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Readings: 12 Mar 2016

Matthew Noah Smith argues in Slate that law enforcement having access to personal smartphone data is a reasonable analogue to mind reading:

This is especially the case when it comes to the role that our phones play in both communication and information storage. There is simply no principled distinction between the processes occurring in the meaty glob in your cranium and the processes occurring in the little silicon, metal, and glass block that is your iPhone. The solid-state drive storing photos in the phone are your memories in the same way that certain groups of neurons storing images in your brain are memories. Our minds extend beyond our heads and into our phones.

So if the state demands that manufacturers provide it with backdoor access into our devices, the state is literally demanding access into our minds, or at least the minds of those people who use smartphones. This sort of partial mind reading would be a tremendous advantage for law enforcement, one it did not enjoy in the pre-digital era. But it would also massively compromise the boundaries of the self.

His argument draws on Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind1, which was one of my favorite books that I read last year.

For the last five years, I’ve written roughly seven-hundred and fifty words2 each morning, sometimes in a notebook but mostly digitally. I think of it as stirring my mental compost pile — letting it be unrestrained and sometimes unpleasant leads to more useful output3. Whether or not it’s fair to literally consider that part of my brain, I don’t know — but I certainly don’t want it to be accessible to anyone but me.

Speaking of writing seven-hundred and fifty words every morning, Buster Benson’s provides a nice interface to do just that. I’m not comfortable with unloading my mind into someone else’s server, so I don’t use it myself, but I like the idea and I’m a fan of his work in general. He also maintains a record of his beliefs in a public GitHub repository. I maintain my own4 and I was just thinking of it today because Supersizing the Mind came up:

The self is not sharply bounded by the skin: my mind is embodied in my environment. When I speak to another human, we become a distributed cognitive network through the sensory connections (sight, sound, smell) between our nervous systems.


This week, I found my way to Tim Urban’s series on procrastination on Wait But Why, via the Beeminder blog. The final entry looks at the Eisenhauer Matrix from the perspective of chronic procrastinators. I’m nowhere near the procrastinator I once was (thanks, David Allen!), but this resonated with me:

A busy Impostinator often believes that the urgent work she’s consumed with is important, but the problem with that is what Eisenhower himself said best:

What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.

In other words, Quadrant 1 often does not exist. This isn’t always the case, but it’s especially likely to be true for people who have yet to get their career rolling, because usually when your truly important work is also urgent, it means you have something good going on. This creates a catch-22, where the people who most need urgency in order to do things — procrastinators early in their career — are often those with a totally vacant Quadrant 1.

In the last few years I’ve gotten pretty good at staying mostly in quadrant one5. But having a kid and the new time constraints that come with being a dad have made me super conscious of how fast life goes by. I want my son to have a self-actualized life in quadrant two, carving his own badass path through the world.

Time is wasting and I think I had better lead by example.

  1. I picked it up last summer after seeing it cited in Matthew B. Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, which was also excellent. ↩︎

  2. I very much like idea of Buster Benson’s, but I’m not entirely comfortable with using a journalling service, no matter how private. ↩︎

  3. I’m probably revealing here that I have no idea how to manage a compost pile - my wife is the gardener, not me. ↩︎

  4. Privately, although I may try and talk myself into sharing at some point. ↩︎

  5. Switching to a Mac from Linux and giving up the quest to find the One True Window Manager really helped. ↩︎