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N. Katherine Hayles: Can Computers Create Meaning? A Cyber-Bio-Semiotic Perspective

Date and Time: 
Tuesday, February 12, 2019. 05:00 PM - 07:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Humanities Center Boardroom
Workshop: 
Digital Aesthetics: Critical Approaches to Computational Culture 2018
Meeting Description: 

One of the promising areas to understand how computers cognize is biosemiotics, a field that draws on C.S. Peirce’s semiotics to argue that all living organisms generate and understand meanings appropriate to their contexts, even plants and unicellular organisms. Although these approaches by such theorists of Jesper Hoffmeyer, Wendy Wheeler, and Terrence Deacon have considerable explanatory power, they share a common blind spot in arguing that such signifying capabilities apply only to living organisms, not computers. However, many of their objections to networked and programmed machines creating, disseminating, and understanding meanings become moot if the relevant unit is considered to be human plus computer rather than either alone. The human species, this talk will argue, is in the midst of entering into a deep symbiosis with computational media. Still incomplete, this symbiosis is akin to endosymbiosis, where previously independently living organisms unite into a single entity, as happened for example with the absorption of mitochondria by eukaryotic cells. The talk will conclude by exploring the implications of this symbiosis-in-progress.

N. Katherine Hayles teaches and writes on the relations of literature, science, and technology in the 20th and 21st centuries. Her print book, Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious, was published by University of Chicago Press in 2017. Her other books include How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, which won the Rene Wellek Prize for the Best Book in Literary Theory for 1998-99, Writing Machines, which won the Suzanne Langer Award for Outstanding Scholarship, and How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. She is professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Program in Literature at Duke University, and Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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