Reflecting on Knowledge in the Body in an Era of Prosthetic Dreams

I do not understand how to connect a bicycle pump to a bicycle tire equipped with a Presta valve. Regardless, I routinely use a bicycle pump to refill my bike tires, which are equipped with Presta valves. Perhaps Captain Kirk would be able to use that pair of sentences to trap our nascent AI overlords into a self-destructing loop of logic?

You, a presumably human reader, may also be a bit confused. I’ll explain. When I first purchased a slightly fancy bicycle, I was confronted with the problem of how to connect my bicycle pump to the skinny, fiddly Presta valves on it’s tires. I was used to the wider Schrader valves found on most inexpensive American bicycles, and when I tried to fit the head of my pump over the skinny Presta valve it wobbled to one side and wouldn’t seal in place. Air hissed out as I pumped, rather than entering the tire.

I did as one does to fix a problem these days. I Googled the issue. I watched YouTube videos. Nothing worked, I would attempt to follow the instructions I found, only to end up with the same result.

Then, after many attempts, the pump head sealed to the valve. I don’t know what I did differently that time. I still don’t know. All I know is, I can now attach the bicycle pump to the Presta valve on my bike tires and inflate them. I can do this every time I try. I don’t know how I am doing it, my fingers have simply learned the correct motion. I couldn’t explain that motion if I tried.

We are of course all familiar of with this kind of body knowledge. The way we learn to make a dance move (well, maybe you do, I’m an awful dancer), or pull a saw through a piece of wood, or even balance on a bike. We can’t, and then, with practice, we can. The conscious mind doesn’t really know how. The knowledge is somewhere in some unconscious part of the brain, not really in the limbs, but it might feel closer to the limbs than to consciousness.

For this reason, we perhaps tend to associate this kind of knowledge with manual labor, with the body side of the mind/body split our always too Cartesian society wants to keep a bright line. These reasons almost certainly articulate with our classed, raced, and gendered ideas of what counts as knowledge, as valuable, but that’s not what I want to explore today.

Instead, what I want to do today is make a suggestion in the opposite direction. That many things we think of as “knowledge work” are also closely tied to the same unconscious process that helped me learn to inflate my bike tires. That, as I’m writing this, I don’t consciously think through each word I place on the page. Instead, words often flow from an unconscious place (I sometimes call it my “language engine”) and I make conscious editorial decisions about which of its words I want to write down and which I want to strike and which of the multiple choices it may present me with is best.

The testimony of professional writers suggests to me I’m not the only one like this. William Gibson once said he wrote in “collaboration” with his unconscious mind. Raymond Carver once famously quipped that his most successful pieces happened because “sometimes I sit down and write better than I can.”

That unconscious flow of language may not be part of my conscious mind, but it is part of me. I have trained it through practice. It informs my decisions as I make them, even in a split second. It shapes the thinking that becomes my larger self.

This sort of per-conscious intuitive knowledge is not limited to language and writing. Our mathematical knowledge informs our sense of the numbers we encounter and their relationships. Historical knowledge informs our reaction to current events. Our prejudices and implicit biases are another form of this kind of knowledge, and unlearning those will require practiced engagement with this form.

For this reason, these intuitive senses will remain important for people as decision makers, so as long as we ultimately vest human beings with decision making power, these forms of knowledge in the body will matter. They will inform the sorts of questions we ask, regardless of the tools we have to answer those questions. They will inform the answers that “feel right” regardless of how we get them.

So, as we confront our new Machine Learning equipped reality, I’m not sure we should be too eager to abandon the idea that students ought to be able to show that they have incorporated knowledge at a bodily level. Historically, that’s one thing the essay has done. Show me you know this thing well enough to engage with and adapt it. Show me you have it in your body. A student who avoids doing such an assignment by outsourcing it to an AI cannot themselves be transformed by it, and that’s a problem, even if they will always have an AI in their pocket in the future!

We should be thoughtful about what we ask students to learn in this way, but I don’t think we should stop asking it.

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