Skip to content

The outsourced brain

This somewhat satirical article – The Outsourced Brain – proclaims: “I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants — silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves.”
As Dave Snowden has indicated, it’s tough to determine the level of irony intended by the author. I assume it is at least somewhat ironic/tongue-in-cheek. But, I think it begins to tackle a reality we all deal with; namely, that many “lower level” cognitive tasks are now happily performed on our behalf by technology. This assumes somewhat of a clear demarcation between where I end and the tools I use start. The concept of “what is mind” is important here. Do the tools I use to extend my cognitive functioning constitute a portion of my mind? Andy Clark states as much: “For we shall be Cyborgs not in the merely superficial sense of combining flesh and wires, but in the more profound sense of being human-technology symbionts: thinking and reasoning systems whose minds and selves are spread across biological brain and non-biological circuitry.”

It may seem somewhat overstated by Clark. but consider your daily habits and what has already been offloaded to some type technology. Likely travel, meal preparations, access to information, communication with colleagues, writing (well, writing in any form could be regarded as a technology that extends our minds), and so on. Last November, I posted an article (.doc) suggesting that much of our life (or learning) is about externalizing ourselves – i.e. making what is in our minds available to others. Those attempts to externalize – through language, symbols, emotions – are precisely what enables us to extend ourselves. Or to join ourselves to others – to connect with and be a part of a network of humanity. I’m still a bit unsure about my cyborg future, but I can comfortably say that my mind is increasingly distributed and networked through the many tools I use on a daily basis. The depth and breadth of our learning networks today are not possible without the activities of externalization and extension of ourselves through technology.


  1. Tom Franklin wrote:

    This is hardly a new idea. Plato wrote (about writing):

    Socrates: For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

    Plato, The Phaedrus Translated HN Fowler

    Wednesday, October 31, 2007 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  2. Hi Tom – thanks for the reminder :) …of Plato. You raise on important point – i.e. the distinction between outsourcing parts of our brain and the relation to understanding. In a recent presentation, I explored this, but must admit, I’m not fully at peace yet with how today’s tools – blogs, wikis, bokmarking, 2L, etc. – contribute to deep understanding. As we distribute ourselves to a network of technologies, does our understanding suffer? And if so, what are the principles we need to be aware of in order to ensure deep understanding occurs?


    Wednesday, October 31, 2007 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  3. Pat Parslow wrote:

    I am not at all convinced that this need be read as ironic at all. It seems to me that a key issue relating to effective learning is the ability to forget, and if we are in a position to offload the remembering of information onto technology, we can make more use of our ability to recognise patterns and draw inferences.
    For me, understanding does not require me to remember a lot of facts. I only need them to be able to explain to other people how my understanding of things fits with their experience. I use facts for forming a common basis of communication, and, sadly, for those times when others need to assess my abilities.
    Of course, the act of communicating my understanding also helps me learn, by forcing me to express vague concepts and relationships in language others can take and re-use.
    I would go further – holding information about things in my mind forces my understanding to be more shallow, because I will automatically be relating any theories to that information. If I can forget the facts for long enough to be able to explore alternate solutions, I can always go back to them to test my theories if I know where the data is.
    This, to me, is one of the strengths of the idea of connectivism.

    Tuesday, November 13, 2007 at 6:17 am | Permalink