Sunday, 11 April 2010

An Email Interview With Merlin Donald

- perhaps i should hire a diviner / to read the knotted entrails of my shoes, / and let the laces decide - merlin donald - from the epigraph to a mind so rare -

Merlin Donald is currently emeritus professor at Queen’s University, Ontario Canada. His published books, Origins of the Modern Mind and A Mind So Rare, have provided a unique and compelling reconceptualisation of the evolution of cognition and consciousness. These ideas have had a profound impact on recent theories of Extended Mind and Distributed Cognition; over the course of the story Donald tells it is impossible to miss how crucial tool use, language, and our various methods of external symbolic storage are to his central argument, and he deals with all of these with the nuance they deserve and require. Reading his work has had a massive effect on the thesis I’m currently writing, and it certainly couldn’t have existed as it now does without his patient explanations opening up the material which provides the vital framework for his study - anthropology, the neurosciences, cognitive psychology, archaeology, and biology - to readers outside of these disciplines.

I’m very grateful to Professor Donald for agreeing to answer a few questions for this blog, and I provide my questions, and his answers in full below. I hope that it prompts any readers to explore his work if they haven’t discovered it already.

Hello Merlin, thanks very much for taking the time to answer a few questions for the 4oh4-wordsnotfound blog.

1) For anyone reading who hasn’t come across your work yet could you say a little about your career, what you have most often written about, and maybe a little on what your current interests are?

I started out in the Humanities - classics & lit - with a side interest in Biology. I only switched to Psychology in Graduate School; I had no courses in psychology as an undergraduate. My first interest was psychoanalysis, and then consciousness and phenomenology. I was also always interested in visual art & architecture, and in evolutionary theory. I was influenced early by people like Northrop Frye, Carl Jung, Lewis Mumford, and Marshall McLuhan.

As I learned more about theoretical psychology, especially in the broad Hebbian context that typified McGill at that time, I saw the possibility of studying conscious function in the lab, using a neuroscience approach. Later on in my career, I tried to merge a humanistic, scholarly approach to psychology with a wider biological and evolutionary framework. In the nineteen-eighties I finally got to the point of writing Origins of the Modern Mind, which mapped out the strategy I have been following in my recent work.

For the record, I have a wife and two sons, publish occasional poetry, and I have long been avid amateur photographer, canoeist, and cross-country skier.

2) This blog is mostly concerned with digital reading, and digital reading devices, why some readers of traditional bound-books might be so resistant to new electronic forms of reading, and the effects that they might have on readers. Your work seems like it might provide a valuable way into such debates which might have, so far, been neglected in terms of forming a nuanced response to devices such as the Amazon Kindle and the imminent arrival of the Apple iPad. For instance, in Origins of the Modern Mind you introduce two ways in which humans have extended their cognition outside of their isolated biological minds by forming external storage and work spaces for mental processing. You labelled these the external symbolic storage system (ESS) and the external memory field (ExMF) respectively. Loosely, the ESS would include long term external information storage, a library for instance, which can be called on by anyone who knows the rules of access (i.e. finding materials and being literate enough to parse them), and the ExMF would act as a short term work area, individual books say, where the reader processes and works with the symbols drawn from the long term ESS. Digital workspaces, not only computers, but also portable electronic reading devices, seem, to me, to be transformations of both the ExMF and the ESS, and the extent of home computing and global computer network infrastructure could barely have been imagined in 1991, when Origins… was first published. Could you say a little about how the last two decades have modified your notions of structures you’ve posited, such as these? Or do you see the new technologies as something in addition, rather than as modifications?

The new tech has tremendous implications for how we think and live. That is a very large subject, about which I am currently writing. You might try reading a short article available from my website called ‘Memory Palaces,’ and two articles (also available there) published in the 1998 Cambridge volume called ‘Cognition and Material Culture.’

3) Related to the last question you also tentatively introduced an additional extension of the mind with the ‘Global Electronic Information Environment,’ a term which now needs little explanation. Origins... was first published in 1991 and, of course, since then the Global Electronic Information Environment has massively impacted on the ways that people receive and interpret information. Do you see this as a fundamental change to human cognition, or is it just an extension of prior ESS systems, faster, more extensive, etc. rather than qualitatively different?

Whether we will see a qualitative change I cannot say. I have certainly seen a huge change in my lifetime, but it is too early to tell…and I am not sure exactly when a change in mentation deserves the term ‘qualitative.’ I often use the term ‘cognitive ecology’ to refer to the mental world we live in, and I think the cognitive ecology has definitely changed in a qualitative sense, while our mental equipment has probably not.

4) Your work seems to crop up frequently in the discussion of Extended Mind theories and Distributed Cognition. How familiar are you with these fields, and work from writers such as Edwin Hutchins and Andy Clark (who marks his debt to your thought in his books’ acknowledgements), and do you see their work as a natural fit with your own, or as pursuing incompatible agendas?

I know Ed and Andy from way back; both excellent theorists. Extended Mind is a catchy term, if somewhat misleading, since the ‘mind’ is still confined to its brain-box. To clarify, in my view ‘cognition’ is indeed extended and distributed in hybrid cognitive-cultural networks, but not ‘mind.’ I think we all agree on the importance of distributed cognition, but differ on where we place emphasis.

I prefer my own term ‘Hybrid mind,’ which alludes to the fact that, although the mind resides inside the head, the sources of its higher capabilities (e.g. such ‘mental modules’ as math and music) can be traced to a creative interaction between biology and culture, especially with material culture, which includes written notations and external memory devices. Once those capabilities are developed in the cognitive networks of culture, the individual brain can ‘download’ them through exposure and training. Of course, the human brain’s design serves as a constant constraint on the useful forms the cognitive ecology can take; no point in designing devices or environments we cannot use or live in…

5) Many commentators seem remarkably resistant to the digitisation of texts, if not for the ‘natively-digital’ work of blogging, and online journals and magazines, (though detractors are certainly out there, notably Mark Helprin, and Andrew Keen), then certainly for previously print-only works, particularly bound paper books. The totemic examples here are perhaps Robert Darnton, and Sven Birkerts. This resistance seems not to emerge from Ludditism, but instead from a belief that books are the most/one of the most effective agents outside of ourselves to effect positive change in our mental life, where as screens fall drastically short of this mark. Where do you think this resistance stems from? Is there something to be said for the loss of physical interaction with information?

Personally, I do not resist digization – but I think the printed book is a near-perfect piece of technology for certain purposes, that will take a long time to displace or replace, especially in fields where intensive study is required. The ebook may be best suited for fiction, or biography. But for anything that requires a lot of reflective thought, a printed book is so portable, handy, easy to notate, and flexible in its format, when compared with current electronic readers, that I would not see the latter as serious competitors yet. That may change as they improve. In particular, electronic readers are not friendly for page flipping, or for parallel processing, where you lay out many books and papers at once, some with pages held open, others annotated, and scan them collectively. What you are doing in that case is moving through several parallel information fields in three-dimensional space, something you cannot do in an ebook.

Electronic reading is too linear for my taste, and leaves no room for my favourite strategy – speed-reading an interesting book backwards, to track its argument; or to feel out the author’s real intentions, sometimes in random order, to sample the flavour of the thoughts therein; or leafing through a manuscript in selected chunks that are determined intuitively, often in an unpredictable order, triggered by specific contents or ideas.

All in all, I like navigating knowledge networks in flexible, intuitive ways that are impeded by the current tendency of electronic media to insist on linear, highly controlled environments.

6) Language, or more particularly externalised expression or representation of ideas, seem to be the driving forces of cognitive evolution in your work so the influx of tablet computing we are likely to see this year in the wake of the iPad seems like it might be significant. If I can persuade you into a little futurology, do you see any likely candidates for technologies which might have significant implications for human cognition in the next few years?

Futurology is something I try very hard to avoid! But if I were to guess, nanotechnology will be revolutionary (and possibly dangerous) in the brain sciences. Also, given the power of the chemical engineering industry, advances in brain chemistry could also prove both powerful and dangerous. And let’s not forget the new genetics! The possibilities are endless, and daunting. Let’s hope we can be sensible in handling these inevitable new developments.

Best wishes,

Merlin Donald

Thanks again to Professor Donald for taking part in this exchange.



1 comment:

Andy Thatcher said...

Oddly, Donald's work came up in an education seminar I went to today (see for taking some of his ideas - along with Kermode, Bruner and a heap of other cool minds into the arena of compulsory education.) I particularly like his answer to 5 - that is precisely my objection to the digital book - and I treat fiction books similarly, depending on how I'm using using it. I have to say, though, I'm very excited about the Ipad, though more as a creative/ intellectual organisational tool than as a reader. I think the capacity to draw on a screen and to make much finer manipulations of the screen will lead to some very interesting developments, especially with mind mapping in its various forms.

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