Conventional wisdom (prior to Clark) suggests that the mind and its cognitive power are an insulated process, confined within brain. Clark makes it clear that while brain is the cognitive engine, it is only a part of a limitless whole that constitutes the dynamic system that is cognition in humans. This is exciting because:
- Everything I'm doing here would make no sense without the mediated extension of mind/cognition into body and further into mind products. Even objects, which can be seen to exist independently, become mind products when they become symbols or symbolized in mind and contribute to a cognitive functionality.
- When extension is shared among multiple individuals (the more the merrier), a whole new phenomenon emerges, which overlaps profoundly into social science.
- Clark goes way beyond defining cognition to giving some real information on how it operates. In particular, he talks about the powerful effect of language, how it can operate to create symbolic systems that automatically become tools and objects of manipulation, providing a superstructure that supports enhanced cognition.
This latter point is especially important to me because it resonates with my contention that software, which is linguistically grounded, is special. He does not mention software as important.
For Clark's fundamental assertion to be tolerable, he redefines cognition, as opposed to simply adding new elements to existing concepts. In this sense, I believe he is on solid ground. It's not possible for the braincase to envelope the entire scope of cognition, because it would be incapable of perception and expression if it wasn't inherently capable of reaching out. In fact, for it to work extremely well, it would be best if cognition was grounded in externalization, always seeking ways out, ways to extend/amplify itself beyond its conception-day boundaries.
Clark also argues that extensions physically change the brain, not just the mind, pushing away the concept that brain is hardware and mind is software, which can be operated on various hardware substrates. I'm not unhappy with idea: I believe that the boundary between hardware-brain and software-mind is something that is yet misunderstood. Recently developed ideas of the plastic mind indicate that the brain physically changes as it acquires memories that may operationalize as skills, knowledge, mental abilities, whatever. I'm quite smitten with the concept of brain adaptation because brain activity has been shown to change over time as a person learns, jibing nicely with our ability to adapt so well to new circumstances, such as multi-focal eye-glasses, or a new prosthetic limb, or even just a new sport.
In Chapter 2, Technologies to Bond With, Clark discusses ...
... two types of technology: "transparent technologies,", and what might contrariwise be dubbed "opaque technologies." A transparent technology is a technology that is so well fitted to, and integrated with, our own lives, biological capacities, and projects as to become (as Mark Weiser and Donald Norman have others stressed) almost invisible in use. An opaque technology, by contrast, is one that keeps tripping the user up, requires skills and capacities that do not come naturally to the biological organism, and thus remains the focus of attention even during routine problem-solving activity. Notice that "opaque," in this technical sense, does not mean "hard to understand" as much as "highly visible in use." (p.37)
The point is that opaque technologies force us to distinguish sharply between the user and the tool. "The user's ongoing problem is to successfully deploy and control the tool." In thinking about media extensions that I employ, I often find myself grappling with them but, as I get better with them (figure them out, adapt my use or adapt the tool to the circumstances under which I'm using them), the transparency improves.
This is, perhaps, a much more dynamic and interesting phenomenon than Clark realizes. I'm thinking about how a tool is not just a static thing, but something we think about it. Thinking about such things is one matter, but rationalizing them means hoisting their utility in a framework of rationale carried in language.
In this same area of the book (p. 40), Clark starts discussing clocks, how we "didn't always keep precise, objectively measured time." Of course that's true, but his story neglects to mention that the transition to portable time pieces was largely driven by the needs of naval navigation. This is quite a coincidence for me. I recently saw a video of Ken Robinson who mentioned watches as well and how young people don't wear them because they are single purpose devices in a world where the time is everywhere - in cars, on cell phones and person digital devices of various kinds. Then there is the concept of the "watch". The word derives from the idea of "watching" the time. Interesting, eh? The ties to my subject matter are in how we all use time as device in numerous ways, the devices themselves influencing how we regard and use time, the emergent need to keep time pushing the technology into new directions. Not to mention that watches have transformed into jewelery. Perhaps this is tangential to my thinking, but I can't ignore all of this eclecticism.
Clark carries the idea of Technologies to Bond With into speculation about the prospect of wearable computing devices that interact with those of others. I'm not particularly interested in this kind of speculation as a part of my research, although speculation is fun, no doubt. "The ideas is thus to combine the advantages of persona, agent-specific information, storage, and retrieval with input from a variety of fixed, environmentally distributed resources providing the wearable device with a stream of useful context-fixing information, helping it to guess where the agent is and what she is probably doing" (p. 47). Again, speculation about this stuff isn't my bag in all of this, so I'll leave it to guys like Clark.
In Chapter 4, Where Are We?, Clark gets into notions of fooling around with extending our senses. He starts with the idea of extending the nervous system over wires to another city and then claiming that the subject of this manipulation actually moves through space according to whatever his senses suggest. I find this unpleasant for some reason, yet it doesn't bother me to think about being Houston, Texas for a meeting while I'm sitting in my kitchen in Greely, Ontario. I think what I don't like is the inference that the nervous system is but wiring, whereas I have my suspicions that it is much more tightly bound to the plastic biology that is the yet misunderstood brain/mind continuum.
In the same Chapter 4, Clark goes quite a distance into discussion of brain plasticity. The matter is of providing new kinds of vision, such as a stimulatory grid on the tongue. Users, apparently, could become habituated to the seeing through such a means, to the point where they would automatically duck when a rapidly approaching object was detected.
Then Chapter 6 gets into Global Swarming. This is Clark's expression for emergent group phenomena, particularly those stretched across the globe electronically. This subject, too, is off track for me, and I tend to feel that it's an abiding interest of Clark's that he just had to jam into the book, no matter the mis-fit. He talks about how Amazon suggests books that he's interested in by keeping track of the collections of books that others are interested in without ever classifying a book according to some artificial system. No matter the tangential subject, it's actually of particular interest to me because of the relationship to the semantic web and the new work that's being done throughout the industry in the area of emergent relationships created by tracking links used by web users. The semantic web connects because all it takes for the connections to become truly valuable by sites expressing meta-data along with their data.
In Chapter 7, Bad Borgs, Clark really gets into the potential problems of extensions and tracking. Here's his list of concerns:
Inequality, Intrusion, Uncontrollability, Overload, Alienation, Narrowing, Deceit, Degradation, Disembodiment
I'm seriously thinking about contacting Clark to discuss some of this stuff. Not to berate the points with which I disagree but to engage him in my ideas of linguisticity and software.
From Publishers Weekly
Cyborgs have long been a part of America's cinematic imagination (think Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator), but Clark says they're very much a reality. Not only that; pretty much everyone is a cyborg already, according to the author, who heads up Indiana University's cognitive science program. With our laptops, cell phones and PDAs, we're all wired to the hilt and becoming more so every day. As Clark points out, "the mind is just less and less in the head"; when we need information, we usually fire up our PC and access it elsewhere. Clark is at his best when he's writing for a wide audience, distilling arcane technological advances into their essential meaning. But sometimes his sheer enthusiasm for the subject takes over, and the book feels as if it's intended only for tech wonks who can appreciate the minutiae of various mind-machine experiments. Clark gives a passing nod to the negative consequences of an increasingly cyborg world-social alienation, information overload-but retains his essentially positive take on the "biotechnological merger" that is transforming so many people's lives. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Cognitive scientist Clark believes we are liberating our minds, thanks to our penchant for inventing tools that extend our abilities to think and communicate, starting with the basics of pen and paper and moving on to ever more sophisticated forms of computers. In this lively and provocative treatise, Clark declares that we are, in fact, "human-technology symbionts" or "natural-born cyborgs," always seeking ways to enhance our biological mental capacities through technology, an intriguing claim he supports with a brisk history of "biotechnology mergers," which currently range from pacemakers to the way a pilot of a commercial airplane is but one component in an elaborate "biotechnological problem-solving matrix." Cell phones, Clark explains, are "a prime, if entry-level cyborg technology," as are Internet search engines. As Clark clearly and cheerfully discusses cognitive processes, how we build "better worlds to think in," opaque versus transparent technologies, and the fluidity of our sense of self and adaptation to environmental changes, he offers hope that our brainy species can use its ever-evolving powers in beneficial ways. Donna Seaman Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
"Highly interesting, provocative and easy to read.... Natural-Born Cyborgs is impressive and entertaining, giving the book a potentially wide audience that includes those interested in cognitive science, performance art and the philosophy of mind."--Nature
"In this lively and provocative treatise, Clark declares that we are, in fact, 'human technology symbionts' or 'natural-born cyborgs,' always seeking ways to enhance our biological mental capacities through technology, an intriguing claim he supports with a brisk history of biotechnology mergers, which currently range from pacemakers to the way a pilot of a commercial airplane is but one component in an elaborate 'biotechnological problem-solving matrix.'"--San Diego Union-Tribune
"A book that is at once profound, ground breaking, and delightful reading. Clark, more than anybody, understands how human nature is shaped by the technology and culture through which it finds expression. Bravo!"--Jerome Bruner, University Professor, New York University, and author of Making Stories
"This is a marvelous book, one I intend to use and reuse. I want to teach a course using it. I want to tell my friends. The neatest part is that it is both fun and deep, a hard trick to pull off, but Clark managed wonderfully. He combines a broad array of insights and stories into a charming, yet profound, excursion into what it means to be human as more and more we rely upon--and may even be coupled to--our technology. I read it in a day, but I know I will return to it often."--Donald Norman, Professor of Computer Science, Northwestern University, and author of Emotional Design
"Andy Clark has given us an exciting yet realistic vision of what lies ahead. If you've ever wondered what Cyborgs are really all about, this is where you will find your answers." --Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics, University of Reading, and author of I, Cyborg
"Clark does an excellent job of explaining the increasing symbiosis between humans and the machines they create."--Dallas Morning News
"Andy Clark's lucid book is itself one act in the larger Cognitive Drama that it so clearly portrays. We humans are already 'Cyborgs,' and have been for thousands of years, blissfully and profitably embedded in a culture-wide family of Powerful Cognitive Mechanisms, one of which is The Widely-Read Book--like this one! Read it, and see yourself as never before." --Paul M. Churchland, past president of the American Philosophical Association, and author of The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul
From Robocop to the Terminator to Eve 8, no image better captures our deepest fears about technology than the cyborg, the person who is both flesh and metal, brain and electronics. But philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark sees it differently. Cyborgs, he writes, are not something to be feared--we already are cyborgs. In Natural-Born Cyborgs, Clark argues that what makes humans so different from other species is our capacity to fully incorporate tools and supporting cultural practices into our existence. Technology as simple as writing on a sketchpad, as familiar as Google or a cellular phone, and as potentially revolutionary as mind-extending neural implants--all exploit our brains' astonishingly plastic nature. Our minds are primed to seek out and incorporate non-biological resources, so that we actually think and feel through our best technologies. Drawing on his expertise in cognitive science, Clark demonstrates that our sense of self and of physical presence can be expanded to a remarkable extent, placing the long-existing telephone and the emerging technology of telepresence on the same continuum. He explores ways in which we have adapted our lives to make use of technology (the measurement of time, for example, has wrought enormous changes in human existence), as well as ways in which increasingly fluid technologies can adapt to individual users during normal use. Bio-technological unions, Clark argues, are evolving with a speed never seen before in history. As we enter an age of wearable computers, sensory augmentation, wireless devices, intelligent environments, thought-controlled prosthetics, and rapid-fire information search and retrieval, the line between the user and her tools grows thinner day by day. "This double whammy of plastic brains and increasingly responsive and well-fitted tools creates an unprecedented opportunity for ever-closer kinds of human-machine merger," he writes, arguing that such a merger is entirely natural. A stunning new look at the human brain and the human self, Natural Born Cyborgs reveals how our technology is indeed inseparable from who we are and how we think.
About the Author
Andy Clark is Director of the Cognitive Science Program at Indiana University. His books include Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together and Mindware.