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The Pleasures of the “External Brain”

Sat, October 9, 6:40 to 8:10pm EDT (6:40 to 8:10pm EDT), 4S 2021 Virtual, 12


“Personal knowledge management” may sound mundane, yet this seemingly unsexy technological concept possesses is the liturgical focus of a cult—the self-described “RoamCult,” a group of power users of Roam Research, one of the latest pieces of software to take up the mission of the Vannevar Bush’s Memex. The core features of Roam—a popular and much-hyped “note-taking tool for networked thought”—would not seem revolutionary to Bush: users can make bi-directional links between snippets of text or other media. A graph visualization allows the user to see their knowledge as a spider web of intersecting thoughts and images.

Why, in an age of much more complex technology, does a personal note-taking app still inspire passion? I propose a psychoanalytic exploration of the pleasure of building and possessing an “external brain.” As Benjamin Fong articulates, “there is more to why we think technology makes life better than technology making life better” since “technology gratifies a psychic need before it does material ones.” My primary archive will consist of Roam itself as well as public comments made by its creator and users. Additionally I will note how Roam echoes pre-digital visions of the external mind, including the “place-logic” of Ramus. Via Fong, I will consider the specific forms of “mastery” promised by the externalization and visualization of one’s brain. Via Robert Robert Pfaller, I will consider whether the charm of the external brain rests in the way it keeps one’s thoughts not handily nearby but rather at a safe distance.