Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Extensive Objects

- image from the man without qualities blog

- we carve / images into clouds so that we should not starve / for lack of company - george szirtes - from 'the translators' -

I’m thinking of plunging into Extended Mind Theory and Distributed Cognition over the next month or so, followed by Graham Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology as it applies to Heidegger and tool use. It seems that these have become unavoidable topics as I start thinking more and more about electronic reading devices as objects, and as artefacts which sit in a history of the rich tactile interaction with the world which makes up our evolutionary history as a species. The iPad, perhaps more than any computing or reading device before it, emphasises the importance of touch, and this video posted on Boing Boing today reminded me of the joy of an intuitive user interface. This is the same joy, surely, that people like Sven Birkerts seek to defend as inherent to the bound paper book in the face of these new technologies, a melting away of the device in order to allow access to as unmediated an experience as we can muster. Without ever having had the pleasure of interacting with one I feel, via that video, that the iPad threatens to provide just such an experience and that is, in that ugliest of phrases, a ‘game changer.’ Think of the release of the Nintendo Wii, the birth of ‘non-threatening’ gaming, where everyone could get involved in a variety of digital activities, regardless of age, skill, prior interest, etc. I think that this will seem incredibly minor in the wake of touchscreen tablet computing; far more people in our society consume diverse digitisable content than just play videogames.

Anyway, I just finished Andy Clark and David Chalmers' ‘The Extended Mind’, a paper that in 1998 essentially kicks off the Extended Mind debate as it exists in contemporary discourse. There fundamental question in the paper is: ‘Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?’ and they answer by suggesting that our interactions with objects alter the locus of cognition from a place inside our heads to somewhere out there, in the world, forming a ‘coupled system’ between human and object ‘that can be seen as a cognitive system in its own right.’ One of the most frequently cited examples would be the use of a pencil and paper to jot down lecture notes, to do a hard sum, or to take a long list, all tasks which the human mind alone could not perform accurately. Cognition, for Clark and Chalmers, is spread onto the paper and pencil, it forms an extension of the brain’s own short term memory. This links to Merlin Donald’s idea of the External Memory Field that I discussed in the last post.

So far so easy to get on board with (or at least I find myself sympathetic to such an idea). Next comes another extension, not extended cognition, but extended mind. Clark and Chalmers propose that belief, a function traditionally thought of as occurring within a mind, can also be externalised. They use two example stories to outline this idea. The first example is that of Inga. Inga wants to go to the museum, she recalls that it’s on 53rd street, and she sets off for her visit. Clark and Chalmers suggest that she believed that the museum was on 53rd street before she consciously attained the memory; “it was not previously an occurrent belief, but then neither are most of our beliefs. The belief was sitting somewhere in memory, waiting to be accessed.” As we are using the term ‘belief’ I find this easiest to consider by analogy to a religious person still believing in their deity/deities, even if they are not at that moment consciously contemplating them.

The second example is of Otto, a man who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. He also wants to visit the museum, but unlike Inga he cannot refer to his long term memory, an internal belief, to acknowledge which street the museum is on. Otto, however, writes everything he needs to recall down in a notebook he takes everywhere with him. After deciding to go to the museum he refers to the notepad, discovers the street number, and sets off. “Clearly, Otto walked to 53rd street because he wanted to go to the museum and he believed the museum was on 53rd street. And just as Inga had her belief even before she consulted her memory, it seems reasonable to say that Otto believed the museum was on 53rd street even before consulting his notebook” (my emphasis). Otto’s notepad acts as a collection of long term ‘beliefs’ which he can draw on in a functionally identical way to Inga and her long term memory. I find myself increasingly sympathetic to this idea also (and now can’t wait for Clark’s Natural Born Cyborgs to emerge out of the Royal Mail holding pattern where it has been firmly ensconced for the last week) - wary, but sympathetic.

I think this is because I have a very strong belief in the power of objects to affect the ways we interact with, and conceptualise our environments. My thoughts so far, building on this single article (I have no idea whether this has been covered elsewhere as yet), are that perhaps we could take this idea further and attempt to better understand the objects which Clark and Chalmers see us offloading or extending aspects of ourselves onto and through.

Sherry Turkle’s notion of ‘objects-to-think-with’ suggests that using a computer can fundamentally affect the way that we view the world; our interactions with it, she asserts, enact Postmodern concerns with the impossibility of univocal meaning, non-linearity, and reader-up, rather than author-down, production of meaning. I don’t have time to get into the intricacies of such an argument here, but I hope that we can agree that objects can hold within them the potential to affect the way in which we view the world: the car changed how we perceive distance; the internet changes how we perceive time; the personal computer changes how we perceive the quality of content that can be created by the amateur. If this is the case then I would say that objects, all objects, hold in potential the ability to affect the way we view the world in both banal and profound ways; they exist as external belief systems waiting to be bolted onto my mind by my interaction with them. Let’s imagine a painting you’re about to see at Inga and Otto’s museum on 53rd. The painting already exists and has the potential, already inherent within it, to change your beliefs in some way about how you conceptualise the world. You go to the painting, you stare, close up and at distance, admiring the composition and technique, considering the accidental peaks of oil and meticulous brushwork, and you react both viscerally and intellectually. In this moment of interaction the seeds of your slightly altered world view are sown; the painting held a new belief that could only exist through your interaction with it. But then you have to leave, to sever your ‘coupled system,’ and you head outside. But the connection still goes on, you’ve taken some part of the painting into yourself (I’d argue that you’ve incorporated the interaction), and now the painting isn’t required aside from to reinforce your new belief, you’ve rendered portable what existed in those first interactive moments (that you no longer require the painting isn’t strictly true; the iteration of experience allows the same painting to strike us differently at different times which is why I would say we’re incorporating a particular interaction with, rather than an aspect of, the painting).

I’m looking at every object around me now, pens, speakers, the clock, my computer, every poem in the Francis Ponge collection, the book itself, the stapler, the water jug, and I see them as all alive with the potential to change me. I’m really looking forward to seeing what everyone else has written about this, but that’s where I’ve got to on my own for now, and for now, for today, it feels like a pretty good way of being in the world.

Best

_m

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