A Brief Diversion into the Philosophy behind Apple vs. the FBI

I’m a devoted reader of Slate – less for their political coverage which is a bit too cookie cutter to be generally interesting – than for their extensive culture coverage; coverage that I find consistently provocative and amusing. Oddly, between politics and culture I’m not sure how to classify this recent article on the now notorious dispute between Apple and the Feds.

The gist of the argument is that both sides are missing the point in treating the dispute as one over whether and in what conditions the government should have access to our devices. According to the author, Mathew Noah Smith (a UK philosopher), this debate misses a deeper issue; namely, whether the government should have access to our mind.

It’s an easy and entertaining read, and I’d encourage you to check it out if you have an interest in this sort of thing or don’t trust that I’ve extracted the salient quotes.

Essentially, Mr. Smith invokes the “Extended Mind Hypothesis” of Andy Clark to argue that devices like iPhones have become a fundamental part of our mental machinery. The idea that external objects are part of our mental machinery shouldn’t be too controversial. If you’ve ever used a calendar to keep track of dates or a calculator to add two numbers, you’ve extended your mental processes beyond the interior walls of your brain. Indeed, anyone who’s ever picked up a pencil or a piece of chalk has done the same.

It would be a stretch, however, to suggest that every object involved in our mental deliberations is part of ourselves. So this is qualified by the additional language:

“What makes it so that these parts of the world partially constitute our mental processes? Minimally, they are as easily and reliably accessible as our brain processes are…to consider something an extension of the mind, what matters is that a certain threshold of easy, reliable access is met. And, our phones—our information-technology devices generally—typically meet that threshold. “

Mr. Smith continues in this vein:

“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.”

If you accept the extended mind hypothesis and believe it’s applicable, then the implications of Apple vs. the FBI are deep indeed. According to Smith, the argument becomes one “about the permeability of the boundaries of the self. How much of ourselves should we give over to the state?”

And, according to Smith, it also suggests that people are – perhaps unwittingly – ceding too much of their selves to corporate entities like Apple and Google that exist without even the sanction of democratic government. In his words, “the extension of even the nominally democratic state’s reach into our device-expanded mental lives may not be nearly as insidious as the extension of corporations’ reaches into our device-expanded mental lives.”

So is there really an extended mind? And should we all think differently about Apple vs. the FBI (whatever we now happen to think about it)?

Well…

Have you ever noticed that sometimes it takes a really smart guy to make a really stupid argument?

As fascinating as concepts like the “Extended Mind” are, our iPhone’s don’t seem to me to quite fit the bill.

Suppose they did. Let’s think about the implications of Mr. Smith’s argument.

He’s arguing against the government (and Apple) having access to your iPhone processes – on the grounds that it is equivalent to reading your mind. But if we accept that, how much worse would it be to have your device confiscated? It would be the difference between having someone read your thoughts and having someone cut out a chunk of your brain!

So if we were to take Mr. Smith’s argument seriously, then the government preventing convict’s from using their iPhone (for example) would be the moral equivalent of a frontal lobotomy. It would be like cutting out a part of their brain.

Worse, Verizon might perform the same action if you simply stopped paying your bill. It seems, on Mr. Smith’s account, we would be in danger of losing our identity when we don’t pay our phone bill! I’ll admit to some moments of panic when my iPhone bricked on me while traveling. However, I don’t remember thinking that my mental processes and identity were at stake. Perhaps that’s because my brain wasn’t functioning well without these external processes available to it!

Indeed, of all the borderline silly claims in the article, the silliest is certainly this line: “[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.”

This is the kind of stuff that can give philosophy a bad name. Take a clever idea and push it beyond the point of reason. I will be mad if you step on my iPhone. If you throw it in a chipper I might even sue you. But in neither case will I believe that you have attacked me. What’s more, I have never believed that if someone watched me while I used a calculator that they were reading my mind. I would deeply regret it if you purged the photos from my iPhone and it’s backups. But suggesting this is equivalent to, for example, having Alzheimer’s is deeply stupid. Nor, it seems to me, is there ANY but the most rudimentary similarity between human thought and code executing on today’s phones.

A hacker may spend 20 hours a day with his laptop. And that laptop may be far more an extension of his mental processes than an iPhone is of mine, but I take it that we would all agree that seizing a hacker’s laptop and using it as evidence is both perfectly legitimate and not at all the same as drugging somebody with Sodium Pentathol to make them talk.

So it seems that our intuitions on this subject suggest, quite clearly, that there is a very big difference between processes on an iPhone and processes inside our “meaty globs”.

Yes, I might want privacy when I write. I might reasonably think that my tax returns are my business. But there’s nothing new in any of this. Corporations and government (at least in our fortunate slice of the world) have both responsibilities and restrictions on their ability to seize my goods, to read my writing, to listen to my phone calls, etc. etc. When we interact with the world, we expose some portion of what’s going inside that meaty glob. But that choice of what to bring outside of our skulls and into the world is always ours. And access to what we expose will always be at least an option.

It’s no easy question to decide exactly where the boundaries are when it comes to corporate and governmental rights and responsibilities around that access or how the inevitable gray areas can be monitored and decisioned.

But adding in concepts like the Network Mind and implying that what’s at stake is, quite literally, our self-hood is unhelpful. We can think intelligibly about what rights and responsibilities both governments and companies have when it comes to data privacy without pretending that there is something more novel at stake than that. Indeed, we can probably only think about it intelligibly in that context.

One can imagine a world where something more is at stake. A world where electronics are literally implanted in our brains, are directly integrated within our thoughts, and access to which might indeed break down what is otherwise a quite fundamental distinction between our minds and the tools we use.

Tell then, I think we are safe.