Technology as brain peripherals

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2010

Via George Dvorsky, a philosophical push-back against that persistent “teh-intarwebz-be-makin-uz-stoopid” riff, as espoused by professional curmudgeon Nick Carr (among others)… and I’m awarding extra points to Professor Andy Clark at the New York Times not just for arguing that technological extension or enhancement of the mind is no different to repair or support of it, but for mentioning the lyrics to an old Pixies tune. Yes, I really am that easily swayed*.

There is no more reason, from the perspective of evolution or learning, to favor the use of a brain-only cognitive strategy than there is to favor the use of canny (but messy, complex, hard-to-understand) combinations of brain, body and world. Brains play a major role, of course. They are the locus of great plasticity and processing power, and will be the key to almost any form of cognitive success. But spare a thought for the many resources whose task-related bursts of activity take place elsewhere, not just in the physical motions of our hands and arms while reasoning, or in the muscles of the dancer or the sports star, but even outside the biological body — in the iPhones, BlackBerrys, laptops and organizers which transform and extend the reach of bare biological processing in so many ways. These blobs of less-celebrated activity may sometimes be best seen, myself and others have argued, as bio-external elements in an extended cognitive process: one that now criss-crosses the conventional boundaries of skin and skull.

One way to see this is to ask yourself how you would categorize the same work were it found to occur “in the head” as part of the neural processing of, say, an alien species. If you’d then have no hesitation in counting the activity as genuine (though non-conscious) cognitive activity, then perhaps it is only some kind of bio-envelope prejudice that stops you counting the same work, when reliably performed outside the head, as a genuine element in your own mental processing?


Many people I speak to are perfectly happy with the idea that an implanted piece of non-biological equipment, interfaced to the brain by some kind of directly wired connection, would count (assuming all went well) as providing material support for some of their own cognitive processing. Just as we embrace cochlear implants as genuine but non-biological elements in a sensory circuit, so we might embrace “silicon neurons” performing complex operations as elements in some future form of cognitive repair. But when the emphasis shifts from repair to extension, and from implants with wired interfacing to “explants” with wire-free communication, intuitions sometimes shift. That shift, I want to argue, is unjustified. If we can repair a cognitive function by the use of non-biological circuitry, then we can extend and alter cognitive functions that way too. And if a wired interface is acceptable, then, at least in principle, a wire-free interface (such as links your brain to your notepad, BlackBerry or iPhone) must be acceptable too. What counts is the flow and alteration of information, not the medium through which it moves.

Lots of useful ideas in there for anyone working on a new cyborg manifesto, I reckon… and some interesting implications for the standard suite of human rights, once you start counting outboard hardware as part of the mind. (E.g. depriving someone of their handheld device becomes similar to blindfolding or other forms of sensory deprivation.)

[ * Not really. Well, actually, I dunno; you can try and convince me. Y’know, if you like. Whatever. Ooooh, LOLcats! ]

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2 Responses to “Technology as brain peripherals”

  1. Evil Rocks says:

    ‘Peripherals’ is such a boring word…how about ‘prosthetics’?

  2. Wintermute says:

    I remember reading an article a while back which discussed how we think through our external environment. (Where’s those damn *functioning* replacement neurons when you need them!) In particular, that scientists and mathematicians cannot think in the manner that they do without the external implements of chalk and board or paper and pencil. Sort of a “medium is the massage” effect.

    I’d totally agree that there is potential to augment and extend our minds.

    There is also potential to diminish and wither our minds.

    Just as Dvorsky states it’s “the information, not the medium” which counts, so it’s not at all clear that sending a billion lolsp34k texts instead of a few hundred slow, well-composed writings counts as us, as humans and/or as a human-internet gestalt “getting collectively smarter”. Quantity of processing and size of infrastructure does not a smarter brain make. Artificial General Intelligence community learned it the hard way.

    Just because Jobs’ marketing department’s fMRI machines determined that calling their gadgets “smart phone” would move the most units does not mean that these phones or the cloud they connect to are necessarily smart.