Your Computer Really Is a Part of You | Wired Science


An empirical test of ideas proposed by Martin Heidegger shows the great German philosopher to be correct: Everyday tools really do become part of ourselves.

The findings come from a deceptively simple study of people using a computer mouse rigged to malfunction. The resulting disruption in attention wasn???t superficial. It seemingly extended to the very roots of cognition.

???The person and the various parts of their brain and the mouse and the monitor are so tightly intertwined that they???re just one thing,??? said Anthony Chemero, a cognitive scientist at Franklin & Marshall College. ???The tool isn???t separate from you. It???s part of you.???

Chemero???s experiment, published March 9 in Public Library of Science, was designed to test one of Heidegger???s fundamental concepts: that people don???t notice familiar, functional tools, but instead ???see through??? them to a task at hand, for precisely the same reasons that one doesn???t think of one???s fingers while tying shoelaces. The tools are us.

This idea, called ???ready-to-hand,??? has influenced artificial intelligence and cognitive science research, but without being directly tested.

In the new study, Chemero and graduate students Dobromir Dotov and Lin Nie tracked the hand movements of people using a mouse to guide a cursor during a series of motor tests. Part way through the tests, the cursor lagged behind the mouse. After a few seconds, it worked again. When Chemero???s team analyzed how people moved the mouse, they found profound differences between patterns produced during mouse function and malfunction.

When the mouse worked, hand motions followed a mathematical form known as ???one over frequency,??? or pink noise. It???s a pattern that pops up repeatedly in the natural world, from universal electromagnetic wave fluctuations to tidal flows to DNA sequences. Scientists don???t fully understand pink noise, but there???s evidence that our cognitive processes are naturally attuned to it.

But when the researchers??? mouse malfunctioned, the pink noise vanished. Computer malfunction made test subjects aware of it ??? what Heidegger called ???unreadiness-at-hand??? ??? and the computer was no longer part of their cognition. Only when the mouse started working again did cognition return to normal. (One assumes, though the researchers didn???t test the proposition, that cognition would also have returned to normal had test subjects stood up and stopped using the computer.)

The results demonstrate how people fuse with their tools, said Chemero.

???The thing that does the thinking is bigger than your biological body,??? he said. ???You???re so tightly coupled to the tools you use that they???re literally part of you as a thinking, behaving thing.???

Asked whether computer malfunction ??? say, the iPhone???s notorious keyboard lag ??? could thusly be viewed as a discontinuity in our selves, Chemero said, ???Yes, that???s exactly what it is.???

Image: At left, Martin Heidegger/WikiMedia Commons; at right, a schematic of the systemic interactions experienced while using (a) a functional tool and (b) a malfunctioning tool/PLoS ONE.

See Also:

Citation: ???A Demonstration of the Transition from Ready-to-Hand to Unready-to-Hand.??? By Dobromir G. Dotov, Lin Nie, Anthony Chemero. PLoS ONE, Vol. 5 No. 3, March 9, 2010.

Brandon Keim???s Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecological tipping points.