Natural-Born Cyborgs by Andy Clark: Technology makes us smarter, it does not make me smarter.

Natural-Born CyborgsSay the word, “cyborg” and people imagine the fictional Borg from Star Trek, humans implanted with technology, penetrating their skulls to enhance their brains. Frightening. We consider it perfectly acceptable, however, to extend our intelligence and abilities by using technology outside our bodies, everything from speech to pen and paper to computers. Is there a difference? Andy Clark, author of Natural-Born Cyborgs does not think so. “We are, in short, in the grip of a seductive but quite untenable illusion: the illusion that the mechanisms of mind and self can ultimately unfold only on some privileged stage marked out by the good old-fashioned skin-bag. My goal is to dispel this illusion, and to show how a complex matrix of brain, body, and technology can actually constitute the problem-solving machine that we should properly identify as ourselves.” I find myself in agreement with many of Clark’s ideas, except finally for the vital role of personal control in critical reflection.

Clark knows his Heidegger — humans are technological to the core. We readily project feeling and sensation beyond the shell, e.g., the cane of a blind person. In a neat demonstration of visual memory, he shows how we only store outlines and make errors when pressed for details. We store metadata but interpolate baseline data. It demonstrates our dependence on external storage devices. We are born to do this, argues Clark. Our brains are plastic, adjusting to our tools. As our tools become more intelligent, we are able to make more intelligent tools, bootstrap style. He foresees a future of ubiquitous invisible computing, allowing us to pluck answers on demand from the ether. Published in 2003, his vision seems close at hand. Be careful. When learning a pattern, outlined from A to Z, it may be efficient to offload Q and R, but this is not the same as only storing A, hoping to retrieve the rest later on. Our brains still have to do the hard work of learning the patterns. An entry in Wikipedia on nuclear physics does not qualify a person to teach it.

Phantom pain shows that the body is a transitory construct. If mind does not stop at the skin, what exactly is a self? I agree with Clark’s alignment of self with our narrative, our story, projects and intentions. If we wear special goggles and gloves that allow us to see and operate mechanical arms elsewhere, our sense of self is carried along. It is not that there is no self, but instead a “soft self”. In Clark’s view, it renders us “good to go”. He predicts “new waves of almost invisible, user-sensitive, semi-intelligent, knowledge-based electronics and software … perfectly posed to merge seamlessly with individual biological brains.” I could not help but compare Clark’s soft self with the Buddhist teaching that there is no essential self. I have difficulty imagining, however, that the Buddhists with their “be here now” philosophy would share his vision. Technological augmentation would just compound the illusion of self.

Clark says there is no difference between knowing the time in your head and being able to retrieve it quickly from a watch. There is a difference with regard to personal control, but it is less obvious with a watch than, say, a sandwich board where the information is entirely public. Technology externalizes our minds, making us smarter, not making me smarter. It may be efficient to offload some of our thinking to technology, but it also takes away the personal perspective needed to observe and evaluate it, and the personal ability to choose against it. If technology is going to do more thinking for us, it will become more difficult to critically evaluate it. Clark prefers transparent or invisible technologies, ones that are always on and do not make the user think. He contrasts these with tangible technologies with a noticeable edge, an off button. Perhaps all technologies should be scheduled for occasional shutdown and evaluation.