Our Extended Minds

Illustration Credit: Nick Matej

Do you feel nostalgic about the times when we, humans, could start a fire without matches? No? Me neither. You don’t find opinion pieces in newspapers lamenting how the invention of matchsticks has brought about an end to the good old days when we rubbed rocks to create fire. Times of India in its hallmark hyperbolism asks, “Are web searches killing our grey cells?” Another article in ‘Huffington post’ enquires, “Is Internet killing our creativity?” Every other day, according to these newspapers, this serial killer is killing something. At times, it is your reading habits. At other times, it is your culture. On one day, Internet is killing your empathy. While, on most days, it is killing the newspaper itself. Is such anxiety warranted?

The Internet has been a blessing. It has enabled us to do what we could have hardly imagined in the pre-Internet era. We have outsourced a part of our memory to the cloud. With easy access, the information on the Internet has become a part of our highly augmented mind. The smartphone has become an essential part of our extended mind. The plunge in the costs of camera have helped us capture our memories in more enduring ways in the form of images as well as videos. The Social Media, despite all its flaws, has given us a new form of social awareness which brings us much closer than we imagine. If technology is enhancing the human mind in every way, what is the fuss all about? Is technology really rewiring the human brain? Aren’t we the one in control?

We have traditionally thought of our mind as being limited to our brain. While the brain is a tangible organ of our body, the human mind is much more than that. It is an invisible entity that transcends our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and imagination.

The act of cognition isn’t restricted to the grey matter in our skull. David Chalmers and Andy Clark call this belief a kind of “skull chauvinism”. In ‘The extended mind thesis’, a seminal work in the philosophy of mind, these cognitive philosophers suggest that the objects within our environment function as parts of our mind. It is arbitrary to say that the mind is contained inside the skull. Our external environment plays a significant role in aiding the cognitive process. The brain and the environment work together in a coupled system to create effective cognition. When we use pen and paper to solve long divisions, a part of our cognition takes place on the paper. Once the Historian Charles Wiener told the famous physicist Richard Feynman that his notebooks were a wonderful “record of his day-to-day work”. Feynman replied that the notebooks weren’t the record of his thinking process. They were his thinking process. Complex acts of cognition become almost impossible without external aid and Feynman clearly understood the extended mind. We have moved on from using just pen and paper as our extended mind. Our smartphones are always with us, ready to connect us to the world on a click. Clark & Chalmers used the example of a notebook that an amnesic person can carry. The notebook does the job what his mind can’t remember. Smartphones are way better as our extended minds.

I remember as a Kid I could recite a lot of phone numbers. It was obligatory to memorise the phone numbers of your loved ones. Today, that is hardly the case. A study by Kaspersky Lab in 2015 suggests that half the Europeans couldn’t remember the phone numbers of their family members. This shouldn’t shock us.

The human mind isn’t built for such brute memorization. We have learnt to outsource our memory. Smartphones do it for us. They have no problem storing numerous series of random ten digit numbers.

When you can’t remember a particular actor’s name, you google instantly. If you want to be reminded about a task on your to-do list, you can set an alarm. Your smartphone won’t falter on its promise. We are increasingly liberating our brain from the age old shackles of a limited and unreliable memory.

Another important gift of the Internet has been that it has turned all of us into writers. This is an often overlooked phenomenon which is transforming the way we think. From the notorious 144 character Tweets and Facebook updates to the emails, blog posts and our long heartfelt answers on knowledge sharing websites like Quora and Medium, we are creating massive digital libraries every day. If we just count the emails and our ramblings on social media, we are composing at least 35 million books everyday equivalent to the entire U.S. Library of Congress. Even after applying Sturgeon’s law which says that ninety percent of everything is rubbish, we are left with writings worth more than three million books every day.

The Internet brings people around the world together, giving them a platforms to discuss obscure topics. This wasn’t possible before the Internet. You simply couldn’t find enough people around you passionate about the same things you loved. Now, websites like Reddit enable you to participate in communities around extremely niche topics like woodworking and gardening with thousands of people around the world deliberating on minutiae of that subject. The point is not that there is so much to learn; we never had a scarcity of things to learn. The point is that this endless writing is making us think a particular way and it is, in turn, creating particular kind of minds. Writing involves some extra cognitive effort than mere thinking. The act of writing forces us to put down our assumptions and biases on the screen and this helps us to think logically. This is what social scientists call the Generation effect. Writing crystallises the thought. The poet Cecil Day-Lewis said:

We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.

It is easy to win an argument in your head but quite difficult to do it when others are listening. Writing on Internet is not your plain nineteenth century writing. It has a blend of the conversations that we closely recognize with ancient Greek societies which thought through dialogues. This is creating minds that are more accustomed to learning through debate and discussions. We have become more like Socrates and left Rodin, the Thinker behind.

Clark and Chalmers do not consider all of our environment as an extended mind. The parts of your extended mind should be easily accessible & reliable. Internet data is getting cheaper every day, its access expanding to every corner of the country. The Internet speed is at an all-time high. This makes it qualify the accessibility condition. The Internet has truly become our extended mind. I use Internet as a proxy for all technologies for two reasons. First, the Internet has engulfed all the mediums: text, audio, video & much more. Second, the future of technology is also Internet. Today, we have Internet of Information. Increasingly, we will have Internet of things. So, what Internet does to human mind & what we do with the Internet is a key to understand the interface between technology & the human mind. We must celebrate our new-found superhuman capabilities. However, a word of caution is in order. John Culkin, a media scholar, once said, “We shape our tools and thereafter, they shape us.”

It is redundant to say that the new technologies are changing our minds. Almost everything changes our mind. It is because of our brain’s neuroplasticity, the ability of our brain to change itself during our lifetime. The more we do a particular task, the neurons involved gets closely linked. The less we do it, the links fade away. Scientists explain neuroplasticity with a simple aphorism called Hebb’s rule, “Cells that fire together, wire together.” Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist, popularized the term “Medium is the Message” in his book ‘Understanding Media’. He understood that as every new medium comes into existence, people are enamored by its content: stories in the books, the news in the newspapers, commentaries on radio, shows on television and almost everything on the Internet. We are so engrossed in the flashy new content that the medium vanishes. McLuhan says that in the long run the content hardly matters. It is the medium that changes us. Every medium brings with it a culture of thinking. The invention of clock changed our conception of time. It encouraged punctuality. The invention of maps changed the way we perceive space. Books were the perfect mediums to train our mind to think in a linear way. Books only had texts written in them in a linear style. As we read books, our brains rewired themselves for parsing through long passages, thinking through logical arguments in an almost meditative manner. That was the long term impact of the technology of the book. The medium was the message and the message was clear: solitary, linear and almost meditative reading and hence similar thinking.

The culture of thinking that the Internet encourages cannot be more different. Just try to read a news on the Internet. A traditional newspaper has text and images. The cognitive choices are simple: Read the headlines. If it interests you, read the news. Reading newspaper online drains your cognitive energy. A free newspaper website usually has about 40% of its digital real estate covered with advertisement. These advertisements aren’t even static, they change every few seconds. This distracts our mind. Then you get the ‘news flash’ borrowed from Television news channels- a banner that shows you the breaking news. The web page is strewn with hyperlinks. The problem with hyperlinks is that they do not just require the cognitive efforts of reading. The brain first assess if the link is important. Then it decides if you should click on the link. This apparently requires the brain to work in a similar manner as when you solve a mathematical problem. Studies have shown that as the number of hyperlinks increases, our ability to understand a piece falls drastically. This is a good representation of the entire Internet. We can no longer sit alone & read for long. We have lost our abilities of ‘Deep Thinking’, a term used by Nicholas Carr. We are becoming suckers for irrelevant information.

McLuhan also knew that if we outsource the functions of a body part, that natural part becomes ‘numb’. What he means is that with the invention of power looms, the weavers lost their manual dexterity. When we write on computer for long, our hands lose their ability to write the beautiful cursive we were taught in schools. A modern farmer’s loss of his feel for the soil may just be an irrational nostalgia but when the technology ‘numbs’ our intellectual faculties, it should be a cause of concern. Intellectual technologies like clock, maps, books or the internet cannot be easily abandoned once they are adopted. The intellectual technology once embraced become indispensable.

Joseph Weizenbaum, one of the fathers of modern Artificial Intelligence, warned, “The introduction of computers into some complex human activities may constitute an irreversible commitment.” We usually encourages the effective product, the most user friendly product, one that makes our life easiest. We should be wary of which intellectual technologies we embrace because once we accept them, we may not remain in control for long. The lesson is simple: your devices should not make your life too easy.

Cognitive diversity is equally important. You should not let your mind be dependent on such on medium. If you surf for an hour, take some time to read a book alone. It is the digital equivalent of walking in the woods after a long tiring day.

Many scientists believe that the accelerated pace at which Artificial Intelligence is improving can make humans obsolete. They talk about technological singularity, a point at which a machine would enter a “runaway reaction” of self-improvement cycles. With each iteration, we will see exponentially more intelligent machines that its predecessor. This, they believe, will bring such unfathomable changes to human civilization that we can’t even imagine yet. Hence, the name ‘singularity’, a metaphor borrowed from mathematics, which means a point where equations no longer makes sense. Similarly, in Physics, singularity is a point where the law of physics no longer work like in the center of the black hole.

In 1993, Vernor Vinge, a scientist and Science fiction writer who made the term popular famously said, “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” Ray Kurzweil, the futurist, agrees with Vinge but he thinks that that his estimates were too optimistic. Kurzweil predicts that we will experience technological singularity by about 2045. In matters of just a few years, it will topple the institutes and pillars of society. This will completely change the way we see ourselves. In Kurzweil’s opinion, we will get to such singularity after creating a superhuman artificial intelligent machine that will be capable conceiving ideas that none of us has ever thought about.

So, it turns out that the newspapers aren’t entirely wrong. The technology is certainly changing the human mind, just like it always has. The only difference is the pace and magnitude of change. Even if we wanted to, we can’t stop the technological progress. As technology advances, so will the human mind. We need to embrace technology while being extremely cautious about its long term impacts. Machines are great at brute calculations. Humans are good at creativity and intuition. The future should not be looked at as a battle in which humans are pitted against machine. It is more likely to be a fusion band with electric Guitars, Tabla and Sitars. We need to go beyond our “skull chauvinism” and accept that our mind will have biological as well as non-biological parts. At the same time, we must refuse to delegate to machine the activities that are essentially human, those involving human wisdom, not just intelligence. We have some good examples to show us the way ahead. Take the case of the advanced chess. In 1997, IBM supercomputer Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov, the world champion in the game of chess. ‘Brain’s last stand’, a magazine proclaimed. Did human mind lose to Technology that day?

A new form of chess was soon invented- human-computer collaborative chess. Computers can easily process millions of moves in a second and check millions of previous games with similar situations. Humans can’t do that. Humans are good at intuition. They do not think about thousands of moves and select the optimum one. When asked how many moves he can see out, the Cuban grand master Jose Raul Capablanca said, “One, the best one.” There is a beauty about human intelligence. Computer intelligence is quite mechanistic. In 6 1998, Garry Kasparov played the first public game of human-computer collaborative chess. Soon, such games became popular. In 2005, there was a “freestyle” chess tournament where the team could consist of any number of humans or machines, in any combination. Some teams had several grand masters. Others had powerful machines. Finally, the team that won consisted of two relative amateurs playing with their elementary Dell laptop. The message is simple: a cyborg that leverages the best parts of human and computer intelligence is far better than powerful supercomputers & humans working alone.

Kadyalwar Sunil Abhinav

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