My Mother Was a Computer by N. Katherine Hayles and Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling

October 15th, 2005 | Category: Reviews

There’s been a lot of chatter, books written, and hand-waving about the merging of humans and machines ever since the computer reared its digital head. From artificial intelligence and humanoid robots to microchip implants and uploading consciousness, the melding of biology and technology has been prophesized far and wide.

Humans are indeed merging with machines, but don’t believe the hype: It’s not happening in the way those old science fiction books would have you think.

My Mother Was a ComputerN. Katherine Hayles has been exploring this land between these lines for decades, but she’s always taken a different tack. Her focus is usually on text and the way our machines have changed our relationship with it. She continues this angle in My Mother Was a Computer (University of Chicago Press) invoking an idea she calls “intermediation.” Intermediation occurs in the complex interactions between bodies and text via different forms of media (and therefore between the different forms of media themselves). With its constant entanglements of text and bodies and media, ours is an age of intermediation. Without going to far into it, let’s just say that Hayles’ writing on the topic is all-encompassing. She covers every imaginable angle and avoids none of the sticky interdisciplinary overlaps.

Shaping ThingsIn Shaping Things (MIT Press), Bruce Sterling explores similar territory, but his focus is on our objects, devices, and technology in general — the products of our love affair with our tools. Coining the term “spimes” to describe possible objects of the future that will be encoded with more information than ever before, thereby becoming “material instantiations of an immaterial system.” A spime will track the lifespan of an object (e.g., its purchaser, its place of origin, its location, etc.) and is the future manifestation of such current technologies as GPS, RFIDs, and WiFi, among others. Our relationship with our objects and their embedded information is changing, and should, says Sterling, and the spime is the key.

Marshall McLuhan once wrote that we shape our tools and in turn our tools shape us. These two books outline exactly how this has been happening and will continue to happen in the years to come — and it’s far too late to worry about what your computer is thinking or to be on the lookout for killer robots.

Postscript: It should also be noted that Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things is the newest entry in Peter Lunenfeld’s and The MIT Press’s Mediawork Pamphlet Series. It is beautifully laid-out and designed in a fun and easy-to-read format by Greybull Press founder Lorraine Wild. Other books in this series include Utopian Entrepreneur by Brenda Laurel, Writing Machines by N. Katherine Hayles, Rhythm Science by Paul D. Miller a.k.a DJ Spooky, and Peter Lunenfeld’s own USER: InfoTechnoDemo — all highly recommended.

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