“Technology changes ”how“ not ”what.“ Expands in space, compresses in time. The results are sometimes breathtaking.”
- David Rogers via Twitter
Notebooks as Extended Mind
In 1998, Andy Clark and David Chalmers made the radical suggestion that the mind might not stop at the borders of the brain. In their paper, The Extended Mind, they suggested that the activity of the brain that we experience as consciousness is dependent not only on brain but also on input from the rest of the world. Clark’s later book, Supersizing the Mind clarifies and expands on the idea. Taken to its logical conclusion, this extended mind hypothesis locates mind in the interactions between the brain and the external world. The physical basis of consciousness includes the brain, the body and nearby office products.
I mean to say that your mind is, in part, in your notebook. In the original paper, Clark and Chalmers use the hypothetical case of Otto. Otto has Alzheimer’s Disease and compensates for his memory deficit by carrying a notebook around with him at all times. They argue for externalism- that Otto’s new memories are in the notebook, not in his brain. The system that constitutes Otto’s mind, his cognitive activities depends not only on his brain, but on the the notebook. If he were to lose the notebook those memories would disappear just as if removed from his brain by psychosurgery. It should make no difference whether memory is stored as physical traces in neuronal circuitry or as ink marks on paper since the use is the same in the end.
The paper actually opens with more extreme cases like neural implants that blur completely whether information is coming from the brain or outside. We have brain mechanisms to separate what is internally generated and what is external. The point is that these external aids are extensions. In medical school I learned to use index cards and a pocket notebook reference, commonly referred to as one’s “peripheral brain”. Those of us who think well but remember poorly succeed only with these kinds of external knowledge systems.
In 1998, when The Extended Mind was published, we used mostly paper notebooks and computer screens. The Apple Newton was launched August, 1993. The first Palm Pilot device, which I think was the first ubiquitous pocket computing device , in March, 1997.
The Organized Extended Mind
When David Allen published Getting Things Done in 2001, index cards and paper notebooks were rapidly being left behind as the world accelerated toward our current age of email and internet. I’ll always think of Getting Things Done system as a PDA system because of the lists I created my system that lived on mobile devices. First it was the Palm, then Blackberry and most recently, iPhone. @Actions, @WaitingFor, @Projects were edited on the PC and synced to a device that needed daily connection to the computer. I had a nice collection of reference files, particularly for travel called “When in London”, “When in Paris”, etc.
My information flow moved to the PC as it became connected to the global network. Two communication functions really: conversations and read/write publishing. Email and message boards provided two way interaction that was generally one to one or among a small community. Wider publishing was to the web. Both of these migrated seamlessly to hand held devices that replicated email apps or the browser on the PC. Eventually the mobile device became combined with phone. Even though capabilities have grown with faster data rates, touch interfaces, bigger screens and large amounts of solid state data storage, The first iPhones and iPads showed their PDA roots as a tethered PC device in the way they backed up and synced information. That world is rapidly fading as the internet becomes a ubiquitous wireless connection.
Access to email and internet through smartphones has served to further “expand time”“ and ”compress space" as Dave put it. I adopted a text file based approach so that I could switch at will between my iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air and have my external thoughts available. The synced plain text files seems transformational, but feels like my old Palm set of lists.
The age of the cloud is one of information flakes. Much of what we know is now latent and external requiring reference to a small device. Is it any wonder that our streets and cafes are filled with people peering down into a screen rather than out into the world?
It was a rapid transition. One that continues to evolve and that demands frequent reconsideration of the means and methods for constructing the extended mind.
A Mind Released
The SimpleNote and Notational Velocity and DropBox ecosystem was the enabling technology for me. Suddenly there was seamless syncing between the iPad or iPhone and the Mac. The rapid adoption of Dropbox as the defacto file system for iOS broke the game wide open so that standard formats could be edited anywhere- Mac, Windows, iPhone, iPad, Unix shell. This was a stable fast data store available whenever a network was available.
Editing data on a server is also not a new idea. Shell accounts used for editing text with vi or Emacs on a remote machine from anywhere is as old as computer networking. I started this website in late 1999 on Dave Winer’s Edit This Page service where a text editor in the browser allowed simple website publishing for the first time.
Incremental searching of text files eliminates the need for databases or hierarchical structure. Text editors like Notational Velocity, nvAlt, SimpleNote or Notesy make searching multiple files as effortless as brain recall from long term memory. Just start typing associations or, for wider browsing, tags embedded in metadata, and unorganized large collections become useful. Just like brain free recall of red objects or words that begin with the letter F. Incremental searching itself is not a new idea for text editors. What’s new is that we’re not seeing just a line of text, but rather multiline previews and instant access to each file found. But together incremental searching with ubiquitous access and the extended mind is enabled across time and space.
What seems to have happened is that the data recorded as external memory has finally broken free from its home in notebooks or on the PC and is resident on the net where it can be accessed by many devices. My pocket notebook and set of GTD text lists is now a set of text files in the cloud. Instantly usable across platforms , small text files have once again become the unit of knowledge. Instant access to personal notebook knowledge via sync and search.