Mind in the Cloud

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New Scientist the other week reviewed a book called Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension by Andy Clark. I want it.

Not that I have the time or even, frankly, the money to spend on $30, 320-page slabs of hardcore cognitive philosophy. I just think it would be nice to have on my shelves a book that legitimizes once and for all my natural inclination to think of search engines, wikis, blogs, and other online repositories of knowledge as literal extensions of the human minds that engage with and create them. I admit I’m a little embarrassed by this inclination. Bolder supporters of the notion that mind is bigger than brain — that it’s “immanent,” as Gregory Bateson wrote, “not only in the body… [but] also in pathways and messages outside the body” — always seem to end up teetering on the brink of New Age pantheistic cheese (“there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem,” added Bateson) if not falling straight in. And while I’m also aware that the perfectly respectable fields of social and cultural psychology seem to make regular use of theories of distributed cognition without going up in a metaphysical haze, I can’t help guessing their claims are a little more provisional than the cyborg fantasies that haunt my thinking about the online data-cloud.

Clark’s claims, however, appear to be both strong and grounded, if this choice quote selected by reviewer Owen Flanagan is anything to go by:

To unravel the workings of these embodied, embedded, sometimes extended minds, requires an unusual mix of neuroscience, computational, dynamical, and informational-theoretic understandings, ‘brute’ physiology, ecological sensitivity, and attention to the stacked designer cocoons in which we grow, work, think, and act.

There is, on the one hand, nothing airily rhetorical about the research project here proposed nor, on the other, any sense that Clark shies away from insisting his “extended” cognition is indeed just what we talk about when we talk about mind. Flanagan doesn’t say whether Clark makes the obvious metaphorical leap from “cocoons” to the Web, but he says enough to make it clear that for mainstream cognitive philosophy these days, the leap is hardly out of bounds — or even merely metaphorical. Hell, even Sergey Brin’s famous claim that Google, perfected, would be “like the mind of God” seems wimpy in comparison. In Clark’s formulation, it appears, Google already is the mind of humanity — a part of that mind, at least, and in a manner that is no less complicated than humanity itself, but without the need to wait for perfection or rely on simile. And that is more than enough to satisfy my cyborg fantasies.

I want this book.

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