The Shared Unconscious Mindspace

I can look up anything on the Web. (News flash!) I can do this for pure learning–and I do–but very often for confirmation of facts, beliefs, guesses or intuitions. I confirm all the time, virtually seven days a week, to ensure I’m not making a mistake, forgetting a meeting or putting some erroneous claim in an email. Even phrasing or spell checking. I rely heavily on Google and all those umpteen billions of pages it indexes for confirmation. The recent availability of excellent quality mobile Internet devices has only intensified things. Now I double check things on the road, sometimes in the middle of a conversation while dining out. It really is all the time.

My reliance on the confirming power of the Internet is as deep as it is disturbing, and I really hadn’t thought about it that seriously till recently. I took the “a day without Google” challenge a while back–and quickly failed. (Innocently checked my email, then remembered I use GMail hosting. Whoops.) It had annoyed me how often I seemed to be looking up things, but now, thinking about the dependency I’ve developed, it’s actually sobering. But I have to. My life is very complex–I don’t mean in an emotional sense, but literally in terms of complexity. There’s a lot of stuff to handle, and my memory is only mediocre. Most of my waking life is reasoning and imagining, alone or with others, in very interesting abstract problem spaces. Both activities (if they are distinct?) require access to facts as a steady stream. Otherwise I only generate lists of unanswered questions. That helps structure the discourse but obviously doesn’t get you to the finish line. I need answers for those questions. I can hardly remember when life was otherwise.

Was it always like this? Can I not think all by myself anymore, off the grid, or was it that I never did? Or never could?

Really, why do I need this? Partly to learn. Partly to settle a guess, to decide one way or another. But mostly it really is to confirm. I use it as a cognitive prosthesis. The pattern is, I think I remember something important, but I better double check, just to make sure. Otherwise, if I forget, someone can ask or at least wonder: why didn’t you look it up? Why didn’t you check? It would be irresponsible if others depend on you, and people do depend on me. (Or did, until very recently.) It is essential to be as accurate as possible. I live by knowledge alone, and factual blunders or omissions represent the antithesis of that: ignorance. To me, knowledge is survival, the will to live, and that makes ignorance a kind of nihilistic suicide. I must know.

The Internet–not just the Web or email, but the whole shebang–seems to be becoming a new kind of cognitive resource: our collective unconscious mindspace. Realized by machines yet utterly human, it is our living shared memory: an unimaginably vast reservoir of information, a cognitive fluorescence without end, thick with tangles and turbulence, a semiotic jungle. Conflicts and consensus and dreams and truth and lies, and changing more and more, faster and faster, always. Not through the actions of any company or government, and without that much fanfare. It’s just quietly happening–extremely rapidly but subtly enough–because we need it to. Our very survival is geared around being able to act on information, and to use it to form and nurture social bonds. We need this thing, and judging by its radical growth, we clearly need it badly.

Once the paradigm was thus: each of us has a wholly distinct mind, and we’d communicate with each other via sounds or writing. Information was in your head and stored there or shared with others via obviously passive carriers: stone, paper, air, things like that. Maybe there were people in between, like couriers or postal workers, but they weren’t privy to the message. You and I would be nodes, and the letter I write you the slender edge of a network of communication. These days, the edges are so “thick,” they really have become nodes of their own: the object and subject, as well as the verb, of communication. Not just a passive message bearer, but a sender or recipient. An active, computational participant in the message. We are connected to it ever more deeply. Becoming enmeshed in our day to day lives more and more, it crosses the self boundary and becomes a shared cognitive resource. It’s part of our mind, a part that’s simultaneously within ourselves and shared with others.

If this sounds whack, I sympathize. All I can say is, throw away all your technological gewgaws–your laptop and smartphone and email and IM and Facebook and Skype, everything–and tell me that your life hasn’t suffered for it. Tell me how you’re staying in touch with your family and friends just as well, how you never miss anything, never forget anything and how learning new things is no harder than before. And tell me how being off-grid won’t become increasingly untenable in five years, ten years, twenty. Tell me this with a straight face, if you can.

Leave a Reply