Acknowledging Our Cyborgness in Education and Beyond

Two weeks ago the Danish government started a pilot program allowing college students to use Internet during exams (see the news article here). They are planning on extending the program to all of schools in the country by 2011. At first look this seems like a simple policy change. However, when I read the news article it seemed to me more than this. I think this is more of a step towards redefining what we are as humans, and what our cognition entails.  This step acknowledges that information technologies connecting us to the collective structure, called Internet, is now a permanent and indispensable part of our lives and will always be. Therefore allowing students to access Internet during exams is as natural as allowing them to use their hands. This is a step towards redefining students’ cognitive systems as well. In this redefinition students’ cognition are distributed over the technological artifacts. A student, as a cognitive system, is not bounded with the skin-bag anymore. Tools and artifacts students use are also parts of their cognitive system.

In his book, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence, Andy Clark proposes that humans have been cyborgs, since the first time we used a rock to sharpen a piece of wood. Definition wise, any biological system enhancing its capacities by use of nonliving tools or artifacts is a cyborg. The great plasticity of our brain allows us to use tools and artifacts to enhance our cognitive and bodily capabilities. For example by use of a piece of paper and a pen you can increase your memory capacity. In this sense our cyborgness is not a new thing. The innovation that comes with new information technologies, which we have been exposed to in the last 20 years or so, is that our cognition is not only extended over to the tool we use but also is bridged with other individuals’ cognitive systems through the collective consciousness which we call Internet. In this sense what we discuss is not only an extension or distribution of cognition anymore but also a combination of cognitive systems.

I think this is a turning point in the human evolution. Our journey started with hunter-gatherer tribes of 20-25 people. From there we created agricultural societies, feudal structures, kingdoms, industrial societies, big cities, information societies, postmodern masses and whatever you call coming after it (post postmodernism?). Along the line we progressively got more connected, created bigger and more complex clusters of humans, and became more dependant on the collective as an individual. Now with information technologies and networks the complexity of human clusters is not dependant and bounded with geographical proximity. People form online communities covering continents without really physically moving or being bounded with their physical location. When I zoom out and consider what has been going on over the course of last 250 thousand years (from the first stone tool use to now) I see a similarity with how groupings of single cells yielded to multicellular organisms, which, over the course of million years, ultimately brought out humans as well as many other creatures.  When we look at a very familiar multicellular mechanism, the human brain, we see a similar structure with what I think human societies will become. Although the brain is very complex itself, the neurons that make up the brain are relatively simple. The wonderfulness of the human brain emerges from the extreme numbers of neurons (roughly 10^10) connecting to one another in an extreme complexity. Of course we see a similar level of complexity in the way other cells in our body relate to one another. In this metaphor a grex (a grouping of unicellular amoeba) is like a human tribe of 25 people, and a human is like the human society of future: Each individual more connected and more dependent on the collective being that she/he is a part of. In a way this can also be thought as a fractal, the first level representing the development from unicellular organisms to humans, the second level, yet to be realized, from humans to whatever collective being we will form in future. One difference is though, as Andy Clark noted, we are now in control of our evolution. Internet is I think a turning point, since it allows billions of people to have uninterrupted connections in increasingly complex ways, creating a structure distantly resembling the human brain.

Going back to where we started, I think the move from the Danish government is generally a representation of a mental shift we are going through, from individual to collective. By allowing students to use Internet during exams I think they acknowledge that the individual cannot perform naturally without being connected to the collective, just like a single neuron cannot do anything by itself. Of course this is not all good considering that we sacrifice from self-sufficiency and independence with every move towards the collective.

Firat Soylu is a PhD candidate pursuing a dual major degree in Instructional Systems Technology and Cognitive Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.