Last weekend I presented on feminized and disembodied technologies at Brandeis University’s “Technology and the Human” conference. Sarah Brown (Concordia English MA) and I were the entirety of the panelm “Sexing Technology,” and our papers were well-received and inspired quite a bit of discussion.
One reason why we drove six hours in the dark and endured an April Fool’s Day prank only Siri could pull off (getting lost in a sea of roundabouts for an extra hour and harassing locals for their phones)? …. Katherine Hayles was the keynote speaker!
Sarah and I, who have both been Hayles fans since reading How We Became Posthuman in our early years as students, swooned as Hayles talked breezily about the relation between ‘nonconscious cognition’ and ‘consciousness/unconsciousness.’ She spoke about the idea of cognition in computation media, and the efficient ways in which these technical systems can interpret meaning, giving them an evolutionary potential greater than humans. What fascinated me about her talk (in addition to the inspiration I felt seeing an older, female academic with power really own a room, and deliver a well-placed joke!) was Hayles’ insistence that we need not worry so much about AI developing consciousness and usurping humans that way. Rather, she said, we should focus on what these machines are able to do, that is recognize patterns in an efficient and ever-evolving way.
This reminded me of the project Cody recently shared in a class we’re both in. His project, which I will probably butcher in attempting to explain here, has to do with training a computational neuronal system to recognize and imitate text. He showed us an example of one system he had trained over several days to imitate Shakespearian prose. The result was uncanny. Completely nonsensical, but mesmerizing in its syntactical likeness to Shakespeare. It made me think about how tools like the one Cody is experimenting with can provide such a unique resource to humans, especially artists looking for new, surprising ways of creating. The machine’s lack of self-judgement has the capacity to compensate for the human’s overly-critical hesitation in making. Projects like Cody’s and Hayles’ talk are challenging my concept of the posthuman…
For more on Hayles’ theory of the Cognitive Nonconcious, see a version of her talk here.