How do our engagements with the everyday world contribute to the way we both go about it and think about it? Could such contributions feed back upon and bootstrap our own capabilities, and in part form new and different ways of interacting with the world? The situation of one Patrick Jones asks just these questions, and further seems to be an interesting case study in the on-going debate around the Hypothesis of the Extended Mind (or HEM, for short).
Patrick Jones suffers from the effects of Traumatic Brain Injury, of which there are many causes and effects. In Patrick’s case, he suffers from extreme short-term memory loss. But what is interesting about Patrick is the way in which he has employed Evernote; software that allows users to upload notes, pictures, and documents to a cloud server, which can then be accessed anywhere and at anytime by palm-pilots, computers and iPhones. When Patrick runs into everyday problems, like dealing with email exchanges or attempting to remember what to buy at the grocery, he consults Evernote installed on his iPhone or Mac computer, and searches for relevant keywords and tags to help him connect the dots and form a reliable understanding of the situation he finds himself in. In more philosophical vernacular, without a reliable biological short-term memory system, Patrick relies on a hybrid of internal/external and biological/technological resources instead.
What Patrick’s case seems to support, then, is the HEM. This is HEM’s claim: that an agent’s interactions with the world may in part constitute cognitive systems. These extended cognitive systems might (at least) allow for an agent to recapture lost capabilities (like with Patrick) or might indeed provide new and different possibilities for interacting with the world. Such extended cognitive systems scaffold upon an agent’s capacities and abilities by allowing for the assembling of systems that spread across one’s brain, body and world. Thus for Patrick, his iPhone might, in some situations (like grocery-shopping), be properly conceived as part of an extended short-term memory system. I such situations, the iPhone is not only integral to explaining Patrick’s behaviour, but should indeed be considered as the causal supervenience base of that behaviour – in other words, that the iPhone is an actual part of the cognitive system that explains his behaviour.
This last point is contentious – there are different arguments and theories about what exactly constitutes an extended system, and indeed, if such systems really exist at all. Further, there are different argumentative strategies to argue for such systems, and these strategies change the understanding of how these systems come to exist and pass away. Clearly, the HEM is in early stages of development. But what is clear is that both supporters and detractors, those for and against HEM, will need not only to look at interesting cases like Patrick’s use of Evernote – but indeed will have to explain them.