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Thinking in the Cloud: The Cognitive Incorporation of Cloud-Based Technology


Technologies and artefacts have long played a role in the structure of human memory and our cognitive lives more generally. Recent years have seen an explosion in the production and use of a new regime of information technologies that might have powerful implications for our minds. Electronic-Memory (E-Memory), powerful, portable and wearable digital gadgetry and “the cloud” of ever-present data services allow us to record, store and access an ever-expanding range of information both about and of relevance to our lives. Already, for a decade we have been carrying around expansive gadgetry which allows us to collect, store and use what would have been almost unimaginable amounts of digital information only a short time ago. Now, thanks to the wireless internet adding vast processing and storage potential to the powerful portable devices which many of us carry constantly or wear, this information can be accessed and customised in an ever-greater variety of ways. How should we assess the implications of the new portable and pervasive cognitive technologies on offer? Does E-Memory and the wider panoply of cloud-enabled cognitive technologies really promise (as some see it), or threaten (as others do), a radical change to the human cognitive abilities and perhaps the very nature of our minds? If so, how are we to assess the possibilities and attempt to understand whether they offer a hopeful or dangerous turn in the human condition? This investigation is structured around four related factors of the new technology: Totality, Practical Incorporability, Autonomy and Entanglement. We use these factors to inquire into the implications of this cloud-based memory technology for our minds and our sense of self.

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  1. The authors were actually specifically discussing lifelogging, which we shall come to shortly.

  2. Hybrid in the sense of Menary (2010).

  3. Heersmink (2012), for example, referred to Norman’s approach at the conference where an earlier version of this paper (Clowes 2012) was given.

  4. One such popular article by a well know scientist: How Facebook Addiction is damaging your child's brain (Greenfield 2009) made a series of unevidenced claims about the dangers of social networks. Greenfield’s claim that a growth in autism might be caused by using social network sites was later debunked by one of her colleagues (Bishop 2011) who pointed out that autism is a developmental disorder that can be identified in toddlers, long before an exposure to Facebook.

  5. If anything, we are currently going through a backlash against such previous optimistic (or as some would have it utopian) thinking about the internet and so now, more than ever, we need to keep open the possibility that technology can add (cognitive enhancement), as well as subtract (cognitive diminishment), from the mind (Clowes 2011a, b). Arguably, the history of technology and the mind up until now has been one where technologies with the most important intellectual implications, from writing, to the book, to the telescope, to the microscope have given to the mind more than they have taken away. This article is an attempt to get a grasp on how cloud-tech (especially cloud-enabled digital memory technology) might already be having profound effects not just on organic (biological and traditional practices) of memory, but on our sense of self, and our wider processes of thinking.

  6. This factor was previously described as Capaciousness and Comprehensiveness.

  7. The inspiration for this notion comes from data-entanglement, see: Gemmell and Bell (2009).

  8. I have previously labelled this property Capaciousness and Comprehensiveness but in deference to wider usage I shall here refer to this property just as Totality. One of the problems with this terminology—and indeed the idea behind it—is that totality may really be a chimera. It is not really clear what it would mean to gain a total view of ourselves through memory or in any other way, nor importantly how such knowledge would be integrated in our viewpoint. We shall return to this point below.

  9. Practices which foreshadow lifelogging can be traced back at least to the 1980s in the work of such pioneers as Steve Mann who was experimenting with using digital cameras to record his everyday activities. In 1994, Mann set about using a wireless webcam to record is daily life 24/7 for artistic, experimental and in part also political reasons. Mann’s project was political in that he was seeking to invert trends toward the surveillance of public space with an ever-growing arsenal of CCTV cameras; he aimed to surveil the surveillers.

  10. A detailed description of this project and Bell´s motivations can be found in Bell and Gemmell (2009).

  11. However, this division need not imply that deeply incorporated technologies should actually count as parts of our minds. As I will argue in Sections 3 and 4, even technologies that consistently and deeply rely upon may be better regarded as deeply incorporated cognitive scaffolding rather than actual parts of our minds if this paper’s arguments are along the right lines.

  12. All of which can be seen as the flipside of the conditions of constancy, facility and trust that were held to characterise and agent’s relationship with a technology that should count as part of her mind in Clark and Chalmers’ original (1998) Extended Mind Paper.

  13. It is very difficult to get any highly verified information on exactly what algorithms Facebook or any of its competitors use to rank data. Such information is a commercial secret and tends to be highly protected and even the subject of misinformation. When I first wrote about EdgeRank, the information I used was apparently already a year and a half out of date; but since Facebook generally neither confirms nor denies how it currently does things, exactly how such algorithms work will always be partly a matter of speculation.

  14. See a more detailed discussion of the cognitive implications of EdgeRank in Clowes (2013)..

  15. It should be noted that in the original paper these conditions were mainly offered as heuristic; still if we take seriously the division between cognitive artefacts that count as important environments and scaffolds for mind, from those that are actually part of the mind. the original conditions still appear to be as good a starting point as any.

  16. Smart (2012) has argued that the web is not a good medium to be considered as a potential mind extender on the grounds that its resources are somewhat difficult to manipulate and not well-poised for cognitive integration. I have argued that the new, highly incorporable media embodied in cloud-tech tend and especially E-Memory technologies seem to avoid many of these concerns (Clowes 2013).

  17. One implication here is that very credulous individuals may seem to have more extended minds than those who are more suspicious about the cognitive technology they use (Clowes 2013). This seems to be a perverse result.

  18. The term itself: cognitive scaffolding does however seem a little problematic. It plainly inherits from the everyday usage of the term scaffold as something that is used to support the construction or repair of something else. However, scaffolding is then taken down when whatever is being supported is constructed. When the scaffold is taken away, the cognitive edifice remains upright. This usage accords with the way Bruner apparently thought of scaffolds in a developmental sense; as structures that allowed and supported a developing skill while it was developing. But what happens when an organism continues to rely on a scaffold, as appears to be the case in many of Sterelny’s examples? Are they still scaffolds? Given this nomenclature problem, it might be better to use another term. Another metaphor that is sometimes used is that of a “situation” of cognition which might also be rather problematic because as Cloud-Tech becomes ever more portable, it is rapidly becoming a sort of constant situation for all human thought. One alternative (borrowed from ethology) is the idea of an ecological niche. By extension, cognitive niches are continually involved in an organism’s activities over its lifetime, or in a subset of its activities, providing contextual resources and constraints that give ongoing structure to cognitive episodes. For these reasons, the better metaphors for what Sterelny is attempting to conceptualise might be the cognitive niche, or cognitive embedding or cognitive ecology. Having noted the problems, I shall use the terms relatively interchangeably in this article. These problems of nomenclature still leave us to try and draw distinctions that illuminate when cognitive technologies should be considered part of the environment or embedding of our thinking and when they are so deeply entrenched (incorporated) that they might count as parts of us.

  19. Most of the account here is based on Jones’ Blog and a series of interviews especially for Psychology Today (Marcus 2008). This is perhaps something less than the gold standard of scientific enquiry. However as I review in another article (Clowes 2013) there is starting to be a number of empirical enquiries into the practical uses of E-Memory which broadly sustain the notion that existing memory function can be supported by their usage (Kalnikaite et al. 2010; Kalnikaite and Whittaker 2008). Jones’ and Bell’s reports are useful as they help us build intuitions about the subjective side of the use of memory technology, especially the more phenomenological questions of how these technologies fit into his life.

  20. For a revealing recent discussion of the relationship between the phenomenology of transparency and cognitive enhancement see Zawidzki (2012).

  21. Paul Smart as we have seen has made a similar observation about the aptness of webpages for cognitive incorporation (Smart 2012)

  22. Others since have extended the idea to central processing systems (Carruthers 2005).

  23. It should be pointed out here that I do not mean to imply that Bell’s memory traces exhibit ownership in quite the way the term is used in some recent philosophical discussion (Campbell 1999; De Vignemont 2007; Gallagher 2000). Nevertheless, worthy of further investigation. Unfortunately, this goes beyond the scope of this article.

  24. Granted this would be difficult in Bell’s case because, at least in its most advanced form, Bell is the only user of MyLifeBits and it has been customised heavily to him.

  25. Yet when Sterelny argues that there may be few genuine cases of the extended mind he may already be being overtaken by technological events. The types of usage that Jones and Bell are pioneering already use the technology in ways which appear to easily meet the criteria. If the criteria are good Sterelny should have to admit that much future use of cognitive technology is to be better understood as examples of extended mind rather than scaffolding.

  26. Deeply penetrable but clearly cognitive penetrability is always a relative factor. The extent to which we can understand the conditions of our knowledge and the take responsibility for our cognitive life will always be partial. Our biological cognitive resources are clearly only partially cognitively penetrable and certain parts of them not penetrable at all. The degree to which an extended cognitive resource is required to be penetrable to convincingly count as part of our minds is, it must be admitted, a problem here.

  27. I review some of this research in my article The Cognitive Integration of E-Memory (Clowes 2013).


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The author would like to acknowledge Yasemin Erden and Mark Bishop for their support and helpful comments on the original ancestor version of this paper which was presented at the 2012 AISB / IACAP World Congress. Early versions of this work were also presented to the COGS group at Sussex and benefitted from helpful comments from Margaret Boden, Ron Chrisley, Mike Beaton, Steve Torrance, Simon Bowes and Blay Whitby. The author would also like to express his graduate for the detailed comments provided by three anonymous referrees. Also to Tad Zawidzki who gave some perspicuous comments on a draft version of the paper some of which (due to timing) will have to wait for a follow up to be properly addressed.

The paper was completed thanks to personal grant SFRH / BPD / 70440 / 2010 from the Portuguese Foundation of Science and Technology (FCT).

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Clowes, R. Thinking in the Cloud: The Cognitive Incorporation of Cloud-Based Technology. Philos. Technol. 28, 261–296 (2015).

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  • Extended cognition
  • Cognitive scaffolding
  • Cognitive penetration
  • Cognitive augmentation
  • Cognitive diminishment
  • Unity of mind
  • Epistemic possession
  • Extended memory
  • Cloud computing