Tech Talk

Learning to survive offline

Six-thirty am Google searches:
“How to fix a broken VW T25 door lock…”
“VW T25 oil warning light and alarm…”
“RAC breakdown recovery number…”
“Flights to London…”

I started writing this column in my head at dawn while sitting in a conked-out camper van stuck in a layby three miles from Belfast Port. Our ferry was departing soon and we would not be on it. The previous afternoon, I had managed to fix a broken door lock with the aid of WD-40, a hammer, and Google. It was a short-lived triumph as my wife’s VW T25 camper, its bodywork freshly restored after a pandemic-prolonged stay at the garage, developed an oil pressure problem and slowly came to a stop by the side of the road.

Online searches tell stories of what intrigues us but also of the gaps in our knowledge and what we have outsourced to the internet. While the T25 is five years younger than me – a mere 33 to my 38 – it’s resolutely not a creature of the online era. Unlike modern cars, its engine doesn’t have a built-in computer that a roadside mechanic can interrogate for problems. The van had to be loaded onto a tow truck and returned to the garage to be looked at again, ministered to by someone whose knowledge runs deeper than Google.

While it sounds awfully like the beginning of a vicar’s ponderous contribution to Thought for the Day on Radio 4, the breakdown got me thinking about the knowledge we keep in our heads and what we rely on the internet to retrieve. Our brains have evolved in the past twenty years but most of that evolution has occurred outside our skulls.

In 1998, the year that Google was founded, philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers developed an idea called “the Extended Mind”. Attempting to provide a new answer to an old philosophical conundrum – the mind-brain problem – which considers whether our minds go beyond biology, they argued that technological tools could be as integral to our thinking as our brain’s internal workings.

Clark and Chalmers were writing before search engines were ubiquitous and long before voice assistants invaded our kitchens and living rooms. In 2013, Chalmers told Slate that a colleague now liked to joke: “Your thesis was false when you wrote the article – since then it has come true.” With each passing year, it’s become more true. Our weekend of repairs and breakdowns was evidence of the extended mind in action.

Let’s teach ourselves how to do those little repairs rather than relying on YouTube to remind us

I’m not going to argue here that our reliance on online resources is making us stupid. I don’t believe that and it’s such a hoary old argument that Socrates railed against the written word as an “invention [that] will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practise their memory.” Instead, I’m interested in what we would do if the extended brain we’ve come to rely on was suddenly unavailable.

A worldwide internet blackout is unlikely to happen outside of an apocalypse-scale event because the system was designed from the beginning to be decentralised. But from catastrophic climate events to state-sponsored cyberattacks, long bouts of disconnection could very plausibly be a part of all our futures. While we needn’t become survivalists swearing off all online tools, it’s worth considering how we might wean ourselves off our reliance on the extended mind.

Rather than reviving the methodologically dubious brain-training fad that became popular in the 2010s, we should treat learning and practising new skills as we do going to the gym. Let’s reclaim those recipes we always look up online and commit them to memory, teach ourselves how to do those little repairs rather than relying on YouTube to remind us, and become (even more) militant about policing the use of smartphones during pub quizzes.

This isn’t a call for a return to a prelapsarian paradise free of Siri, Alexa and the rest, but for a recognition of how fragile the extended mind could be. Better to realise that the foundations of that extension could collapse than to find ourselves lost when it’s not there to rely upon. Arguing against technology in a tech column may seem perverse but there is complacency in the comfort to which we’ve become accustomed.

When the T25 is finally back on the road, I’m determined to commit the Haynes manual to memory and learn how to keep the camper running without leaning on the external mind. Next time I’m stranded in a layby, I want to be able to reach for a spanner instead of a smartphone.

Will it make me ready for an internet-free world? No. But it will be a start. Think of it as like choosing to ride your bike even though you have a car or could leap on the bus.

9pm Google search: “Best way to end a technology column that’s about not relying on technology to solve your problems…”

Mic Wright is a freelance writer and journalist based in London. He writes about technology, culture and politics

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