Elgan: Don't look now, but you're a cyborg

Cell phones have quietly evolved into prosthetic brain enhancers. Resistance is futile.

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Nowadays, the only things I forget to do are the items that, for one reason or another, I don't enter into reQall. (My wife isn't taking any chances and now adds things to my "to-do list" by adding them directly to reQall from her reQall account, bypassing me altogether. Do yourself a favor and don't tell your spouse about this capability.)

The reQall service is only the latest and probably the most sophisticated cell phone-based service to change how our brains manage information.

Prosthetic knowledge

Another major brain-changing mobile "application" is the Internet itself. Since the invention of the printing press right up until the ubiquity of the mobile Internet, we all employed a now-objectionable way to deal with unanswered questions -- those small questions that come up every day. You see an actress in a movie and are certain you've seen her in another movie, but which one? Why are people in the Netherlands called the Dutch? Where does bleach come from?

In the past, we all dealt with such questions in one of two ways: shrug and accept our ignorance, or make a mental note to find out later.

Now those days are gone. Our Internet-connected cell phones serve, essentially, as prosthetic knowledge. A quick Google search, and we know the answer. The answers to such questions are always on our persons -- the need to memorize such things is gone.

As the Internet gets faster and cell phones get better interfaces and more amazing applications, our mental habits will change, and mental capabilities will grow, augmented by prosthetic memory, knowledge and, eventually, even wisdom.

Cell phone-based prosthetic memory and prosthetic knowledge are major enhancers of the human mind. But cell phones can and do change our brains in other, smaller ways.

Instead of counting sheep, we can just play an audio file on our cell phones to put ourselves to sleep.

Instead of having to choose between reading the newspaper or mowing the lawn, our cell phones can read the newspaper to us as we do yard work.

The necessity to endure boredom has been weakened as well, along with our tolerance for it. Standing in line? Shopping with your spouse? Nothing to do? Your phone's YouTube app, Twitter access, e-mail feature and podcasting capability provide instant amusement, diversion, productivity or intellectual stimulation. Our sole remaining challenge is choosing among them.

All these small capabilities add up to big changes in what our brains do all day, and how we think about the world.

There's no question that cell phones are changing how our minds work, how we retain, manage and retrieve facts and information, and even how we think about the world.

So are we cyborgs yet? I believe the shocking but inescapable answer to that question is: Yes!

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact him at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, "The Raw Feed."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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