Hayles asks us to make a linguistic comparison to a competing model of information forwarded at the time by Donald MacCrimmon MacKay, a research professor of communications and neurology. She notes, “MacKay defines information in terms of what it does… Verb-like, it becomes a process someone enacts.”24 MacKay’s idea, however, “requires that psychological states be quantifiable and measurable…, something not in reach”25 at that time. Hayles proposes that MacKay’s model “implies context and embodiment.”26 “Embodiment” as a term has been used to upend long-standing rationalist assumptions that mind and body are distinct entities and that bodies are inherently mechanistic and subservient to the will of the mind. Within this rubric, the flesh “thinks” and the body informs the mind. Similarly, embodied information cannot be detached from its material carrier substrate. To give an example, the early wax cylinders used to record music hold important historical information in addition to the music’s pure notes. This information is lost when such recordings are translated to a compact disc as pure data. While MacKay’s model allows for these considerations, his relatively unpopular paradigm of embodied information would do little to influence the blooming telecommunications industry where Shannon’s theories were immediately applied. Shannon’s employer, Bell Labs, would depend on the idea of a quantifiable amount of “clarity” (in terms of bits per second at minimal loss) that could be sold as product.27 Hayles seems to play with this idea as the ultimate irony when she notes that MacKay’s obscurity was “the price” he “paid for embodiment.”28
What part does information play in the Information Age, if not within commerce? Can a body exist outside of its communications? And more specifically, can a female body exist outside its commercialized “Siren’s call”? Can it act more like a verb—with agency—than an object through which information is transmitted?
The idea of body-as-information presents new narratives for culture.29 Increasingly common metaphors such as DNA as “the book of life” signal the paradigm shift. The cybernetic “body-as-machine” handed down through Western culture since the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century is being phased out. To borrow a phrase from Hayles, the “very consequential metaphor” of “code” is the cornerstone of bioinformatics as a field both of study and capitalist enterprise. Factoring efficiency rates and measuring quantifiable gains and losses are necessary to any economic system, with a reduction of errors in transmission required to make the system optimal.
This dominant narrative contains important implications about gender relationships. During our interview, Hayles noted that using the metaphor of “code” to describe the genome is “over-determined.” She elaborated, “There is no causal reason…this is a choice [which] privileges sequence over reproductive function.”30 By not taking into account the selective processes of individuals, the parameters of “code” as a metaphor do not contain enough information about which traits are passed down and why. In calculations using DNA as code, the question of who is choosing or able to have sex and/or reproduce with whom simply does not compute.
In “The Materiality of Informatics,” a central chapter of Posthuman, Hayles lays out the importance of noise to cultural models that are writing over dominant metaphors of “code” with new ideas about “embodiment.” She presents the somewhat abstract idea that “embodiment is a specific instantiation generated from the noise of difference.”31 When she introduces the metaphor of “generation” to the “noise” of communication, she expands the idea of what noise could be. Usually considered that which introduces errors, here noise “produces” and “gains.” Noise facilitates choices, and “embodiment” is the specific and unique response born out of these fertile circumstances.
Potentially, Hayles’ conception of noise as having a “reproductive function” could be a key concept for new generations of feminists. Noise is in the “living” environment surrounding anything that is alive; it is within creatures and fills the volumes of “difference” between them, informing their daily intercourse. As in Kac’s Genesis bacteria, noise is also the means by which organisms generate new versions of themselves through mutation. Schneider has commented, “Noise is always there but the essence of living…is making choices.”32 This statement reveals what cannot be quantified about the genome in cultural terms. For example, in the hesitancy of some ethnic groups to participate in the Genome Project we see “noise-as-resistance,” a culturally based interference that may very well preserve unique genetic lines.
- Ibid., 56.↵
- Ibid., 18-19.↵
- Ibid., 56.↵
- Shannon’s influential paper, “Communication in the Presence of Noise” (1949) helped define what Bell Labs was actually selling—clarity in terms of bits per second at minimal loss. See Schneider, “Claude Shannon: Biologist,” 30.↵
- Hayles, Posthuman, 56.↵
- Hayles interview.↵
- Hayles, Posthuman, 196.↵
- Schneider in email to the author, June 12, 2008.↵