Saturday, 24 April 2010

Teaching Digital Writing

- that old stretched-leather feeling makes his whole body go taut, gives his arms wings. it feels like he's reaching down through the years to touch this tautness - john updike - rabbit, run -

I was lucky enough today to speak at a conference on Teaching Digital Writing, run by the Higher Education Academy's English Subject Centre. What follows is that talk in full, and it draws on a number of concerns which are central to this blog: the implications of digitisation, the resistance to digital books, and the importance of understanding the bodies of texts and readers when we attempt to consider the effects of making written texts, at least apparently, incorporeal. Thank you to everyone who organised and attended the event and made it such a success.

Digital Writing and Pedagogy
How Do We Teach, What Do We Teach?

I work in an English department, mostly teaching critical theory, and today I’d like to look at a deceptive question, one which I’m going to increasingly face in the discipline I’ve chosen: “how do we go about teaching examples of digital writing?” Now this is not a simple question. Before we can get to the ‘how’ of teaching something, we need to at least approximate what it is we are about to teach, if only to propose an appealing course. I’d put it to you that many students are just not certain what a digital text is, or what digital writing is, not really, and yet I feel that the worst thing we can do, as tutors, is attempt an exacting definition.

Now this might seem oxymoronic, but what I actually think it is, is potentially exciting. Digital texts, digital literatures, digital writing, these still somewhat ineffable things represent a rare chance for us to teach the ‘contemporary’ in the thick of it. English Studies has only rarely been about hunting for, or rote-learning, the proscribed meaning of texts. Often, ideally, it has instead existed as a way of identifying the jumping-off points where written texts allow us to explore our own state of being-in-the-world - how we might think, how we might understand, how we might strive. Unlike contemporary English literature classes I’ve both taught and attended, which seem to think that the ‘contemporary’ must end in 1960 if we’re to have any chance at critical distance, ‘digital’ offers another way, and I would say a compelling way, for our students to see the ways in which their subject wraps around them, to feel that they can live what they learn, and to think that ‘contemporary’ can actually mean ‘right now,’ and ‘tomorrow,’ as the story of the way we receive written material unfolds before their eyes.

In this spirit my talk will touch on a number of disciplines which I believe the digitisation of the written word opens up to the English classroom. This doesn’t represent an attempt to define the borders of the subject, but instead to ignore past delineations and see where productive exploration, symbiosis, and downright theft might allow us to teach better, and to get students feeling and realising what is being taught.

To begin then, how might we sketch a definition of digital work? If I hear the words ‘digital text’ then the frenzy of images that spring to mind, the substance of what I’d like to teach remember, leaves me baffled - are we talking about any written work which appears on a screen? And any screen? Will a television or a mobile phone do? Or must it be a computer? Is a Kindle or an iPad enough of a computer to qualify? And why? Do we really read differently on these things? And once we’ve settled on a carrier medium does a digital text include scans of a paper document? .pdfs? Photographs of existing texts? And are we just talking about
Katherine Hayles’ ‘digitally native’ literature here, works made on, and for reading on, a pixelated screen? Because that seems to include most things now that we’re all word processing every document we produce, and then consuming a lot of it online. And what of books about digitisation, or that use digital forms remediated back into print? Or instead are we talking about books, any books, which interrogate, or have shaken off their material bodies…Ah! But that seems to hit somewhere closer to the nail’s head doesn’t it? It’s this change in bodies which is causing all the fuss after all. Because if popular media has taught us anything about digital and digitised books, it’s that they don’t ‘smell right,’ and that they don’t ‘feel right,’ and that you certainly can’t read them on the beach or in the bath.

For the record that last one’s actually not true. Jeff Bezos, the founder and president of, apparently reads his Kindle e-reader
in the bath. He puts it in a one gallon see-through zip-lock bag. The touch screen works and everything.

But the body of the book, and we might as well talk about the book because that’s what the majority of the popular debate surrounds, the body of the bound paper book, the codex, is changing, and the new forms we are experiencing are not the product of a kindly received metamorphosis. There have been increasingly frequent attempts to begin ‘e-reading’ over the last ten or so years, prior to the watershed of the Amazon Kindle’s release in late 2007, and numerous commentators have lined up to warn us of the dangers of digital, particularly its lowly status in comparison to print. Sven Birkerts is perhaps the totemic example here, with his exhortation in the
Gutenberg Elegies, that: “this may be the awakening, but it feels curiously like the fantasies that circulate through our sleep. From deep in the heart I hear the voice that says, ‘Refuse it!’”

What should we make of Birkerts’, and others’, resistance? I’m not sure. But we should teach it. We should teach it now, and we should teach it when all the journals are online, and when all the books are online, and we should continue to teach it when every student is doing their homework on a digital device. Because this resistance, whilst presumably futile, is all about bodies, those bookish-bodies holding books, and those bound-book bodies being held. And bodies books certainly have; books have chapters, from the Latin for head, caput, whilst pages have feet for their footnotes. The book’s body has a spine, and their contents can have an appendix. Even references to sections being ‘above’ or ‘below’ rather than ‘shallower’ or ‘deeper’ within the text suggest that it should be standing on its feet.

And where there are bodies there are interactions; nothing knows it even has a body until it starts to resist the world. Birkerts, in his article for The Atlantic, ‘
Resisting the Kindle,’ discusses codex reading as existing as part of such an interacting system. He describes the system of libraries and filing that have grown up around the bound-book form, but he also describes how our bodies gain access via participation: “[t]hat system,” says Birkerts, “stands for the labor and taxonomy of human understanding, and to touch a book is to touch that system, however lightly.” He knows what it means to touch a book. I don’t think he expresses it that well here, but he is beginning to get to the root of all the ‘it just doesn’t feel right’ type of arguments.

Birkerts suggests that we can interact with ‘the labour and taxonomy of human understanding’ haptically, via our tactile interactions with objects. This seems to ring true; we interact with the world via touch, and always have. From primates’ becoming one with the forest canopy as they travelled, each brachiating limb extending out and amalgamating with the drooping liana, to the invention and mass deployment of hammers and other simple hand tools which extrapolated the skills of the naked arm, our species’ evolutionary history is based around touch and what the neurologist Frank Wilson describes as ‘incorporation.’ To incorporate something into ourselves requires that we treat an external object as if it was part of our flesh, and I use the
Merleau-Pontian term intentionally. Heidegger would have called this ‘ready-to-hand;’ the sociologist Andy Pickering might describe it as a temporarily stable interaction between two subjects in a ‘dance of agency;’ an evolutionary cognitive psychologist like Merlin Donald might look at how ‘incorporated’ objects allow us to actually extend our cognition; and a philosopher, such as Andy Clark, might even see it, at times, as an extension of our minds.

Andy Clark and David Chalmers demonstrate how our interactions with objects might 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.’ In a very simple example they discuss the use of 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, at this point, is spread onto the paper and pencil, it forms an extension of the brain’s own short term memory. For Merlin Donald, if the notepad is a prosthetic short term memory, then a library represents much more long term storage.

Along with these extensions it is important to note that our hands’ interactions and brains’ contemplations are intimately linked. Frank Wilson’s study in
The Hand, is an excellent entry point to this field, but contemporary research into gesture and pedagogy has provided compelling evidence of this symbiosis in action. Psychologists from the University of Chicago studied a class performing basic mathematics problems such as 3+2+8=BLANK+8. The students had to learn to resolve the equation by finding the single digit which is equivalent to 3+2, i.e. they must understand the concept of ‘grouping’ - adding numbers together to produce an analogue which balances the sum. In order to teach this act of ‘grouping’ tutors were getting students to draw a little ‘v’ shape with their finger under the 3 and the 2, physically tying them together. Sure enough students understood the concept significantly faster than when the technique was not deployed. But the researchers also found, over the course of the study, that it didn’t matter where the students drew the ‘v’ at all, it was the very act of making the gesture which introduced and sublimated the concept.

So our touchings of the world can have a profound effect. Both Clark and Donald suggest that what makes humans distinctive is not consciousness, per se, but cognition offloaded, cognition, to use
Edwin Hutchins’ term, in the wild.

Part of what Birkerts, and others, might be mourning then, is that it may seem that we are taking our hands out of reading through digitisation, removing our ‘tactile observation’, as it were, and introducing a uniquely human kind of blindness. Tales of sudden blindness, of Milton, to use a literary example, or of Nietzsche, of Joyce, or of Borges, for all of their ability to shock us with our own fragilty, hold none of the horror of a true loss of touch, not just a numbness of the hands, but a removal of the skin from our sensation. To touch is never in our control - we touch against our will - always forced to maintain at least a point in pressure with something, hence our fascination with acrobatics, zero-gravity, or the weightlessness of floating in a heavily-salted sea, though none of these represent a true, total loss of touch or else they would become grotesque. Touch is never in our control, but for the most part it is controlled, we might think of pain as excessive touching, or the echo of a misplaced touch. We see the most important aspects of our world with our hands, our skin. No wonder that so many avid readers, so many holders of printed books, feel that they must speak out - do they not subconsciously fear that the new technology might make us, if not paralysed, then haptically blind?

It’s not my intention here to lay out how we should respond to these changes in the book form, whether we should receive them in a positive or negative light, whether we should receive them at all. But I do want to say that we should start to take these kind of changes seriously, not writing off any resistance as doom-mongering or Ludditisim, and certainly not saying what might actually amount to such, that these changes will never come, that the book will always remain in its present comfortable form. This last assertion seems the most problematic of all in some ways; it does a profound disservice to the rich studies of book history and textual criticism, disciplines, incidentally, which should certainly be used to contextualise the digital, which have demonstrated the profundity of the changes the form has experienced over the course of its 2000-some years of evolution. But it also ignores, once again, the contemporary experience of interacting with the written word; as Stuart Moulthrop has said: “[t]he book is already ‘dead’ (or superseded) if by ‘alive’ you mean that the institution in question is essential to our continued commerce in ideas.”

We are, potentially, on a road to no longer needing books, which is why we need to be able to articulate just why we might want them. When we are talking about what they do best, when we are teaching how the words on their pages are different to their words on the screen then we need to fully appreciate aspects of the form that we have often previously taken for granted. The page space, it’s borders and typography, it’s footnotes and endnotes, it’s indexes and contents lists, the covers which separate it from the world, the opacity of its leaves, its linear order, all of these things, which make up the book as we have come to accept it, are reconfigured into articles to discuss, rather than invisible facets of the gestalt we know as the codex.

Katherine Hayles puts our task succinctly:

By and large literary critics have been content to see literature as immaterial verbal constructions, relegating to the specialized fields of bibliography, manuscript culture, and book production the rigorous study of the materiality of literary artefacts…It is becoming overwhelmingly clear that we can no longer afford to ignore the material basis of literary production. Materiality of the artefact can no longer be positioned as a subspeciality within literary studies; it must be central, for without it we have little hope of forging a robust and nuanced account of how literature is changing under the impact of information technologies.

Now, it seems I’ve said a lot in defence of the traditional book form here, but what I really wanted to emphasise is that digitisation reinvigorates our discussions of the materiality of texts. When we take seriously the fact that books, digital or bound, have bodies, then we can start to get to the heart of the effects of the changes which we are seeing. If, as humans, we have extended our minds onto our artefacts in the past, then isn’t it likely that we will continue to do so? What better way to try and understand how we might put aspects of ourselves into digital reading then, than to consider how we have used the bound-book form to do the same thing?

As a very brief example we might consider
Sherry Turkle’s notion of ‘objects-to-think-with,’ the use of artefacts to physically work-through what we might otherwise miss about an idea, or about our times. The bound book has functioned as just such an object, privileging linear thought, the elimination of error, and the packaging of ideas into discrete bundles which can stand in isolation, waiting for us to approach and discover them. A digital text, in many ways, functions oppositely. Let’s just take one aspect, the hyperlink, a device which Steven Johnson has described as “the first significant form of punctuation to emerge in centuries.” When considered as an object-to-think-with we can see why Johnson might well describe them as a form of punctuation; a hyperlink, an underlined blue word in an otherwise familiar page of script, even if unclicked, still has power, still has an effect. It exists to remind us that we can head out into other texts, out into the world, that where we are is not the final say, and that the boundary lines we have revered are blurred at best, and potentially inconsequential. In this one blue word we can see the potential to discuss what the word ‘text’ even means, to discuss copyright law’s inability to recognise the power of influence, and its related inability to adjust to these new ‘disembodied’ forms. We might also see how our own boundaries blur as much as the text’s, as our minds extend, and our society encroaches; the digital text might function as an analogue to ourselves. A lot can be said for a hyperlink.

In this way a course on digital writing could very well be based, ironically, around the bound book, taking a part of its anatomy each week, and then exploring it and seeing how digitisation might turn the effects of each element upon their heads. The footnote could be paired with the hyperlink, linearity with the internet, or codexical materiality with a perceived digital incorporeality that
Matthew Kirschenbaum’s forensic studies might certainly justly refute.

Although I’ve tried to gesture toward a number of disciplines which I think have a logical place in the digital writing classroom, I’ve consciously resisted the term ‘interdisciplinary.’ Interdisciplinarity suggests, or I think should suggest, the adoption of alternative discourses, something which only comes from embedding yourself within a discipline which differs from that in which you have previously trained or written, or by collaborating with a practitioner from another discipline and allowing your voices to merge. At this point it is perhaps not appropriate, at least as far as teaching these changes is concerned, to attempt either, and for the most part this stems from the sheer range of disciplines required to interpret these events; to be interdisciplinary at this time, for these changes, would necessarily be to attempt polymathism.

However, specialisation is the privilege of established discipline, and we do not yet have that luxury, either in the Digital Humanities or in whatever subsection of such digital reading may provoke into existence. Any discussion of digital reading devices and their associated texts can no longer afford to ignore the diversity of fields required to begin mapping the effects of these early days, and whilst the study and pedagogy might not be truly interdisciplinary, it can be outward looking, generous, and deferential where appropriate. Although pursuing a discussion of the literary products which have marked the shift to a digital reading mode, Hayles again amply demonstrates this fundamental point, she says:

electronic literature is evolving within complex social and economic networks that include the development of commercial software, the competing philosophy of open source freeware and shareware, the economics and geopolitical terrain of the internet and World Wide Web, and a host of other factors that directly influence how electronic literature is created and stored, sold or given away, preserved or allowed to decline into obsolescence.

To this list I have added Philosophy, Evolutionary Cognitive Psychology, Biology, Neuroscience, Forensic Investigation, Copyright Law, Sociology, Textual Criticism, and Book History. All of these, for me, seem a natural, and logical fit alongside English Studies as it comes to focus on the objects and bodies of digital and digitised reading. Devices such as the iPad, and the Kindle represent potent sites which, without a discipline of their own, at least as yet, must mark a coming together of scholarship, and a concomitant adjustment to pedagogy so that students can begin to contribute to a variety of fields after an exciting period of education, the tools of which, the objects-to-think-with, they can very swiftly put into practice, instantaneously in the case of observation and reflection on the story which is unfolding around them.

We obviously can’t teach everything, but that’s always been true. A large part of university English study is about opening doors to new ways of thought via literary works. The same is true when we encounter digital texts, but the doors to more disciplines, whose effects might then be felt in all aspects of English Studies as we relearn the materiality we so often neglect, the doors to such disciplines become, perhaps, easier, and more logical, to open.

[Update - I previously suggested that the gestural research took place in Norway. This was a mistake, the researchers were from the University of Chicago and the source website is now hyperlinked, apologies]

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.



Friday, 9 April 2010

Extending Sunrise

- i can’t not mention the digital economy bill, and wikileaks stellar work which should still be on the front page of every newspaper, and news website, but remains resolutely low key wherever it appears. neither item should stay ignored -

Related to the last post I’m now reading Andy Clark’s Natural-Born Cyborgs, and, like his paper with David Chalmers, ‘The Extended Mind,’ it’s making me think about all sorts of things I haven’t read enough yet to parse properly. I need to get through tool-use in Heidegger, objects in Merleau-Ponty, and Clark’s Supersizing the Mind. I also want to read Sherry Turkle’s Evocative Objects, and Graham Harman’s Tool-Being and Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, and investigate OOO in general. Maybe then I’ll start getting somewhere with all of this. Maybe not. Whatever, I know they’ll set me straight on my embryonic ideas. For now I’m thinking this:

Most of us are relatively happy with the adage that we are ‘the sum of our experiences.’ It seems to speak a kind of rough and ready truth. But we probably mostly conceive of it in terms of the consequences of the births, deaths, loves, and losses that we find ourselves subjected to. In short our ‘experiences’ are just the big tangible edifices of Life. I also think that we are the sum of our experiences, but that they are not all big Life events; some of them, most of them, are just life events, things that just take place day to day. Reading Clark, and also Merlin Donald, and starting to brush up on Graham Harman’s great blog, has made me think a lot about how we interact with the things around us, and I’m beginning to wonder why the act of putting socks on, everyday, for my four-score-and-ten, counts for so much less in our conception of things than some girl I quite liked in college. The presence in my life of toothpaste, or soap, or shoes, or, more easily perhaps, my mobile, has probably had as profound an effect on me as certain breakups, or other ‘formative’ experiences.

Deleuze and Guattari, at the opening of A Thousand Plateaus, when trying to describe who they are, say that using their names is just a convenient shorthand, “because it’s nice to talk like everybody else, to say the sun rises, when everybody knows it’s only a manner of speaking.” The sun doesn’t rise; a name doesn’t define us; and conceptualising ourselves as constrained beings, the ‘skin-bag’ as Clark describes it, no longer makes sense. So, I’d like to define my sunrise a little better: I’d like to define myself historically as the sum of all of my experiences, banal and profound, and that would include my conception and subsequent development, my combination of genes, environment, and interaction with the world. But such a conception also has radical implications for my current experience. Following Clark, I’d like to say that at this moment ‘I’ am my past, my present, my culture, this keyboard, this computer, my clothes, my watch, my haircut, the air in my lungs, the food and water in my system, my evolving thoughts, ambient and core temperatures, as well as everything I can touch, see, smell, taste, and hear, plus all of my other senses, and all the functions occurring all around my body, chemical and electrical, and I’d also like to include everything that I know is readily available to me, like my notepads, my annotated books, my dictionary, and the pages I know well online. That is ‘me,’ where the blurry boundary line of things I incorporate into myself extends to, and no further and no less, and always changing.

If you were to come into my room and take away my senses, take away my thoughts, if you were to cut my hair or skin then most everyone would agree that you were affecting ‘me.’ But if you came in here and burnt my books, disconnected my internet, stole my watch, or took the shirt from my back, then you’re also affecting what I thought of as ‘me.’ Sure, I can adapt, I will very quickly make a new ‘me’ (thought not instantly), but just because a system is in flux doesn’t mean that any damage to the system at any time should only be thought of as damage to a part. If someone is lost from a faculty, a family, a friendship group, a scout group, or a support group, then damage is done to the tribe, though they are always liable to change on their own terms frequently. In the same way: you don’t just burn my books, you burn me. You can’t ever freeze a moment to see what or who a person is, because thoughts change, bodies change, but also the environments wrapped around them change. Whatever exists in our sensory sphere, but also what we believe we can rely on, constitute ourselves and describe our future history. As Clark puts it:

“our sense of self, of what we know and of who and what we are, is surprisingly plastic and reflects not some rigid preset biological boundary so much as our ongoing experience of thinking, reasoning, and acting within whatever potent web of technology and cognitive scaffolding we happen to currently inhabit” (Natural-Born Cyborgs (hardcover) 45).

I know I’m pushing Clark’s ideas quite hard here, taking them a little further than he might appreciate, forgive me, but I’m starting to learn just how radical the implications are for what he’s saying.



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.