Sunday, March 7, 2010

My Son the Cyborg?

As of late, I have been paying increased attention to the moments when my son attempts to incorporate my wife and I into his actions. For instance, when Will reaches over and grabs my arm and directs my hand to:
  • the bag of Goldfish that is just out of his reach
  • the box full of blocks that he just can't seem to pry open
  • tickle mommy's feet
With the exception of the last one, which is really just for fun but still just as clever, all of these strike me as moments of (or, at least, candidates for) genuine cyborg extension. Will works actively to augment his own abilities by tapping (into) various external resources. My interest in these moments is informed by Andy Clark's most recent treatment of extended cognition. Now, Clark is particularly interested in how cognition is extended, but that sort of extension is not opposed to or without connections to what we might call "extended embodiment." In the case of Will, it probably makes sense to think of what he is doing as both. Many of things my wife and I are asked to do Will is probably physically capable of doing himself; there is just one aspect of the task that he hasn't quite mastered. He certainly could have the dexterity to turn to crank that raises and lowers the elevator in the Bat Cave. However, reliably turning it in the directions that either raises or lower it is difficult for him. It is in these cases that Will makes our hands his hands.

Clark advances the following criteria "to be met by [...] candidates for inclusion into an individual's cognitive system" (79):
  1. "That the resource be reliably available and typically invoked."
  2. "It should not usually be subject to critical scrutiny."
  3. "easily accessible as and when required."
  4. "That the [source] has been consciously endorsed at some point in the past."
The first three are met rather easily, I think. Although, at times, Will does shoot us looks that indicate we are indeed being scrutinized. Nevertheless, we are typically invoked in many matters, we are quite reliable, and we are easily accessed whenever he requires us. The forth, however, is somewhat of a stumbling block both for my application of Clark's criteria and for my assessment of that criteria.

Clark himself argues that it is only in rare cases that "other people" would be considered part of one's extended cognitive network. So, we are in good shape here in general. However, given the attachment behavior of infants, on which I am not much of an expert at all, I think it is safe to assume that whatever definition of "consciously endorsed" we might develop, Will would in all likelihood not meet it (and we probably wouldn't even need to be psychoanalytic critics to say so). However, if the forth criteria is indeed an important and necessary "step" for inclusion, then much of the nonbiological resources Clark identifies would seem to be out. Couldn't we think of many technologies that we use that we are not fully aware or choosing? The first to go (and one that Clark himself devotes significant time to), it seems, would be language. I know of few children who reasoned out for themselves consciously whether or not they would like to acquire language. Nor, as Clark himself argues, is language acquisition automatic or innate. So, we cannot get around criteria #4 by claiming language is simply automatic and subject to neither conscious nor unconscious thought. Language is inculcated, which is not an entirely conscious activity. In fact, we might even argue that language, as an engine of thought, is properly seen as an engine (not the only one mind you) of consciousness itself: how can we choose without the means we often use for choosing.

In other words, I would argue that not only am I a part of Will's extended cognition and embodiment, but also that Clark's forth criterion is unnecessarily strict. So many of the nonbiological resources that become embedded in our extended cognitive processes are neither automatic nor conscious. We incorporate them out of necessity (good luck getting around without language) or by virtue of societal norms (everyone uses pens and paper). These incorporations are neither entirely unconscious nor entirely conscious (or at least we don't remember choosing them).

This is what a colleague of mine in psychology and me are interested in exploring. What kinds of manipulations, cultivations, or even deceptions are at play in the incorporation of nonbiological elements of extended cognition? The iPhone can certainly become such a component of cognition, but why does anyone buy one in the first place?

And why or when did Will decide to make my arm his arm?


  1. It's more fun for me to think of it the other way around, where you and Jodi needed a tool to overcome or avert or delay an obstacle... and so you reached into the ether and created/plucked Will, who is now an extension of you.

    No... I was just typing aloud there. Your way is more fun.

  2. Children are, as you suggest, the ultimate extension in this regard. I want to impact the future, but I am mortal. Dissertation topic: "Children as DeLorean Appendages"

  3. Next time around, maybe.... or wait!: maybe you can give Will that assignment!?