iPhone, therefore I am
The extended mind thesis and the scouring brush

Back in July, Harvard and Virginia university psychologists published the results of a set of experiments which explored the experience of doing nothing but thinking for a short time. One experiment in particular drew widespread attention. Participants were given a mild but uncomfortable electric shock, which all agreed they would pay cash not to get again. But when left alone in a plain room and told to think for about fifteen minutes, a majority chose to re-administer the shock rather than sit quietly. This was seized on, by the psychologists and then by scores of journalists, as indicating that we’re now so reliant on our mobile cache of digital distractions – the latest and apparently greatest of which, the iPhone 6, started selling last Friday – that simply having a little think has become intolerable.

The idea that we’ve gotten worse, especially when it involves lapsing into a technology-induced dystopian stupor, is a perennial journalistic winner. So I hesitate to suggest that people aren’t idiots, and deny us all the scouring brush of reactionary self-loathing. But there is another possibility. Perhaps our minds aren’t degenerating, but disseminating, beyond their traditional cranial confines. And when our hapless peers pressed that shock button, perhaps they were evincing a reflex to use their brains, rather than escape them – or rather, to use them by escaping them. 

A newish idea in modern philosophy of mind, the so-called ‘extended mind thesis’, trades on this sort of intuition. Its chief proponents, British philosopher Andy Clark and Australia’s own David Chalmers, suggest that some objects in our environment are so bound up with mental states and processes as to be part of them, and so part of the mind. The idea is that if an object plays the same role in relation to some mental state or process as would normally be played by a neurological event, then we can and should say that the object is part of the mental state or process. In other words, there may be little basis for defining ‘the mind’, or mental predicates like ‘deciding’, ‘calculating’ or ‘believing’, solely by reference to what’s in the head. So if we’re using software in just the same way as we might have otherwise used our brains (and it’s clear many of us are), then there’s a sense in which we’re reshaping the boundaries of the mind.

In principle that’s nothing new. We’ve been delegating mental functions to the outside world since we first counted on our fingers. But with mobile technology and the internet, the potential to outsource the mind becomes almost limitless. We now have near-constant access to oceans of data, and applications which can plumb and filter them instantaneously. And we’ve come to rely on that state of affairs in some pretty pervasive ways. Lots of us use the internet to resolve factual disputes or queries; to jog our memories and revisit our past; to retain basic particulars of everyday life (addresses, phone numbers, to-do lists, cat gifs); to give step-by-step solutions to common practical obstacles. At least some of these functions are, or get close to, the core business of the mind. When we ship them off-skull, we’re not just opening up a new branch. Over time, we’re making the location of head office (pun fully intended) less clear.

And more important than discrete functions is the sense in which the internet has become a permanent backing chorus to much of what the conscious mind does. We dip in and out of it without even thinking, without feeling like we’re going beyond ourselves. Throughout the day, it augments the trajectory of our thoughts in dozens of subtle ways. This, perhaps, is what prompts the self-shocking: the subject is playing out the compulsive rhythm of pressing a button and getting feedback (even if it’s just a sharp pain), not because she’s trying not to think but because that rhythm has become inseparable from thinking.

Just what all this means is a stonking great question, and I’m not sure we could get through the whole bag of chestnuts here. Suffice to say the extended mind is markedly different from its predecessor. It’s a bit less like a library, a bit more like a library catalogue: good at finding information, not so much storing it. And the difference between storing stuff – memories, skills, knowledge – in our heads and storing it on a server is not small. The thing about what’s in our heads is that it doesn’t just sit there when we’re not using it. It stews. It quietly coalesces with all the other head-stuff, incubating and synthesising and system-building and bubbling up when it needs to (or sometimes inopportunely). And it brings its considerable weight to bear on novel puzzles, encounters and emotions without our even willing it to. It enriches, in a woolly, holistic way, our engagement with the world and with ourselves, the way things strike us and the way we respond. It does this because the brain isn’t just a storage space but a living, evolving thing. When we relegate its functions to our pockets, we’re waiving its unique and mysterious power. We’re reducing it, even if only in small ways, to a parasite.

Of course, we might think that’s a worthwhile exercise – that the profit in dividing mental labour between grey matter and silicon outweighs the loss. But when so much of what the mind does is behind the scenes, it’s hard to know just what and how much we’re losing. Either way, the new iPhone could end up being more than what it says on the box. It could represent not just a new tool for us, but a new part of us: a change, to the mind and so to ourselves, that’s difficult to measure or undo. Out comes that old scouring brush after all.

John Maloney

John Maloney is a lawyer in Melbourne. He has a BPhil in Philosophy from the University of Oxford.

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