The out-sourced brain

David Brooks has a provocative column this week on the effect of technology on human memory. Are we outsourcing our own thinking? Brooks seems to think so:

I have melded my mind with the heavens, communed with the universal consciousness, and experienced the inner calm that externalization brings, and it all started because I bought a car with a G.P.S.

Like many men, I quickly established a romantic attachment to my G.P.S. I found comfort in her tranquil and slightly Anglophilic voice. I felt warm and safe following her thin blue line. More than once I experienced her mercy, for each of my transgressions would be greeted by nothing worse than a gentle, “Make a U-turn if possible.”

. . .

My G.P.S. goddess liberated me from this drudgery. She enabled me to externalize geographic information from my own brain to a satellite brain, and you know how it felt? It felt like nirvana.

Through that experience I discovered the Sacred Order of the External Mind. I realized I could outsource those mental tasks I didn’t want to perform. Life is a math problem, and I had a calculator.

Until that moment, I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants — silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves.

Musical taste? I have externalized it. Now I just log on to iTunes and it tells me what I like.

. . .

Memory? I’ve externalized it. I am one of those baby boomers who are making this the “It’s on the Tip of My Tongue Decade.” But now I no longer need to have a memory, for I have Google, Yahoo and Wikipedia. Now if I need to know some fact about the world, I tap a few keys and reap the blessings of the external mind.

Personal information? I’ve externalized it. I’m no longer clear on where I end and my BlackBerry begins. When I want to look up my passwords or contact my friends I just hit a name on my directory. I read in a piece by Clive Thompson in Wired that a third of the people under 30 can’t remember their own phone number. Their smartphones are smart, so they don’t need to be. Today’s young people are forgoing memory before they even have a chance to lose it.

Now, you may wonder if in the process of outsourcing my thinking I am losing my individuality. Not so. My preferences are more narrow and individualistic than ever. It’s merely my autonomy that I’m losing.

I have relinquished control over my decisions to the universal mind. I have fused with the knowledge of the cybersphere, and entered the bliss of a higher metaphysic. As John Steinbeck nearly wrote, a fella ain’t got a mind of his own, just a little piece of the big mind — one mind that belongs to everybody. Then it don’t matter, Ma. I’ll be everywhere, around in the dark. Wherever there is a network, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a TiVo machine making a sitcom recommendation based on past preferences, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a Times reader selecting articles based on the most e-mailed list, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way Amazon links purchasing Dostoyevsky to purchasing garden furniture. And when memes are spreading, and humiliation videos are shared on Facebook — I’ll be there, too.

I am one with the external mind. Om.

Read it all here.

Comments (3)

I let Bill Gates take on my spelling for me a long time ago.

There's a distinction between knowing and thinking. The examples Brooks give are about information, about knowing information.

As my brother says, to out what I think I still have to read my preferred pundit. For me that often is Brooks.

I bet many of us lean on our favorite pundits to do a lot of thinking for us. And we get suffer from confirmation bias from it. Whatever makes us happy.

The program DEVONthink (which, along with DEVONagent, I find indispensable) bills itself as "your electronic brain," and it pretty much works that way -- including exercising artificial intelligence to classify documents and information (and therefore using functions that the prior commenter classifies as "knowing" rather than "thinking"). Part of what's going on, I think, is that now that some of us are using these 'electronic brains,' the amount of information that we must have at our fingertips to compete has gone up a great deal.

I forget where I first saw it suggested, but it may be that the next step in evolution is going to be the fusion of biological and mechanical faculties in human beings.

I've already gotten to the point where, as Dylan mentions, I offload a great deal of information out of my memory and onto a computer file. I actually started doing this years ago though when I began using a "DayTimer" to keep track of my to-do list. The computer's file is just a refinement of that old paper list...

The other thing I'm particularly aware of lately is how much I've come to depend on having instant access to information via search functions on and offline. It's taken the fun out of debates at the dinner table to be able to pull out a cellphone, query google and get the actual answer immediately. But it does tend to keep the conversation moving...

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