Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cognition in the Wild

Isn't it a great title? A friend of this blog had recommended me this book, Cognition in the Wild, some time ago but I didn't have time to finish the book during the break. I think I read a couple of chapters of the book so far and totally fell in love with it. Great book! Since I do not think I can finish the book any time soon, not because I lost interest but because I'm very busy nowadays, I decided to share some of my favorite quotes from the book.  I wish I had time to write some of my comments. Sigh...
When I saw this video it reminded me of this book since one of the chapters describes how sailors determine their location by looking at the stars in different cultures. I think it's pretty amazing.

Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the wild. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

As part of the cognitive revolution, cognitive anthropology made two crucial steps. First, it turned away from society by looking inward to the knowledge an individual had to have to function as a member of the culture. The question became “What does a person have to know?” The locus of knowledge was assumed to be inside the individual. The methods of research the available encouraged the analysis of language. But knowledge expressed or expressible in language tends to be declarative knowledge. It is what people can say about what they know. Skill went out the window of the “white room.” The second turn was away from practice. In the quest to learn what people know, anthropologists lost track both of how people go about knowing what they know and of the contribution of the environments in which the knowing is accomplished. Perhaps these narrowing assumptions were necessary to get the project of cognitive anthropology off the ground. I will argue that, now that we are underway as a discipline, we should revoke these assumptions. They have become a burden, and they prevent us from seeing the nature of human cognition. (p. xii)
The phrase “cognition in the wild” refers to human cognition in its natural habitat—that is, to naturally occurring culturally constituted human activity. (p. xiii)

Chart projections make it clear that different representational systems have different computational properties and permit different implementations of the computations. (p. 64)

This computation is distributed in space and time. Those who make the chart and those who use it are not known to one another (perhaps they are not even contemporaries), yet they are joint participants in a computational event every time the chart is used. (p. 64)

In an external representation, structure can be built up gradually—a distribution of cognitive effort over time—so that the final product may be something that no individual could represent all at once internally. (p. 96)

In attempting to understand the history of navigation from a cognitive perspective, it is important to consider the whole suite of instruments that are used together in doing the task. The tools of  navigation share with one another a rich network of mutual computational and representational dependencies. Each plays a role in the computational environments of the others, providing the raw materials of computation or consuming the products of it. In the ecology of tools, based on the flow of computational products, each tool creates the environment for others. This is easy to see in the history of the physical tools, but the same is certainly true of the mental tools that navigators bring to the task (p. 113)

It is really astonishing how much is taken for granted in our current practice. The difficulties that were overcome in the creation of all these techniques, and the power they provide relative to their predecessors, are not at all apparent to the modern practitioner. Only when we look at the history can we see just how many problems had to be solved and how many could have been solved differently in the course of the development of the modern practices. A way of thinking comes with these techniques and tools. The advances that were made in navigation were always parts of a surrounding culture. They appeared in other fields as well, so they came to permeate our culture. This is what makes it so difficult to see the nature of our ways of doing things and to see how it is that others do what they do. We see in the divergence of these traditions not just the development of the tools of measurement, but a passion for measuring and a penchant for taking the representation more seriously than the thing represented. (p. 115)
With systems of socially distributed cognition we can step inside the cognitive system, and while some underlying processes (inside people’s heads) remain obscured, a great deal of the internal organization and operation of the system is directly observable. On this view, it might be possible to go quite far with a cognitive science that is neither mentalistic (remaining agnostic on the issue of representations “in the head”) nor behavioristic (remaining committed to the analysis of information processing and the transformation of representations “inside the cognitive system”). (p. 129)

Unfortunately, in order to get the cognitive game started in a mind that is profoundly disconnected from its environment, it is necessary to invent internal representations of a good deal of the environment that is outside the head. This requirement is simply not present in a mind that is in constant interaction with its environment. The mainstream thinking of cognitive science in the past thirty years leads us to expect to have to represent the world internally in order to interact with it. This theory of “disembodied cognition” (Norman, 1990) has created systematic distortions in our understanding of the nature of cognition. (p. 132)

This system is part of a cognitive ecology in which the various representational technologies constitute one another’s functional environments. Since the presence of any one technology may change the computational potentials of the others, it is not possible, in principle, to exclude any contributing element from the list of precomputations simply on the basis of it antiquity. (p. 168)

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