Marshall McLuhan’s extension

Some will argue that the changes we are experiencing are detrimental. I don’t take the same tact and others are beginning to agree,

Andy Clark, a professor of philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, says there’s a deeper principle to be found in the phantom limb assertion. In his book Natural Born Cyborgs, Clark claims that our brains depend entirely on perceived correlations in order to construct an arbitrary boundary between our bodies and the external world.

Think about how many tools you use in your daily life without even thinking about it. You drive a car to work (or ride a bike… the principle is the same). You use your GPS device, cell phone, iPod, and other tech devices so flawlessly that, according to Ramachandran’s principle, they may as well be extensions of your very self.

Sound scary? It’s not. We’ve been using tools for centuries—it’s what distinguishes us from most species of lesser intelligence. And we haven’t just used tools, we’ve relied on them. In Clark’s book, he cites the wristwatch as an example. Human lives are drastically different now than they were before we had the ability to know the time right down to the minute. Before clocks were widespread, and people had only the sun or the church bells to tell them it was noon, scheduling was virtually nonexistent. Or think about the pen and paper. These tools have changed the very fabric of how we exist with each other in the world—and few would argue these changes have made our lives worse.

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We all want to believe that as humans, we control our tools, not the other way around. Clark would argue the exact opposite is true, and for the better. After all, how can we say our brains are all we need to be our “real selves” when we have so much stored and invested in our outside technologies? Maybe we’re not losing our “selfhood” at all, but creating mega-selves. Perhaps we should be thinking of our presence on the internet, our phones, and our hard drives as equally important parts of us—really clever parts who can tell jokes in 140 characters or less.

“We need to understand that the very ideas of minds and persons are not limited to the biological skin-bag,” Clark writes, “and that our sense of self, place, and potential are all malleable constructs ready to expand, change, or contract at surprisingly short notice.” Although we may initially resist the idea of the internet changing our brains, it’s probably inevitable.

We’re still in the beginning stages in the internet age, and it’s nice to unplug from time to time. But now that we have this amazing resource, it’s hard to imagine going back to a time where our dependence on the internet was limited. Just as the reformation brought on the enlightenment, and the enlightenment brought on the scientific revolution, history repeats itself. We can try to deny it now, but no matter how hard we resist, the internet and our brains are only going to become more deeply intertwined. And that’s probably not such a bad thing.

First published Aug 21, 2011