In a follow-up to Posthuman that appeared in Cultural Critique, Hayles makes reference to Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire (1996), a science fiction story grappling with the implications of biomedia within the realm of medicine. In this narrative, a ninety-four year-old woman receives an “extreme” regenerative treatment to restore her body to that of a twenty-year-old. The “incongruities” of an ancient consciousness in the hormonally explosive body of a young woman suggest mind-blowing alternate models of procreation. But Sterling seems to admonish his own character for having her natural desires and, oddly, erases all the common sense and experience of the mature woman in the construction of his narrative. For Hayles, his story exemplifies chaos because the “mind cannot be separated from body.”10 In addition, the narrative is sexist and exclusionary—the power of our heroine’s mind is made irrelevant by the author’s fetishistic fantasy of youth. It is interesting to expand on the utopian possibilities of this story because they are potentially revolutionary. Were Holy Fire written by someone informed by feminist consciousness, it might have employed the utopian promises of biotech precisely to get around the Cartesian mind/body dualisms Hayles identifies. What if the “holy fire” was a female mind not ever separated from the body, just continually regenerating? The choices this woman might make with her age-old mind in situational intercourses such as sex or networked communication could reverberate through all sectors of society. Realistically though, the future of biomedia technologies will probably be much less matriarchal. If anything changes it may be that humans have a different relationship to reproduction (some might argue we are already on that path given current infertility medicine11) and will exercise their access to capital through this technology as with any other, reinforcing pre-existing class stratification.

Another science fiction story foregrounds the crisis of biomedia in terms of human evolution. Written by Dr. Thomas D. Schneider, a research biologist at the National Cancer Institute who applies information theory to molecular biology, “The Bottle” was published in Nature (July 2000). It is a futuristic parable of a marooned scientist—perhaps the last survivor, or a renegade in exile—who finds test tubes from his lost civilization washed up on the beach. Remembering the “voice of his mother,” he drinks the fluid “nanotechnology” that tastes of “sand and apricots” and pours another into a pond. At the water’s edge, tears come to his eyes. He kneels to inspect the pond, now an “industrial fluid,” and discovers “purple bacteriorhodopsin absorbing sunlight and pumping hydrogen ions into nanotube fuel containers.” Even though he can communicate with gold-silicon computer chips floating in the pond that are “under his direct mental radio control,” his loneliness is still an agony. “I am male, he thought.” The scientist dreams of beating the system: “Take a cell, duplicate the X, remove the Y.” At his directive, the pond creates an egg with his altered genetic material. It “hatches” a baby girl. He nurtures her, but she dies. The technology that bore her is imperfect. He walks to the edge of the ocean and watches the dolphins. He is infant biomedia, stranded and wishing he had some kind of community.

The message of Schneider’s story is not far from his scientific interest in seeing what happens at the outer limits of a species’ evolutionary pattern. In his computer model “Ev” he has integrated the high-dimensional mathematics of information theory into the study of evolution through a software program that can produce iterations of hundreds of thousands of generations.12 In “Ev,” DNA sequences change through random genetic “mistakes” generated by the program. The mistakes are mutations. As is the case in Genesis, the mutations in “Ev” are equivalent to “noise.”

Schneider’s evolutionary models are created using computational biology. Known also as bioinformatics, this method of investigation uses applied mathematics, statistics, chemistry, and other disciplines to model and solve problems in biology. In bioinformatics, theories of information are applied to the study of living creatures, their evolution and DNA. Importantly, however, they are not applied to the many external factors that intelligent creatures like humans contribute to any such system. For example, while bioinformatics can model normal distributions of a hormone in a group of subjects—human or not—it must be acknowledged that a host of factors, some invisible or unknown, might contribute to the actions of those biological organisms in different times and circumstances. Such variables can be described but cannot be quantified.

Footnotes

  1. Hayles, “Afterword: The Human in the Posthuman,” Cultural (Winter 2003), p. 137.
  2. I thank artist Carrie Yury for this observation.
  3. To run a Java version, go to http://www.ccrnp.ncifcrf.gov/~toms/papers/ev/evj/evj-guide.html.