This is for Fathima, who is feeling handicapped without her notes & apps. This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote some years ago. This may not be the exact answer to your problem but I feel too lazy right now to edit the piece to your needs. But I think the answers you are looking for lie somewhere in the text below.
We have traditionally thought of our mind as being limited to our brain. While the brain is a tangible organ of our body, the human mind is much more than that. It is an invisible entity that transcends our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and imagination. The act of cognition isn’t restricted to just the grey matter in our skull. David Chalmers and Andy Clark call this belief a kind of “skull chauvinism”. In ‘The extended mind thesis’, a seminal work in the philosophy of mind, these cognitive philosophers suggest that the objects within our environment function as parts of our mind. It is arbitrary to say that the mind is contained inside the skull. Our external environment plays a significant role in aiding the cognitive process. The brain and the environment work together in a coupled system to create effective cognition.
When we use pen and paper to solve long divisions, a part of our cognition takes place on the paper. Once the Historian Charles Wiener told the famous physicist Richard Feynman that his notebooks were a wonderful “record of his day-to-day work”. Feynman replied that the notebooks weren’t the record of his thinking process. They were his thinking process. Complex acts of cognition become almost impossible without external aid and Feynman clearly understood the extended mind. We have moved on from using just pen and paper as our extended mind. Our smartphones are always with us, ready to connect us to the world on a click. Clark & Chalmers used the example of a notebook that an amnesic person can carry. The notebook does the job what his mind can’t- Remember. Smartphones are way better than our extended minds.
I remember as a Kid I could recite a lot of phone numbers. It was obligatory to memorize the phone numbers of your loved ones. Today, that is hardly the case. A study by Kaspersky Lab in 2015 suggests that half the Europeans couldn’t remember the phone numbers of their family members. This shouldn’t shock us. The human mind isn’t built for such brute memorization. We have learnt to outsource our memory. Smartphones do it for us. They have no problem storing numerous series of random ten digit numbers. When you can’t remember a particular actor’s name, you google instantly. If you want to be reminded about a task on your to-do list, you can set an alarm. Your smartphone won’t falter on its promise. We are increasingly liberating our brain from the age old shackles of a limited and unreliable memory.
Another important gift of the Internet has been that it has turned all of us into writers. This is an often overlooked phenomenon which is transforming the way we think. From the notorious 144 character Tweets and Facebook updates to the emails, blog posts and our long heartfelt answers on knowledge sharing websites like Quora and Medium, we are creating massive digital libraries every day. If we just count the emails and our ramblings on social media, we are composing at least 35 million books everyday equivalent to the entire U.S. Library of Congress. Even after applying Sturgeon’s law which says that ninety percent of everything is rubbish, we are left with writings worth more than three million books every day. The Internet brings people around the world together, giving them a platform to discuss obscure topics. This wasn’t possible before the Internet. You simply couldn’t find enough people around you passionate about the same things you loved. Now, websites like Reddit enable you to participate in communities around extremely niche topics like woodworking and gardening with thousands of people around the world deliberating on minutiae of that subject. The point is not that there is so much to learn; we never had a scarcity of things to learn. The point is that this endless writing is making us think a particular way and it is, in turn, creating a particular kind of mind. Writing involves some extra cognitive effort than mere thinking. The act of writing forces us to put down our assumptions and biases on the screen and this helps us to think logically. This is what social scientists call the Generation effect. Writing crystallizes the thought. The poet Cecil Day-Lewis said, “We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.” It is easy to win an argument in your head but quite difficult to do it when others are listening. Writing on the Internet is not your plain nineteenth century writing. It has a blend of the conversations that we closely recognize with ancient Greek societies which thought through dialogues. This is creating minds that are more accustomed to learning through debate and discussions. We have become more like Socrates and left Rodin, the Thinker behind.
Clark and Chalmers do not consider all of our environment as an extended mind. The parts of your extended mind should be easily accessible & reliable. Internet data is getting cheaper every day, its access expanding to every corner of the country. The Internet speed is at an all-time high. This makes it qualify the accessibility condition. The Internet has truly become our extended mind. I use the Internet as a proxy for all technologies for two reasons. First, the Internet has engulfed all the mediums: text, audio, video & much more. Second, the future of technology is also the Internet. Today, we have the Internet of Information. Increasingly, we will have Internet of things. So, what the Internet does to the human mind & what we do with the Internet is a key to understanding the interface between technology & the human mind. We must celebrate our new-found superhuman capabilities. However, a word of caution is in order. John Culkin, a media scholar, once said, “We shape our tools and thereafter, they shape us.”
It is redundant to say that the new technologies are changing our minds. Almost everything changes our mind. It is because of our brain’s neuroplasticity, the ability of our brain to change itself during our lifetime. The more we do a particular task, the neurons involved get closely linked. The less we do it, the links fade away. Scientists explain neuroplasticity with a simple aphorism called Hebb’s rule, “Cells that fire together, wire together.” Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist, popularized the term “Medium is the Message” in his book ‘Understanding Media’. He understood that as every new medium comes into existence, people are enamored by its content: stories in the books, the news in the newspapers, commentaries on radio, shows on television and almost everything on the Internet. We are so engrossed in the flashy new content that the medium vanishes. McLuhan says that in the long run the content hardly matters. It is the medium that changes us. Every medium brings with it a culture of thinking. The invention of the clock changed our conception of time. It encouraged punctuality. The invention of maps changed the way we perceive space. Books were the perfect mediums to train our mind to think in a linear way. Books only had texts written in them in a linear style. As we read books, our brains rewired themselves for parsing through long passages, thinking through logical arguments in an almost meditative manner. That was the long term impact of the technology of the book. The medium was the message and the message was clear: solitary, linear and almost meditative reading and hence similar thinking. The culture of thinking that the Internet encourages cannot be more different. Just try to read the news on the Internet. A traditional newspaper has text and images. The cognitive choices are simple: Read the headlines. If it interests you, read the news. Reading the newspaper online drains your cognitive energy. A free newspaper website usually has about 40% of its digital real estate covered with advertisement. These advertisements aren’t even static, they change every few seconds. This distracts our mind. Then you get the ‘news flash’ borrowed from Television news channels- a banner that shows you the breaking news. The webpage is strewn with hyperlinks. The problem with hyperlinks is that they do not just require the cognitive efforts of reading. The brain first assesses if the link is important. Then it decides if you should click on the link. This apparently requires the brain to work in a similar manner as when you solve a mathematical problem. Studies have shown that as the number of hyperlinks increases, our ability to understand a piece falls drastically. This is a good representation of the entire Internet. We can no longer sit alone & read for long. We have lost our abilities of ‘Deep Thinking’, a term used by Nicholas Carr. We are becoming suckers for irrelevant information.
McLuhan also knew that if we outsource the functions of a body part, that natural part becomes ‘numb’. What he means is that with the invention of power looms, the weavers lost their manual dexterity. When we write on the computer for long, our hands lose their ability to write the beautiful cursive we were taught in schools. A modern farmer’s loss of his feel for the soil may just be an irrational nostalgia but when the technology ‘numbs’ our intellectual faculties, it should be a cause of concern. Intellectual technologies like clock, maps, books or the internet cannot be easily abandoned once they are adopted. The intellectual technology once embraced becomes indispensable. Joseph Weizenbaum, one of the fathers of modern Artificial Intelligence, warned, “The introduction of computers into some complex human activities may constitute an irreversible commitment.” We usually encourage the effective product, the most user friendly product, one that makes our life easiest. We should be wary of which intellectual technologies we embrace because once we accept them, we may not remain in control for long. The lesson is simple: your devices should not make your life too easy. Cognitive diversity is equally important. You should not let your mind be dependent on such one medium. If you surf for an hour, take some time to read a book alone. It is the digital equivalent of walking in the woods after a long tiring day.