Our iPhones, Our Selves

There’s an interesting post in the NYT today, arguing that we could think of our electronic devices as extensions of our minds.

Brains play a major role, of course. They are the locus of great plasticity and processing power, and will be the key to almost any form of cognitive success. But spare a thought for the many resources whose task-related bursts of activity take place elsewhere, not just in the physical motions of our hands and arms while reasoning, or in the muscles of the dancer or the sports star, but even outside the biological body — in the iPhones, Blackberries, laptops and organizers which transform and extend the reach of bare biological processing in so many ways. These blobs of less-celebrated activity may sometimes be best seen, myself and others have argued, as bio-external elements in an extended cognitive process: one that now criss-crosses the conventional boundaries of skin and skull.

One way to see this is to ask yourself how you would categorize the same work were it found to occur “in the head” as part of the neural processing of, say, an alien species. If you’d then have no hesitation in counting the activity as genuine (though non-conscious) cognitive activity, then perhaps it is only some kind of bio-envelope prejudice that stops you counting the same work, when reliably performed outside the head, as a genuine element in your own mental processing?

The article uses very similar analytical strategies to those I employ in Living as a River: We start off with a casual and habitual assumption that electronic devices are outside the skull, and are therefore not part of the cognitive process. And we probe that assumption: so we imagine those devices implanted in the brain, functioning to augment our thinking processes, and see how that changes our perspectives.

I have a very free-flowing sense of how cognition takes place, so I have no problem with seeing my iPhone as part of my cognitive apparatus. What most interests me, however, is how our gadgets can become part of the self. This is a rather different concern from the argument above, because it’s not to do with how things work, but with what we identify with. And it seems to me that people nowadays (myself included) have a hard job separating their selves from their gadgets. To give an example, it used to be that when people went on a Buddhist retreat, they’d simply cut themselves off from the outside world for a weekend, or week, or whatever length of time they were away. They’d leave the retreat center office phone number as an emergency contact, but wouldn’t plan to make phone calls. Now an increasing number of people check email, text, and make phone calls on retreat. They can’t imagine not doing this.

The thought of being without a gadget can be like the thought of an amputation. Fear is involved. I’ve seen people almost in a state of panic at the thought of sending their iPhone away for a couple of days to have a cracked screen fixed. Our sense of a functioning self is now dependent upon the presence of an electronic device and, more importantly, the constant flow of information that comes through it. We need the reassurance of email, phone calls, text messages, Twitter and Facebook, that we still exist. We feel anxious: we check Facebook. It doesn’t really address the root cause of our anxiety, but it’ll do for noe.

None of this is new. We’ve been attached in the past to television, mail, and even telegrams, but none of those had the frequency of today’s media, or the same reach (even just a few years ago you could be on a mountain top and be sure of a lack of contact with the outside world. As the ability to stay in touch has expanded, so has our attachment to information, and so has our fear of being cut off.

So I argue that our sense of self includes our electronic devices. Whether or not we see them as part of our cognitive apparatus, we see them as part of our selves, or at least treat them as part of ourselves. That too, is not new (we’ve always defined ourselves and each other by means of possessions) but somehow the umbilical cord of neurotic emotion seems to have been getting shorter.

So we’re seeing our iPhones etc as parts of our selves, and that doesn’t seem to be a good thing. In fact, it seems to be adding to our suffering. One of the central teachings of Buddhism is, in fact, that we’re constantly trying to identify something as the self, and that this inevitably leads to suffering. The medium here is new, but the psychodynamic is now.

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