Natural-Born Cyborgs by Andy Clark

Why Minds and Technologies Are Made to Merge
by Andy Clark
Oxford University Press, 2003
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D. on Aug 11th 2003

In the Phaedrus, Plato warns us of the dangers of entrusting our thoughts to mere mechanical contrivances outside our minds. He recounts a myth, according to which an Egyptian god approached King Thabus and offered him the gift of writing. But the wise king refused the gift, arguing that it would allow people to substitute the appearance of knowledge for its substance. If we rely upon writing to preserve our knowledge, our memory will weaken, and we will begin to mistake the living truth for its shadow.


This line of thought continues to resonate with us today. Everyone has heard older people clucking their tongues over the inability of the young to add up a row of figures without a calculator, or to spell without a spell-checker. We still think that true knowledge is contained within the head, and our real cognitive abilities are those we can perform without the aid of prostheses. It is Andy Clark’s aim, in this book as in his earlier Being There, to disabuse us of this notion.

According to Clark, there is nothing special about the aids to memory and thought which are so often decried except that they are outside the head. But it is sheer prejudice to think that physical location distinguishes illegitimate props from those parts of our mental apparatus which are essentially ours. Clark argues that the human mind, without its external scaffolding (which comes in very many forms, from natural languages to the cues of culture, as well as sketch pads and notebook computers) is not all that impressive. Its great flexibility and ability comes from the fact that it is designed, by nature, to enter into complex relationships with nonbiological props.

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Consider how the ability to think by manipulating symbols expands our cognitive capacities. Chimpanzees can use their unaided brains to distinguish between pairs of objects which are the same and those which are different. But only chimpanzees that have been taught to associate the concepts of ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ with physical tokens can solve the higher-order task of sorting pairs of pairs of objects into those that are the same and those that are different. By using symbols, they transform a difficult higher-order task into the simple first-order task of judging the sameness or difference of symbols. In the same way, language transforms our cognitive landscape, allowing us to perform the kind of tasks for which our brains are suited, and thereby to achieve the kind of results which would otherwise be beyond them. It is because of the supportive environments we create that we can think so well.

We are, therefore, natural-born cyborgs. We shall not become cyborgs when new technologies add silicon and wiring to our brains: we have been cyborgs — creatures who are only part flesh-and-blood, and whose abilities crucially depend upon the nonbiological — at least since we became speaking animals. As Clark points out, this has interesting consequences for the debate currently raging, between people like Francis Fukuyama and Gregory Stock, over the extent to which we ought to embrace a ‘posthuman’ future. Adding implants to the brain, and making the world smart, is a not a new departure for homo sapiens, which will transform its nature. Instead, it is what we are best equipped to do, by our very nature.

This is an important insight, one which ought to relieve us of a great deal of anxiety about our abilities and our histories. It ought to transform our learning strategies, and the way we think about cognition. It also, as Clark points out, has important consequences for the debate over evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, since it relegates the modules and dispositions which these sciences claim to discover to a relatively minor role on the cognitive stage. However, the insight may not be quite as important as Clark believes. There are two reasons for thinking this: one connected to Clark’s conception of knowledge, the other to the ethical questions to which he devotes his last chapter.

First, though Clark may be right that most of us tend to overplay the difference between our brains and the external props we use to think, he seems to underplay — or more correctly, to fail to notice — the differences there are. An example of his makes both the strengths and the weaknesses of his approach apparent. He asks us to consider the everyday experience of asking someone for the time. We might use the locution ‘do you know the time?’, and receive the answer, ‘yes’, even before the obliging stranger looks at her watch. Clark argues that we ought to take this response literally: there is a sense in which she does know the time, since knowing how to rapidly and effectively retrieve information suffices for knowledge (on anyone’s view, you do not count as knowing only the thoughts you currently entertain, but also the dispositional knowledge you know how to retrieve). So technology can expand the range of what we know, and there is no interesting difference between the facts we recall from our biological memory and those we recall from our prostheses.

So far so good. Now Clark asks us to imagine a new technology, which would enable us instantly to access reference books (perhaps by having the words directly projected on our retinas). Someone asks you if you know the meaning of an unusual word. Shouldn’t you answer ‘yes’, even as you look it up? Clark argues you should. But in so doing, he’s ignoring a crucial difference between knowing the time and knowing the meaning of a word. Knowing a dictionary definition is neither necessary nor sufficient for knowing the meaning of a word, which is a skill best captured by our ability to use the word appropriately. It is not a mere fact, like the current time. But our skill-based capacities — of which Clark himself has made so much elsewhere — seem quite different, in kind, from anything of which our prostheses have so far been capable. Moreover, these skills seem to retain an essential link to the embodied mind. They can be extended by prostheses, but prostheses cannot replace them.

Now the ethical problem. Clark argues that if we are already cyborgs, then we have nothing to fear from the new technologies. But this is just a non sequitur. We have nothing to fear from cyborgization, per se, butwe still have to evaluate each new technology on its own merits, both in terms of what they shall mean for individuals and for larger human groups. Though Clark considers some possible ethical problems posed by the new technologies, his arguments here are sketchy and unconvincing. And many problems go unnoticed by him. For instance, the fear, to which Cass Sunstein has devoted a recent book, that new technologies will weaken the democratic polity because they encourage people only to communicate with like-minded individuals, and reduce the number of chance encounters which throw the disparate together and make them appreciate each other’s problems, is not addressed by Clark. Instead, he celebrates the extent to which mobile phones already allow us to ignore the passengers with whom we share a subway car, while maintaining our chosen relationships instead, and to which software agents will increasingly tailor our environment to our tastes.

 This is half a great book, and a missed opportunity. The half addressing the fear that scaffolding is an alien addition to the brain is the great part, but the half devoted to addressing the remaining ethical problems is the missed opportunity. We may think as much with the world as with our brains, but that does not excuse us from having to think about each bit of the world, independently of the others.

© 2003 Neil Levy

Dr Neil Levy is a fellow of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, Australia. He is the author of two mongraphs and over a dozen articles and book chapters on Continental philosophy, ethics and political philosophy. He is currently writing a book on moral relativism.