This is Not a Review: My thoughts on Hayles’ “How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis”

Finished reading Hayles’ How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis about a week or so ago and overall, I have to say I really enjoyed it …  of course with a few “buts” in there for good measure. I really like Hayles’ writing style. I personally find it complex but not complicated. I find her tone very accessible even if I have to stop and think after a paragraph once in a while – I like being forced to ponder what I just read before moving on. The opening chapters got me thinking about the differences between traditional and digital humanities, how they can work together in a complimentary ways,  about the different types of reading on and offline and the differences and values of them, the growing trend of interdiscplinary and networked research groups and what that brings to ideas of collaboration and results, and ultimately, the debate between narrative and database moving forward in thinking about structures of information.

As always, I was left highlighting and taking notes for future use – one of my favorites is the idea of “epistemic actions” – which, following Hayles “are understood to modify both the environment and cognitive-embodied processes that adapt to make use of those changes” (p. 98). One of the main goals in the opening chapters addresses ‘attention’ and how it is shaped and therefore, in turn shapes what is being attended to (in the case of the text, media and texts for the most part) … my favorite passage:

Weaving together the strands of the argument so far, I propose that attention is an essential component of technical change…, for it creates from a background of technical ensembles some aspect of their physical characteristics upon to which to focus, thus bringing into existence a new materiality that then becomes the context for technological innovation. Attention is not, however, removed or apart from the technological changes it brings about. Rather, it is engaged in a feedback loop with the technological environment within which it operates through unconscious and nonconscious processes that affect not only the background from which attention selects but also the mechanisms of selection themselves. Thus technical beings and living beings are involved in a continuous reciprocal causation in which both groups change together in coordinated and indeed synergistic ways” (p. 104)

It is particularly that last sentence that grabs me and makes me want to push my research further into this direction, beyond the avatar and back to my original line of inquiry of human-tech interactions and the ways it alters the very concept of identity.

I hate to admit it, but as I got further into the book, it seemed to lose something for me. The first two “interludes” (all the way up until midway through the 5th chpt actually), I started to lose focus. Chapters 5, 6, 7, & 8 were interesting, but I felt they were ‘examples’ of sociotechnical change, and how the role of the concepts of narratives and databases play within it, but each chapter felt extremely descriptive without that ever-craving “wrapping up” of ideas – purpose and point – in each chapter. This was harshest in the final chapter. A fantastically descriptive chapter entitled “Mapping time, charting data: the spatial aesthetic of Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolution”. The chapter really made me want to read Only Revolution and experience this project in time/space/materiality for myself, but as the chapter was coming to an end, I realized that the book was almost finished, and there were only a handful of pages left. When I put the book down, I was left with the feeling that I had read 4 really great ‘examples’ of different arguments the opening 4 chapters developed, but I was left with wanting it tied up in a bow for me at the end. I wanted her to tell me how each chapter worked in terms of restructuring the way we think, perhaps it is wrong, but I wanted it spelled out for me – I wanted to hear HER conclusions, not be left pondering my own … what if I was wrong? What if I missed a key point? What if I just ‘didn’t get it’?!!! … but then, perhaps that is the whole point.


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