Occasionally you come across the work of someone you've never heard of, but whose interests curiously parallel your own. Tonight I came across Kristóf Nyíri's 1993 essay "Thinking with a word processor," which asks, "in what ways, if any, are our thoughts affected by the shift from the pen or the typewriter to a word processor?" The relationship between information technologies (very broadly understood), cognition, and perception is an especially difficult one to get at– starting with arguments about what constitutes "technology," "cognition," and "perception," and moving on from there– and it's one that some of my favorite recent authors (like Andy Clark and Michael Chorost) have thought about. Nyiri's conclusion:
But what is it really, I would like to ask by way of conclusion, we think "with" when we think with a word processor?… [O]ne of the fundamental Wittgensteinian discoveries [was] that mental phenomena cannot be identified independently of Umstände, of the broad story within which they occur…. So what are the characteristics of the context, of the circumstances, under which we say that we are thinking – with a word processor? What kind of language game is: "thinking with a word processor"?
When we think with a word processor it is a synchronous intellectual exchange with fellow thinkers all over the world we are, ultimately, engaged in. So what are we thinking with when we think with a word processor? The word "with" here, I conclude, does in the last analysis point not to instrumental application – but to human companionship.
Nyiri has since gone on to head a project on the mobile information society in the 21st century:
While in all areas of life we witness a radical increase in the demand for mobile communications, questions as regards further directions of development are at many points open, and need to be addressed by the social sciences. The mobile telephone is by now more than merely a device to transmit voice. It has become a multi-purpose data transmitter – a mobile companion.
Basically, the man's becoming a futurist, though his work remains as grounded in philosophy as mine in STS. It looks like it could be a very interesting project: it's generated five volumes of essays so far, and I have to have some respect for anyone who's willing to argue that
[T]he mobile telephone need not necessarily be anathema to the spirit of Heideggerian romanticism. For the mobile phone is not just the most successful machine ever invented, spreading with unheard-of speed; it is also a machine which corresponds to deep, primordial human communicational urges. The phenomenon of the mobile phone constitutes an obvious challenge to philosophy, and indeed to the humanities.
–or even think to raise the question, "does the cellphone constitute a challenge to Heideggerian romanticism, or doesn't it?"
They're doing a conference on the philosophy of telecommunications convergence this fall. Maybe I'll try to whip up a proposal, though I doubt I'll actually get it done.