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Minds, Machines, and Memory: The Technology of Self in the Modern Day Human

I. The Journey
During this semester, I have become devoutly interested in philosophy of mind, specifically how it relates to and is shaped by today’s emerging technologies. Finding myself displeased with the assignments of the very class I am currently writing for, I decided to strike out on my own and pursue a train of thought that had been developing subconsciously in my mind for some time.
My journey down the road of cyborgian enlightenment began last fall when, as a library circulation worker, I was checking in some returned books and happened scan a bright yellow hardback intriguingly titled: Natural Born Cyborgs. Normally I might have laughed at the idea, made a joke about the terminator, and promptly moved on in my attempt to shorten the massive stack of bound-words next to me. On this day however, I happened to glance at the computer screen to find that this yellow and white covered book was checked out to a man who is, in my opinion, the most intimidating philosophy professor in our department! In a quick and stealthy movement, I jotted down the name and author of the book and slide the paper into my backpack, where it would sit untouched for over three months.
Having spent the fall engulfed in mathematics and computer science, by the time I reached what I had dubbed the promise land, Gender and Technology, I’d felt as if I had barely survived my famine of philosophical and literary thought. I had built up such an idealized version of the course that once the real thing started I could not be anything but disappointed. At first I was enchanted with both the posts my peers wrote on our class blog and the many theoretical readings assigned, but quite quickly the conversations and classes went in a direction that was not only unexpected, but also utterly heartbreaking for me.
When it came time to suggest readings for the second half of the course, I suddenly remembered the yellow book from that long day at the circulation desk. Unfortunately, it was not chosen for the course and the final choices were all works that I had previously studied. Luckily, after explaining my distressed mental state to two very understanding professors (and one or two stray students who happened to stick around to witness my emotional breakdown), a plan, based on Andy Clark’s Natural Born Cyborgs, was formulated. I now find myself committed to and planning to continue this unfinished journey long after this course has ended.

II.  Know Thyself, Know thy Technologies

For philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark, this seemingly simple statement sums up what should be the mantra of our generation, that the technologies we use are actually an integrated part of our cognitive process. While I agree that the technologies we use shape our individual self, unlike Clark I do not think they are a necessary part of our cognitive process.
One of the most forceful and perhaps shocking arguments of Natural-Born Cyborgs, Clark’s theory of extended mind, is his claim that the mind is not bound by the biological organism but extends into the environment of that organism. This theory stems from the understanding that “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 artifacts”  (Clark 10). To Clark, the classic mind-body problem is really the “mind-body-scaffolding problem,” meaning it is the problem of understanding how human thought and reason comes from the interactions between material brains, material bodies, and our cultural and technological environments. The brain is not a privileged organ and there is no “single self.” Human individuals are shifting coalitions of tools (Clark 134-137).
In fact, Andy Clark’s ideas were originally spawned from the work of Computer Scientists, specifically the robotics and artificial intelligence research of Rodney Brooks. Brooks argues that true artificial intelligence can only be achieved by machines that have sensory and motor skills and are connected to the world through a body. He has focused on biologically inspired robotic systems that address these sensory and motor tasks. Before Brooks, this theory had been largely dismissed by the mainstream AI community, which at the time was far more interested in reasoning about the real world than actually interacting with it (Brooks 1). Brooks’ position on what is called “embodied cognition” in the computer science world is laid out in his classic paper Elephants Don’t Play Chess.
This AI research, while done in the field of computer science, has clear far reaching effects in many other areas of study. Brooks’ influence on Clark is an obvious one. In Natural Born Cyborgs, Clark makes it clear that the biological human body and the external environment play equal parts in the cognitive process. “No single tool among this complex kit is intrinsically thoughtful, ultimately in control, or the ‘seat of self.’ We, meaning human individuals, just are these shifting coalitions of tools” (Clark 137). Neither one is more important than the other. Through this view, humans are no more than the machines they use, thus they must be machines themselves. Therefore, Brooks’ research not only lays out an explanation for how robots learn, but for Clark, is also tells us how humans acquire knowledge as well.
Clark’s arguments are effective and in many cases believable, but he is not without some opposition. A few weeks ago, Professor Bharath Vallabha from the Bryn Mawr philosophy department gave a talk in opposition to Clark’s claim that the mind is a coalition of our brains, bodies, and the technologies that surround us. Instead he argues for his own version of “embodied cognition,” which is his theory that beliefs are neither in the head nor outside the body; they are the modes of activity of a person. Our beliefs are not in the forms of technology that we use, rather “technology makes possible the forms of action constitutive of being a thinker.” Vallabha confusingly uses Rodney Brooks’ term to refer to his slightly different take on Clark’s extended mind theory. However, it is important to note that all three of these theories fall under the umbrella term of embodied cognition.
Embodied Cognition is a growing research area of cognitive science that emphasizes the role of the surrounding environment in the development of the cognitive process. Although, many sub fields, including philosophy of the mind and computer science, have formulated unique ways of thinking about embodied cognition, “all of the different conceptions do maintain that one necessary condition for cognition is embodiment, where the basic notion of embodiment is broadly understood as the unique way an organism’s sensorimotor capacities enable it to successfully interact with its environmental niche” (Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Professor Vallabha claims that actions determine our beliefs, leading to a commonly known conundrum: the chicken or the egg question—in this case the belief or action—question. Which came first? There are obviously all sorts of actions that we perform without belief behind them, but are there not just as many actions that we perform solely based on beliefs? The embodied cognition theory implores us to believe that the mind is not anywhere; but if our beliefs are only to be found in our actions, where are they stored once that action is complete? When I was twelve years old, I tried competitive running for the first time. From this action I acquired the belief that I enjoy competitive running. That belief was then stored somewhere and has been reaffirmed when I go running. It was not forgotten and then remembered each time I take this action. If I could not retain the knowledge that I enjoy running, how would I have known to participate in that activity again? While Vallabha’s embodied cognition presents an intriguing theory behind our acquisition of belief and knowledge, it fails to account for how those beliefs are stored once acquired.
Vallabha’s opposition falls short for a variety of reasons, two of the most prominent being his lack of consideration for the storage of beliefs or memories as outlined above, and the fact that his own argument can be found embedded within Clark’s more encompassing theory of extended mind. Embodied cognition is already both an established area of philosophical thought and area of research in artificial intelligence. “I think of myself not just as a physical presence but as a kind of rational or intellectual presence. I think of myself in terms of a certain set of ongoing goals, projects, and commitments: to write a new paper, to be a good husband . . . I recognize myself, over my lifetime, in part by keeping track of this flow of projects and commitments” (Clark132) From this passage, one can infer that Clark would find no issue with Vallabha’s theory, save perhaps the aforementioned lack of storage as it is, for the most part, already a part of his own.
Although I greatly appreciate Clark’s “mind-body-scaffolding problem,” I am naturally disposed to look for a way to oppose the idea that our minds could be located outside of the “biological skin-bag.” This is in part due to the problems associated with accessing and storing thoughts, beliefs, memories, the self, etc. It is also due to Clark’s inability to recognize that the brain remains, at least for the time being, a privileged part of the modern human’s cognitive process.
The idea of storage has been problematic throughout my research. Clark seems to feel that our beliefs, or the foundation of who the self is, can be found not only within the “biological skin-bag,” but also in our environments, most notably in the more sophisticated technological examples such as computers and cell phones. I agree with Clark in the respect that our selves are unquestionably shaped by our environments. However, he also makes the claim that the self can only be determined by looking at all of the tools that have shaped its creation, including of course what I would argue are external technologies rather than integrated parts of the mind. Yes, Clark is correct. Our environments can house things that were once our beliefs. But it is wrong to assume that these representations, or more simply reminders, in our computers or on our bookshelves are still our beliefs. Following Clark’s view, I would have to assume that the journal entry I typed on my computer during my junior year of high school still remains true. If both my computer and my brain are merely equal parts of a greater mind system wouldn’t this have to be the case?
Arguably, one of the most important functions of the mind is that it houses the most up to date version of the self. A computer, you might argue, can also contain a relatively current representation of you. But of all the tools that make up our complex cognitive system, it is only the brain that has to be present in every situation and it is only the brain that is shaped by every situation, at least initially. Clark lays out impressive arguments for why “the mind is just less and less in the head,” but in his quest to convince us of the far-reaching effects of technology, he fails to recognize the brain’s obvious privileged role (Clark 4). It is undeniable that our technologies and cultures have shaped and continue to shape the way in which we think and the beliefs that result from our thinking. However the knowledge held there necessarily must have come from somewhere. Technologies outside of the “biological skin-bag” serve to hold an individual’s beliefs, which then may be found and adopted by others. One can mold technology to be an exact copy of the mind, but it will never actually be one’s mind. We grow reliant on technologies like cell phones and computers, not because they are our mind, but because they house an archive of how and what we think while making once difficult tasks easier.
Although I make the claim that the brain is still a privileged part of the entire system that makes up our cognitive process, I will readily admit that this could probably no longer be the case in the near future. Eventually, our environments and technologies might become such a naturally fluid part of our cognitive process that they really will share the unique position currently only held by the human brain.
This is where memory reconsolidation comes in. “The idea is that after someone calls up a memory, it has to be stored in the brain anew. During this process, the memory is in a changeable state” (Singer 55). Doesn’t this sound familiar? When on your computer, for example, if you were to open up a word document you would put that document in a changeable state. You would also have to save the document again once done editing it. According to current work in neuroscience, memory reconsolidation works almost exactly like accessing files on your computer or other external technologies. “Our assumption is that when you activate a memory, you set it up to be updated,” says Linda Nadel, a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona. “You make [the memory] fragile so that it is open to being changed” (Singer 57). The technologies humans create are clearly modeled on the way our own biological systems work and interact with the outside world.
The only clear difference between accessing a memory and accessing a computer file is the conscious in-between actions that take place when deciding you want to open the file verses the unconscious steps that happen when you decide to think of a memory. This is why the brain is still a privileged part of the cognitive process. When accessing something within our brain the process is seamless, whereas using any external technology requires more thought and conscious preparation on our part.
To this “common objection,” Clark concedes that “some elements, likewise, are more important to our sense of self and identity than other[s] and “some elements play larger roles in control and decision making than others” (Clark 137). He then continues to claim that these different roles do not make one part of the cognitive system more privileged than another. His argument, while well stated, feels incomplete. Although he accounts for the different roles each part of the cognitive “machine” plays, he never actually addresses the fact that the importance of the human brain, as a smaller subsystem, far out-reaches the effects of any other component of the vast system that makes up the human mind.
Clark is so focused on dispelling the myth of a self made up of “stream of consciousness awareness” that he fails consider that we might actually be a coalition of more than one self to begin with.  Antonio Damasio creates a compelling case for plural selves in his book: The Feeling of What Happens. Damasio differentiates between three different types of self that we possess. First, there is the unconscious proto-self, next is the conscious core self, and finally there is the memory based autobiographical self.

The proto-self is “an interconnected and temporarily coherent collection of neural patterns representing the state of the organism, moment by moment, at multiple levels of the brain” (Damasio 174). The core self requires the presence of the proto-self and is produced whenever an object modifies the proto-self. It undergoes minimal changes throughout our lifetime and core consciousness is created through a series of pulses that could together to form a continuous stream of consciousness, which is what Clark argues is a mere illusion. Finally, there is the autobiographical self; this is the self that develops gradually over time. In order to acquire an autobiographical self, you must have a core self, but interestingly the converse is not true as there are cases where people lose their autobiographical self while maintaining their core consciousness (Damasio 174-176). Damasio calls the richer existence permitted by the autobiographical self extended consciousness, which is much like the soft self of Clark’s theory of extended mind.
Through the lens of Damasio’s three selves, we can account for Clark’s “soft self” while still maintaining identity with stream of conscious awareness. Andy Clark would have us believe that our nature does not allow for this “cognitive illusion,” but Damasio shows us that our reluctance to let go of this version of self could very well be valid.
III. Cyborgs R US
The second and probably greatest argument from Natural Born Cyborgs, as evidenced by the title, that human beings are already cyborgs and have been for all of their existence, is extraordinarily compelling. Clark argues for a new way of thinking about the term “cyborg” and aims to convince us that we have a misconceived idea of what being a cyborg really means.

The cyborg is a potent cultural icon of the late twentieth century. It conjures images of human-machine hybrids and the physical merging of flesh and electronic circuitry. My goal is to hijack that image and to reshape it, revealing it as a disguised vision of (oddly) our own biological nature( Clark 5).

Clark’s cyborg is the product of his extended mind theory. It is the plasticity of the human mind that makes us cyborgs, not just the physical incorporation of machinery into the biological being.
I have entirely adopted Clark’s cyborgian view of humanity, however coupled with his limited impression of the mind, I wonder if humans are actually anything more than machines themselves. If I were to accept Clark’s theory that the brain itself is nothing more than a type of machinery, wouldn’t it also have to follow that the human body itself is entirely just a machine? Where then is our humanity? How can we be cyborgs, a combination of human and machine, if we are not really human at all? Rather than arguing for a new way of thinking about the cyborg, perhaps Clark should have instead claimed that it is really our view of “machine” that is limited in scope.
Clearly this cannot be the case. Perhaps one day we will have the knowledge to engineer the human body as we do mechanical robotic systems; but this goal has not yet been met and human beings, like any other biological creature are at the mercy of Mother Nature and limited life spans. AI and robotics researchers are trying to mimic the human mind through machinery, but it is still too early to tell whether our machines will ever be able to reach the level of sophistication present in our “biological skin-bags.”
As a computer science major and AI enthusiast, I am excited by the prospect of researchers achieving the ultimate goal of robot consciousness, but this in no way means that I believe machinery will ever be able to emulate all of the functions of the human mind.  Biological beings are not machines, nor are they meant to evolve into them. By incorporating Damasio’s three selves into Clark’s theory of extended mind, I believe we will be able to retain our humanness while embracing our cyborgian nature.
Embodied Cognition, in some form or another, is not going to disappear anytime soon. Everyday seems to bring more evidence in support of one or more of the theories that fall under this umbrella term. The modern human must learn to accept that we are a species of cyborgs, a race of human machine hybrids, but during our inevitable further evolution we must not fall into the same trap as Clark. In order to retain our deeper sense of self the human brain must continue to play a crucial role in the cognitive process. It is too early to tell if artificial intelligence will ever entirely emulate the plasticity of the human mind, but if AI research manages this seemingly impossible task more than just our sense of self will be compromised, the very notion of what it means to be human will change forever.

Works Cited and Consulted
Brooks, Rodney. Elephants Don’t Play Chess. Robotics and Autonomous Systems 6. 1990

Clark, Andy. Natural Born Cyborgs. Oxford University Press: New York, 2003

Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens. Harcourt, Inc.: Orlando. 1999

Loftus, Elizabeth. Creating False Memories. Scientific American: September 1997, vol 277
#3. pages 70-75

Singer, Emily. Manipulating Memory. Technology Review: June 2009. pages 54-59

History and Memory:
History, Memory, and the Brain:
Memory, History and the Brain II: