How Technology Could Save You From Ever Forgetting Anything Important Again

The quest to build better people.
March 7 2013 8:16 AM

The Memex in Your Pocket

How technology is expanding our minds.

A woman helps another put American computer venture company Xybernaut's wearable PC 'Mobile Assistant IV' on her head.
A woman helps another put American computer venture company Xybernaut's wearable PC 'Mobile Assistant IV' on her head during a symposium for 'wearable' computers in Tokyo 14 October.

Photo by Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Quick, what’s the square root of 2,130? How many Roadmaster convertibles did Buick build in 1949? What airline has never lost a jet plane in a crash?

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer. Email him at will.oremus@slate.com or follow him on Twitter.

If you answered “46.1519,” “8,000,” and “Qantas,” there are two possibilities. One is that you’re Rain Man. The other is that you’re using the most powerful brain-enhancement technology of the 21st century so far: Internet search.

True, the Web isn’t actually part of your brain. And Dustin Hoffman rattled off those bits of trivia a few seconds faster in the movie than you could with the aid of Google. But functionally, the distinctions between encyclopedic knowledge and reliable mobile Internet access are less significant than you might think. Math and trivia are just the beginning. Memory, communication, data analysis—Internet-connected devices can give us superhuman powers in all of these realms. A growing chorus of critics warns that the Internet is making us lazy, stupid, lonely, or crazy. Yet tools like Google, Facebook, and Evernote hold at least as much potential to make us not only more knowledgeable and more productive but literally smarter than we’ve ever been before.

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The idea that we could invent tools that change our cognitive abilities might sound outlandish, but it’s actually a defining feature of human evolution. When our ancestors developed language, it altered not only how they could communicate but how they could think. Mathematics, the printing press, and science further extended the reach of the human mind, and by the 20th century, tools such as telephones, calculators, and Encyclopedia Britannica gave people easy access to more knowledge about the world than they could absorb in a lifetime.

Yet it would be a stretch to say that this information was part of people’s minds. There remained a real distinction between what we knew and what we could find out if we cared to.

The Internet and mobile technology have begun to change that. Many of us now carry our smartphones with us everywhere, and high-speed data networks blanket the developed world. If I asked you the capital of Angola, it would hardly matter anymore whether you knew it off the top of your head. Pull out your phone and repeat the question using Google Voice Search, and a mechanized voice will shoot back, “Luanda.” When it comes to trivia, the difference between a world-class savant and your average modern technophile is perhaps five seconds. And Watson’s Jeopardy! triumph over Ken Jennings suggests even that time lag might soon be erased—especially as wearable technology like Google Glass begins to collapse the distance between our minds and the cloud.

So is the Internet now essentially an external hard drive for our brains? That’s the essence of an idea called “the extended mind,” first propounded by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in 1998. The theory was a novel response to philosophy’s long-standing “mind-brain problem,” which asks whether our minds are reducible to the biology of our brains. Clark and Chalmers proposed that the modern human mind is a system that transcends the brain to encompass aspects of the outside environment. They argued that certain technological tools—computer modeling, navigation by slide rule, long division via pencil and paper—can be every bit as integral to our mental operations as the internal workings of our brains. They wrote: “If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (so we claim) part of the cognitive process.”

Fifteen years on and well into the age of Google, the idea of the extended mind feels more relevant today. “Ned Block [an NYU professor] likes to say, ‘Your thesis was false when you wrote the article—since then it has come true,’ ” Chalmers says with a laugh.

The basic Google search, which has become our central means of retrieving published information about the world—is only the most obvious example. Personal-assistant tools like Apple’s Siri instantly retrieve information such as phone numbers and directions that we once had to memorize or commit to paper. Potentially even more powerful as memory aids are cloud-based note-taking apps like Evernote, whose slogan is, “Remember everything.”

So here's a second pop quiz. Where were you on the night of Feb. 8, 2010? What are the names and email addresses of all the people you know who currently live in New York City? What's the exact recipe for your favorite homemade pastry?