Archives for category: Intellectual Thought

For anyone interested in the questions and thinking behind how technology is impacting who we are as human beings, the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of Adbusters is a must-read.

Played as a dichotomy, The Natural World is one half of the mag, and flip it over and start at the other end and The Virtual World is the other half. It contains Adbusters’ usual thought-provoking and sometimes frustratingly challenging mix of art, commentary, articles, short meditations, low- and high-brow commentary. I particularly loved this quote from a 1994 (!) Harper’s Magazine article by Kevin Kelly, who is now the senior maverick at Wired Magazine, which is reprinted at the front of the Virtual half of the magazine:

“The Net conveys the logic of both the computer and nature. In nature, the Net finds form in, for example, the beehive. The hive is irredeemably social, unabashedly of many minds, but it decides as a whole when to swarm and where to move. A hive possesss an intelligence than none of its parts does. A single honeybee brain operates with a memory of six days; the hive as a whole operates with a memory of three months, twice as long as the average bee lives.

Although many philosophers in the past have suspected that one could abstract the laws of life and apply them to machines, it wasn’t until computers and man-made systems became as complex as living systems- as intricately composed as a beehive- that is was possible to prove this. Just as a beehive functions as if it were a single sentient organism, so does an electronic hive, made up of millions of buzzing, dim-witted personal computers, behave like a single organism.

Out of networked parts- whether of insects, neurons or chips- come learning, evolution and life. Out of a planet-wide swarm of silicon calculators comes an emergent self-governing intelligence: the Net. ”

This concept, of seeing technology (here the hardware and software that make up the web) as inherently natural (going along with the very arguable idea that humans are natural > humans create technology > technology is natural), goes against the grain of seeing tech as ‘apart’ from us.

Kelly goes back to this idea at the end of the reprinted piece when he writes:

“Instead of sucking the soul from human bodies, turning computer-users into an army of dull clones, networked computers-by reflecting the networked nature of our own brains and bodies- encourage the humanism of their users. Because they have taken on the flexibility, adaptability and self-connecting governance of organic systems, we become more human, not less so, when we use them.”



I do most of my best thinking with my hands poised above a keyboard; while I do still take notes by hand on occasion (reporting in the field!), I prefer not to. It’s slow, and as I write with a pen less and less, I find that my handwriting is devolving into a bit of a mess. Honestly, I’ve never taken too much pride in my penmanship, though whenever I read about how Jane Austen wrote her gorgeous novels with a pen and inkwell, blotting as she went, it does make me blush. I can only imagine I can write much faster (but certainly not as well!) as Jane, and that will have to do. (And what would Jane have created with more freedom and a laptop?)

But beyond the physical limitations of writing with a pen, I find that I actually feel a better sense of ‘flow’ while pounding away on a keyboard. Flow is that inexplicable thing that happens when time disappears and you are doing what you love or what fascinates; in my case writing. Others might find that next level through oil painting, rock climbing, equation-creation, architectural drawing, cooking, even housework if one were so inclined (I find some version of it when organizing my clothes).

So I do my best work when tethered by my tapping fingertips to a keyboard and computer. And I’ve wondered; does this make me some kind of cyborg, being taken over by a machine mind (or even, less bombastically, altering the way I think and what I create)? If I’m literally able to think more effectively because of a device not naturally part of me or easily created by my hands, does this make my work or my process less my own?

Thinking of Ms. Austen, and her well-known mania for revisions, how much time would she have saved if she had my Macbook? Would those hours saved have resulted in a different version of Pride and Prejudice? A whole new canon of work? Or would it have changed nothing at all?

Where does my writing end, and my technology begin? And is that changing me, my brain, or my work?

On one side, there have been studies proving that we think differently, using different parts of the brain when we type and when we hand-write.  According to a collection of studies reported on in ScienceDaily:

Brain imaging studies with adults have shown an advantage for forming letters over selecting or viewing letters. A brain imaging study at the University of Washington with children showed that sequencing fingers may engage thinking.

OK, so different parts of the brain are accessed when one types (selecting keys) as when writing (forming letters). Students who write by hand well, think better, both because they are more able to accurately take notes, but also because “research shows that when children are taught how to [write by hand], they are also being taught how to learn and how to express themselves,” according to this Newsweek article.

And certainaly there is a different relationship with the material when one writes or one types, due to it’s ‘realness.’ As a commenter on Productivity 501 says: “When we get to the end of a page [we’ve written], we have a tangible chunk of content that exists “for real”, instead of the virtual existence on a computer screen.”

So let’s continue handwriting (and teaching it to kids), to keep up the ability and to possibly access emotions or brain resources that we couldn’t otherwise. Emily Post recommends handwritten Thank You’s and lovers everywhere would prefer a scrawled note l’amour, or a painstakingly printed Valentine, right? (Though most of the loving natterings I have received have been via email, and are stored on a hard drive. I love that they look as fresh as the day they were sent. Though I’ve also broken up with people via text (but so has Britney, so it’s OK, right?) Wherever we are in human evolution, we still equate humanness with a written note, more or less so depending on our age, and comfort with typing, and of course, our romantic predilections.

Am I less ‘human’ because I prefer to type, to interact with a complex machine rather than nonmanipulable piece of paper, or just a different version of human? A newer one? Human 2.o?

The Extended Mind concept in philoshophy argues that I’m not less ‘natural’ for using a laptop to ‘think’ on, but that it is purely an extension of my brain. Like a hard drive is an extension of a computer. And that when I use, it, I’m actually creating something new.

This view proposes that some objects in the external environment are utilized by the mind in such a way that the objects can be seen as extensions of the mind itself. Specifically, the mind is seen to encompass every level of the cognitive process, which will often include the use of environmental aids.

Andy Clark and David Chalmers, who wrote the most significant paper in the field, The Extended Mind, argue that objects in our local environments can actually function as part of the brain. Instead of there being “the Brain” and then everything outside of it, their theory of active externalism maintains that the coupling between my brain, and say, my laptop, creates a wholly new system that’s not separate from the brain, but a part of a new system. They write, “[This] coupled system…can be seen as a cognitive system in its own right.”

This makes me think that instead of my brain being ‘taken over’ or ‘changed’ by the technology I’m using (at least in this scenario) perhaps it’s more like my brain is joining with another system to create a new system that’s more capable than the brain itself. A thing that is both new and ancient at the same time.

All of this doesn’t answer the question central to any artist or creative person though; does my use of this tool (which, really, is all the laptop is) fundamentally change the essence of the work I am able to do? Would I be able to think in the same way without the laptop?

I think that the answer has to be that yes, the tool I use changes the quality of my work. Just as any tool (a stick in the sand vs. a sharpened pencil) changes its result. Can you express the same things with different tools? Mostly, yes.  My work would be something different, something less influenced by technology. But since I’m writing about how technology affects our ability to understand our world and each other, I suppose it’s OK.

Outside is pure energy and colorless substance. All the rest happens through the mechanism of our senses. ”

Our eyes see just a fraction of the light in the world.”


“It is very, very dangerous to lose contact with living nature.”

-Albert Hoffman, discoverer of LSD