Medieval Cyborgs – Artificial Memory as Mindware Upgrade

Fuckin' RIFTS


The philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark has argued that humans have always been ‘natural-born cyborgs,’ that is, they have always collaborated and merged with non-biological props and aids in order to find better environments for thinking. These ‘mindware’ upgrades (I borrow the term ‘mindware’ from Clark, 2001) extend beyond the fusions of the organic and technological that posthumanist theory imagines as our future. Moreover, these external aids do not remain external to our minds; they interact with them to effect profound changes in their internal architecture. Medieval artificial memory systems provide evidence for just this kind of cognitive interaction. But because medieval people conceived of their relationship to technology in fundamentally different ways, we need also to attend to larger epistemic frameworks when we analyze historically contingent forms of mindware upgrade. What cultural history adds to our understanding of embedded cognition is not only a recognition of our cyborg past but a historicized understanding of human reality.

Our cyborg past: Medieval artificial memory as mindware upgrade

(via Adam Greenfield)

See also: My interview with cyborg anthropologist Amber Case


  1. See this section of Phaedrus on ‘the ingenuity of the god Theuth, who was the inventor of letters, rebuked by King Thamus, also called Ammon.’ Socrates warned against that most basic of artificial memory systems, writing, as far back as 370 BC. Even with the majority of humanity now literate (a first), we’re still figuring out how much or little weight to place on the written word.

    “At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

  2. Bill Whitcomb

    July 27, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Anet Hrak Tehuti (All Homage to Thoth). The criticisms are correct, but if there weren’t valuable tradeoffs, then we would already have accomplished what we have accomplished (if that’s the right word) by Socrate’s time and wouldn’t need this degree of literacy. So…for better or worse, we wouldn’t have what we have now without the word. Still, the last sentence of the Socrates quote does seem pretty correct.

    Beyond that, I don’t know why more people haven’t reached the same conclusion about external memory and procesing. If the whole universe can be viewed as processing information, where “YOU” stops and starts is more a matter of where your attention is focused than it is an objective measure of self. Are you your actions? How about if someone permanently mounted a calculator on one of your bones. Would that be part of you? Are people’s memories of you part of you? Pictures? How about the thing’s you’ve created? If you accept that the main basis of “you” is what you perceive as you, there’s nothing stopping you from defining yourself on a constant basis depending on what you are trying to do (as long as you stay aware that none of these conceptual YOUs are any more real than any of the others).

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