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I once took a class in college, “Cars and Culture”. I never forgot a line from that class - that “cars provided an extension of our legs”.

Ever since then, I have told many people and thought to myself many times, that tools, take Google for instance (search and indexing), knowledge management systems (Wiki and other techniques) - these are all extensions of our brains.

We evolve with technology, and it evolves with us. We might be losing our ability to remember, but if it is because we don’t “need” to remember because technology has augmented us... Well, this is why I also am fond of telling people that I have a difficult time separating technology from nature. Even though the two don’t seem like the same thing, technology too becomes part of the natural ecosystem as organisms invent and rely on it.

Also, another way of thinking about this is, maybe the ability to recall small detailed facts was evolutionarily less important than building models in our brains. So, we offloaded recording small facts, while I think we still ingest and build/train our neural nets just fine in our brains.

Then the only problem I see is, if life becomes all about mental models, when our ability to form new mental models degrades with age, what then? Especially with the rate of technological change, I do see a real likelihood that old mental models get left behind and without the ability to adapt, organisms (i.e.) us could be hosed.

Edit: ..and the last sentence could be why the big push for AI and machine learning too - to ensure the models get encoded into the technology too... and be discovered faster, changed more fluidly, etc. Another evolutionary tool.

I always thought that the most terrifying thing in the book 1984 (and the most relevant to the pending future) was that people weren't allowed tools to write anything down, they had to use the "speakwrite," which would monitor the user and refuse to write things that weren't allowed to be written.

Orwell wasn't prescient enough to imagine the type-remember, where you kept your entire perception of the world on machines that weren't controlled by institutions with your best interests at heart.

That had to wait for Fahrenheit 451 to create an entire administration and police force to get rid of your old encyclopedias.

I always thought that Brave New World was more prescient than 1984: you won't be forbid to write, we'll instead give you something more fun and distracting to do instead.

So many parallels between Brave New World and our current world. It's honestly disturbing. The class divide between rich and poor is in there. The intellectual divide between knowledge workers and laborers is in there. The dopamine consumption cycle that stymies creative thought of the masses is in there. The willful ignorance of there being any problems at all is in there. That book is disturbingly prophetic.

It's honestly worse in real life, because in the book the savages and intellectuals on islands live peacefully outside the regime. There is no option to not participate in our world, given that climate change will affect the entire planet; there is no safe refuge from the regime because it directly affects even those not participating in it.

It's almost as if these things have always existed.

And yet not.

"It's almost as if" -

I want to say something ideological, interpreting a given piece of evidence in a simplistic way to assert that it can be reduced to my own assumptions, but I also want to sound clever about it.

I half feel like making a bot that goes through reddit and just says "it's almost as if" whenever it detects anyone has made an assertion of fact of any kind, in increasingly implausible and unconnected ways.

Why not both? Brave New World for the masses and 1984 for the few that rock the boat.

Brave New World Revisted [0] has several references and comparisons to 1984. BNWR was written by Huxley in 1958, 26 years after BNW was published (1932) and 9 years after 1984 (1949).

It has been a few years for me, but there were several prescient chapters when I last ready it during the rise of populism around the globe (2015), namely sections IV, V, VI, and VII:

  I Over-Population
  II Quantity, Quality, Morality
  III Over-Organization
  IV Propaganda in a Democratic Society
  V Propaganda Under a Dictatorship
  VI The Arts of Selling
  VII Brainwashing
  VIII Chemical Persuasion
  IX Subconscious Persuasion
  X Hypnopaedia
  XI Education for Freedom
  XII What Can Be Done?
Would recommend the read to anyone that found 1984, BNW, F451, etc. interesting.

[0] https://www.huxley.net/bnw-revisited/ (full text)

Edit: formatting

Huxley wrote a letter to Orwell arguing the same.


For me personally, the internet has made my brain better at remembering associations between ideas, but worse at free-recall of factual information. It's like my mind got better at indexing at the expense of storage.

Perhaps the information "explosion", "deluge" or "overload" is part of it. There is so much - or too much - information, we can still ingest a lot, maybe we rely on making the connections and finding the generalities/mental models because there are too many specifics.

My mind got better at indexing at the expense of storage >> Well said. I am going to use your quote :) (so that it moves to my long-term memory.) Thank you.

I'm going to steal your quote too, if I can remember it ;)

That's actually the perfect explanation. Even studying cognitive science I'm always amazed at how analogous the brain is to a computer.

Ah, that's interesting, I read it the opposite way: computers are so different from the brain that the end result is that they complement each other really well.

Doug Engelbart, a pioneer of the personal computer, would love your point about computers being extensions of our brains. His mission (in the 1950s!) was to find a way to 'augment human intellect' through technology, much like the biologist augments their eyesight through the microscope. The mind blowing part is that they didn't have anything to go off (or XEROX to copy) - imagine conceptualizing the personal computer decades before it hit the mainstream. Sorry for the rant!


You might enjoy reading E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops"[1][2][3], which in 1909 predicted something like the internet, internet addiction and withdrawal, chat rooms, video conferencing, online learning, widespread international air travel.

[1] - The story in written form - http://www.visbox.com/prajlich/forster.html

[2] - An audio recording - https://librivox.org/the-machine-stops-by-e-m-forster/

[3] - Wikipedia article - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Machine_Stops

"[...] it's the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds." - Steve Jobs


If you haven't yet, you should read Kevin Kelly's "What Technology Wants" it devotes quite a few pages to the idea of evolution/augmentation via technology.


That's a dangerous path to tread, I would never compromise my cognitive abilities with technology, technology is an aid when I need it and I know when not to need it and try to use my God given brain. Suggest you start using your brain or risk loosing it, specially when you can't even remember what to search on Google.

When this same argument is applied to other places, you end up with stuff like "if you don't grow your own food, you're risking supermarkets disappearing and you starving".

It's true, but that doesn't mean it's not a worthwhile risk. Nor does it imply that the other approach is risk-free / has no downsides.

> cars provided an extension of our legs

Marshall McLuhan wrote that in 1964 in "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man".

Yeah, I agree with you (nicely put btw) — what I find disconcerting is the fact that it's happening so quick, i.e. I notice myself evolving and changing over weeks/months and becoming increasingly reliant upon the external data stores. Pretty crazy we can adapt that quick!

I have heard someone describe the US as being an 'attention economy' rather than 'information economy'. There is too much data being thrown at us to absorb it all. This has led people to increasingly rely on third parties to prioritize, filter, distill, and curate these data. The disintegration of revenue models around information production and the consolidation in media publishing and search has compounded the problem. The result is an increase in hucksterism, fraud, and misinformation. Nothing can ever be completely proved or disproved and bad ideas never disappear. It's a new mode for humanity, which will force us to find a new equilibrium.

Related: I have definitely lost my once lifelong habit of reading at least a book a week. It's down to about a book a year. Reading was such a big part of who I am and yet I now struggle to read a book. I keep buying them, however, I suppose in the hopes I can convince (shame?) myself to read by sheer volume of what I have bought and haven't read.

Set time aside: for example when eating breakfast, or before bed. Use a timer, set it to at least 20 minutes. Each minute you read per day, equals about 1 book per year. So if you read 20 minutes per day, you will read 20 books per year.

Same here. I rely on bookmarks and a lot of organized and tagged notes to recover the right things, but it works great!

but the analogy to cars does not hold. They're not extensions to our legs in a genuine sense of the term. They don't improve, or interact with our physical capacities. On the contrary, they atrophy our legs, make us fatter, and produce urban pollution.

They're not a technology that enhances or melts with the human who uses it, it doesn't vanish into the background, the car doesn't even evolve much, rather the environment changes to fit the car, if anything hindering evolution, it displaces the natural ecosystem, it doesn't become part of it.

The same can be said about technologies weakening memory. They look like an enhancement maybe, but they may actually just cause impairment of function, becoming a crutch.

Your claim, that cars doesn’t become part of the ecosystem, got me thinking of this clip:


Steve Jobs had a video on this, about computers being bicycles for our minds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTRzYjoZhIY

> take Google for instance (search and indexing), knowledge management systems (Wiki and other techniques) - these are all extensions of our brains.

I agree. But these two examples are different in a way that is important to me: my personal wiki is under my control; Google is not. Therefore, when I find important things in Google, I sometimes still take care to rewrite them into my wiki, using my own words.

Using the wiki feels like extending my brain. Using Google feels more like outsourcing it.

"Are we losing our ability to walk?"

Yeah. Kinda. Not really. I bet people had to walk more before cars though.

Ability, perhaps not. But cars and car oriented planning are leading directly to obesity and heart disease. There’s a reason New Yorkers aren’t as fat as Ohioans.

mobility scooters

You just described the field of "distributed cognition"

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