Monday, March 25, 2013

The Extended Mind: Alberta Primetime Edition

Last Wednesday I, along with Ray Bilodeau of the J.R. Shaw School of Business at NAIT, was in a television discussion about the effects of smart technology on human intelligence.   The discussion was spawned when the team that puts the Alberta Primetime program together wondered  whether offloading memory and knowledge to smart phones and the like had detrimental effects on the human abilities of memorizing and thinking.  I think both panelists agreed that smart technology does not make us stupid, but you can be the judge: a link to that portion of the Alberta Primetime telecast is below.

There were a number of delightful ironies related to that panel.  How did I get the opportunity to be part of it?  My name came up in a web search by a producer, they sent me an e-mail, I pointed them to my February 18 blog post on the extended mind (“Where is the mind, and why does its location matter?”), and that was that.  In short, smart technology was responsible for me talking about its effects!

After agreeing to appear on the panel, I decided that I needed to prepare, and performed some additional web browsing and reading.  This immediately led me to several interesting sources, including Nicholas Carr’s famous article in The Atlantic that asked if Google was making us stupid.  The producer helpfully e-mailed links to some additional material, which also included Carr’s piece.

I do not agree with Carr’s argument (it is too anecdotal), but it led me to a wonderful example of how this debate about the effects of technology on intelligence is effectively 2400 years old.  Carr cites Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus as providing an argument about the negative effects of the written word.  I hunted down Plato’s Complete Works (1997, edited by John M. Cooper, Hackett publishing) from my son’s extensive philosophy library.  There I found the claim that writing “will introduce forgetfulness into the soil of those who learned: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality” (pp. 551-552).  Of course, we only know of Socrates’ teachings because Plato wrote.  Carr cites Plato, who wrote about Socrates 2400 years ago, and I extend my knowledge a little further by doing some reading!

Of course, the World Wide Web and smart phones are only the latest tools for extending the mind.  To the probable dismay of Socrates, the written word is a far more pervasive technology for extending human cognition.  Not long after my television appearance, I finished reading a book on the history of computer programming languages (Go To by Steve Lohr, Basic Books, 2001).  In a chapter on the history of the GUI and the Mackintosh, Lohr cites some classic work – completely unknown by me – by J.C.R. Licklider, who was a Harvard-trained psychologist.  While working for Bolt, Beranek and Newman, Licklider published a paper that presciently argued that the goal of computing was to augment intelligence, and not to substitute for it.

I was intrigued by Lohr’s mention of this work, partly because Licklider was a psychologist, and partly because I had been thinking more about the extended mind after appearing on the Alberta Primetime panel.  Naturally, I used a new technology (the World Wide Web) to access an old tool (the written word) when I retrieved Licklider’s 1960 paper “Man-machine symbiosis”.  This paper is full of key ideas, and is particularly interesting to consider in terms of developments in computer technology (and its use) 50 years after it first appeared.  To me, two key themes of embodied cognitive science run throughout Licklider’s piece.  First, his notion of a symbiotic relationship between humans and computers is essentially one of emergence: the extended mind created by this symbiosis is capable of solving different problems than either component is on its own.  Second, Licklider in essence argued that the creation of this symbiosis required advances in affordances: that is, computer technology had to develop in a fashion that led to a seamless man-machine interface.  “It seems likely that the contributions of human operators and equipment will blend together so completely in many operations that it will be difficult to separate them neatly in analysis” (Licklider, 1960, p. 6).

One theme that runs through Licklider’s article is that the human contribution to man-computer symbiosis is to help guide the problem-solving process, and to evaluate its results.  To me, this suggests that by offloading some cognitive tasks to modern technology, we may be freeing our minds for making alternative contributions to extended thought.  Smart technology is not making us stupid; it is making us use our minds in different ways to take advantage of new affordances in the world.



1 comment:

  1. Apparently Einstein said “Never memorize something that you can look up.” Look where that got him.. and imagine where he'd be with Google!