My parents: How was your week?

Me: Great- productive, a lot of fun…

Parents: What’d you do?

Me: Umm… I… Let me check my calendar.

This scene reoccurs frequently. I rarely know what I’ve done over preceding days, or what is planned, without consulting my phone / laptop calendar. I’m not the only one; several friends have admitted the same.

I really like the term cognitive exoskeleton[1]. A powered exoskeleton is a wearable machine that increases our strength. Cognitive exoskeleton (CogEx) implies systems and software that enhance our minds. Another way to frame it: CogEx is about outsourcing parts of our brains.

Just as over-reliance on a physical exoskeleton might cause muscle atrophy, it seems CogEx can lead to mental atrophy. Once our brain is freed from a given task, our skill at that task quickly declines. Potentially, this frees our brain to focus on more interesting tasks - neuroplasticity is awesome - but I’m not sure our brainpower is so zero-sum.

We already use myriad forms of CogEx throughout the day. Beyond the digital calendar, everyday examples include stored phone numbers (contact info), directions (via map apps), and even most math (via calculators). Even if you haven’t digitized your scheduling - when was the last time you memorized a phone number?

I think the directions / mapping example is particularly salient; I’m often shocked when friends are unclear how the neighborhoods of SF fit together or even where certain intersections are within their own neighborhood. They can get around find with GPS (and Uber) but take away their phone and they’re hopeless [2].

I think of Facebook (and all social networking sites) as a form of CogEx. They help me remember way more about friends and acquaintances then otherwise would be possible. The repository of facts (location, occupation, etc) augments my semantic memory while photos supplement my episodic memory. The news feed algorithms, while still nascent, filter a vaster array of information than I could process on my own.

This social CogEx is incredibly powerful - I suspect it’s significantly altering the shape of our (actual) social networks / graphs. Dunbar’s Number suggests an upper bound to interpersonal relationships (~150) that emerges from limited brain power. CogEx allows us to smash through that ceiling. Our online social networks are full of acquaintances from different periods of our lives (schools, cities, etc) that now hover on the periphery of our social graph rather than vanished, as they would have a decade ago. This is immensely powerful when viewed through the lens of social capital and weak ties.

So far, any brain atrophy from Facebook seems minor - perhaps I’m worse at remembering friends birthdays. As Google Glass takes off, I think we’ll see increasing amounts of social CogEx. When you run into someone, Glass might remind you of the person’s name, details, or recent topics you’ve discussed - or even suggest new avenues for conversation based on the other person’s latest Tweets. As the tech gains in sophistication, there’s likely no limit to the augmentation it can provide.

Ultimately, I think CogEx can do a tremendous amount of good. We just need to be wary of the negative externalities. Forgetting phone numbers and recent events are mild issues, especially compared with the potential atrophy from outsourcing of emotional intelligence or creativity.

I’ll leave you with an expert from Charles Stross’s excellent novel Accelerando:

Spring-Heeled Jack runs blind, blue fumes crackling from his heels. His right hand, outstretched for balance, clutches a mark’s stolen memories. The victim is sitting on the hard stones of the pavement behind him. Maybe he’s wondering what’s happened; maybe he looks after the fleeing youth. But the tourist crowds block the view effectively, and in any case, he has no hope of catching the mugger. Hit-and-run amnesia is what the polis call it, but to Spring-Heeled Jack it’s just more loot to buy fuel for his Russian army-surplus motorized combat boots.

The victim sits on the cobblestones clutching his aching temples. What happened? he wonders. The universe is a brightly colored blur of fast-moving shapes augmented by deafening noises. His ear-mounted cameras are rebooting repeatedly: They panic every eight hundred milliseconds, whenever they realize that they’re alone on his personal area network without the comforting support of a hub to tell them where to send his incoming sensory feed. Two of his mobile phones are bickering moronically, disputing ownership of his grid bandwidth, and his memory … is missing.

A tall blond clutching an electric chainsaw sheathed in pink bubble wrap leans over him curiously: “you all right?” she asks.

“I –” He shakes his head, which hurts. “Who am I?”

[1] I first heard the term via my friend Stan at BranchTime

[2] On a side note, I wonder if our mental representations of the city are warped and skewed based on transit times - Caltrain feels a lot further than the Ferry Building, even though it’s geographically closer.