London Technology Week : How is Technology Affecting Our Minds?


London Technology Week takes place in June and, for those that know me, this is kind of an awesome deal.


Because I’m obsessed with Extended Mind Theory.


EMT all started with two philosopher types, Andy Clark and David Chalmers, who wrote an essay in the early 1990s positing a form of ‘active externalism’. This, most simply put, is the idea that there is a dynamic and constantly developing relationship between our minds (ie. our cognitive abilities such as thinking, remembering, calculating etc) and the external world around us.

For example: it’s pretty normal to use calendars to remember events like birthdays or meetings, and almost everyone uses their mobile phone to store numbers/addresses/emails (or for the ‘old schoolers’ perhaps a phone or address book).

We believe, because these events/numbers/emails correspond to a name in our little calenders/phones/books that the information is true. We believe in the authenticity of the information stored inside these external objects.

But storing information in this way has historically been associated with our ability to remember, a ‘mental event’ that takes place inside our brains.

So EMT, as suggested by Clark and Chalmers, argues that the ‘hegemony of skin and skull’ is broken by things like notebooks (Otto’s in their case) or more recently mobile phones. They act as the mind acts, storing and reliably retrieving information for us.

As Clark and Chalmer’s put it:

‘If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (so we claim) part of the cognitive process. Cognitive processes ain’t (all) in the head!’

extended mind theory

What does this have to do with London Technology Week?

Well it’s because of all the attention on the much-spoken-about, not-so-much-understood idea of ‘The Internet of Things‘. And ‘wearables’ now that I come to think of it.

Since last year, the idea has come along in leaps and bounds. But considering how much the term is bandied around, it sometimes feels like people either know exactly what they’re talking about when they discuss The Internet of Things or absolutely nothing at all.

It’s not a new idea though. Not exactly. A basic breakdown is simply that it’s inanimate objects – thermostats, streetlamps, mobile phones, watches, shoes, that sort of ‘thing’ – only connected to the internet.

internet of things

A good example would be the million-dollar start up from 23-year-old James Proud, whose sleep-tracking Sense product will help us all get a better nights rest.

And why connect all that stuff to the internet?

Consider the amount of runners now who have GPS, a heart rate monitor and a personal trainer all linked up through their watches or phones. In fact, I believe Nike have trainers that come complete with a GPS in the heel so you can calculate how far and fast you run through their running app! As for thermostats, if you’re always turning the heat up in the wee hours of the night because you’re chilly, your new ‘Internet of Thermostats’ will store that information and put it to use so that instead of you waking up with cold feet and needing the heat on, the computer can set the right temperature for going to sleep, staying asleep and waking up, all before you so much as shiver.

A great article to check out to see how ‘Things’ and Smart Technology are adapting is Leo Mirani’s in Quartz.

This is why London Technology Week is so exciting for EMT

All in all, the ideas driving The Internet of Things are probably the most fascinating because it’s a marked step in terms of our social evolution but it’s also fascinating when considering our cognitive evolution.

There have been several articles written about how in the not-so-distant-future the internet, especially search engines like google, will affect us.

But isn’t Google Making Us Stupid?

That’s the now-famous question asked by Nicholas Carr in 2008 and it’s still pertinent today.

Many of us will not bother to remember certain things because Google can be accessed whenever and however we want through Smart technology. Many more of us no longer bother with the epic dinner table debates on who wrote what song or who won what race or what is the difference is between a pond and a lake, because at the touch of a button, Google will tell us.

But since it’s so reliably used in this way, since it directs our belief system and remembers our favourite searches, and since it not-so-surreptitiously lays down a traceable path from A to B in much the same way that our minds would – what implications does this have for concepts such as active externalism and EMT? Could this mean that somehow, everything Google knows, we now ‘know’ in the way that we ‘know’ where our shoes are in the morning or where we were on 9/11? It seems ridiculous to support such a notion. It seems counter-intuitive.

A more likely scenario is that much like the notebooks and phone books – traditional and digital – the internet has memory-like qualities when used in a particular way. It also has further mind-like qualities insofar as it allows us to more easily complete complex arithmetic (type a sum or a conversion into Google and doop-de-doop it’s done!) or figure out non-verbal reasoning and spacial problems. And without the internet, our internal structures, how we try to do things in our minds, would be completely transformed without them. It’s a ‘coupling’ thing. Now that so many of us are so reliably coupled with a Smart device, our mental landscape would be utterly different if that device was lost.

What implications might that have for us ethically?

In Sophie Kinsella’s Got Your Number, the protagonist has her phone stolen out of her hand by a cyclist. This heroine, who has just lost her priceless engagement ring as well, is clearly more upset about the phone than the ring.

How can she live without her phone? It’s like having a limb ripped away from her. She feels like she’s lost something irreplaceable.

If EMT was ever mainstreamed, could disruption to our ‘extended mind’ count as grievous bodily harm? Would it mean that internet access genuinely represented a basic human right rather than a helpful hand in our daily lives? Would it mean that our personal identities became wrapped up in the Internet of Things?

surveillance state

Parts of it sound really creepy.

The Internet of Thing has a creepy side. Big Brother creepy. When we talk about the Covert Sphere and the Surveillance State, we’re really talking in complete ignorance to how things might be in the world of the Internet of Things.

With the internet constantly taking in and adapting your environment to suit you, your whole world extends into a semi-public sphere.

We find it difficult when the idea of our Facebook being accessed by our boss is mentioned, so what would happen if your boss could also see what you keep in your fridge or how far you really ran when you said you did five miles – just because everything is linked up and cohered through your multiple smart devices? More and more would come under public observation, and if that happens, what happens to the ideas of personal identity and the private self – does it disappear as our minds extend and our mental spaces become shared, public realms like Google or Facebook?

There’s a lot that’s still unknown, but with the technological, psychological and ethical all being challenged by the rapid growth in The Internet of Things, it seems there’s much that we need to discuss. Let the conversation commence!
Je serai poète et toi poésie, 

6 thoughts on “London Technology Week : How is Technology Affecting Our Minds?

  1. Chris says:

    So, if the internet can predict what we each want and how we will each behave, with the ability to manage Big Data, can it collectively predict the future?


    • thescribblebug says:

      Good question! It certainly blurs the boundaries around determinism and free will, so why not be able to predict the future? Then again, thought-experiment novels like Richard Powers’ ‘Plowing the Dark’ look at the limitations of harnessing technology in order to make predictions and it falls down time and again on anomalous trends etc. Of course, that’s just an exercise, whereas now we might really be able to see it in practice!


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