The writing task always eludes us.

CJChilvers sees in the slow but inevitable demise of the Evernote app a deeper critique of the concept of the ‘external brain’. Indeed, this term is rather clumsy marketing-speak, hardly improved by Tiago Forte’s version: ‘Building a Second Brain’.

I only have one brain, and it’s internal, thankfully. But I’m still very happy with the idea of the ‘extended mind’. My brain remains firmly in my skull, but it nevertheless uses the environment in many different ways to extend its capabilities.

Even though it seems like computing has been with us forever, it’s still really very early days. This technology is still quite new. We’re only just beginning to understand how to use it. I see the Evernote saga, and the concept of an external brain as part of that ongoing learning process.

It might be helpful to set the whole matter of external brains and extended minds in a wider context of literate and non-literate cultures.

Literate cultures tend to absorb many extended mind capabilities, such as memory, into writing. For example, How many poems or songs do you know by heart? Probably not many. What’s the point these days of learning things by heart? Why remember poems when you can just read them from a book? Literacy appears obviously superior to memory, even though something is lost along the way. What gets lost is the older, mnemonic culture of pre-literate societies. This loss in the transition from speaking to writing is what Plato’s Socrates warned of. Most literate people, though, neither mourn the loss nor even really notice it. The promise of writing is that if you could just get it all down you’ll have captured it, tamed it and mastered it. This is a familiar quest, from Adler’s Syntopicon1 to Otlet’s Mundaneum2, even to Allen’s “Getting Things Done”3. But somehow, the completion of the Writing Task, always eludes us. It’s too big. There’s simply too much to know and there has been for some time.

But oral cultures live in an enchanted world, not necessarily in a magical sense, but in the sense that the whole environment ‘speaks’, as part of a wider extended mind. Geographical features are not merely ‘dead matter’. They’re alive to tell stories which recount histories and genealogies, to give blessings and warnings. Plants and animals are similarly endowed with a depth of meaning.

This is the world that literate culture has exiled itself from, so that it barely comprehends its existence, much less its significance.

But this living world remains available to us. The exile is self-imposed. In her book, The Extended Mind, Annie Murphy Paul says:

“We extend beyond our limits, not by revving our brains like a machine or bulking them up like a muscle — but by strewing our world with rich materials, and by weaving them into our thoughts.”

We can’t master knowledge. It’s what we live in. This requires a radical shift of worldview from colonialist to ecological. The colonial approach to knowledge is to capture it in order to profit from it. The ecological approach is to live within it as within a garden to be tended. The two worldviews may well be mutually incompatible, though this matter is hardly resolved yet.

This saga isn’t over.

Further reading:

Annie Murphy Paul, The Extended Mind. The power of thinking outside the brain.

Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly,Songlines: The Power and Promise.Thames and Hudson.

  1. Mortimer Adler wanted to summarise the ideas of Western literature under 102 headings. ↩︎

  2. Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine wanted to gather and index all world knowledge. ↩︎

  3. In 2001, David Allen encouraged knowledge workers to get their thoughts out of their heads and to capture them externally. ↩︎