In 1987, Harvey Wheeler, then Martha Boaz Distinguished Research Professor, University Library, University of Southern California, laid out the future of the book and the library in The Virtual Society, one of the first e-books, and distributed it as shareware. Read this especially brilliant excerpt to see what I mean. For the full text, click here: Download The Virtual Society


The Brain's Third Hemisphere

By Harvey Wheeler

This title is an intentional misnomer. Obviously a thing cannot consist of three hemispheres. Nor does this mean that the computer works like our mind. Rather, it portrays the computer as an auxiliary mind to our own; a supplement to the brain's two hemispheres. Hence the the anomaly: the computer as a "third" hemisphere to the brain.

Rod, scroll, codex and book were all archival interfaces with the brain. We feel certain they affected its operations but it is not possible to say with confidence exactly how. They all operated as transducers between the brain's perceptions and its processing of those perceptions.

We know from Marshall McLuhan that each medium affects the message it conveys. Each previous technological interface has influenced in some way the evolution of mind. Today the Boolean Revolution is installing a new channel between the outside world and our inside world, and vice versa. The following discussion explores some of the cognitive implications of this new way of channeling information.

How is human cognitive evolution affected by electronics? There are several things to be said. Some are curious. The computer is a new semiotic channel. When it processes information it changes that information. Many of today's scholars are studying just what these changes are. Consider, for example, the hunt-and-browse method of research one does when actually working in library stacks. Compare this to the Boolean search procedures one uses when doing computer assisted research. This change is bound make a difference in the knowledge produced, but as yet we do not know in what way. Michael Heim and several associates are now studying this problem on an electronic research taskforce on the USC Virtual Academy.


If human memory changes fundamentally so does the human mind. Every one of the four semiotic revolutions of chapter two changed the nature of human memory. The computer, like the dialogue-poem; the manuscript-text; and the lecture-book will change how memory works.

Consider the enormous demands made upon human memory in pre-literate, oral cultures. Recall the tales of the incredibly long and complex musical scores committed to memory by those who play the classical Indian Ragas. The "books" of the Rigveda are really musical scores, organized as ritual hymns and chants. They abound throughout with arcane numerological references. It is an alien literature to us. However, this very combination of music, word and number was characteristic of all the main wisdom literatures of antiquity. We are accustomed to texts that employ complex graphs, tables, and charts. We believe an argument is lacking a factual foundation if it does not have them. Yet we are dumbfounded by Plato's musicological calculation that the tyrant is 729 times more unhappy than the just ruler.

Part of the explanation of ancient semiotic technologies is that they provided a way to construct effective mnemonic (memorizing) systems. The high cultures of antiquity had highly complex structures and conducted meticulously organized operations. They did it without correspondence files or double-entry bookkeeping, and lacking xerography. They did it by combining rudimentary notation systems - like markings on clay rods and in scrolls - with highly effective mnemonic systems.

Recall once more that ancient mnemonics was based on an imaginary archival temple of the mind in which everything to be memorized was classified and then stored, figuratively in specific and conventionalized places (topoi) of an imaginary temple whose function was to aid in the archiving of data. This art-of-memory" technique permits committing and saving to memory -storing and retrieving - records and texts of enormous length. This classification and placement system later became the basis of systematic thought in Aristotle's TOPICS, which one interpreter translated as "pigeon-holes" from which arguments were drawn. That capability of the mind of times past was something like the storage and retrieval capability of the computer. The mnemonics-assisted mind of the past has a clear resonance with the computer-assisted mind of the present.

We now speak in awe of people with prodigious photographic (visual) memories. They can remember from one look every thing on a series of printed pages. The ancients celebrated those who had prodigious audial memories. They were the ones who carried the society's software around in their heads. They were the ones who preserved and handed on the society's religious and governmental archives.

The Torah records such a society. The "wisdom peoples" had minds that worked differently from those of the "Gutenberg peoples," who succeeded them, and also from the "Boolean peoples" who are now evolving.


Computer word processing does a strange thing to memory. The mind surreptitiously decides not to remember certain kinds of things because they are always available rapidly in the computer's electronic storage base.

Of course in actual fact this is not always true. Programs crash, they get garbled, they require debugging. But nonetheless, we behave as if the computer will always keep its head on straight.

The computer, when it is used as a processor or an outliner, or an organizer, becomes an extension of our memory in a more organic sense than this is usually taken to mean. Let me give an illustration.

This deals with a relatively trivial matter: the use of a computer desktop appointments calendar like Sidekick or PolyWindows DeskPlus. When I use an electronic calendar I literally do use it as a substitute for the conventional notepad desk appointments calendar.

When I enter an appointment into memory I know that appointment is stored in the computer's memory. The action seems just like "storing" an entry in a conventional appointments notebook.

It is not. The difference is that when I enter dates on paper they somehow remain in my mind. A notebook entry goes right into my own memory. I may not recall the date precisely, still, it is a part of my awareness and I behave and adjust my on-going time commitments with the ready awareness of those future appointments and obligations written on paper and stored in the subconscious mind.

An electronic calendar does a curious thing. An appointment entered into the computer's memory is not like a handwritten entry in a notepad. The computer entry somehow does not automatically go into one's own long-term memory. Instead, we seem to consider the computer entry AS IF it were in fact an entry into our own memories, literally so.

As a result, we feel it is not necessary to keep track of our appointments mentally the same way we did mentally with notepad entries. It FEELS as if we are already keeping track of them. That is, the computer feels to us as if it is an auxiliary hemisphere of our own minds.

Of course, this euphoria does not last long. Entries get wrongly entered. Files get mistakenly erased. Hard disks crash. Its sectors get mutilated. Some mornings we let the third hemisphere "sleep in" and don't fire up the computer and check its calendar. There's sometimes hell to pay for that foolish impulse. We've all forgotten several appointments merely from I assuming that our own memories would keep track of appointments for us just like they always had in paper-and-pencil days. We were wrong.

Many of those lapses would not have occurred if we had entered appointments in a regular paper-and-pencil note book. The mind would have kept itself alertly on "monitor."

Gradually we grow more cautious and less trusting of the third hemisphere. But this adjustment only modifies, it does not erase, the computer's cognitive influence on us.

Although we cannot explain this new auxiliary brain it is possible to draw a preliminary conclusion about it. This is that the computer does become a "virtual" third hemisphere "inside" the mind, almost the same way one of the new 80386 computers may contain a virtual 8086 PC inside itself. The mind seems to recognize this new virtual brain; to welcome it and treat it as part of itself.

This leads to the proposition that the computer produces in us a kind of seventh sense.


Recall what is usually said about the so-called sixth sense. It is spoken of as a kind of intuitive awareness that exists subliminally, beneath the threshold of conscious perception. It is a height-ened sensitivity to certain kinds of experiences. It is an informal projection capacity that gives us an alarm and tells us to be careful; things are going wrong and we'd better recheck and plan things better.

It is the sense the scientist has when he feels that one approach to a problem is better than another; or when his intuition tells him that a conclusion or a proposition is sound, and that its alternatives are wrong.

It is that diagnostic sense possessed by the gifted physician; the same symptoms that baffle others lead him or her to a conclusion others missed.

All these examples indicate that the sixth sense is an informal, or subliminal ordering process in which information is taken in and subconsciously processed in such a way that a pattern emerges and asserts itself to our conscious mind. This is what we often mean by a "professional" judgment. It is an A/I faculty that comes from long experience, practice, and expertise. It induces in us the subconcsiousness awareness of the implicit pattern in a situation.

It is a Gestalt, in the figure/ground sense. When some parts of a picture read wrong our minds are alerted to the wrongness in the picture even though we are not aware of having figured out logically what is wrong. Arthur Koestler has a good description of this process in THE ACT OF CREATION.

Brain theorists like Michael Arbib are beginning to explain how this may happen in the brain.

The sixth sense deals with metaphors and patterns. It is essentially a right brain activity.

Contrast the sixth sense with the left brain auxiliary provided us by the computer.

My proposition is that the computer activates a new seventh sense that emerges from its tendency to function as a third hemisphere of the brain. This is illustrated by the way the electronic calendar over-rides and disables long term memory and substitutes its own memory for the processes of the left brain.


A further development of the idea of the computer as an auxiliary brain leads to an even more arresting conclusion. It changes the creative process.

Consider what happens when it is more than merely an address or a telephone number that is being stored. Suppose you have just composed a document by a computer.

Compare that with composing the same text on a typewriter. When we compose on a typewriter we make a typographical picture of ideas in our head. Those ideas remain in the head. They are possessions of the mind. They are memory-resident ideas. The paper in the typewriter does not own them. We feel about the paper that it is merely a copy of what we are thinking about that topic. The paper is the "positive" and the memory-resident essay in the mind is the "negative."

Even when we have taken the page from the typewriter, revised it and re-written it to better express our thoughts, the revised draft does not own our thoughts, the mind still does. The page is a rough draft. We keep using liquid paper to white out passages we don't like. We then re-write them onto that same draft even though it is avowedly a "rough" one.

Suppose we carefully correct an avowed rough draft. We feel that doing this emphasizes the secondary "positive" aspects of the typescript. The moment the mind knows a better way to express its thoughts it tells us to change the "positive" to reflect that new state of the mental "negative," even though we could just as easily wait for the next draft to do so.

Now consider the difference when we use an electronic word processor. As we sit there and type the words appear on the screen. The screen seems like the page in my typewriter. The parallel between the two is a direct one. However, that parallel begins to break down because of two other features.

One of them is the printer. The computer printer appears to be the analog of the typewriter. It is not. On a typewriter, only a metal printing bar intervenes between my fingers and the printing action. On a computer there is first the software, then the screen, next the computer's internal processor and finally, the printer's own electronic control system.

The second breakdown in the analogy to the typewriter is seen in the computer's screen. It is like the page in the typewriter only in that it is where we first see words appear. In every other sense it is different.

We have considered the typed copy of our thoughts as the "positive" from a photographic negative that still resides in the mind which is the true owner of the written thoughts.

When we talk about the copy made by the computer we call it a "print-out." There is no doubt that it is a copy of what resides in the computer's memory. It is the hard copy of the soft copy that remains in the computer's mind, which functions as our own mind's auxiliary. This constitutes a new negative and it resides in a different hemisphere of the mind from the hemisphere that originated it.

That is the difference. The original version of the typewriter copy resides in the same hemisphere that created it in the first place.

The original version of the computer printer print out resides in two hemispheres; one in the computer and one in the mind. Continuing the anology to photography, we have: the printer's positive of the computer's negative of the super- negative of our mind.

A strange thing has happened in moving from the typewriter to sit down at an electronic word processor. As we sit there and type, the words appear on the screen, not on paper. That screen projects an image of thoughts as if they were shown there by a back-screen projector. But the screen is like the typewriter page in the sense that the words it shows do not belong to it, but to the thoughts behind it which it reflects. The parallel between page and screen is direct, except for the fact that the computer intervenes between our thoughts and the screen. The computer is their interface, once removed.

All interfaces are transducers -- conduits -- that affect what they transmit. The typewriter is the interface between thought and page. Compare it to writing with pen and ink. How qaint it seems to look at the old manuscripts of the texts of Dickens' novels. It is hard to imagine writing and revising with such inflexible materials. But authors used pen and ink well into this century, and many still do. Some lawyers are quite victorian about composing on their long legal pads. Students of this matter have analyzed the difference it has made when writing shifted to the typewriter. The more recent shift to the tape recorder for making rough drafts has had another, mostly noxious, effect on the ultimate text.

Textually and compositionally electronic pages are infinitely more manipulable than are typewritten pages. I can suspend my adoption of a thought while I recombine it with new ones, or re-order its logical sequence or its narrative position. Or I can restore it instantly as it was if the new order does not satisfy. Textually and compositionally electronic pages are infinitely fungible. My brain is commanding the manipulation but it cannot conceive in advance what it will think of the new order. The computer is permitting it to accomplish constructional tasks it could not otherwise accomplish.


The result is a new order of constructional thought. I know this because I am aware that as I keyboard my thoughts into the computer I am become aware, right at the beginning of an act of writing, of the new secret of the fungibility of my ideas. I know, even as I write them, that they are destined for revision, transformation and relocation. So these screened texts are much more fluid by nature than are the texts of a typescript. Being fluid in this new way they are much more like the status of my thoughts in my own mind than are the thoughts typed onto a typewriter page. This fact is further modified or amplified, or implified, by the fact that when these ideas are committed to memory, they are not committed to MY memory. They are committed to the computer's memory. I know they are in that memory. I know that there is in that memory a directory, a mode of accessing all its classified files, and that each file is potentially relatable to each other as if there were some David Bohm type of holographic text-oriented database system inside the computer, able to instantiate the infinite "implicate orders" of my thoughts on command, or "" Because of course, there are text-oriented databse systems like NOTEBOOK II and MEMORYMATE that can execute exactly such global retrieval commands.

I also know that my thoughts exist in the computer's memory in a much more precise way than their originals ever existed, or could ever exist in my own memory. This despite the fact that it was my mind that put them into the condition they have inside the computer's memory. The reason for this is that although they are essentially in my own memory, they are not really memory-resident.

Suppose I accidentally lose a typescript. No matter how hard I try I cannot recapitulate from my mind word for word the precise texts the way they reside in the memory of the computer's hard disk. So there is a difference between the two memories. So long as I faithfully run my backups, the computer's memory of my thoughts is better than my own and more trustworthy and easier to work with than is my own.

If I start out to reconstruct a lost document from memory I must go back and begin it all over again. I must work out the essential ideas once again. I must re-design the organization, much as I originally had to. As I do this, and as I start writing again, many of the same words and phrases, and perhaps most of the same general ideas, will flood back and flow onto the printed page exactly as they were in the original. By no means all of them are recaptured, however. Moreover, those old thoughts will be re-edited as I write. A number of new ones will be added. New ways of expression will come to mind. Newly developed notions will creep in and impose themselves on the original text. So, unless I make an extremely rigorous effort to ignore all new ideas, I end up with a completely different manuscript. Even if I try, and succeed fairly well at keeping to the job of reproducing the original text as accurately as possible, if I had hidden the original text instead of having lost it, and then fished it out and compared it with the new one, there would be enormous differences. This merely underscores the difference between my memory and the computer's because the computer is going to bring back that memory exactly as I deposited it. It may "crash" out, technologically, but if it is recalled at all it will be recalled perfectly and I will never have any doubt about its complete fidelity to the original I deposited.


I admire the computer's brain and rely upon it, but this means that I have a new auxiliary to my own brain. The screen that shows the computer's memory to me will help me do anything I want with that text, at any time I want. So I am given a considerably enhanced control over my ideas. My ideas are no longer dependent upon the intrinsic biological capacities of my memory system. They have acquired a new facility and a new capacity. In a sense this is as if the computer had put a new archival function inside my brain where I can use it as an auxiliary to operate more of a letter perfect memory system than the one I was born with. I possess a new "virtual archive". This frees my biological brain for considerably more elaborate archival functions and hence facilitates me to do much more sophisticated craft work on my ideas.

My third, archival hemisphere operates as if it were really a part of my brain. The main difference is that it is completely docile and tractable. It does not engage in the headstrong willfulness and trickery that my biological brain sometimes does. This is not a defect in my biological brain and is instead the source of much creativity. However it would be a defect if in my archival brain. Nor does the archival brain atrophy my biological brain. For my computer's brain is not, as yet, a stand-alone brain. As an archival extention of my own brain it permits me to operate at a higher level than would otherwise be possible.

This allows me to be an "over-rider" as well as a thought maker. I can over-ride the auxiliary brain system that has been added to my biological brain. Becoming an over-rider has curious consequences. For one thing, I am an over-rider of a new mind, which is me plus my 3rd hemisphere. That puts me in a higher position, promoting my mind to a higher status.

Remember the three semiotic revolutions of chapter one. Today we are at the fourth. My mind is just beginning to learn how to use its new fourth stage archival functions. I sit at my stage four computer and process the ideational and constructional activities of my mind in a new way. This will change the human mind as surely as did the rod, scroll, codex and book.

Indeed it also seems possible that we are now developing a new thought-consciousness. Our intuitive awareness of this fact accounts, I believe, for the characteristic love affair people come to have with their computers. To the outsider they are "computer nuts" or "nerds." The outsider can never understand one thing the present analysis makes clear. People who fall in love with their computers are really falling in love with their own minds, and the stunning new Boolean capabilities it makes possible.

The proposition is that a new dimension of the mind, and therefore a new human archival mind, may now be emerging as a result of the Boolean Revolution. The effect of creating a 3rd hemisphere is to create for the mind a virtual archive to assist the brain's higher reflexional operations. Potentially it has all the capabilities on the personal level that the virtual library has on the institutional level.


Many of the pundits at Harvard and Berkeley now claim that America is finished. Certainly there are many objective signs that this is so. America's industrial decline is alarming. The nation is technically bankrupt. Social, educational and health services have been reduced to the level of a second class nation. Illiteracy and poverty are spreading. A college education is beyond the means of the poor. The proportion of our national income devoted to pure science is declining. Fractionated families outnumber intact ones. A large proportion of infants spend babyhood in institutional babycare centers.

Participation in the electoral process threatens to decline below 50% of our adult citizens. In our literature, picaresque and violent heroes have supplanted straight-arrow exemplary models. There is a communication disjunction between the political elite and the intellectual elite. The bright human-itarian promise of mid century seems irreparably shattered. As the 20th century draws to its close there is a widespread mal de siecle. All these are signs of trouble. Many have characterized prior times of trouble. St. Augustine voiced similar sentiments about his own times, consolidating as he wrote the Codex Revolution. Bacon foresaw the outbreak of revolution from the north, consolidating as he wrote the Gutenberg Revolution.

Today there is one domain that remains vital, vibrant and on the verge of a progressive expansion. The archival function seems about to generate a new stage in human cognitive evolution. It should be clear from the foregoing chapters that I believe it will have an impact as revolutionary as did the Baconian revolution.