“To understand ourselves, we must embrace the alien.”
– PZ Meyers, octopus neuroscientist
As discussed in Biomimicry and the Design Revolution, our species is learning to consult the natural world for evolved solutions to contemporary human problems. This paradigm shift – commonly referred to as “biomimicry” – has inspired everything from tailfin-shaped tidal energy generators to new adhesives based on the pads of gecko feet. Now designers have turned it on one of our era’s unique dilemmas: the growing demand for extended memory and cognition in an accelerating technological society.
Whereas once we only needed to remember the faces and names of a few hundred people, today we are saturated by a world of exponentially expanding “contacts.” A few hundred years ago, our environment only necessitated the transmission of limited vocational and ritual knowledge. Now, an average first-world education lasts longer than the lifespan in earlier ages.
This process is driving us ever closer to the limits of the brain’s capacity for memory. A more intricate mind is required. In an attempt to adapt, some people supplement their native intelligence with mobile technology, like tablets, smartphones, and multimedia devices. Microsoft’s Gordon Bell, who uses always-on digital video to archive his life, leverages sophisticated search algorithms to learn his own associative patterns, creating an externally-grown circuit memory.
This is, in a way, how the octopus brain works: research shows that their tentacles are dense with clusters of neurons, leading to the speculation that they experience a more distributed consciousness than our own. However, with computers carrying more of the load, human consciousness might be heading in the same direction.
Cyborg augmentation exists today in the form of smart phones and tablets. In a few years, it could evolve into the “exocortex” of Charles Stross’ novel, Accelerando. Embedded in his glasses, the exocortex shares the responsibilities of his mind and allows Stross’ protagonist Manfred Macx to absorb and synthesize profound amounts of information. Outsourcing the effort to remember, he dedicates his brain to higher-level thought. Connected to the internet at all times, his mind is more than half digital. Then a hoodlum steals his glasses. Macx wanders the streets in a cloud of amnesia. Suddenly denied access to a life of saved memories, his mind becomes rootless, lost.
Many indigenous cultures refuse the basic technology of written language–warning that by externalizing memory, we forget who we are. It is for reasons such as this that eminent media theorist Marshall McLuhan calls technology an amputation. However, critics of technology rely on digital tools like computers and servers to broadcast their critiques. The most righteous Luddite cannot stymie the process of automation and computerization. Even those living without internet access are interdependent with a global infrastructure that relies on this thin layer of electrical current lighting up our planet with mind.
We are losing one way of being, as our species undergoes a transformation toward augmented selfhood. We are gaining another. Even now, people are developing emotional attachments to learning, personal robots. Personal computing is less prosthesis and more companion. Brain scans show that when someone holds a tool, the brain effectively considers that tool to be a part of the body. Because our minds adapt so readily to the “objects” in our lives, we relate to our tools emotionally. Our gadgets are an extension of who we are, especially when they amplify our memory and thinking.
How we design our tools reflects who we are – and our new tools tell the story of an accelerating human mind living in partnership with intelligent technology. As our world becomes increasingly complex, these technologies help us meet the cognitive demands of modern life. The human mind is growing, changing, spreading tentacles into a whole new way of being…and the once-alien octopus looks more recognizable every day.