At Aeon, Karina Vold asks whether our smartphones have truly become part of us, and if so whether they deserve new legal protections. She quotes grisly examples of the authorities using a dead man’s finger to try to activate finger print recognition on protected devices.

There are several parts to the argument here. One is derived fairly straightforwardly from the extended mind theory. According this point of view, we are not simply our brains, nor even our bodies. When we use virtual reality devices we may feel ourselves to be elsewhere; a computer can give us cognitive abilities that we can use naturally but would not have been available from our simple biological nervous system. Even in the case of simpler technologies we may feel we are extended. Driving, I sometimes think of the car as ‘me’ in at least a limited sense. If I feel my way with a stick, I feel the ground through the stick, rather than feeling the movement of the stick and making conscious inferences about the ground. Our mind goes out further than we might have thought.

We can probably accept that there is at least some truth in that outlook. But we should also note an important qualification, namely that these things are a matter of degree. A stick in my hand may temporarily become like an extension of my limbs, but it remains temporary and liminal. It never becomes a core part of me in the way that my frontal lobes are. The argument for an extended mind is for a looser and more ambivalent border to the self, not just a wider one.

The second part of the argument is that while the authorities can legitimately seize our property, our minds are legally protected. Vold cites the right to silence, as well as restrictions on the use of drugs and lie detectors. She also quotes a judge to the effect that we are secure in the sanctum of our minds anyway, because there simply isn’t any way the authorities can intervene in there. They can control our behaviour, but not our thoughts.

One problem for me is that the ethical rationale for the right to remain silent is completely opaque to me. I have no idea what justifies our letting people remain silent in cases where they have information that is legitimately needed. A duty to disclose makes a lot more sense to me. Perhaps this principle is just a strongly-reinforced protection against the possibility of torture, in that removing the right of the authorities to have the information at all cuts off at the root any right to use pain as a means of prising it out? If so, it seems too much to me.

I also think the distinction between the ability to control behaviour and the ability to control thoughts is less absolute than might appear. True, we cannot read or implant thoughts themselves. But then it’s extremely difficult to control every action, too. The power of brainwashing techniques has often been overestimated, but the authorities can control information, use persuasive methods and even those forbidden drugs to get what they want. The Stoics, enjoying a bit of a revival in popularity these days, thought that in a broken world you could at least stay in control of your own mind; but it ain’t necessarily so; if they really want to, they can make you love Big Brother.

Still, let’s broadly accept that attempts at direct intervention in the mind are repugnant in ways that restraint of the body is not, and let’s also accept that my smart phone can in some extended sense be regarded as part of my mind. Does it then follow that my phone needs new legal protections in order to preserve the integrity of my personal boundaries?

The word ‘new’ in there is the one that gives me the final problem. Mind extension is not a new thing; if sticks can be part of it, then it’s nearly as old as humanity. Notebooks and encyclopaedias add to our minds, and have been around for a long time. Virtual reality has a special power, but films and even oil paintings sort of do the same job. What’s really new?

I think there is an implicit claim here that phones and other devices are special, because what they do is computation, and that’s what your brain does too. So they become one with our minds in a way that nothing else does. I think that’s just false. Regulars will know I don’t think computation is the essence of thought anyway. But even if it were, the computations done in a phone are completely disconnected from those going on in the brain. Virtual reality may merge with our experience, but what it gives our mind is the outputs of the computation; we never experience the computations themselves. It may hypothetically be the case that future technology will do this, and genuinely merge our thoughts into the data of some advanced machine (I think not, of course); but the idea that we are already at that point and that in fact smartphones already do this is a radical overstatement.

So although existing law may well be improvable, I don’t see a case in principle for any new protections.



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