Monday, February 27, 2012

How Sci-Fi Loves to Fear the UnHuman

One of the things I really enjoyed about reading How We Became Posthuman was its connection to literary texts—specifically science fiction ones. When I was an undergrad I took every sci-fi related class I could get my hands out. Somehow, as I moved into graduate school I moved away sci-fi and eventually away from reading very much literature at all. Still—books, films or otherwise, I’m always drawn to sci-fi. Seeing how Hayles uses science fiction in How We Became Posthuman helped me to understand why I’m drawn to this genre in some ways.

I think it has much to do with the way in which the genre of sci-fi often plays with humanity’s fear of becoming unhuman. So many essential sci-fi texts (novels, comics and also films) deal with this fear.

Source (all images): IMDB

These are just three examples that pop into my mind first. It seems Will Smith has even made a career in fictitious battles against the unhuman. However, what Hayles shows us is that no matter how much fear (or cybernetic anxiety) we have about technology leading us to a place where we cannot tell human from machine, the “toasters” are already amongst us. 

She says, “Cyborgs actually exist. About 10 percent of the current U.S. population are estimated to be cyborgs in the technical sense, including people with electronic pacemakers, artificial joints, drug-implant systems, implanted corneal lenses, and artificial skin. A much higher percentage participates in occupations that make them into metaphoric cyborgs, including the computer keyboarder joined in a cybernetic circuit with the screen, the neurosurgeon guided by fiber-optic microscopy during an operation, and the adolescent game player in the local video-game arcade” (Kindle Location 2503). 

Hayles goes on to introduce a term called “terminal identity.” She explains,  “Scott Bukatman has named this condition, calling it an ‘unmistakably doubled articulation’ that signals the end of traditional concepts of identity even as it points toward the cybernetic loop that generates a new kind of subjectivity” (Kindle Location 2503). As it turns out, Bakatman hasn’t simply coined this term, but he wrote to book on it. It seems that this book, which takes the term’s name, Terminal Identity, attempts to redefine what human identity looks like in the age of new media. 

I think what’s unique about how Hayles and Bukatman approach the post-human identity and the way that the sci-fi genre typically does is that in sci-fi these identities are always the root of the horror of the film. The unhuman is the bad guy; the human saves the day. Maybe it’s even because of some element of humanity that the human is able to save the day. Hayles acknowledges the fear of the unhman, but she also suggests that the dreadful versions aren’t all there is to consider or all that is possible. She says, "Although some current versions of the posthuman point toward the antihuman and the apocalyptic, we can craft others that will be conducive to the long-range survival of humans and of the other life-forms, biological and artificial, with whom we share the planet and ourselves" (Kindle Location 6057). 

In the end, I think How We Became Posthuman helped me reconsider what I thought it meant be cyborg or posthuman. You don’t have to be the Terminator to be posthuman. It helped me realize that posthuman is not really something to fear but to recognize is already happening. What it means to be human in our world of smartphones is not what it meant to be human in the 1980s when no one I knew had a computer in their home. Yes, we will have to negotiate it in the same way we negotiate other societal changes, but it’s not something we have to assume will be bad. Still--perhaps our sci-fi texts keep us safe in some ways by keeping the fear alive so that we think carefully about what it means for our iPhone to become an extension of ourselves.

Installing Ruby 1.9.3...or How to Kill your Computer Quickly

The beginning of my experience with Ruby on Rails was, in all honesty, really pretty frustrating.  Initially I spent some time using websites Ruby in 20 Minutes  and Try Ruby to get the basic feel for Ruby.  Through these I learned some basic commands and how the coding works to assign meaning to objects and to recall them.  I learned enough to get dangerous, knowing I could return to the forums and wealth of sites on the interwebs when I need more help teasing out how to make the code do what I want once I had something to work on.  I find that I get really impatient learning code for it’s own sake—I want something to play with.

Naturally then, since I wanted to work on Ruby on Rails, I moved along to getting Ruby on Rails installed on my computer.   This process took me an embarrassing amount of time.  It all started with installing the most recent version of Ruby.  I’m a Mac user, so Ruby 1.8.7 comes preinstalled on my machine.  To run Ruby on Rails, however, I needed at least 1.9.  The latest version is 1.9.3.  To do this install, I relied upon terminal and a number of really thorough websites and forums with advice on troubleshooting this install process.

Basically, I started by installing Ruby Version Manager (RVM), then I checked for the requirements for running RVM ($ rvm requirements).  When I did this I got the error message below. 

Code for rvm requirements that ends with a warning about Xcode 4.2.
Screen Cap of RVM Requirements Error

This told me that when I ran the install command, I would need to amend the command with I ran the function again with –-with-gcc=clang.  So, learning that I made sure I had GCC and entered the following into the command line:  rvm install 1.9.3 –with-gcc=clang.  This asks that Ruby Version Manager install Ruby version 1.9.3 using GCC as the C language compiler.  Fancy stuff.

Screencap of rvm install 1.9.3 --with-gcc=clang that ends in a make error that calls for installation halt.
Screencap of "make" error
Sounds great.  But it didn’t work.  This time I got a “make” error.  I spent an inordinate amount of time researching this error and try a variety of things to try to fix them.  Finally, one shady sudo command (which is a command that allows the program administrative privileges)  caused me to not be able to run RVM commands at all.  Something was really odd about terminal at that point.  So I restarted my computer, only to get this error:

Macbook Pro with a fatal error on boot up
An iPhone photo of something that you don't want to see your Mac Do

This message ushered in a way of panic I care not to experience again any time soon.  After some research (and the research of my dear buddy, Mat Reynolds), I realized that I could reinstall Lion on my computer and it would probably fix the error.  So, I booted the computer using the Recovery HD and told it to reinstall Lion.  Everything was there, happy and fine, as it was before I started playing around in Terminal.  <sigh of relief />

So—lessons learned?

I learned quite a bit about the command line.  I learned the basics of Ruby, but also quite a bit about Terminal.  I learned what commands like bash and sudo do and the power the later has over the computer.  From this experience, I decided that in the future it might be better to work on playing around in terminal from the other side of my partitioned harddrive, so that I don’t mess of my REAL workspace.  About two years ago I (okay, my husband) partitioned my harddrive and installed windows on one half.  At the time I did this because the web conferencing software used in ODU’s distance PhD classes was Windows only and I refused to have a window’s machine in my house.  When my computer was failing to load on the Mac side, the Windows side could still load easily.  I decided from this that I should either wide the Windows side and install a second version of Lion on that side, or perhaps Linux, so that I could keep my files safe from my dangerous play.  

Monday, February 20, 2012

Let the Ruby on Rails Tutorials Begin!

Red Ruby on Red Rails
Source:  Iconspedia
During this semester, I’m taking some time to learn Ruby.  I am actually hoping to learn to play in Ruby on Rails in particular.  I decided to work with this web application developer which is based in the Ruby language for a few reasons.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I have worked with HTML/XHTML and CSS in the past.  I feel like I have a pretty comfortable working knowledge of those.  I pretty much understand how webpages go from text files to the beautiful or terrifying (read:  PineSol) results we see in our Internet browsers.  Of course, my knowledge is mostly limited to building static websites.  I have a really limited knowledge of what goes into making dynamic webpages.   Ruby on Rails is a really powerful platform for creating dynamic webpages quickly and smoothly.  At least that’s what it seems to promise.  So that appeals to me.

The fact that it’s based in Ruby is also a draw.  One thing that’s always been a mystery to me is more “hardcore” programming.  I’ve never taught myself a C based language or worked with a programming that required that I hang out in Terminal.  So I wanted to take some time in the safe space of my New Media Theory and Practice class to play with learning this form of programming.  Right now we’re working on a project simply called “Individual Tutorials and Reflection” where we are tasked with people a language or development tool and spending time working through tutorials on it and reporting what we’ve learned.  I am learning the basics of Ruby and terminal commands as necessary to make a web application by using Ruby on Rails.  The tutorials I am following are mostly Ruby on Rails tutorials, but have been using Ruby and basic programming tutorials (or wiki pages) as I’ve worked to help me when I get stuck or run into an error the book I’m working through doesn’t explain.

Ruby on Rails really appeals to me because I am the kind of person that needs to see a product of his or her time.  I need to be able to play with something real.  So, I tried learning Ruby alone through just basic tutorials.  I found a few that were really quite user-friendly, in fact:
However, after I worked through a number of exercises in these sites, I found myself getting antsy.  I wanted a product beyond what was possible from the puts command.  So—off to Rails I went after having watched the video below and being amazed by what the creator, Davide Heinemeier Hansson could accomplish so quickly during his demo:

I am able to see the product of Rails tutorials more concretely by viewing how my changes effect the first application I’ve created (more on that in my next blog).  The tutorials I’m currently working through are from Ruby on Rails 3 Tutorial:  Learn Rails by Example.

What I hope to do in Rails is develop my own web space from the ground up.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m really something of a control freak.  I want to put together a site for my portfolio, but I want to be able to do so in a space that I have more control over than what many web development sites provide (Wordpress or GoogleSites for example).  In the meantime, I’m hoping what I learn through this exploration can next be transferred into a larger project for New Media Theory and Practice and then become the foundation for the New Media Application project that I will complete in place of the foreign language requirement for my degree.  

Monday, February 13, 2012

Taking the Humanity Test

Turing Text Extra Credit:  Convince the Examiner He's A Computer
Source:  xkcd
The Prologue of How We Became Posthuman by N. Katherine Hayles begins with a description of the Turing test. The test goes like this:
“You are alone in the room, except for two computer terminals flickering in the dim light. You use the terminals to communicate with two entities in another room, whom you cannot see. Relying solely on their responses to your questions, you must decide which is the man, which the woman. Or, in another version of the famous ‘imitation game’ proposed by Alan Turing in his classic 1950 paper ‘Computer Machinery and Intelligence,’ you use the responses to decide which is the human, which the machine”
 (Kindle location 112).

Having just finished reading Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep, I cannot help but to think of this test in relationship to the Voigt-Kampff test from that novel. Both have the same goal in mind: detection of non-humans.

Turing believed that failure to discern a human from an android using this test indicated that computers could think, whereas if one were unable to identify an android using the Voigt-Kampff test, this would indicate that the android was capable of feeling—empathy in particular.

Both of these tests say something about what be believe makes us who we are and keeps us from being machines. Perhaps we might say another trait that distinguishes humans from other entities is our own preoccupation with our uniqueness from the other.  I often thing that sci-fi, as a genre of media, would be nothing without our fear of becoming un-human.  I digress.

Another characteristic that separates Turings real-life android identifying test from Phillip K. Dick’s fictionalized one is the idea of embodiment. The body is absent in the Turing test because the assessment takes place through an entirely mediated experience—the person making the determination is networked to the test “subjects” (for lack of a better term) through a computer interface only.

 In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, however, the person making the determination and the subject are physically before one another and the subject’s body is networked to machinery, which the test giver will use to interpret the subject’s humanity.  This physicality seems of great importance to the test.  Rick Deckard does not, and likely cannot, choose to simply perform the test over a vidphone.  Instead, he must be present with the subject and he must examine how his subject responded to the test.  Phillip K. Dick seemed to maintain that embodiment mattered.  The lack of humanity in an android wasn't simply displayed by how he or she (or it) felt, but also how physically responded.

N. Katherine Hayles concerns herself greatly with this idea of embodiment in How We Became Posthuman.  Indeed the very subtitle of the book is:  Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics.  She discusses the way in which the Turing Test and Hans Moravec's Mind Children:  The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence both assume that human consciousness can be disembodied without any alteration to that consciousness at all.  To parallel this fact with McLahan's famous line, we misty say that they argue that "the message is the message."  However,  Dick might be said to present a reality that remains true to the original form of this adage: "the medium is the message."  His approach assumes that embodiment is important for our understanding of conciseness and humanity.

Exploring this role of embodiment to the world of humanity and machine might be said to be the project of Hayles' book.  Her into the treatment of materiality in cybernetics lead her on a path from which three "stories," as she calls them, emerged:

"The first centers on how information lost its body, that is, how it came to be conceptualized as an entity separate from the material forms in which it is thought to be embedded. The second story concerns how the cyborg was created as a technological artifact and cultural icon in the years following World War II. The third, deeply implicated with the first two, is the unfolding story of how a historically specific construction called the human is giving way to a different construction called the posthuman" (Kindle Location 205).

Her stories lead her to the posthuman view which she gives these three characteristics:

  • "First, the posthuman view privileges informational pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life"
  • "Second, the posthuman view considers consciousness, regarded as the seat of human identity in the Western tradition long before Descartes thought he was a mind thinking, as an epiphenomenon, as an evolutionary upstart trying to claim that it is the whole show when in actuality it is only a minor sideshow"
  • "Third, the posthuman view thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born" 
  • "Fourth, and most important, by these and other means, the posthuman view configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines. In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals"
(Kindle Location 225-226)  

While I've only just begun my journey through Hayles' text, I really like where it's taking my brain.  I'm becoming increasingly more interested in the interface/networking between human and machine, which is leading me to wonder:  when does interfacing end and immersion take over to the point of integration?


Hayles, N. Katherine.  How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1999.  Kindle Edition.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Del Rey, 1975. Print.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Visual Rhetoric and Skyrim: Who Could Ask for Anything More?

As I have continued to read Lingua Fracta, I have found myself particularly drawn to Brooke’s chapter on perspective. Throughout Lingua Fracta Brooke’s primary project is to re-envision the cannons of rhetoric in light of our new media world. In his chapter on perspective he takes up the third canon of rhetoric, style, to reimagine. He argues that style, in the age of new media, cannot be limited to verbal stylistic choices, but must address visual ones as well (and indeed, Brooke argues that this was true prior to the age of new media as well but has become pronounced in this age). He also argues that
“one of the things that new media interfaces do stylistically is to help us move from the abstracted, single perspective of the reader of a static text or the viewer of a painting to the multiple and partial perspectives necessary for many forms of new media” (114).
I am drawn to his treatment of perspective because of its emphasis on visual rhetoric and, in particular, how he aims to rescue it from the tendency to consider it as a “visual grammar”. When I wrote my capstone for my Master’s degree, I wrote about integrating the visual into the composition classroom. I argued that the visual could be used to meet with WPA Outcomes Statement just as much as the verbal could. In one section, I wrote about “Knowledge of Conventions” and discussed visual grammar as being a form of conventions in the same way that verbal grammar might be. Many of those authors I cite in that texts come up in Brooke’s discussion (Lemke, Kress, Wysocki, etc.)

Describing the use of the visual as a rule-governed system, or grammar, somehow always set really oddly with me. I think it has something to do with the argument that Brooke makes next, which is that style has long been misinterpreted as “sentence-level syntax, catalogs of tropes and figures, and commonplace injunctions, […] reducing it to a series of localized, conscious choices” (116). Making the visual into a system of grammar seemed to also cheapen it. It becomes surface level, which seems to trivialize its importance.

I often joke when I am working on a document that I’m working on making it “pretty.” I say this in part because I fear that most people believe that this is exactly what visual rhetoric is—making documents pretty, accessorizing them. I, of course, think I am doing something else. I see the visual choices as being important to the message of text (yes, that’s right—McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” is screaming from this statement).

I think what I am attempting to do is shape the perception of the texts I create, which is something that has a greater depth than saying I’m trying to shape the look of them. I suppose it’s the distinction between looking at something and seeing it. This connects nicely with Brooke’s discussion of how Lanham work with how we connect to electronic text. Brooke explains that Lanham argues that “we often toggle between looking through text and looking at it” (132). However, Brooke expands this discussing indicating that we might more appropriately be considered with where we look from, instead of through or at.

I do think where we look from shapes our experiences with media, both old and new. While Brooke continues his discussion of this into the WoW interface, I have thought more of how this operates in the context of the Skyrim interface, since that’s been my primary means of mental release this semester (Read: procrastination anyone?)

Because I am taking a New Media Theory and Practice class while spending a lot of time playing this game, I find that while I am playing I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the interface of the game and, now, the way that perspective shapes game play.

Brooke describes Wow’s three perspectives; two of which relate well to the perspectives you can select in Skyrim. When you’re playing Skyrim you can chose between first-person (like the eyes of the player) and third person views of the game If you’re not familiar with the game, the video below shows a player moving through the game and switching between the first-person and third-person perspectives at times.

 In all honestly, this is the first role-playing game of this nature that I’ve found myself really hooked by. This fact drives my poor brother crazy, as he’s been trying to get me into fantasy RPGs most of his life. For me, this ability to control the perspective in the game is of great importance to me (and makes me realize WoW might be my next time-suck to explore). Obviously other games have these options, but Skyrim is the first I’ve played seriously that has it. What I find interesting is that Brooke says “the default perspective of most players [is that which] bears a great deal of similarity to our experience in the world” (135).

In Skyrim that perspective would be the first-person approach. I, however, find myself operating in this perspective very rarely. I prefer to operate in the third person mode so I can see what’s around me (like wolves trying to eat me). I swap to first person only when I’m struggling to pick things up or when I accidently push down on the button that causes you to swap and don’t realize it (I’m really uncoordinated).

Much to my relief, I found that I’m not alone in my approach. Jared Hillier writes on Capsule Computers that he approaches his perspective choice in much the same way, but also indicates that others (probably those who have played Elder Scrolls games longer) likely do the opposite in terms of time in each perspective.

I think he may be right. When I watch my husband play this game, he seems to always be in first-person mode. He says he prefers first person for almost everything, but switches to “ 3rd when absorbing a dragon soul or learning a word of power just because the animation looks cool.”

Likewise, my to-go gaming expert, Mathieu Reynolds (also in my New Media class; Hi, Mat!) prefers first-person. He says he likes the immersion and that “melee combat is a joke, and it looks really poor in third person (compared to Kingdoms or God of War or any other game with melee). Also, the character model is muddy and ugly.”

I am not certain what this tells me about perspective yet, but I think it might be something interesting if I can let myself think about it longer. It seems to me that individuals who are more comfortable with this style of gaming platform identify themselves with the interface more seamlessly. I feel as thought I might say they look through the game interface. However, I feel like as a RPG novice, I look at the game interface.

I wonder if my preference for interaction with this interface will evolve as I allow myself to immerse myself into the game. Brooke’s says “an implicit part of the gameplay is the gradual immersion that one experiences with the entirety of the interface” (138). He states that it’s not about getting familiar with the interface or beginning to take it for granted, but rather about letting the level of immersion to grow. Certainly, Mathieu states that he look for immersion in how he selects to perceive his character, while I don’t see myself caring about that yet. Is this because I’m a gaming newb or is it because of something else—more related to personality—that might be an additional component we might need to consider in how individuals chose the perspective from which they engage with an interface?


Brooke, Collin Gifford. Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric of New Media. Cresskill: Hampton Press, 2009. Print.