Going back to Kac’s project, it is clear that phenomena existed in Genesis outside of what might be computed within a bioinformatics model. The mating habits of bacteria, for example, were dependent on ultraviolet light stimulation that resulted from human action, which in turn was motivated by thought, intention and even whim. Additionally, the bacteria’s overall health relied upon care given to them by Kac or gallery attendants.13 This bio-informational model mirrors works being done currently in labs like Schneider’s. While evolution is studied on the ostensibly neutral ground of science, it is easily politicized and brought onto the slippery slope of ethical debate. Both Schneider’s computer simulations and Kac’s transgenic projects go beyond bioinformatics in their interpretation of data. In Kac’s case, advances in biotechnologies pervert literal interpretations of religious texts and challenge ethical principals when they are brought into a different medium. In Schneider’s circumstance, his models have been subject to vitriolic rebuffs by creationists and intelligent-design advocates and have required careful point-by-point rebuttals.14 Such heated debates attest to the challenge bioinformatics can also present to literalist biblical teleologies.

In an interview conducted with Hayles, I asked her to respond to some concepts developed within Schneider’s work, specifically those in his paper “Claude Shannon: Biologist” wherein he postulates “communications systems and molecular biology are headed on a collision course.” Schneider bases his idea on the fact that Shannon, the influential “father” of information theory, developed his foundational channel capacity theory using biology rather than physics or thermodynamic models. Schneider goes one step further: “As electrical circuits approach molecular sizes, the results of molecular biologists can be used to guide designs. We might envision a day when communications and biology are treated as a single field.”15 If he indeed suggests living cells are destined to become communication instruments, then should we focus our attention again on ethics? This elicited the following response from Hayles: “I think the question we need to ask in this situation is: Whose communication is being privileged?”16 Such a moment shows how a feminist lens might be usefully applied to biotechnology. By focusing on how biology forms discourse, its real-world effects can be seen and discussed in light of the embedded power relationships of dominant culture.17 Eugene Thacker also points out that the instrumental telos of molecular “machines” in nanotechnology emphasizes a Cartesian way of thinking about bodies in the world.18

Hayles’ critical history of information theory, How We Became Posthuman, traces the steady disembodiment of information in culture since the technical innovations of Claude Shannon. In her discussion of Shannon’s early electronic rat experiments, Hayles notes that his binary distinction between “signal” and “noise” has had a ripple effect on the way people think about information. “The structure of [Shannon’s] theory implied that change was deviation and that deviation should be corrected.” She mentions that as early as 1950 scientists such as John Stroud of the U.S. Naval Electronic Laboratory in San Diego pointed to the “far reaching implications of Shannon’s [binary] construction of information.” Stroud observed, “If we at anytime relax our awareness of the way in which we originally defined the signal, we thereby automatically call all of the remainder of the received message the ‘not’ signal or noise.”19 Indeed, Schneider notes that common misinterpretations of Shannon assume his theories apply only to binary systems. However, analog signals like a bird song or the human voice are equally described by information theory.20

With certainty it can be said that Shannon saw information in terms of static quantities—bits per second—rather than as an agent of change. Importantly, notes Hayles, Shannon was blind to the idea that the extra-linguistic signal of noise, usually considered interference, could have a communicative effect upon the receiver’s mind and generate new thought21—all the better perhaps because not intended. Schneider says Shannon’s work comes from an engineering perspective, however, and “is not about meaning and value.” Shannon was “only concerned with moving the message.”22 Nevertheless it is important to keep in focus the influential nature of the binary language Shannon used to construct his theory. As Hayles points out, these ideas trickle into culture through narrative and metaphor.23

Footnotes
  1. Hayles, The Eighth Day, 84.
  2. Schneider in phone conversation with the author, June 16, 2008.
  3. Thomas D. Schneider, “Claude Shannon: Biologist,” IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Magazine v. 25 n. 1 (January/February 2006), 33.
  4. Hayles in interview with the author, March 5, 2008.
  5. A similar critique about the rights of transgenic organisms arose when Hayles suggested Kac’s bacterial assistants “did not agree” to be involved in his project. See “Who Is In Control Here?,” 84-85.
  6. Thacker, 138.
  7. John Stroud quoted in Hayles, Posthuman, 63.
  8. Schneider in phone conversation with the author, June 12, 2008.
  9. Hayles, Posthuman, 63.
  10. Schneider in email to the author, June 12, 2008.
  11. Hayles, Posthuman, 63.