I'm fascinated by the phenomenon of manipulating our environment to extend our brains. I suppose it all started with early humans carving on cave walls as a way to store historical data. Now we have ebooks, computers, and cell phones to store our memories. And we have schools to program our brains. But it goes much deeper than that. Even a house is a device for storing data. Specifically, a house stores data on how it was built. A skilled builder can study a house and build another just like it.

Everything we create becomes a de facto data storage device and brain accessory. A wall can be a physical storage device for land survey data, it can be a reminder of history, and it can be a trigger of personal memories.

A business is also a way to store data. As a restaurant owner, I was fascinated at how employees came and went, but their best ideas often stayed with the business, especially in the kitchen. The restaurant was like a giant data filter. The bad ideas were tested and deleted while the good ideas stayed, most often without being written down.

When you design a flower garden, its main purpose is to influence people's minds in a positive and peaceful fashion. A flower garden is a brain reprogramming tool. It jacks into any human brain that enters its space and reprograms that brain in a predetermined way. We don't think of it in those terms, but the process is nonetheless deliberate.

My wife and I designed our new house as a brain supplement, although we never spoke of it in those words. Every element of the home is designed to reprogram the brains that enter it to feel relaxed in some of its spaces and inspired in others. The language I used at the time of the design was that every space should be an invitation. (I'll talk more on that topic in an upcoming post.) When guests walk through the house for the first time, we can watch the house change people's attitudes and emotions in real time. It's fascinating.

I suppose other creatures use their environment for storing information, or programming their brains in limited ways. But I assume humans export the highest percentage of brain function to their environment, and it grows daily. The evolution of mind from inside the creature to outside the body fascinates me. Humans are turning the entire planet into an exobrain. Our brains can't hold all of the data we produce, so we look for ways to offload to books, websites, music, and architecture, to name a few storage devices. And we manipulate the environment to reprogram our brains as needed.

Years ago I worked with a young intern at Crocker Bank who believed his first step toward success was to find a place to live in a prosperous suburb. His theory was that the external environment would program his brain for the sort of success that his neighbors would have already found. I remember mocking him for his offbeat and naïve theory. Now I think he's a genius for understanding at such an early age that his environment was a tool for programming his brain. I lost touch with him, but I'll bet he's a millionaire now.
Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +148
  • Print
  • Share
  • Share:


Sort By:
Jun 25, 2010
Another way to look at it is that the information is controlling us :)
There has been quite some research in the field of memes and temes and how they can be considered akin to DNA material. DNA propogrates through the organism, memes proporate through the minds of the organism. Successful ones stay and reproduce, unsuccessful ones die out.
Check it out :)
Jun 24, 2010
I agree that success is very dependent on environment, but I argue that it's less the house and more the people in the neighborhood. I'm the smartest guy in my neighborhood, it was a good place for a while but everyone with half a brain has moved out, while I'm stuck for the next couple years so I can finish my degree. I feel stifled in my environment.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 24, 2010
Scott, what you're describing is a sub-part of the field of semiotics, or the science/art of studying how different "signs" or "elements" or "properties" of people and the rest of the world around us acquire and communicate meaning. This of course includes the study of how we are influenced by "signs", how we as individuals and cultures interact with them, and how we influence their development and evolution.

A good introduction is Marcel Danesi's "Of Cigarettes, High Heels and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to Semiotics". [ http://www.amazon.com/Cigarettes-Heels-Other-Interesting-Things/dp/0312214502]. Happy reading!
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 24, 2010
Given the amount of data storage we have, we need better librarians. Civil engineers should have a librarian head when considering juxtiposition of building styles, Chefs should consider the thematic sorting of their dishes and neighbors should coordinate their landscaping. I suppose some of that happens already though and is why some cities have a vibrant living feeling to them while others seem worn out, why some meals are masterpieces while others with the same number of courses and quality of production can fizzle or why some neighborhoods have low crime rates and good community relations.
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 24, 2010
I like how you look at something most people wouldn't easily accept and see beautiful things.

It was a beautiful post Scot
Jun 24, 2010
I completely second the notion of having a virtual tour available of Mr. Scott's house. I would LOVE to see that!

Also, I thought that our brains were actually capable of holding a great deal more information than we are aware of. Are there any plans in the future to turn our brains into better storage devices?

+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 24, 2010
This will probably get me in trouble, but here goes: maybe this is why sexual reproduction started in the first place. A mate is yet another way of extending your brain. For example, I don't bother to remember where I put anything. "Hon, where are my keys? What did you do with my blue socks?"
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 24, 2010
Two things - first you should put up a virtual tour of your house somewhere (if you already have, I couldn't find it), since you refer to it a lot.

Second is data destruction. I am writing a book about genealogy right now. Most humans possess an oral history of their family, or at least a general sense of one. It's a poor method for storing and propagating data, but theoretically there's nothing preventing a family line remembering events from many, many generations back, even though stories are passed along in an informal and basically accidental fashion.

But, absent written records, with few exceptions nobody knows anything more than four or five generations back. Even illiterate cultures that rely on oral transmission to propagate their entire culture are generally unsuccessful. In their case, a big pile of stories do get passed down successfully, but there is only a very vague notion about the people involved, the stories get conflated with mythology, and a person doesn't really know if something happened 80 years ago or 800.

Example of data destruction - if you are white you are probably descended from Charlemagne. That means that somewhere in your family tree, someone was able to tell their kid that his granddaddy was King. You can bet they did - most people think it's pretty cool to be descended from aristocracy. And in turn that person could tell their own child that Charlemagne was their great-granddaddy. And so on.

But odds are you have no inkling about such ancestry. Who interrupted the chain?
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 24, 2010
No doubt there are past philosophies that contain the concept of Exobrain. Note the traditional Latinization of the term as if to legitimize it in the pantheon of ideas. Surely emperors, architects, and artists understood the concept.

For most of us, our houses will be our greatest external representation of self. While they might not be elaborate, they will show our personalities and proclaim our moments in the sun.

My family built a house on five acres of land. We had the land for 50 years and the house for 32. Except for the plumbing and brickwork, we and family members built it ourselves. There was not an inch of house and land we did not touch and shape in some way. I planted acres of grass and hundreds of trees. While the place was not a work of art, many a time I fantasized that our thoughts were absorbed into things and would be appreciated by a sensitive eye. We literaly watered the place with sweat many times over, and it grew.

A few years ago the Airport Authority bought our place in the sun, razed the house, smeared the land. It had always been in my mind that I would die before the house did.

Nothing on Earth is permanent. In finding Indian artifacts in the soil, I wondered what personality lost them. Did he gaze at the sunrise in the same spot I later did, thanking Man Above for life? Will an airport traveler in the future, standing on concrete that has smothered the land for centuries be moved to wonder who once lived there?

If as Scott writes, the world is a huge memory storage device, realize that it is constantly being written over and in the long run is only RAM.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 23, 2010
Data, IQ, nuts, mostly. This seems to be a update on a old the rich are better that's why there rich fable. What is around you has a effect it seems, This could calm you so you can use what you have better. In fact that's what Japanese architecture is about. For example you've seen how the cutting edge types put diagonals on things. The shock of the new I guess. The Japanese believe that diagonal lines make people angrily or upset and never use them.
Jun 23, 2010
Re your friend the intern, it is common knowledge that "when you fly with the crows, your feathers turn black" and vice versa.
Jun 23, 2010
I very much enjoyed the last paragraph of your post. As a speech pathologist, I work in two different areas and live right in the middle of them. I spend my mornings in a wealthy suburb and my afternoons in a working class part of the city. I notice that on the weekends, I choose to spend any time away from my house in the wealthy suburb. Both places have exactly the same stores and restaurants, but the environment and the "vibe" of the suburb is more appealing. I've begun daydreaming about eventually owning a large chunk of land on the outskirts of the suburb, even though I could also have the same land outside of the working class area. I think that the energy of the suburb motivates me, although I never put it into those specific words until I read this post. :)

0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 23, 2010
Charles Stross' "Accelerando" implies that everything in the solar system could be turned in memory/processing power. Something about MB per gram or some such.
Jun 23, 2010
Your friend's philosophy on improving his income seemed reminiscent of Gregory Clark's argument about the industrial revolution in A Farewell to Alms.

0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 23, 2010

>"A flower garden is a brain reprogramming tool. It jacks into any human brain that enters its space and reprograms that brain in a predetermined way."

This would apply to mass media too.

Movie theme for this article could be: Memento.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 23, 2010
People are part of our environment, as well as artifacts.

Communicating with other people is a way of storing info with other people .. and vice versa.

Other people's memories, then, are an extension of our memories .. and vice versa.

So .. presumably .. the totality of society is an organic memory bank with multiple, concurrent foci of consciousnesses.
Jun 23, 2010
The Earth also stores information about itself. I visited the Grand Canyon over Memorial Day, and bought a book that describes 150 years of scientific research and theories about the canyon's formation. It is amazing to me what information can be teased out of the arrangement and distribution of a pile of rocks. However, the information store is incomplete; much of the evidence has been washed away, so we may never be able to know the full picture.
Jun 23, 2010
The title prompted me to expect a discussion of the internet as a giant living organism. Kevin Kelly has some interesting thoughts on this and shares them with us in the form of a TED talk at http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/kevin_kelly_on_the_next_5_000_days_of_the_web.html. While it's true that the physical world around us prompts us to think and feel certain ways and we consciously change the world to make it more hospitable to our physical and mental needs, I agree with Kevin that we're rapidly heading into a world that is almost entirely of our own creation. In the process we are using up and destroying all of the natural world which has, until now, nurtured and supported us. Either we find a balance between man and nature or we completely consume and transform it and replace its functions. I think the latter is both more likely and more sad, as it will inevitably entail losing the collective wisdom gathered by millenia of competition among species and recorded in their form and complex function as ecological systems which will be totally consumed and killed-off. The only poignancy to be found is that we may be ourselves completely transformed by our own technology and even more quickly than we are consuming the planet, become beings which will be consumed by our evolution to transhumanity.
Jun 23, 2010
I realize I was supposed to get much more out of this but it's after lunch and I'm tired. So, what did I get out of it you ask? Well, I would really enjoy seeing some pictures or possibly a video tour of the new house.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 23, 2010
To paraphrase- human activity adds information to the world that can be read.
But, given a deterministic universe, was that information added or was it alway there? I guess always there, but now perceived as recognized? Organized?
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog