facts and Figures, Characters and Time in Red, Green & Blue Mars.” Online. 23 Aug. 2013.


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