How we become our tools

by Jeremy McCarthy

 

Gradually, we are shifting capabilities away from our human mind and into our devices.

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In my younger years, I was an avid cyclist, competing in triathlons and racing on the cycling team for the University of California in Santa Barbara. I owned a sleek Italian racing bike, which, at the time, was my prized possession and deepest love. I can fondly remember spending hours on my “steed,” riding up and down the scenic Santa Ynez Mountains, my legs pumping furiously, with a big smile on my face.

On those most blissful rides, the bike became an extension of my being. I couldn’t tell where I ended and the bike began. We became one symbiotic cyborg, with the bike responding instantly to my thoughts, and cranks and gears connecting seamlessly to limbs, lungs and heart. Psychologists call these feelings “embodied cognition,” which is the idea that, contrary to our intuition, our mind exists beyond our brain. Thinking does not only happen between our ears.


"Thinking does not only happen between our ears."


Our consciousness and our cognition happen in every part of the body and in every action that we make. Occasionally, our consciousness extends even beyond the limits of our own body and into our tools: the carpenter’s hammer, the painter’s paintbrush, the musician’s instrument or the archer’s bow. The connection to our tools is what defines us as a species. We are separated from other animals by the deft with which we use our inventions to extend our capabilities, making us quite literally a “supernatural” force on the planet.

This is the appeal of technology in the digital age. Our tools are becoming more and more powerful, and our consciousness is becoming increasingly extended beyond our brains and our bodies. Gradually, we are shifting capabilities away from our human mind and into our devices. Our hard drives become our memories, our apps become our sense of direction, and problem-solving becomes less of a mental exercise and more of a logarithmic crowd-sourcing. We don’t feel this shift because the “mind” that we think of in our heads doesn’t really exist. It is ever expanding, extending, reaching beyond the organism until one day, we are more technology than human. We become our tools.


"Our tools are becoming more and more powerful, and our consciousness is becoming increasingly extended beyond our brains and our bodies."


This sounds somewhat terrifying, and it is, but we don’t really have the measuring stick to define if this is “good” or “bad.” It is simply the way the world is going. When we resist technology, we are like a primate who refuses to use a rock to open a coconut, because he fears he might lose what it means to be a monkey.

The best that we can do right now is to bring awareness of how our minds evolve with technology. But thanks to embodied cognition, awareness is tricky. We don’t feel less of ourselves when we use technology. If anything, we feel more. With our devices, our minds are expanded, our reach is greater and our powers are amplified. It is hard to resist the allure.

There is only one way to remain aware of who we are without our tools and that is to spend time being disconnected. To occasionally struggle to find the random factoid in our foggy memory banks rather than immediately finding it online. To have real human conversations that are not curated, not fact-checked and have not been shaped or influenced by the hive mind of the internet. To find quiet moments to observe our own thoughts, patiently watching how our mind fills the void. To struggle with the fear and loneliness and uncertainty that can so easily be alleviated with a stream of digital “content.” It is easy to become attached to our tools. I love my technology today, in the same way that I loved my bicycle of years ago.

Is the bounded, organic experience of our limited human bodies better than the one we can experience through technology? I’m not so sure. But we can only answer the question if we know what life is like in our own bodies and relying on our own minds. Maybe this is something we should practice before we forget.

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