External Memory

Posted: October 28, 2007 in Idealism, Philosophy
Tags: , , ,

I’ve lost my focus with this blog. When I started, I had imagined collecting and refining my ideas about a general theory of mind and its intersection with culture. That has been the principal intellectual preoccupation of my adulthood. Although I don’t have college degrees in the usual disciplines that most researchers and philosophers on the subject have (psychology and historical psychology, anthropology, neurology and brain surgery, cognitive and learning theory, and philosophy), I’ve synthesized a lot of information that comes from these disciplines. Indeed, to even begin requires a formidable interdisciplinary breadth. In a certain respect, I’m wholly unqualified to tackle the subject, but in other respects, I’m precisely the sort of person to do so. Regrettably, other things got in the way, such as earning a living. And besides, consciousness is a moving target, which is one of my points.

Almost from the inception of this blog I’ve been delaying discussions about and further investigation of consciousness and the mind in favor of dire predictions of The Collapse stemming from overpopulation, environmental degradation, global warming and climate change, the end of oil, etc. What could be more significant that humanity’s demise at its own hand? There are no links there because maybe half my blog entries have been about those topics. Interspersed are observations about the culture at large and a few lighter, more humorous posts about a variety of nonsense.

I’ve also adopted a conspicuously dense though abbreviated form for most entries. I rarely blog over 3 or 4 paragraphs. That’s partly out of a desire not to bore my few readers or to write excessively long, scholarly tomes on a blog. I can’t say whether that choice has been successful, as there is little discussion going on in the comments. I have only two, maybe three faithful commentators and not very many more visitors. So perhaps longer, more self-indulgent entries might appear with fuller explications of my themes.

The launching point for refocusing my ideas and this blog, if I can hold to it, is this blog post by Ezra Klein. Or is it David Brooks? Or is it National Geographic? Or is it Neil Postman’s story of the Judgment of Thamus from his book Technopoly? Or is it Oliver Sachs in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat? (That’s a lot to digest.) It turns out to be an infinite regress to search for the genesis of the idea of external memory. But Ezra Klein’s post brought it all back to me. The notion of external memory isn’t especially new, though the ways technology continues to externalize our experience and interpretations of the meaning behind such shifts (outsourcing, some call it) proceed apace. Some of the discussion is good, some is banal.

Memory, perception, and cognition are closely intertwined, as studies of memory-impaired people have revealed. In the field of psychometrics, which has received a lot of attention in the past fifty years, the phrase “bandwidth of consciousness” is sometimes used to refer to the idea that of all the potential information or stimulation out there to which we might attend, conscious human experience is actually quite limited by design. It’s as if we operate in the dark, wearing a miner’s hat, selectively shining light in this direction or that depending on where we look, illuminating our particular momentary interests. In the information deluge that characterizes the current era, more and more stimuli simultaneously compete for our attention, though our perceptual capacity and processing bandwidth (throughput?) hasn’t appreciably changed. So it’s no surprise that some parts of perception, memory, and indeed cognition are now foisted onto external devices.

Brooks’ example is the GPS system in his car, which has made him dependent upon unthinkingly following the instructions of the device to get to and fro — made him an automaton, in short, at least for that behavior. A more immediate example is the calculator, without which many people — students and adults alike — cannot perform simple calculations. Yet another example is the needlessness of memorizing phone numbers, which isn’t a disability per se but an instance of something previous generations mastered routinely but current ones don’t. Depending on the example, it’s either a type of learned helplessness or a cognitive skill never acquired and developed.

The implications for identity are considerable. The first movie of The Matrix trilogy introduces a character, Neo, who feels intuitively that something just isn’t right. Viewers learn that he lives within a virtual reality, a reality constructed by computers that use humans as an energy source. The basic human relationship with technology is that people have implants to provide access to the matrix directly through the nervous system, which in turn provides access to both information and superhuman capabilities while within the matrix. Information on martial arts and how to fly a helicopter is simply downloaded and the characters perform those tasks, but the significant thing is that despite all the fighting and flying, the characters are neither martial artists nor helicopter pilots. Those skills are temporary, not the result of experience, and are stored outside their bodies in the computer. The characters merely run the program for fighting or flying a helicopter but have no actual identity as fighters or pilots.

Knowledge warehoused externally and tapped into at will is depicted even more insightfully in the movie Ghost in the Shell: Innocence. The principal characters are police detectives who have been equipped with partially or wholly cybernetic bodies that provide access to computer databases and other forms of external memory. For the entirely cybernetic character, only the “ghost” of her consciousness remains of her human body, hence the title. The insightful aspect of this story is that as the characters go about their detective work and indeed their lives, they suffer from fairly radical identity crises about the nature of what it means to be human. They are given to ruminations on Descartes, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and others, which their enlarged memories enable them to quote, but they don’t understand their intuitions and mostly operate in a fog of confusion.

We appear to be headed straight for such a future. A growing number of books describe modification of human biology with external memory, perception, and processing devices: Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future by James Hughes, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement by Ramez Naam, Radical Evolution by Joel Garreau, Designer Evolution: A Transhumanist Manifesto by Simon Young, Our Posthuman Future by Francis Fukuyama, The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil, and Redesigning Humans by Gregory Stock. (All of these presume we can survive the next 100 years or so.) The anticipation of merging robotics with human biology raises the ugly specter of the Borg from Star Trek, not that these authors appear to be troubled by such an antihuman or inhumane possibility.

  1. greywhitie says:

    not suggesting that you should prostitute yourself, but perhaps something other than doom and gloom might draw a larger audience. lighten up a bit.

  2. Brutus says:

    I’m really more interested in developing my ideas than I am writing to attract an audience, as if I knew for sure how to attract readers. If I’ve dwelled on too much doom and gloom for a while, it’s because it needs attention. All of us would no doubt prefer to bury our heads in the sand and pretend bad things aren’t happening, whether they be our doing or not. However, having personal ethics and integrity demands looking into this particular abyss and facing up to it somehow.

  3. greywhitie says:

    i worry about a lot of things i can’t do a darn thing about, such as the tasmanian devil’s threatening extinction, war and violence in africa, asia, and other parts of the world. if i could spare a dime, i could write a check, but a whole lot of good that would do, eh?

    i am fighting 2 medical conditions for which there is no known cure. one has a vaccine, but too late for me. can’t vaccinate against something you already have. the other has no vaccine but had drugs for symptom management. what can i do? the best that i can to prolong my life so that my baby doesn’t go without a mommy in her early years.

    no, we should not ignore the problems of the world and say “this is not my problem.” but there are some things worth smiling about, such as hash brownies, a dog’s unconditional love (let’s not think about animal cruelty), zero-caloried fake sugar, DDR, dinosaur eggs, rainbows, etc. etc.

  4. You certainly think things through and often recognize and point out important social missteps. I haven’t seen the Matrix movies or the books you’ve read concerning human biology. But I’m willing to bet that the explosion of technological innovation that’s occurred within my lifetime so far can’t possibly affect who-I-really-am. For better or worse, I’m stuck with myself till I die. And if science and medicine can cure greywhite, through microchips or a pinch here or there along her double helix, wherever it’s lodged, I say HURRAY! Turning into an automaton doesn’t feel intuitively possible to me. Not me, I swear: I am much, much too human to where it’s a persistent and often embarrassing problem.

    Whatever you post interests me, as you know. But I don’t think you need to fear raging fans dogging your every move. The most popular blog going gets nowhere near as much attention as a mediocre TV show. If you were ever inclined to express why you think certain topics engage you emotionally–the intellectually qualities I take for granted –it would for me dramatically enrich your perspective. So get to it, Brutus! Take a wild leap see if you can indulge yourself like mad here. My guess is that you’ll vastly broaden both your bandwidth and ours.

  5. greywhitie says:

    “And if science and medicine can cure greywhite, through microchips or a pinch here or there along her double helix, wherever it’s lodged, I say HURRAY!”

    thank you, kathleen. fortunately, science has come a long way in helping folks like me manage our illnesses, if it is not too late. we’ve only got one life to live, and have got to give it every fighting chance there is. before becoming a mother, i only had myself to live for, and it didn’t matter to me how long i lived. now i am not just living for myself, and it matters that i live as long as possible for my child. as a mother, you know that no one can replace the love of a mother, and we do the best we can with what we’ve got.

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