Posted by Patrick Hester
Derrick de Kerckhove is a Professor in the Department of French at the University of Toronto, Canada, where he served as Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology from 1983 to 2008. A former Papamarkou Chair in Technology and Education at the Library of Congress, he presently teaches at the Faculty of Sociology at the University Federico II in Naples, Italy, and lectures at the Interdisciplinary Internet Institute (IN3) from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Barcelona.
As a single author, he has written Brainframes: Technology, Mind and Business, The Skin of Culture, Connected Intelligence and The Architecture of Intelligence. He edited or co-edited numerous papers, essays and collections including McLuhan for Managers and The Alphabet and the Brain. Today Derrick is here to chat about The Augmented Mind, an eBook offered by 40k Books.
Coming in around 7500 words, The Augmented Mind looks at the three eras of language (carried by the human body, then by literacy and now by electricity) and how the globalization and interconnectivity of today's world has impacted our development and growth.
Q: Professor de Kerckhove, Could you tell our readers a little bit about the genesis of this essay - where it began, how it formed?
A: It began a long time ago in a last chance 5 minute conversation with Marshall McLuhan. I was at the terminal - not to say suicidal - stage of a six-year writer’s (and mental) block over my thesis, when McLuhan kindly informed me that I was looking in the wrong direction, that tragedy was not an aristocratic art form of the Ancien Régime, but a strategy invented by the Ancient Greeks to help absorb the socially and psychologically devastating effect of learning to read and write.
In four months after, my thesis was written (450 pages of it). It is only at the end that I realized that the really interesting issue was not bad French plays of the 18th century but the alphabet itself. I re-read McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy in terms of the rise of private identity and the split of the tribal communities into isolated individuals building and shaping their own minds in silent reading. Still following McLuhan, if the alphabet had split the tribal community, what effect would electricity, the third great carrier of language, have on personal and social psychology.
The themes of connected intelligence and augmented mind came from applying McLuhan’s and Innis’ explorations of the driving principles or biases of electricity to the network culture and its cognitive and social media.
Q: Could you define for our readers what 'Augmented Mind' means?
A: The Augmented Mind is the active personal and collective cognitive environment that electronic technologies have weaved in and around us via the Internet in particular and electricity in general.
It functions both as an extended memory and a processing intelligence for each one of the users of electronic technologies from the telegraph to “cloud computing” and Twitter. It brings people together instead of separating them as the alphabet did and it allows for any number of individual entries in a fluid information space definable for individual as well as collective and collective needs. It can take many forms whether pooling individual resources in services such as Wikipedia or externalizing and objectifying our imaginary processes in fictional but live environments such as Second Life.
Q: In the essay, you talk about the 'always-on' generation or people who were born with a mobile phone in their hand. Can you expand a little on that concept for our readers?
A: The “Always-On” generation is defined by being permanently accessible via one’s mobile contraption. It is a condition of trust and availability, a kind of incessant dialogue with the world. It is also a turned-on generation of information or connection junkies that need to circulate and recirculate information from the biological mind to that of the networks.
The always-on generation builds its identity on line via social media and lives of the reputation capital it has managed to garner by manicuring profiles and connections. It is quite literally “plugged-in” the Augmented Mind.
Q: Would you go so far as to say that this 'always-on' generation has come to see the world very differently from their grandparents or even their parents?
A: Yes, of course, for this generation the world is both global and geo-localized at the same time. Wherever you are, you are potentially in touch with the whole world.
As Doug Rushkoff already noted, kids do merely watch the television these days, like their parents did, the play with it. They multitask, they can handle several “windows” at once. Their intelligence relies on connecting to a perpetually refashioned hypertext of relationships and tag clouds, a hypertext of which they are themselves the centre.
Young people are “friends” at 3 to 4 degrees of separation, while their grandparents needed to at least shake a person’s hand a few times before considering oneself as a “friend”.
Q: Is the 'always-on' generation also the 'short attention span generation'? In other words, do they prefer content - books, media, news, movies - to be short, quick, easily consumed similar to a text message or a tweet?
A: Probably yes but that may not necessarily be a “bad” thing. We hear and read a lot these days about a backlash against the new media and their assumedly deleterious effects on the natives’ minds.
Nicholas Carr asks anxiously if “Google is making us stupid”, the Internet “altering the way we think to make us less capable of digesting large and complex amounts of information, such as books and magazine articles”. A better question would be to ask if the elaborate articulation of messages doesn’t run against the inevitable acceleration of life and culture introduced by electricity since the advent of the telegraph. All rhythms of life and learning have been completely altered by a rapid succession of ground-changing technologies including the telephone, radio, television, personal computers, the Internet, cellular phones and mobile technologies in general. A short attention span may not imply a poor attention, but rather a quick one.
One thing that critics of screen culture fail to realize is that it takes less time to process a picture than even a dozen, let alone a thousand, words. A short attention span is all you need to face rapid demands, but it doesn’t preclude deeper thinking. When you really do need to focus and stabilize your mind, you can do it. It is no more a matter of storing information. Why bother, since it is all around you. It is more than ever a matter of context and interest. Kids believe they do not like studying because the educational system systematically fails to engage them. So it enrages them.
For her part Sherry Turkle is making waves ranting about how communication technologies are isolating us from real human interactions in a ‘cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world”.
Why do I feel this eerie sense of “déjà vu”? Because I heard it all before about television and it wasn’t true then, so I have a tendency to doubt. In fact my experience is that, at least concerning my students, yes, it is true, they do not read a lot, but they certainly know how to scan and sample the Internet and find pertinence and focus in their selections. The stupid ones are those who do not use Google. As for the isolation bit, we can answer to Turkle that Twitter and e-mail and social media instead of throwing us back in a room of one’s own, actually never stop putting us in touch with someone.
Q: You mention The Sims & Second Life as examples of how the things that we have traditionally thought of as being exclusive to inside our own head - imagination, for example - are emigrating to computers and screens outside our heads. You call this 'Objective Imaginary' - can you expand a little on this concept for our readers?
A: Think about all the intellectual resources we have learned to process in the intimate isolation of our own mind, such as planning, sorting, classifying, remembering, designing, calculating (yes, before the electronic calculators, we did have to learn the tables of multiplication by heart), most if not all of such cognitive operations are being taken over, expanded, connected, verified and distributed on line and via screens that “objectify” the processes themselves submitting them to our estimation for approval.
Imagination is next. What is beginning to happen now is the opposite of what happened at the time Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. In that benchmark novel about a cognitive revolution, what changes the mind of the hero is his excessive reliance on medieval romances and his nostalgia for heroic times.
Its all in his mind, of course, because it is in his mind that he processes the words of the novels he reads. Virtual Reality for him is in his head not on a screen.
What I find very intriguing about Second Life and other 3-D virtual environments is that they emulate our imaginary processes but outside our heads on a screen. That externalization itself is already a surprising cognitive phenomenon, projecting the fictional universe in front of our eyes, instead of behind.
But, what is much more, these simulations are allowing other people to share into them. The reason I call it “Objective Imaginary” is that it occupies a hybrid position between theatre (which may be simulation and theatrical but is not directly affected by how we interpret it), and participative thinking, the way we actively participate in realizing in our minds the figures, places, sounds and other sensorial features of novels, merely to read them.
Q: I found your description of tags and keywords as 'the basic units/building blocks of the shared cognitive environment' to be very interesting. You define a tag as 'the soul of the Internet' - how did you come to define tags that way?
Still in line with the Toronto School of Communications approach, I was trying to identify the bias of the medium of the Internet.
The Internet’s core principle of operation is packet switching. I found that for packet switching to carry the information in the right order to the right place, the precision of the whole system was owed to a unique way of dividing the information into short strings (or packets) and addressing each one with its unique label and position in the sequence to reconstruct the message wherever needed. That, in essence is the tag. Without the possibility to isolate, identify, and connect each packet there would neither Internet nor World Wide Web. Tagging hence by making any information available on demand is the core, the soul of the Internet. Tags allow to connect analog to digital media, and to interconnect everything with everything else end-to-end on demand. We are today in the midst of what I have called the era of the tag.
Q: Can you explain 'intelligent dust'?
A: Actually the thing is still so fresh that the vocabulary to define it has not yet been stabilized and the terms vary between “smart” and “intelligent” dust with the former favored by Wikipedia:
“Smartdust is a hypothetical system of many tiny microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) such as sensors, robots, or other devices, that can detect, for example, light, temperature, vibration, magnetism or chemicals; are usually networked wirelessly; and are distributed over some area to perform tasks, usually sensing.”
Wikipedia also gives examples of applications:
“A typical application scenario is scattering a hundred of these sensors around a building or around a hospital to monitor temperature or humidity, track patient movements, or inform of disasters, such as earthquakes. In the military, they can perform as remote sensors to track enemy movements, detect poisonous gas or radioactivity. “
My interest in this new technological development is that smart dust effects the all-important junction between digital and nanotechnologies and rejoins the concept of “cloud computing”, as a typical moment of rapid and intense maturation of the Internet, on a par with the invention and development of search engines, blogs and Twitter, all considerable resources of the Augmented Mind.
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