Oxford University Press ISBN 0195148665 $26.00
The latest book by philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark is a challenging and eclectic discussion of how the relationship between biology, technology and culture construes our mind and our identity. The book is articulated around a unique central character: the cyborg, a CYBernetically controlled ORGanism.
The first cyborgs Clark introduces are organisms which have incorporated machines into their bodies, in the form of prostheses, enhanced perceptual systems, and neural implants, to recover and extend physiological functions. Examples of such cyborgs are organisms with implanted pumps that inject chemicals to provide supplementary biotechnological control loops, thus extending their capacity to adapt to exceptional environmental conditions. Cochlear implants, which electronically stimulate the auditory nerve, and more advanced implants that bypass the cochlea, directly penetrate the brain stem to extend the hearing faculty. Few of us are cyborgs in this sense.
The second cyborgs we meet are of a different kind. They are organisms surrounded by props, aids, tools, and artefacts external to their bodies, and yet completely integrated to their actions; contributing to the way information is processed and problems are solved. We are all cyborgs in this sense. In the course of our activities, we effortlessly couple with many of the technologies that are available to us, in what Andy Clark calls "information processing mergers" between our mental activities and the operations of artefacts, such as pen, paper, print and electronics. These technologies can be totally transparent: "a technology that is so well fit to, and integrated with, our own lives, biological capacities and projects as to become almost invisible in use." We wake up in the morning at the ring of our alarm clock, PDA or mobile phone. The ring of the alarm takes on a very basic, yet critical morning task, creating a control loop for managing our daily schedule efficiently. The same happens with such mundane tools as pen and paper when we want to compute the result of a complex multiplication, when we need to remember a specific piece of information and write it down, when we plan a move and make a sketch of the way the furniture will be laid down in the new house.
Three properties of our brain make these forms of mind-machine integration possible. The brain naturally works by distributing functions among subsystems that take care of the execution of part of the action without requiring conscious control. For example, when we decide to reach for an object, posterior parietal subsystems take on control of hand orientation and finger placement to grasp the object at a subconscious level, while conscious thought can focus on something else. Similarly, if an external resource is available that can autonomously carry out part of the information-processing task, the mind will naturally outsource to it some problem-solving activity. Finally, the cortical plasticity and the protracted development and learning phases that characterize our species explain our brain's unique capacity "to factor an open-ended set of biologically external operations and resources deep into its own basic modes of operation and functioning." One of the pieces of research used by Clark that I think captures most vividly the depth of this integration is the transposition of the "magic number seven" experiment among speakers of a Cantonese dialect where number words are significantly shorter than English ones. In this linguistic context, around 20 seconds after they were presented to them as a list, participants could recall ten or more of the numbers, instead of the seven (plus or minus two) usually reported. During this delay, more of these shorter number words could be kept looping in the temporary buffer, expanding the overall recall capacity. The merger with external props and aids enables the biological brain to exploit its strong pattern matching and associative capacities, while augmenting its weak storage and recall of information that is externally encoded and available to perception.
Given this very strong disposition to merge with external artefacts, as new technologies become available, cyborgs are forced to evolve. What happens when the technologies let us interact with people, places, and situations at a distance? Or when the technologies give us the opportunity to control a third arm with our muscles, or to control a robot with our brain? We adapt, Clark argues, by extending and redefining our sense of body and self as a function of our experiences of direct control:
Humans are never disembodied intelligences; work in telepresence, virtual reality and telerobotics, far from bolstering any mistaken vision of detached, bodiless intelligence, simply underlines the crucial importance of touch, motion, and intervention. What matters are the complex feed-back loops that connect action commands, bodily motions, environmental effects, and multiperceptual inputs. It is the two-way flow of influence between brain, body, and world that matters, and on the basis of which we construct our sense of self, potential and presence.
The critical factor is not physical co-presence and direct contact. It is the feeling of directness of the experience, as produced by the combination of rich sensorial stimulation throughout and action upon the distant environment.
The book ends with a generic discussion of the personal and social implications as we merge with the latest digital communication technologies. Nine themes are analysed: inequality, intrusion, uncontrollability, overload, alienation, narrowing, deceit, degradation, and disembodiment; but, unfortunately, little of the insight and precision of the preceding discussions is brought to bear to shed new light on these issues. The main contribution is a call to factor in our hybrid biological-technological nature in our effort to make sense of ourselves and of the relations we have with the technologies around us, and an invitation to actively engage in shaping the future technological and social environments that will emerge.
Written in a very engaging, discursive style, the book addresses conceptual issue of great relevance for the Human Computer Interaction community:
It is our own natural proclivity for tool-based extension, and profound and repeated self-transformation, that explains how we humans can be so very special while at the same time being not so very different, biologically speaking, from the other animals with whom we share both the planet and most of our genes. What makes us distinctively human is our capacity to continually restructure and rebuild our own mental circuitry, courtesy of an empowering web of culture, education, technology, and artefacts.
The argument that the interplay of brain and artefacts is the foundation of human identity and intelligence is richly supported by findings from philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. As usual, one would have wished for more: more about the specific types of information processes that are most elicited by the latest wave of technological innovations; more about the particular conditions that Web and mobile technologies have created for augmenting the social space and about the transformation to social identity that follow; more about the active cyborg that not only merges with technologies, tools, aids, and propsbut creates or contributes to the development of such artefacts.
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Participatory IT Design: Designing for Business and Workplace Realities
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Cognitive scientist Francesco Cara is a professor at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications, in Paris, France, where he teaches and studies Usage of Communication Technologies. Prior to that, he was Head of Human-Computer Interaction at Internet consultant IconMedialab. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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