A thought experiment:
Two people each want to get to the Museum of Modern Art. Inga consults her memory, remembers the address, and makes her way to the museum. Otto, whose memory is slipping, consults his iPhone for the address, and makes his way to the museum. On account of his memory loss, Otto relies on the iPhone in this way for all sorts of things. Inga’s process is uncontroversially cognitive; what about Otto’s?
This is (with slight modification) the story offered by Clark and Chalmers in “The Extended Mind” in support of their claim that the mind isn’t just “in the head,” but extends into the environment. They claim that when we call an internal process mental, then any functionally identical external process is likewise mental. Hence the mind encompasses all sorts of external things (especially information technologies, which from this perspective look designed specifically as cognitive prostheses).
Whether or not the mind really is extended in this way—something pretty much only philosophers care about—it’s at least true that humans do recruit elements of their environments for all sorts of problem-solving and otherwise cognitive tasks, and this is interesting for a number of reasons. To name just one: once we start thinking of the mind as extended, then we’ve got a distinctive way of thinking about human behavior. The environment matters, and not in the usual ways (as an assortment of objects for perception, or as a vehicle for cultural transmission); instead the environment is genuinely part of cognitive processes. This would seem to support a kind of applied philosophy, where we look for ways to intervene in cognitive parts of the world.
In fact, something like this is already underway. There’s a nice paper by Heath and Anderson, “Procrastination and the Extended Will,” which focuses (naturally) on the will. If the will is extended, we should find bits of the world that work as “scaffolding” for the will, things which make it easier to stick to decisions for long-term benefits in the face of temptation—and indeed we do. Much of the “productivity hacks” world, for example, is focused on just such things.
But for someone interested in sustainable societies, there’s potentially a whole research program here. Many (if not all) sustainability problems are created by collective actions, and it’s hard to affect collective actions. Typical strategies involve trying to change the culture, and there are well-worn ways of so trying: legislation, public-service campaigns, advertising and other marketing, education reform, and so on. But what if we could directly intervene in many people’s cognitive processes all at once? The extended mind hypothesis predicts we can: just create (or modify) parts of the built environment that belong to (or are taken up into) those cognitive processes.
Something that comes close to doing this already is the These Come From Trees campaign, which cuts people’s use of paper towels. But this strategy is very close to traditional advertising—it simply presents a message that affects readers’ beliefs. Of course I don’t mean to denigrate that kind of strategy; it can be effective, and appears to be so in this particular case. What I mean is that it doesn’t take full advantage of the perspective offered by the extended mind. There are a lot of cognitive operations besides belief acquisition which we might try to embed in the environment. Could we e.g. embed a kind of reasoning operation, epistemic action, or evaluation? Time to do some research.