Student review: How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis

November 8, 2012

Author: N. Katherine Hayles

Edition: First

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Pages: 296

Price: £48.50 and £16.00

ISBN: 9780226321400 and 1424

Balanced between theory and practice, How We Think traces the emergence of digital research within humanities disciplines. It is ostensibly a book about scholars for scholars, asking how digital media can be integrated into scholarly work, and how new digital research projects might be able to uncover what traditional print-based research is unable to address.

While many media theory books aim to show how the creators of digital media are almost stripped of individual authorship and inhabit a collectivity that creates a constantly transforming cultural product, Katherine Hayles expertly outlines here how scholars have and can create collective working structures through digital architecture and file sharing that is customised to fit the exacting standards of scholarly research. Collaboration between academics is no longer limited to conferences and journals but can happen in real time using various media.

Reading is key to her narrative. Ancient technologies such as the book now coexist with text in various new digital forms. Hayles claims that these new forms create neurological transformations that have implications for the possibilities of research. For example, in literary criticism we see trends moving away from the stalemate of deconstructionist close readings towards the "distant reading" of Franco Moretti, which uses the reading of distinct literary periods by computers (bulk indexing and algorithmic analysis) and human (individual close readings) to analyse periods as collective systems. While it could take a scholar an entire lifetime to read the entirety of a genre, the digitisation of books allows us to analyse and draw important conclusions with immediacy. Importantly, the patterns put forth by distant reading can act as entry points for other scholars working on the genre.

However, Hayles is not simply asking how new media might be used but is attempting to trace the changes in perception it creates. She describes this dynamic adaptation as "technogenesis" but is clear that this process is not synonymous with progress.

She ventures to demonstrate the ways in which media have historically impacted consciousness through a case study of the telegraph, which in its use of code, she claims, established a new relationship between "machinic" and "human" languages. She also explores how the database offers an alternative to narrative as a structure for arranging knowledge. In her exploration of the mutually constitutive relation between human and technology, Hayles is addressing how we think in the broadest sense, and asks vital questions about how humans both transform and are transformed by the media we use.

Who is it for? Academics and students interested in using new technologies in their research and anyone interested in how media structures affect perception.

Presentation: Generic.

Would you recommend it? Yes. It is a theoretically rigorous exploration of the relationship between human and machine.

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