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23/10/2016

Embeddedbeings:howweblendedourmindswithourdevices|AeonIdeas

Embedded beings: how we blended our


minds with our devices
Saskia K Nagel & Peter B Reiner

Like life itself, technologies evolve. So it is that the telephone became the
smartphone, that near-at-hand portal to the information superhighway. We
have held these powerful devices in the palms of our hands for the better part
of a decade now, but there is a palpable sense that in recent years something
has shifted, that our relationship with technology is becoming more intimate.
Some people worry that one day soon we might physically attach computer
chips to our minds, but we dont actually need to plug ourselves in: proximity
is a red herring. e real issue is the seamless way in which we are already
hybridising our cognitive space with our devices. In ways both quotidian and
profound, they are becoming extensions of our minds.
To get a sense of this, imagine being out with a group of friends when the
subject of a movie comes up. One person wonders aloud who the director was.
Unless everyone is a movie bu, guesses ensue. In no time at all, someone
responds with: Ill just Google that. What is remarkable about this chain of
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23/10/2016

Embeddedbeings:howweblendedourmindswithourdevices|AeonIdeas

events is just how unremarkable it has become. Our devices are so deeply
enmeshed in our lives that we anticipate them being there at all times with
access to the full range of the internets oerings.
is process of blending our minds with our devices has forced us to take
stock of who we are and who we want to be. Consider the issue of autonomy,
perhaps the most cherished of the rights we have inherited from the
Enlightenment. e word means self-rule, and refers to our ability to make
decisions for ourselves, by ourselves. It is a hard-earned form of personal
freedom and, at least in Western societies over the past 300 years, the overall
trajectory has been towards more power to the individual and less to
institutions.
e rst inkling that modern technology might threaten autonomy came in
1957 when an American marketing executive called James Vicary claimed to
have increased sales of food and drinks at a movie theatre by ashing the
subliminal messages Drink Coca-Cola and Hungry? Eat Popcorn. e story
turned out to be a hoax, but after attending a demonstration of sorts, e New
Yorker reported that minds had been softly broken and entered. ese days,
we regularly hear news stories about neuromarketing
<http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/cb.252> , an insidious strategy by which
marketers tap ndings in neuropsychology to read our thoughts as they search
for the buy button in our brains. To date, none of these plots to manipulate us
have been successful.
But the threat to autonomy remains. Persuasive technologies, designed to
change peoples attitudes and behaviours, are being deployed in every corner
of society. eir practitioners are not so much software engineers as they are
social engineers. e most benign of these nudge us in an attempt to improve
decisions about health, wealth and wellbeing. In the world of online
commerce, they strive to capture our attention, perhaps doing nothing more
nefarious than getting us to linger on a webpage for a few extra moments in
the hope that we might buy something. But it is hard not to be cynical when
Facebook carries out an experiment
<http://www.pnas.org/content/111/24/8788.full> on more than 680,000 of
its loyal users in which it covertly manipulates their emotions. Or when the
choices of undecided voters can be shifted by as much as 20 per cent just by
altering the rankings of Google searches. ere is, of course, nothing new
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about persuasion. But the ability to do so in covert fashion exists for one
simple reason: we have handed the social engineers access to our minds.
Which leads us to the threat to privacy of thought. Together with his Boston
law partner Samuel Warren, the future US Supreme Court Justice Louis
Brandeis published the essay
<http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/classes/6.805/articles/privacy/Privacy_bra
nd_warr2.html> e Right to Privacy (1890). ey suggested that when law
was still being developed as codied agreements among early societies,
redress was given only for physical interference with life and property. Over
time, society came to recognise the value of the inner life of individuals, and
protection of physical property expanded to include the products of the mind
trademarks and copyright, for example. But the intrusive technology of the
day apparently, the rst paparazzi had appeared on the scene, and there was
widespread worry about photographs appearing in newspapers raised new
concerns.
Todays worries are very similar, except that the photos might be snatched
from the privacy of any one of your interconnected devices. Indeed, having
institutions gain access to the information on our devices, whether agrantly
or surreptitiously, worries people: 93 per cent of adults say
<http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/05/20/americans-attitudes-aboutprivacy-security-and-surveillance/pi_15-05-20_privacysecurityattd00/> that
being in control of who can get information about them is important. But in
the post-Snowden era, discussions of privacy in the context of technology
might be encompassing too broad a palette of potential violations what we
need is a more pointed conversation that distinguishes between everyday
privacy and privacy of thought.
ese issues matter, and not just because they represent ethical quandaries.
Rather, they highlight the profound implications that conceiving of our minds
as an amalgam between brain and device have for our image of ourselves as
humans. Andy Clark, the philosopher who more than anyone has advanced the
concept of the extended mind, argues that humans are natural-born cyborgs
<https://global.oup.com/academic/product/natural-born-cyborgs9780195177510?cc=ca&lang=en&> . If that is the case, if we commonly
incorporate external tools into our daily routines of thinking and being, then
we might have overemphasised the exceptionalism
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<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZOlAcV8LGw> of the human brain for


the concept of mind. Perhaps the new, technologically extended mind is not so
much something to fear as something to notice.
e fruits of the Enlightenment allowed us to consider ourselves as rugged
individuals, navigating the world by our wits alone. is persistent cultural
meme has weakened, particularly over the past decade as research in social
neuroscience has emphasised our essentially social selves. Our relationship to
our devices provides a new wrinkle: we have entered what the US engineer and
inventor Danny Hillis has termed the Age of Entanglement
<http://jods.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/enlightenment-to-entanglement> . We are
now technologically embedded beings, surrounded and inuenced by the tools of
modernity, seemingly without pause.
In 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the world to the iPhone with the catchphrase
this changes everything. What we didnt know was that the everything was us.
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04 October, 2016

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