Outsourcing the mind

Until recently, I thought my memory was going. Now I realize that it is simply being outsourced.

As Jason Kottke points out, we technophiles are becoming more reliant on data-management systems to track our information. (PDAs, address books, personal wikis, password managers, keyrings, bookmark tagging systems, search engines, et hoc genus omne.) As information access becomes ubiquitous, I will have less distance to reach to find the next relevent piece of information. Each time I rely on an external databank to prop up my memory, my ability to recall that information diminishes — a worrisome prospect. But is this outsourcing of the memory necessarily a bad thing? I'll explore the issue from several angles: philosophical, psychological, societal, technological, and spiritual (a little bit).

Philosophically, this is no different than any other type of augmentation that humans have practiced in the past. I recall saying to a coworker the other day, I'll be the first in line to get a USB port installed in my brain — so I can plug in my 512MB USB drive. The prospect of becoming a "distributed cyborg" somehow has me reacting differently. From a practical perspective, I lose some control over my data by using decentralized recall. But from a philosophical standpoint, there is no essential difference when one ignores the implementation and details. Apparently, I already have the equivalent of a USB drive stuck in my head, which I had already decided would be a good idea.

Psychologically, we are transforming literal memory to procedural memory. Ever since I started a corporate wiki at my workplace, I've become forgetful of certain commands and parameters that I use frequently, even weekly. But when I need them, I know where to look and how the information is categorized. What used to be nodes filled with data have become references to search terms or hooks into well-known procedures. I have mapped my internal databanks into external data banks — this is a process we have evolved to do quite well.

Societally, we already have a similar system. In the EEA, we remembered who had this skill or that bit of knowledge, and the tribe members would assist each other in areas requiring expertise. Instead of division of labor, division of knowledge.

Technologically speaking, there is no problem. A common thread throughout the history of computing has been the storage, organization, and retrieval of information. Not just any information, but information that otherwise would have been stored, organized, and retrieved by humans. The recent mass adoption of folksonomies has provided a major breakthrough in the classification and structuring of information. Ubiquitous information access is moving towards a reality, with the adoption of peer-to-peer networking and wireless connectivity. No problems here.

Spiritual matters might be relevant as well, not in any earth-shattering way, but in some subtle changes to the structure of our relationships to humanity as a whole (I'm a humanist, so that's as far as I'm going to go with the spiritual side of this topic.) Look to the more distant future, when our minds become more distributed and interconnected, and wonder just how far this distributive intelligence might go. Could we one day be inseperable from the community we live in? What does that say about personhood? What about the distinction between individual and group? Those are questions I don't have the information to answer, but I keep them in the back of my mind.

But, ready or not, here it comes.

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