(May 2003 - March 2007.) Tama's thoughts on the blogosphere, podcasting, popular culture, digital media and citizen journalism posted from a laptop computer somewhere in Perth's isolated, miniature, urban jungle ...

Thursday, April 29, 2004
Sarah Kember's Cyberfeminsim and Artificial Life

I had a pseudo-conversation with Jill in her blog regarding Richard Dawkins' selfish gene the other day. Since I seemed incapable of constructing a normal sentence that day, I suggested Sarah Kember's Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life as the text which contributed to my wariness of Dawkins' work. I recently reviewed Kember's book (it'll be in Limina 10), but I thought I'd post the text here in case anyone's interested:
Sarah Kember, Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life, Routledge, London and New York, 2003; pp.272; RRP $AU46.00 paperback.

Sarah Kember's Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life follows in the footsteps of Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles and Alison Adams in extending substantial feminist theoretical engagements with the realm of science and technology. Unlike Haraway and Hayles, Kember's focus on artificial life no longer centres the work on human subjectivity per se, but rather broadens the realm of inquiry to life more generally. Moreover, while Alison Adam's Artificial Knowing: Gender and the Thinking Machine (1998) focused mainly on the scientific development and cultural resonances surrounding artificial intelligence (AI), Kember's work takes a similar political project but focuses on artificial life (ALife). The key difference between the two is that AI primarily focuses on electronically replicating a human-like mind, working from the top-down, whereas ALife attempts to simulate evolution in a digital system, starting from the smallest byte-size computational programs, attempting to synthesise 'life' from the bottom-up. Kember's stated aims in her book are clear: 'to trace the development of identities and entities within the global information network encompassing both human and non-human environments, and to offer a pluralised cyberfeminist engagement with artificial life as both a discipline and cultural discourse' (p.vii). The differentiation between the scientific discipline and more popular cultural articulation of ALife ideas is particular important, allowing Kember to make specific and separate analyses of the work of scientists and of ALife as imagined more broadly. However, this separation does not prevent a broad picture of ALife being constructed, and it significantly maps areas of both cultural and scientific intersection and divergence.

In her brief first chapter, Kember outlines two key points which will guide her reading of ALife. Firstly, that while ALife simulations may hold great potential for revealing information about life-as-we-know-it by examining the natural world's operations (weak ALife), ALife research often slips into arguing that the digital experiments actually illustrate life-as-it-could-be or real 'life' (the strong ALife claim). Secondly, Kember argues that in recent years there has been a 'biologisation of computer science' which entails digital and computational simulations being guided mainly by the biological sciences. While past scientific efforts, such as AI design, tended to view the body as a machine - the brain as a computer, heart as a pump, and so forth - ALife design appears to have come full circle. Kember argues further that this instils a 'new biological hegemony' in the computational and technosciences (pp.6-7). Chapter two, 'The meaning of life part I: The new biology' immediately explores Kember's claims, focusing on the well-known work of Richard Dawkins and his thesis on the selfish gene. Kember reads Dawkins as arguing from a perspective of genetic determinism. Moreover, she argues further that the shift in Dawkins' work from genes to memes--seemingly self-driven culturally replicating ideas--is just a slight of hand which attempts to escape the eugenic overtones of genetic determinism, while actually reinscribing those idea en masse. Dawkins' work is highly influential upon ALife designers as their goal is similarly to cause the spontaneous evolution of life from basic originary units (digital genes), and Kember concludes that the sociobiological genetic determinism of Dawkins is intrinsic to many current ALife design projects. The third chapter, 'Artificial Life', looks more specifically at scientific ALife designers and their work. While many of the ALifers that Kember discusses do appear to hold Dawkinsesque views, Kember makes a number of strong points about inconsistencies between such views and the actual operation of ALife simulations. Key among these is the role of the creator: while evolutionary theory may have 'killed God', ALife designers who purport to model evolution necessarily involve the scientist-as-creator setting the original Garden-of-Eden-like parameters, in effect acting as God for their digital subjects. Similarly, Kember charts the more traditional feminist reading of ALife scientists as enacting parthogenic fantasies of masculine reproduction and birth without the need for women or mothers. The chapter concludes with a carefully balanced call for feminist engagement with ALife which is not exclusively about resisting the hegemony of the biological, but works productively with these trends.

Chapter four shares considerable ground with The Video Game Theory Reader as Kember examines contemporary computer games which use ALife theories, such as Maxis Inc's range of Sim games and Creatures which was actually designed by ALife scientist Steve Grand. Kember looks at most of the Sims franchise, but focuses on SimEarth, which is a planetary evolution simulator, and SimLife which emphasises genetics and evolution in more specific ways. Kember concludes that what 'Sim games do most effectively is naturalise genetic and evolutionary determinism in an environmentalist educational scenario and - in the case of SimLife - introduce ALife in to one area of popular culture' (p.91). Steve Grand's Creatures also provided some insights into the tensions between ALife/game designers and the public at large. Kember notes that while Grand's game was designed to emphasize kinship with the artificial life creatures, often the biggest appeal to gameplayers was to create hybrid creatures or to torture existing ones. These observations, Kember concludes, show a lack of kinship with ALife in the public consciousness. Chapter five, 'Network identities' expands the ideas of ALife beyond science and specific games to look at proto-ALife, such as 'Bots', which are tiny software agents spread across the internet for various purposes and which are sometimes self-editing. Kember also analyses Nick Gessler's computational anthropology work and his 'artificial culture' simulations which seek not only to synthesize life, but culture per se as well. Chapter six, 'The meaning of life part 2: Genomics', goes a step further, analysing transgenic organisms and so forth which Kember defines as 'wetware artificial life-forms' (p.147). Cloning (both human and non-human), the human genome project, as well as popular films such as Alien: Resurrection and Gattaca are all analysed as part of the broader cultural and genomic imaginary which is, in part, informed by ALife discourses. Kember is careful in these last two chapters to emphasise the importance of dialogue between feminism and ALife (and related discourses) rather than make strongly judgemental claims.

The final two chapters attempt to bridge the so-called Science Wars, in which humanities and literary writing was (sometimes rightly) accused of engaging with scientific writing without taking the time to understand the scientific concepts. Kember argues strongly for a cyberfeminist engagement with ALife discourses and technoscience in general which keeps dialogue open and ethics firmly in sight. Kember concludes that it is at times necessary to escape the nature versus culture debates which have characterised the Science Wars, and which much feminist writing has relied upon, in favour of a 'bioethics of posthuman identity within alife discourse which cyberfeminism might productively contribute to' (p.216). While Kember's conclusions are certainly pragmatic in terms of keeping dialogue open, they may be a bit open ended for some readers. However, there can be no doubting the significant contribution Kember has made in articulating the important dialogue between feminism and artificial life discourses. Moreover, Kember's work has considerable insights beyond its immediate target audience, making this an important text for those involved in research into posthumanism, cybercultural studies, feminist theory and ideas of subjectivity as they are rearticulated in the early twenty-first century.
Comments are most welcome!


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