How We Became Posthuman 2 – Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers – Hayles

Hayles, N. K. (1999). How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics: University Of Chicago Press.

In chapter 2, Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers, Hayles discusses virtual reality settings and models of signification. My research has nothing to do with virtual reality as we understand the term–a computer-simulated/generated environment into which one can travel and interact, such as with 2nd life or even more physically interactive where one dons special goggles and gloves and can actually move around within the environment. However, as Hayles notes, there is a certain virtual reality experience by just using the internet.

“The thirty million Americans who are plugged into the Internet increasingly engage in virtual experiences enacting a division between the material body that exists on one side of the screen and the computer simulacra that seem to create a space inside the screen” (20).

The OVC is certainly not a virtual reality by the more formal (and common) definition and understanding. However, it could be seen as a computer-based simulation of a FtF environment in which one can communicatively interact with other participants. In some ways, the OVC is even more beneficial. In the OVC, one cannot move around and “physically” interact with other individuals; however, unlike a virtual reality environment in which the individual is represented by an animated avatar, the OVC participant is visually and aurally “there” in his or her normal form. In this way the sense of presence that participants have of each other is higher than that of trying to interact with an animated individual.

“Different technologies of text production suggest different models of signification; changes in signification are linked with shifts in consumption; shifting patterns of consumption initiate new experiences of embodiment; and embodied experience interacts with codes of representation to generate new kinds of textual worlds” (28).

From one perspective, it matters naught what communication method/technology I use any more than it matters which hand I write with; the information still is transferred. However, to the extent that the medium is the message, it does matter, since we perceive, understand, and retain that information differently depending on the manner in which it is received.

The OVC offers a rather unique technology of text production in the participant’s ability to place textual comments in the timeline of a video. This feature, which lends itself perhaps exclusively to brief comments and hypertext links, allows individuals to comment at a particular point in a video so that the comment, placed at the point of need, relates to something occurring or being stated at that moment in the video. The posted textual comment (signifier) creates additional meaning (signified) to the video-orated statements. The comment is then consumed by anyone watching the video as part of that point in the video, since it pops-up just above the timeline when the playing video reaches that point. This multi-modal experience is a new way to receive information and embodies the entire message for the viewer. In experiencing this embodiment, the OVC generates a new textual world in which one interacts with the text differently, sometimes glancing at it while an on-screen individual is speaking, and at other times, opening small windows that display longer passages in their entirety.

Hayles (pg. 34) cites Kenneth P. Oakley’s introduction to his text, Man the Tool-Maker:

“Employment of tools seems to be [man’s] chief biological characteristic, for considered functionally they are detachable extensions of the forelimb” (34).

Again, we see that tools are really seen as an extension of our selves. We are perpetually striving to create and use tools to make our lives more easy, entertaining, and rich. If considered as a prosthesis–extension of the self–this recurring event points to posthumanism. The OVC is merely another example of the creation or reapplication of a tool for communication.

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