How I learned to stop worrying and love the hive mind

Oct 27 2010

Having returned from ‘A Billion Gadget Minds’, a day-long workshop at the Swedenborg Hall, I seem to have spent much of this week thinking about computational/cognitive culture(s). Fellow Goldsmiths alumnus El Fortunio gave the workshop a comprehensive write-up (omitting only the intrusion of samovar-wielding theologians), but there were a couple of talks that had sufficient resonance to garner further unpacking and analysis.

To begin, here’s the workshop’s official blurb:

‘A growing body of research, including literature on cognitive anthropology, software studies and cognitive capital suggests that whatever is called ‘thinking’ occurs amidst mechanisms, habits, codelike systems, devices and other formally structured means. If intelligence, far from being a property of ‘the human’, is an informal and provisional function of the ensemble of mechanisms and relations that comprise a social field, then we need to explore the co-relation of cultural and experiental practices, thought and intelligent devices.’

A Billion Gadget Minds, 21/10/2010

In other words, how can we open a space in which speak of the radical heterogeneity of intelligence; a distributed, plural intelligence, (sometimes) existing outside of the brain’s biophysical substrates? We’re talking human-computer interaction, Napier’s bones, smart homes, and iPhones.

First up was Australian media artist Anna Munster, with ‘Nerves of Data: the neurological turn in/against networked media.’

In less than a minute, Munster had single-handedly resurrected my long-presumed-exhausted personal vendetta against Baroness Susan Greenfield – that chortling, shoe-loving embodiment of the worst possible collision of scientific authority, media hysteria, and New Labourite post-feminism; whom – shortly before crashing the Royal Institution into an iceberg – somehow found time to blame the financial crisis on computer games.

Here she is at the Web at 20, blithely ignoring cultural factors: Twitter is banal! Won’t somebody please think of the children? And so on, ad vomitum.

Munster skewered Greenfield, Carr and their ilk, highlighting the rhetorical wooliness implied by their deployal of terms like ‘the young brain’, ‘hyperattention’, ‘generations’ and ‘dumbing down’ – and interrogating the tacit assumptions of their particular sacred cow: functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).

As the iconic technology/medium of said neurological turn, the fMRI scan represents the penetrative instrumentality of the field of neuro-perception. As my colleague Mihaela pointed out, there is – after all – no such thing as dysfunctional MRI. When we look at an fMRI scan, what are we seeing? Most of the time, the image manifests as a before & after comparison; a spot-the-difference format familiar from umpteen high-gloss magazines. This is a question of process; of haemodynamic movements, shuttling oxygen to firing neurons … or neurotransmitters … depending on the theories to which you, as a scientist, subscribe.

MRI brain scan from JonO on Vimeo.

When we see the scan, we are privy to a ratio change – a movement of blood implied from stills captured at 5-second intervals, colour-coded in post-production. Here, the fMRI is a diagram for the brain, but not of it. A mapping rather than a text. Here, Munster’s reference to US legal outfit No Lie MRI invokes memories of Angela Saini’s 2009 feature on neuro-imaging in India’s legal system; which was filtering through editorial when I was interning at Wired UK. Key quote:

‘So what does [Professor] Mukundan feel about the woman whose life hangs in the balance because of his invention?

Sitting in the empty forensics lab in Gandhinagar, his BEOS machine on the floor beside him, he is philosophical. “Man is not destined to be controlled by nature. Man is destined to control nature,” he says. “This is the big departure between man and the animals. Human beings are destined to create a nature and then live in that nature.”’

Angela Saini, ‘The brain police: judging murder with an MRI‘, Wired UK, 27/05/2009

Incomplete – certainly – and verging on the sinister, but basically correct. We shape our environment, and our environment shapes us. Munster urges us to consider Google Instant; an instrumental pre-empting of our intentionality – based on our prior searches, as well as those of the crowd. She reads from William Gibson’s editorial for the NYT, in which he asserts:

‘Google is not ours. Which feels confusing, because we are its unpaid content-providers, in one way or another. We generate product for Google, our every search a minuscule contribution. Google is made of us, a sort of coral reef of human minds and their products.’

– William Gibson, Google’s Earth‘, The New York Times, 31/08/2010 (emphases mine)

As a case in point, it is here that I begin to feel the absence of Twitter, lobbing intermittant updates into the darkness from my Nokia 6500c. With no feedback loops, I feel the faint stirrings of some uncertain discomfort – an early glimpse of hive mind separation anxiety, perhaps?

(For more from Munster, check her interview in Episode 9 of Jussi & Julio’s Creative Technology Review, from roughly 19 min in – where she discusses attentional capture, network subjectivity/ies, and the increasingly gothic texture of digital culture.)

Touch Down
Creative Commons License photo credit: CarbonNYC

The second session that really resonated was from University of Stirling philosopher Mike Wheeler. His paper was titled ‘Thinking Beyond the Brain: Arguments and Implications’, and here’s a chunk of the abstract:

‘In recent years, cognitive science and scientifically oriented philosophy of mind have witnessed a surge of interest in accounts of mind and cognition that identify themselves using labels such as ‘embodied’, ‘embedded’ and/or ‘extended’. There is a shared vision here which depicts the human brain as a system designed by evolution to make extensive and transformative use of various kinds of external (beyond-the-skin) cognitive scaffolding (e.g. technologies, other agents).’

– Mike Wheeler, ‘Thinking Beyond the Brain: Arguments and Implications’

So far, so #50cyborgs. My standards were high, and Wheeler got a bucketload of bonus points for opening with a brace of Harry Potter references. After all, Dumbledore’s Pensieve is the perfect figuration of an artifact-as-cognitive-scaffold. Through Potter fandom, we are gently introduced to the hypothesis of Extended Cognition (ExC), as expertly summarised by Toronto philosopher Karina Vold.

Approaching the issue from a weakly bioconservative (?) standpoint, Adams and Aizawa comment that:

‘To ask about the bounds of cognition is to ask what portions of spacetime contain cognitive processing. It is to ask about what physical, chemical, or biological processes realize, constitute, or embody cognitive processes (…) It is to ask about the physical substrate of cognition.’

Frederick Adams & Kenneth Aizawa (2010), The Bounds of Cognition, p. 16.

Certainly, ExC depends on the multiple realizability of the mental. Wheeler is a functionalist – subscribing to a body of philosophical thought in which what something is made of is far less important than what it actually does; it’s function, if you will. For him, cognition is not the sole preserve of squishy neurons, but any other alternative combination of biology, gas, technological artifice, neurology, learned technique, or computation.

Presuming their concealment, would there be any functional or measurable difference in the recall abilities reported by (1) a subject with eidetic memory and (2) a subject who had kept a journal since childhood? If not, to what extent can that journal be interpreted as a constitutent part of subject 2′s cognitive processes?

Contrasting to the arguments of Adams & Aizawa, a liberal/extended functionalism allows that the borders of the cognitive system may fall beyond the sensory-motor interface of the organic body. So, in this reading, what seperates cognition from computation? Hell, what is cognition? Something studied by cognitive scientists, yes, but what does that mean? Cognitive science is human-oriented and inner-oriented, but why? Is the cultural-institutional substrate underpinning an academic discipline enough to make its subject ‘real’?

When cornered, Wheeler was willing to concede that ‘cognition’ might be a weasel-word; a culturally and socially-specific scientific imaginary. Moving away from the chauvanism of actually-existing cognitive science, he suggested Paskian systems (as deployed by architect Usman Haque) as a potentially productive escape route from Munster’s anticipatory Google Instant dystopia. Here, Pask’s work offers a:

‘model of interaction in which “machine” and “human” are peers in a conversation and where information is genuinely created through their interactions.’

And here, things begin to break up. My sense is that ExC =!Cyborg, but I think it’s too soon to sketch out why. Still, it’s all about the fuzzy boundaries. For this purpose, following in the wake of #50cyborgs – a couple of case studies.

(1) Memento. In a notion lifted from this essay by Andy Clark, we get Guy Pierce as a cyborg feminist – his tattoos and polaroids as prostheses; distributed cognition:

(2) A demo of Jerry Michalski‘s Brain, with software as its substrate:

ExC to the max, although it does raise some interesting questions on cognition and ownership.


Consider a situation in which multiple individuals are able to acccess the same ExC cognitive scaffolds in near-real time. With overlapping extended minds, the integrity of the system as prostheses of a single human brain is broken. Whose cognition is it?

Wheeler wonders whether we might reach a point – speaking technologically – where aspects of my cognition can happen in your brain.With reference the relational models of selfhood found in societies already extant outside the West, I suggest that, under such circumstances, the my/your distinction may no longer be relevant …

And from here, we’re back to the hive mind – a model of collective cognition that I am rapidly learning to love. Seperation anxiety or no, at least Twitter isn’t trying to anticipate my actions.

One response so far

  1. Thanks for a fascinating & thought provoking post.
    Raises a number of intriguing questions, including the one about ownership(s).

    Also, upcoming “where do you keep your (extra)mind?” might be a common topic for cocktail parties, or the valid social equivalent thereof.

    Geez-Louise Dude, think much?

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