Wednesday, November 30, 2005

asimov anyone?

Has anybody read Isaac Asimov's Foundation series? The fact the I have means either: (1) I am a total geek, or (2) I am a highly sophisticated feminist who enjoys reading "boy's" science fiction and giggling a lot. must be both. ha ha.

Anyhoo, this book reads just like the first Foundation. Here's the summary from Amazon:

For twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Sheldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future--to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save mankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire--both scientists and scholars--and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for a future generations. He calls his sanctuary the Foundation.

[Using a new theory called psychohistory], Seldon can scientifically predict the future, and it doesn't look pretty: a new Dark Age is scheduled to send humanity into barbarism in 500 years. He concocts a scheme to save the knowledge of the race in an Encyclopedia Galactica.

You can't really tell from this description, but psychohistory is this new form of super-math that allows a handful of elite (and there's generally only one or two each generation) to be able to understand its logic and harness the "power." Basically, you can create algorythms for certain givens you know about patterns of human behavior, cultural schemas, technological development...etc. (published in 1951). You can poke fun at it in this blog, but I'd caution you not to do so in a sci-fi blog. People are fanatical about this book and will tear you to electronic pieces. Waldrop certainly draws on this standard narrative to give shape to the development of Complexity theory at the Sante Fe institute.

Although I was certainly giggling in places, I enjoyed it. Even though it obviously glamorizes yet another Great Man history, it was a nice break during a busy week. Sorta a case study of interdisciplinary collaboration--including issues of personality and ego.


This book was an interesting read--a kind of case study of the complexity that formed the complexity theory. That I enjoyed. My question is, where does this all fit?

With the heavy emphasis on computation, it would seem that the participants in the Sante Fe institute built upon cognitivism in approaching cognition. However, their work was in reaction against reductionism, and the heavy emphasis on symbolic representations and cultural universals (Shore) found in cognitivism would be contraditory to their approach. The emphasis on complexity--that systems self-organize--could be seen as enactive (Varela), but there isn't a lot of discussion placed on the dual emergence of environment, plus all of this happened in the 1980s before enactive approaches really took off. Does that mean we lump the approach into connectionism?

This class is an example to me of self-organizing systems. We have been bombarded with a ton of new ideas and concepts, and together, through the use of the blog and class discussions, we have created order and meaning to the mess. In fact, the past readings have been so tightly ordered in my mind that I have assumed they logically led in succession and no other order would make sense. That's partly why I don't know where to stick complexity.

Last thought. Wouldn't it be cool to be so smart that someone would invite you to a Sante Fe Institute to sit around and shoot the breeze?

The emergence of complexity

I have scattered thoughts:

This book was more like reading a novel…I found it charming.

To explain by example or more specifically to demonstrate complexity through the emergent lives of those who conceived/discovered/identified (?) it is brilliant!

The problem with teaching by example or in this case implicitly describing in contrast to making explicit declarations is that the naïve one may not pick up on the concepts or get those subtle connections. I confess that I loved the story but feel fuzzy on complexity!

In the part where Arthur is exploring patterns (pg. 36ish), he basically claims that patterns come from positive and negative feedback loops – doesn’t that sound extremely behaviorist? Is he really just talking about connectionist theory, though? How did this in the end relate to complexity? I lost that thread in the story, I think.

“..a weapons laboratory is a much better environment for this kind of broad, multidisciplinary research than the universities are.” – hmm, might have to sign-up with Uncle Sam (yes, I’m being sarcastic)

On pg. 143 Waldrop writes “we were trying to create a community that didn’t exist before” – what he really meant to say was a thought collective, right. This group of “characters” reminded me a bit of our class – the economics workshops for the physicists to develop a common framework to work from is like our reading list which has brought a multi-disciplinary group into a shared thought collective. Although our interpretations and applications might vary, we have a shared background with language (i.e. I can use the word thought collective and everyone mentally references Fleck’s ideas).

complexity and liberalism

Okay, so I've been mulling over these ideas of complexity in terms of my own interests - open source computer programming. Open source is essentially computer programming that relies on community collaboration rather than corporate structure. It's been described (by its champions) as "sprawling" but "elegant." Basically, the rhetoric mirrors that of Waldrop's discussion.

Whereas I was not ready to buy that Hutchins and/or LPP were ignoring power structures, this talk of complexity sometimes makes me uncomfortable. It's not that I think these models ignore power structures, but they can be really utopian. Rather than looking closely at "contradiction" (as an activity theorist or Marxist might do), some of these theories of complexity tend to smooth over contradictions. Whether they intend to or not, these theories evoke the "agents" as being on equal ground.

This gets me to the title of my post: Are theories of complexity dependent upon/an outgrowth of ideas of a liberal/Enlightenment subject? This is blasphemy for sure, considering that this whole course has been about troubling the notion that a self-contained subject is even possible. However, I'm starting to think that if I use theories of complexity in my own work (i think it's inevitable), I'm going to have to answer critiques like this - some of which will be coming from me. I'll be fighting with my-self. Okay, I just made a self joke - I'm going to stop typing now.

complexity cop out

[Crankily] This isn’t a v. productive post, especially since I have a few chapters to go, but: did anyone else get hung up on the way the story was told? I guess the point is that the structure mirrors the emergence of the complex systems that are both (a) the individual scientists and (b) the Sante Fe institute itself, but the rambling, “human interest” profiles of these scientific whiz-kids got on my nerves. Maybe I was just bothered by the reality of the extent to which the institute was such a boys’ club, at least at its origins (e.g., “While his wife, Rook, set out cheese and tea for the exhausted travelers,” McCullough and Kauffman talked shop).

To those in the know (i.e., Annie): I was wondering, where is complexity theory now, 15 years since the book was researched? [Clearly a question that can be answered in a few lines.]

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Complex Rhetoric

As I was reading the section of the book where Arthur and Kauffman are discussing bootstrapping and self-replicating systems (‘round page 126 or so), I began to wonder what the implications of these systems were for the study of rhetoric. Kauffman’s genetic networks and the book’s discussion of emergent properties had put me in mind of the connectionist diagrams Hutchins had in chapter 7 (?) and their implication that too much information was a bad thing—it tended to bias all the agents to a particular outcome. This interpretation seemed to dovetail nicely with Arthur’s ideas about the ways in which technology gets a foothold and tends to root out other technologies: VHS tape killed Beta, cars relegated horses to the care of enthusiasts, gasoline engines beat out steam-power. It seemed to me that similar sorts of phenomena occur in persuasive situations. Consider the Al Qaeda link to Iraq. Near as I can tell, this particular link was always a little fuzzy, but it was insinuated so often that it was accepted as true by a majority of Americans long after it had been shown to be ill-founded. Why—when the information that would counter that claim was so widely available between TV news and the Internet—why did it persist? Perhaps Arthur’s theory of “early adoption” or “self replication” indicates how it was initially privileged so that it was almost impossible to eradicate quickly.

Does this seem like a plausible reading of that event? Can you guys think of similar sorts of events that would support or contradict a self-replicating kind of rhetoric?

unified theory and math anxiety

One thing that’s been interesting to me here is the idea that complexity theory is the kind of thing Einstein (and plenty of physicist since) called a “Grand Unified Theory.” (Just like that, with capital letters and all and sometimes abbreviated GUT.) It’s what Einstein was hoping to figure out after the whole general relativity thing but never did. Last I checked some people in physics think string theory is a successful GUT. Have people heard of this? Basically, for physicists, a GUT would explain in what specific way all forms of energy (electromagnetic waves, gravity, and the forces that hold atoms together) are variations of the same thing. Reading about GUTs in high school was what prompted me to major in physics. But what always bothered me was that even though people referred to this as a “theory of everything,” it didn’t seem to explain anything in my life. I basically kept trying to figure out how this theory would explain how and why my thinking worked…. But I guess really it would never do this: it’s really only a “theory of every elementary particle,” and there are lots of “things” that are clearly not elementary particles.* That’s why complex systems theory is so much cooler: it connects very personal phenomena (how I remember things) with very big (economic development) or otherwise impersonal (particle physics) phenomena….

(*= Or not. This is basically what Arthur told the physicists: “Our particles in economics are smart, whereas yours in physics are dumb…” (141). But doesn’t the distributed cognition/computation approach tell us just the opposite? Isn’t the point there to model tools, technologies, and even individual people as simply as possible?)

Also: The point that I saw Hutchins making comes up again here: the point that it’s not so clear that math is the essence of all things; that math doesn’t actually explain what’s “really” going on behind the things that we observe, but it is just a tool to help us think about what we observe (21). (For Hutchins it was sort of a representational medium, maybe).

But this is not the only statement made about math in the book (maybe different people take different positions). At times, using math is associated with a lack of interest in the real world and irresponsibility; it's "abstraction" and “unreal” and therefore bad. Abstraction is inhuman, as far as most of these guys* are concerned. The physicists, for example, are appalled by how much math the economists rely on. Notice that this is different from saying math is just a tool.

(*Alright, I haven’t gotten through the whole thing yet, but do any feminist literary critics in the room have anything to say about the women in the book?)

I get uncomfortable when people try to make abstraction and weird speculations the enemy. It seems especially strange for anyone in this book to take such a position when it’s clear that complex systems theory wouldn’t work without abstraction and looking at something other than what we “directly” observe in “reality”. Complex systems theory does not study “things” that are obviously things in the world. They go even further than quasi-things like the syphilis virus and look at very un-thing-like things like the possibility/existence of life. It’s all about a big group of problems have the same structure (87). The similar structure that underlies all these “things,” I would argue, is pretty much an abstraction….

In English studies, you might hear similar complaints about abstraction, but in reference to “theory” instead of “math.” What’s really funny is that the theory that “doesn’t help us do anything in the real world” in English studies is sometimes labeled “French theory.” In this book, on 162, you’ll find that any “inhuman purity and abstraction” is also the fault of the French.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

A Complex World..Questions Remain

Complexity was refreshing to read, as it was more of a narrative piece than the theoretical pieces we have read through most of this semester. I found myself relating the most to the Arthur character in the book considering how much Waldrop spent in the beginning discussing his trials and tribulations in finishing his degree and the dissertation. The one aspect that I did not enjoy in this text was Waldrop’s continual statement of “Them that has gets.” Did anyone understand this?

Throughout this book, I felt that Waldrop was demonstrating the complexity theory through the narrative of the difficulties each scholar had in their research endeavors. I felt that Waldrop demonstrated well how all the scholars were able to combine their research efforts into an explanation toward a science of complexity that could help connect phenomena across the fields of physics, economics, biology and computer science.
I thought this book reflected a current day example of Fleck’s thought collective in showing how the scholars did not come together immediately in agreement but in a timely process through several workshops, “Looking back on it, in fact, the two sides began to find some common ground in a remarkably short amount of time.” (143)

On a separate note, one aspect in this book that changed my concept of what science is based on Farmer’s perspective on page 318, “But at heart, he says, science is about the telling of stories – stories that explain what the world is like, and how the world came to be as it is….the stories that science tells helps us understand something about who we are as human beings, and how we relate to the universe.” As a former journalist, I found this to be an aspect I could relate to and understand as journalists by nature see themselves as storytellers. This statement made me think about how we as social scientists may be storytellers and have the chance to tell our own stories based on the areas of research we want to pursue. But, the one aspect I felt Farmer was missing was how much the storyteller relies on others to help grow and expand the story. Without the workshops and the Institute, the scholars could not have arrived at the collaborative thought of complexity without each of them contributing their research to the bigger picture. In this sense, I think the storyteller resides in each of us but the research (or story) is only as good as the participation and collaboration we have with others in our thought collective to make the phenomena come to life and to be explored from different lenses. Did anyone else find this connection?

The one question I did have in this book was on page 291 when Farmer was describing learning by Holland’s classifier system in which he explained exploitation and exploration learning. Exploitation learning is improving what you already have and exploration is taking the risk of screwing up big in return for the chance of winning big. (291) Is the aspect of exploration learning connected to the edge of chaos concept? Does either approach fit into the science of complexity? How so? I am a little stuck on this point…..

A few simple rules...

I have really enjoyed reading "Complexity." Having had a brief introduction to complexity theory before, I was grateful for an easier read and appreciated Waldrop's personalized stories of foundational researchers. I'm not sure I understand complexity theory any better than I did before, but I do feel more grounded in its evolution and key players.

If I understand it correctly, a key assumption about the edge of chaos is that a few simple rules allow greater creativity and dynamical evolution than does a robust structure, and slight changes in initial conditions can have enormous systemic effects. While the mathematics behind this assumption are beyond me, I noticed a pattern among the biographical stories that brought it to life for me. In Langton's story in particular, it's clear that a few simple "rules" like commitment to his own interests, drive to contribute to society, and very high risk tolerance facilitated the development of an intellect and a career that, from the outside, appeared to be chaotic and directionless.

Langton isn't the only character in the book whose career trajectory followed an unpredictable path. The Santa Fe Institute became a sort of attractor that drew together these social and academic outliers into a cohesive, collaborative and highly productive system. It's encouraging to trust that following one's own instincts can lead to such fulfilling results, even if the process is painful at times. As we progress on the roads of academia, I think it would serve us well to remember the power of adhering to a few simple (personally chosen?) rules.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Institute still lives

Hey Everyone:
My curiosity got me and I wondered if the Santa Fe Institute still exists and it does...check out the website when you have a moment. Very interesting!


Friday, November 18, 2005

Tufte Course

I thought some of you might be interested in this course. Tufte developed the small multiples that Dr. Syverson uses for grading. He'll be in Austin Feb. 2, 3, 2006. The cost for the course is only $160 for full-time students, and you get his three books for free.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Interesting article in the Economist

Hey Everyone:
There was an interesting article in the Economist this week regarding an experiment done by a cognitive scientist at Yale on how people can communicate by creating a new language virtually through use of symbols and markers. I wonder how Hutchins would view this experiment as it seems to me to go completely against his perspective on communication. It's an interesting article - check it out if you have time:

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

a Fleckian case study writ large

The last chapters of Hutchins seemed to function not only as a synthesis of the book, but as a summation of a lot of the earlier work we’d read in the class. I.e., not only did the case study of ship’s navigation illuminate his own ideas, but it also strengthened/supported a lot of the earlier readings—e.g., how organizational systems both produce and reproduce themselves, while accounting for error inherent in learning (Lave and Wegner), a powerful definiton of culture as inherently cognitive and v. versa (Shore), a framework for understanding why the Clark book (though pub’d after Hutchins?), by starting w/ the individual brain as the unit of analysis, didn’t completely put the pieces together (brain and world), etc. Also the most satisfying/convincing blow to date to the cognitivist model: “the physical-symbol-system architecture is not a model of individual cognition. It is a model of the operation of a sociocultural system from which the human actor has been removed.”

Less obviously, when Hutchins discusses adaptation v. design in the evolution of systems, and argues for the utility of a “natural history of cognitive science,” I was also reminded of the Varela chapter on the link between cognitive science and evolutionary theory (Ch. 9). The authors argued there that both representationism in cognitive science and adaptationism in evolution insist on optimizing constraints v. satisficing them (i.e., the difference between “the idea that what is not allowed is forbidden” and “the idea that what is not forbidden is allowed”). Is Hutchins arguing for something similar in social or organizational evolution, or is it wrong to make this link because in cultural systems design comes into play as well? I guess this is all to ask: what did those of you who are interested in studying social/workplace organizations make of Hutchins’s characterization of adaptation at the system level (349-351)?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Do we ever need 'outside designers'?

The 'Organizational Learning' chapter makes some really interesting points about how 'outside designers' tend to not really understand the 'culture' (am I even allowed to use that word anymore?) of the systems they purport to 'make better.' This is because true design tends to come ad hoc and never really attempts to speak about the system in its totality.

This makes a bunch of sense, especially if you've ever worked for a boss who comes busting in on the middle of a project to 'make it run more smoothly' and ends up making everyone's life a living hell.

This also reminded me of the idea we talked about last week - that modularity is necessary if we want the system to function efficiently. Maybe consultants/bosses live in a dream world and assume that they can understand the total system and all of its intricacies. Maybe the best bosses (designers) are smart enough to know what they don't know. Maybe the best TEACHERS are smart enough to know AND ACKNOWLEDGE what they don't know.

Down with designers.

what Engestrom thinks

Hi everyone, I was looking around for some responses to Lave & Wenger's model of situated learning for my paper. I read an article by Yrjo Engestrom (the activity theory guy as most probably know), called "Expansive Learning at Work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization" (2001). In it, he lumps together LPP (that's how I've seen people referring to Legitimate Peripheral Participation) with Hutchins' work, as both rely on well-bound systems:

"Recent theories of situated learning (L&W, 1993 and W, 1998) and distributed cognition (Hutchins, 1995) tell us to look for well-bound communities of practice or functional systems, such as task-oriented teams or work units, to become collaborative subjects of learning...But in the multi-organizational field of children's medical health care in Helsinki, there is no well-bounded work unit that could conceivably be the center of coordination...the center does not our case, learning needs to occur in a changing mosaic of interconnected activity systems which are energized by their own inner contradictions" (140).

And elsewhere:

"For situated learning theory, motivation to learn stems from participation in culturally valued collaborative practices in which something useful is produced. This seems a satisfactory starting point when we look at novices gradually gaining competence in relatively stable practices. However, motivation for risky expansive learning processes associated with major transformations in activity systems is not well explained by mere participation and gradual acquisition of mastery" (142).

Seems interesting. He doesn’t say that Hutchins and LPP are not useful, rather, that activity theory is a better method/framework for more complicated systems. But, the language of “mere” participation...hmmm.

(Whenever I see the term LPP, I get that terrible song in my head..."you down with LPP? Yeah you know me." that's just terrible. i'll bet it's in your head now too. ha ha. too bad for you.)

Applied Hutchins: An Educational Example?

Hi again, campers. It's time again for another deep and provocative post, so you should probably stop reading this one and find Jim's or Eileen's....

That said, I'm going to take a stab at applying Hutchins' four main principles of computational organization to an educational change initiative. Don't get me wrong--navigation is great and all, but I can't hand out hoeys to everyone in an institution and expect them to implicitly use it as a mediating artifact. I am working for a national initiative that is pushing community colleges to close performance gaps between different student populations (specifically minority and low-income) and improve the performance of all students. The first step in this process is taking a hard look at the current outcomes of the college as opposed to what the college believes it is accomplishing.

Principle 1: Computational Structure Driven by Data Availability

After a college collects data on student performance (retention, course completion, graduation), disaggregated by student characteristics, it calls a meeting for all faculty and administration (or at least representation of all departments and disciplines). The assembled group is told the goal of the initiative and then is shown the data as a starting point in deciding how to accomplish this goal. Of course, percieved issues and possible strategies will be based on the available data and will frame the context of future action. There's a lot of data, though, and groups don't know what to do with it. They look at it, stare at a fancy chart, add up numbers, and ask, "what does this all mean?"

Principle 2: The Use of a Normative Description to Organize Computation

To get their heads around the data, the facilitator provides a simple approach to the data. First, look for where the biggest gaps are in performance (math or English? graduation rates or retention from fall to spring semester?). Second, look at which groups of student perform the worst (males? African Americans? Students between the ages of 28-45?). With this simple structure, the facilitator breaks the assembly into smaller groups and has them begin to frame the data. The normative structure provides a tool to connect meaning to the percentages and numbers originally displayed.

Principle 3: The Computational Advantages of Modularizing the Additional Task

Using the approach provided by the facilitator, each group comes up with at least one key area of consideration, all structured in the same format. The points are then presented to the entire group. With a similar structure, patterns emerge in the small group findings. These similarities are then constructed into a larger framework. For example, most colleges find that the lowest student performance occurs in math courses and in fall to spring retention rates. The institution might decide that their main thrust will be to address retention rates in math courses. Applying the previous approach, all of the group input is now framed within this larger goal, and the large group discusses in more detail the largest gaps and those students performing the worst.

Principle 4: The Fit Between Computational and Social Organization

Now that there is a given framework (How do we increase student retention in math courses?), the large group is again broken down into smaller units. These units might represent a specific subsystem, such as all of the math teachers or all of the developmental faculty, or they might be collections of representatives from different departments with a thematic goal (a focus on curriculum, or a group looking at student services). Each unit begins to define their role in achieving the goal, or how they fit into the greater social organization of the initiative.

That was my attempt. Sorry it was so long, but I must say that I did warn you and point you towards other, more conceptually concise posts. Speaking of navigation, did I totally miss the boat, or is my educational hoey okay?

Hutchins on Learning

For some reason, I’ve spent some time thinking about Hutchins’s definition of learning, that it is “adaptive reorganization in a complex system.” I think what really got me was his explanation of how it works; he states that this definition “works well for learning situated in the socio-material world, and it works equally well for private discoveries made in moments of reflective thought” (289). It is interesting that he should make that statement because it brings together the reading we’ve been doing up until now. Whereas we began working with the learning that occurs in “the socio-material world” we’ve moved on to discussing how learning occurs in the “mind” (whatever that is). And now, with Hutchins, we are back to group learning, and he suggests that his theory can account for both.

Coincidentally, while I am writing this a work crew is in my apartment replacing my smoke detectors. As I type, two men are boring holes in my asbestos-filled ceiling. The first man is short, so he is using small step ladder. He is also doing most of the work: measuring, cutting the holes, hanging the smoke detector. (I’m told the new detector is better than my previous model, and that it will not go off every time I cook frozen pizzas or make coffee. This will a huge time saver for me, since I won’t have to spend a few minutes wildly fanning the smoke detector with my phonebook every time I eat. Perhaps my shoulders won’t be as strong, but I will be more serene.) The second man is taller and can easily reach the short ceiling of my hallway. He helps the first man by giving instructions, but does little of the actual “work.” Here is a portion of their conversation I overheard while the first man was measuring and then preparing the area where my new smoke detector will go:

2nd man: “You can’t cut your hole too deep because the screw has to go in there.”

[The 1st man apparently incorrectly measured the spots where he was going to cut.]

2nd man: “Take a look at this.”

1st man: “Oh.”

2nd man: “Right, you see how you aren’t lined up there.”

2nd man: “Did you use a marker or a pencil?”

1st man: “Marker.”

2nd man: “Next time you need to use a pencil.”

Listening to them, I began to be annoyed by the 2nd man’s constant interruptions of the 1st man’s work. However, it soon became apparent that the 2nd man was training the 1st, and that as I observed the process, it was fascinating to see how quickly the 1st man caught on. The constant interruptions were made to prevent the 1st man from making mistakes that would have lasting consequences. Suppose he mis-measured his holes and cut one that was too wide. The hole would have to be re-cut, and there would be an extra hole in the ceiling. That would mean that every time I had to fan the smoke detector with my phonebook, I would be freeing tiny bits of asbestos to float around my apartment, where they could eventually work their way into my lungs. Though this would be a spectacular bonanza for my lawyers, it would be bad for me and my health. The 2nd man was aware of both of these factors and was working to make sure that the holes were cut correctly. In retrospect, his instructions, though perhaps annoying in another situation, were appropriate for the job at hand. The 1st man learned quickly and for the last 30 minutes that they worked, the two said very little to each other. It would seem in their case that both “socio-cultural” and individual learning had occurred. The 1st man reorganized his activities by following the instructions of the 2nd man until he eventually “knew” how to do the job without constant feedback.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Cultural Process of Cognition

The last three chapters of Hutchins’ book helped me to better understand the cultural aspect to cognition more so than the text by Shore earlier this semester. Did anyone else have this connection? Just curious..

As Hutchins mentions in Chapter 9 in regards to cognitive science and culture, “culture was relegated to a peripheral role” in much of the early literature and I felt this was considered more the case in the Shore text as he had more of anthropological approach to how our minds work than Hutchins who makes a strong effort to make culture a primary role to the cognitive process.

In Chapter 9, Hutchins also states, “Culture is a process, and the “things” that appear on list-like definitions of culture are residua of the process. Culture is an adaptive process that accumulates partial solutions to frequently encountered problems.” From what I was able to garner from these last three chapters, culture supports the embodied approach to cognition and the aspect that the cognitive process emerges at the same time as those aspects that occur in the inside/outside boundaries. It seems that our inside/outside boundaries are ever-changing and adapting as the situation changes around us and inside our minds.

I thought Hutchins made an effective argument on how narrow the view of cognition has been on page 370, “Most of what we know about cognition was learned in laboratory experiments…But little is known about the relationships of cognition in the captivity of the laboratory to cognition in other kinds of culturally constituted settings.” It is true that the laboratory does serve a rigorous research purpose in isolating variables and controlling conditions to show trends or patterns but as Hutchins mentions it eliminates the aspects that occur in naturally in reality. The culture of any situation cannot be replicated in the lab.

I think the epilogue of John’s Brain from Clark’s Being There might have been a nice addition to the Hutchins book by taking an example of one member of the naval crew and how their mind may have experienced the situation of the ship losing power and how the cultural process was included in that situation from the brain’s perspective. It might have been a fun exercise at the end of this text.

As technology becomes faster, smaller and more compact, I am wondering why more scientists have not bothered to explore the aspect of looking at cognition in the wild as Hutchins did in his book and recording it as they may in an actual lab? Have there been additional works done since the publication of Hutchins’ text? Does anyone know? As Hutchins relied on a few technologies for capturing his data such as a notepad for capturing his notes and some recording equipment, why don’t more social scientists follow in his path in taking the experiments or the research into the field versus keeping them hidden in a lab?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Basic Info page

There is some information that might be useful for grad students on my basic info page, including "What is a Prospectus?" and "Diagnostics for Dissertations and Chapters:"

Hutchins Lab

Here's the URL for Ed's DCog Lab:

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

just for fun?

I have this mental picture of Hutchins. It's a kind of Richard Burton circa Taming of the Shrew, with wilder hair but not so boozy.

I know, not scholarly. But I'm curious. How do you see him?

Hutchins, ultimate theories, and homemade bread

Sorry this is late...

I haven't fully read the next chapters yet for various reasons (like I don't have the book!), but I have already "bought" the whole theory lock, stock and barrel. I want to chime in with Jim, who (unfortunately) beat me to the question: how do we critique Hutchins? The mail from Hutchins that Peg read out last week was exhilarating but also kinda troubling: this is the theory to end all theory, the ultimate scaffolding. The totalitarian reach of it all could make things so clear, but at the same time, dangerous. To look at ways that we can at least walk around the theory and see possible points of critique or ways to adapt/modify it, I think would be extremely valuable. I'm going to check out some reviews to see what the great intellectual unwashed have to say about it...

In the meantime, I have an idea: let's rent a boat and sail to Ireland. That way we can test all the navigation stuff and I don't have to buy a ticket home for Christmas. You can all stay at my place and taste my mother's great homemade bread. And we could theorize, drink and be merry. In the process we will come up with a theory to trump Hutchins, become famous and live happily ever after as distributed tax exiles. Then End.

Any takers?

Clark vs Hutchins: A Truly Deep Thought (Kind of)

Okay, this week's reading really picked up speed. I really enjoy the insights Hutchins provides, and I admire the amount of detail he gathers, but at times it makes the book a bit tedious. I guess if I had lots of time to mull over the intricacies of navigation, it wouldn't bother me so much. Instead, I catch myself thinking, "Okay, I believe you--so tell my why it matters...."

I liked how Hutchins addressed an idea of Clark's that had been confusing to me. Clark had insinuated that artifacts themselves had knowledge and could modify themselves to be used by people--for example, that language was easy to learn because of the features of language and not the capabilities of humans. To this, Hutchins says, “Clearly, a good deal of the expertise in the system is in the artifacts (both external implements and the internal strategies)—not in the sense that the artifacts are themselves intelligent or expert agents, or because the act of getting into coordination with the artifacts constitutes an expert performance by the person; rather, the system of person-in-interaction-with-technology exhibits expertise” (p. 155). Even though the focus of the book is distributed cognition, Hutchins places cognition in the control of the person, and the external artifacts are significant within the framework of interaction. I think this explanation is easier for me to accept because it more closely aligns with the notion in cognitivism of the mind being the center of cognition. Sad to say, it's hard to let that one completely go. However, if you find this to be a lousy post, I must tell you it's not my fault but the failings of the text and and technology in developing expertise....

By the way, I was doing some research for my paper for this class, and I stumbled upon an article entitled, "Language: The Ultimate Artifact?" I wanted to attach it to my post, but I couldn't find a way to do that in the blog. If anyone's interested in looking at it, you can email me at and I can send you an electronic copy.


Hutchins and the case of Kitty Genovese

My feelings of being thrown overboard by all the navigation terminology and specifics of bearing taking and turn taking were soothed after I had read chapter five. This chapter was so exciting! Hutchins’s description of communities of networks and the influences of communication on these networks seems quite applicable to real communities.

When reading about the example in which no communication between the individual networks takes place and the individuals move toward the interpretation closest to their starting point, I was once again reminded of the phenomenon which social psychologists call by-stander effect or distribution of responsibility. Let us take the sad case of Kitty Genovese which has been intensively studied from a social psychologist point of view. In the 1950s or 1960s (I forgot) this woman was attacked three times outside her New York City apartment complex and died from her injuries. It was reconstructed that more than forty people witnessed the attack from their windows and heard the woman calling for help at some time during the attacks, but only when it was too late one of them decided to intervene and call the police. Since it was late at night, none of the more than forty witnesses communicated with each other from the time of the first attack until the police finally arrived and Kitty Genovese was dead. Could this event be described in terms of Hutchins’ simulations of communities of networks?
I would assume that each witness had the same schema for what was happening to Kitty Genovese. A man attacking a woman with a knife in the middle of the night and the woman calling for help certainly provokes the activation of a shared schema. Also, the forty witnesses had equal access to evidence since the windows from which they were watching were facing the scene of the crime. The predispositions of the individuals might have been different. Some were certainly considering calling the police, others might have been thinking of the dangers of going down to help the woman and some knew the woman better than others. Personal beliefs, emotional responses, personality traits and so on could be regarded as part of the individual predispositions. Let us further assume only two possible interpretations – one being that it is necessary to help the woman and either call the police or go downstairs and help her, and the other one being that it is not necessary or not one’s responsibility to help her. Depending on the individual predispositions, at the time when they first became aware of the crime, the witnesses started off closer to one or the other interpretation. Apparently most of the individuals reached the second interpretation. Could the situation have been different had the witnesses communicated with each other? From reading Hutchins I assume so since he states that the effects of group-level cognitive processes are different from the results of individual cognitive processes.

This is just one example of how Hutchins’ ideas might be applied to social psychology. As far as I know the field is far from these ideas, but it seems to me that they are of great value for studying social processes.

my cognitive bias revealed

The elegance and striking clarity of the ideas in these chapters (in this sense, reading Hutchins has been similar to my experience with Fleck) just wanted to make me stand back and marvel at them (well, maybe laziness played a factor as well). Particularly deft was the link between the parallel paths of information flow (computational dependencies) and career advancement (social interactions), as a way of accommodating the novice’s learning and allowing for error and error-correction within the system.

I guess marveling is not enough, though, so: I want to return to (i.e., repeat w/ nagging insistence) my post from last week, because, in an otherwise blindingly lucid book, there is one aspect on which I’m still confused: what cognition inside the individual means for Hutchins (although the set-up seems to suggest that this is one of the threads he has been teasing us with, and that there will be a payoff in the final chapters). Last week, I pointed to the following quote:

“…I want to preserve a concept of cognition as computation, and I want the sort of computation that cognition is to be as applicable to events that involve the interaction of humans with artifacts and with other humans as it is to events that are entirely internal to individual persons” (118).

He notes elsewhere, however, that the computational metaphor is more solidly applied to a distributed cognitive system than to an individual mind (185). So, in what way *is computation (propagation of representational states across media) applicable to internal events?

Also: after reading Varela and Clark, can we separate out individual cognition, unmediated by culture and artifacts? Is the interest in individual cognition, then, in the sense of how representational states get propagated *across the bounds of skin (what he refers to as “internalization”)?

Finally: what do “events” refer to—a particular cognitive task that is taken as a unit of analysis? *Are there cognitive tasks “entirely internal to individual persons”? I think the readings have blurred what used to be an unquestioned distinction between exterior and interior to the point that “internal” is no longer a term I can grasp!

Is he just setting up a distinction between individual cognitive tasks (e.g., identifying a landmark) and socially distributed cognitive tasks (e.g., the ship’s navigation)?

I have a feeling I’m making too much of this. Can someone set me straight?

Groups' cognition and performance reviews

When reading about the potential differences between the social and cognitive properties of groups and those of the individuals in the groups, I thought about the performance evaluation systems in mainstream organizations (see pp 178-179).

Whether he means to or not, I think Hutchins presents a good argument for distributing rewards and responsibility among all group/organization members. Supervisors have more formal power and risk, but when one element of a system depends on the others, how can anyone say that the supervisor was responsible for the system's success (or failure)? Many organizations reward supervisors or regional managers with bonuses while the rest of the members of the system plod along and hope for some crumbs.

Here's an example of the alternative: RW Lyall & Co., the company I wrote about in my book, now has one bonus and only one bonus, which is based on the company's annual profitability. Every employee shares in that bonus via a percentage of their annual salary--and everyone is informed about progress toward that bonus throughout the year.

This compensation system acknowledges the interdependence of each element in their organizational system. As a manufacturer of natural gas and propane piping systems, the company can better ensure its product quality, and thereby its customers' safety, by retaining and cross-training employees. The employee turnover at RW Lyall & Co. dropped from over 80% to less than 4% within the first year after they implemented this and other systemic changes.

Now, low turnover might not be a goal of the Navy's, but as an employee, I would rather have an understanding of how my role influences the whole system than be engaged in a " contract between the agents...such that a subordinate can halt only when his superior determines that the responsibilities of the subordinate have been met" (p. 203).

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A general question about Hutchins...

I like this book a lot - maybe too much. So that leads me to a big/general/ambitious question:

Where are the holes/problems/unresolved questions in this theory?

I'm not saying that there always have to be holes in a theory, and I'm tryin not to be in the "grad student" mode of: "What I didn't like about this book was..."

However, what I am wondering is how someone might argue with Hutchins? I imagine some cognitive scientists would say that he evades the basic question of their field - that question being "What's happening in people's heads?" I personally dig Hutchins response to this, which would go something like this: "We don't really know, so let's talk about stuff we do know about. Let's talk about ecologies, social interactions, and other stuff that's observable."

So, does anyone have any ideas about how we might engage with Hutchins? This doesn't have to be a debunking exercise. Maybe we can figure out places that his project can be extended? Maybe we can find things that need to be expanded?

Okay, you have your assignment. You may begin when the second hand hits the 12.

message in a bottle

Help me. I am stranded in chapter 3.

"The environments of human thinking are not 'natural' environments. They are artificial through and through. Humans create their cognitive powers by creating the environments in which they exercise those powers" (169). As Hutchins notes, when we create these environments, we necessarily transform certain complicated activities into more simplistic ones. This is how we bring a "constellation of structured representational media" into "coordination"--through "tools [that] permit us to transform difficult tasks into ones that can be done by pattern matching, by the manipulation of simple physical systems, or by mental simulations of simple physical systems. These tools are useful precisely because the cognitive processes required to manipulate them are not the computational processes accomplished by their manipulation" (170-1). Hutchins cites the slide rule as the best example for this phenomenon. In fact, acknowledging the intimate bond between the external tool and the internal "tool" is more important (it seems) than trying to isolate how either one functions; for, if we consider internal processes independent of the external artifacts, "then we have attributed to individual minds a process that they do not necessarily have, and we have failed to ask about the processes they actually must have in order to manipulate the artifacts" (173). Further, there is a "dark side" to this quality of cognition: "the device is more powerful if the user does not have to know how or why it works," and "deeper problem are either transformed by some representational artifice into shallow ones or not addressed at all" (174). And there chapter 3 ends.

Oy! Wait a minute!

I feel there needs to be some kind of line drawn...between a process that Langdon Winner (or is it Thomas Hughes) would call "trivialization" of interfaces and artifacts, and the inevitable off-loading that is part of cognition for Hutchins. There are serious questions about interface design, technologically induced hierarchies, the deskilling and dumbing down of workforces (think of McDonalds putting pictures of their menu on cash registers so their workers don't have to read). Isn't this process the very reason why UNIX people make fun of "Wintendo,” as we simply engage the GUI with no knowledge of what's going on behind, below, etc.?

Anthony's post similarly asks for more discussion of power in structures of cognition. I guess I would add especially in terms of how these cognitive environments are designed, for whom and by whom? And in whose interest? In one of my previous classes, we made fun of the "men smoking cigars in the boardroom keeping us down" paranoia that is sometimes characteristic of feminist and Marxist scholarship (I don't know why, but we called it the "Steve" theory.) But, actually, the cliffhanger at the end of chapter 3 seems the very place to start looking for trails of cigar smoke...I wonder who in cog. Sci. took this up?

Living in Hutchins World? The Blog - The Naval Ship?

The next set of chapters from the Hutchins book had definitely more “meat” to them than the first three chapters as we mentioned here in this blog post last week. Although after our class last Thursday, I had a better understanding of the foundation by which Hutchins was creating in order to help us understand the rest of the book. I thought that chapters 4, 5, and 6 were closely aligned in demonstrating how much our activities and our cognitive tasks must overlap, integrate and coordinate with others whether it’s learning a new task or working together on an existing task as he showed with the naval ship and crew. I found this statement by Hutchins on page 225, was an eye opener for me, “It is clear when quartermasters report bearings, assign landmarks or ask for data, they are not just constructing position fixes; they are also constructing social relationships.” I thought this aspect ties very well with the figure Hutchins uses in Chapter 6 on page 266 to show the overlapping distributions of knowledge among the navigation team and how these form relationships with each other over time. I thought that figure D represents what we find in most real-life situations in how we are placed into groups and work together on a task at hand or in an effort to obtain some knowledge. But I had never thought before of how much overlap there was in distributed cognition until seeing this figure. I have always thought of it being more sequential and less connected. I also find that this figure ties in well to demonstrating how errors can occur as well across individuals in groups and on tasks as Hutchins mentions in Chapter 6.

In reviewing these three chapters, I was thinking again about our blog and how much we are participating in a form of socially distributed cognition. We all have our individual posts of what we garnered from the text but at some point before class, we all read each others’ posts and make some interpretations and learn something for each post but also in the composite form of all the posts together for the week. Second, we all have different backgrounds and knowledge that allows us to be positioned in that figure D on page 266 to show how we each come together once a week to understand and conclude what we garnered from the text and topic that week that builds on each other. We all have something to contribute but none of us could contribute to the learning process alone or make the blog what it is without the contribution of the overall information from the group. Lastly, our blog allows us to make errors and allows for us to correct and debate each other throughout the week and in class as part of the learning process. (Some are more heated discussions than others I think…:) ) From an artifact standpoint, I think we have a variety of resources from our own experiences while reading the chapters, the text itself to the virtual entity of this blog that contribute to the process. So, is it possible that our blog is the naval ship and that we are the crew?

It would be interesting to have some individuals from outside of our class to observe our blog and give their take on what knowledge and information they have gained over the semester and how as a group they understand what we have developed in understanding the mind. Did anyone else see a connection between these readings and our blog? Or am I way out there?:0

Monday, November 07, 2005

unabstracting math

This is related to what some people posted for last week, I think....

An implication of Chapter 2 is that one fundamental mistake of Western thinking is the common assumption that mathematical structures (the coordinate plane, angular proportions, even numbers) are abstract entities. They aren’t (necessarily) abstract, but are, rather, representational tools that have often been mistaken for basic computational descriptions/structures.... Hutchins posits a universal computational structure/theory/description behind navigation that precedes/is more basic than the representation of the problem in mathematical (algebraic and analytic-geometric) structures. His “computational account” (50) gives a mathematical math (as compared to a mathematcal physics or mathematical biology), or is a mathematics of math under the domain of navigation.

This may not be interesting to people who didn't waste 7/8 of their higher education studying math and struggling with its supposed abstractness. Or it might be. I've come to accept that, (oh how I hate this phrase:) "in this day and age," people don't necessarily see math as having some access to some fundamental and absolute truth. (Do they?) But I do think people still take math to be about something very basic and abstract, that almost any phenomena can be modeled in terms of. But Hutchins is not disproving this, claiming that some phenomena that we might like to think of as "ideally mathematical" cannot be represented in such terms. But he is saying that math is less a "step back" (an abstraction) from phenomena than a step aside (to different terms). This suggests trouble for the idea of math as something basic/fundamental/boring...

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Gibbous Waning

I was especially intrigued by two points Hutchins makes in this chapter. They are not exactly connected to each other, so that may make this post seem a little scattered.

First, on page 221 he points out how external objects act as a “memory” for their users, in this case referring to a blank cell in a log book maintained on the ship. Though Hutchins doesn’t mention this point, I was reminded of our discussion earlier in the semester about how technology like databases obscures information that is left out of their architecture. Similarly, as in the case Hutchins mentions, technology like the cell in the logbook makes certain information incredibly important (or conspicuous in its absence). In the book’s example, the blank in the log book reminded the log recorder that the plotter had missed a fix and needed to complete it. As Hutchins points out, this is not the job of the recorder, but the blank in his book allowed him to assist the plotter in this way.

Though this example is non-trivial—if enough fixes were missed, the boat could run aground—it made me think of ways in which similar processes work on more trivial cases. Currently, I’m writing—à la Fleck—on the ways in which thought communities restrict the type of information available to literary theorists and how this restriction plays a role in determining the theories that theorist will produce. It seems that the ideas of other writers important to the theorist would work just like the log book, creating “blanks” in a thought style that, because of their presence, demand to be filled.

Secondly, I was fascinated by the comment of Roy D’Andrade which states that employees at an auto manufacturer might in reality be engaged in making social relationships with the production of cars being merely a side-effect of this process (225). This is a fascinating inversion of the intentions of the actor in this situation, implying that the best way to make cars is to try to make social relationships. (This point could be related to one made in class that the best way to play a piece of music is to not think about playing it.) To relate this idea back to my paper, it seems—at least in the case of the text I’m looking at, T. S. Eliot’s The Sacred Wood—that the theory did not come about as the result of an attempt to make theory, but as a byproduct of the activity of critiquing the theories of others.

In both these cases, it seems to me that these theories can add to our understanding of the writing process, by making us more aware of the situated nature of the writer in a social/historical context. (I guess the ideas are related after all; I pointed at two disconnected parts of Hutchins’s book, and the lines intersected at me and my paper.)

hierarchies in distributed cognitive

I'm a bit behind in the reading here, so pardon me if what I'm talking about gets somewhat resolved or at least addressed later on in the book. Pardon me... but also tell me about these parts.

(This is related to jmj's post in some way, too.... See my comment there.)

One thing I can't ignore in the first chapter is how Hutchin's description brushes up against but doesn't delve very far into the power politics of the distributed cognitive system that is made up largely of officers and enlisted sailors. It comes up in his description of "Military Identities" (14-17), which begins by suggesting that all enlisted people defer to all officers without serious problems and ends with the rather cursory remark, "the dynamics of the relationships among people engaged in the task of navigation are in part constrained by these identities" (17). The picture is made a little more complicated in the description of cheif's in-between-ness, but his image still seems neater than I'd expect...
(I guess my expectations are largely determined by some body of very politically-motivated research I imagine I read at one point, reasearch that would have paid lots of attention to the class dynamics (because that's sort of what it is) between officers and enlisted people. I can't point to any examples of research like this because none may actually exist, and if any does, I might not have ever read it...)
I guess my point, though, is that looking at all social activity as cognition (I think this is what Hutchins said he did in his manifesto) might ignore or not adequately account for asymmetrical power relations. (It's probably not totally crazy for me to guess that there was another phase of social research that focused on this.) It doesn't seem problematic at all to talk about "hierarchies" in cognition when it's something that a brain or a computer does, but it sort of bothers me (being the adolescent/Marxist that I suppose I am) to take hierarchies in social groups for granted...
Maybe the way to not worry about this is to realize that when we talk about people acting as part of these cognitive/social systems, we are not talking about their whole lives or their whole selves, but only the (perhaps negligible?) part of them (?) that works in the system...? Or maybe I should just read more of the book.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Hutchins and stuff

Hey everybody, until about three months ago, I lived four inches north of page 37.

I am still making sense of the computation/representation/implementation framework. I am interested in thinking about how this framework could be applied to other technical and information processing environments. So, computation happens through a series of interconnecting constraints—systems of measurement and calculation that impose structure onto a phenomenon. Anyone hearing Fleck in this? And, I like how each system of navigation relies on its own system of “affordances,” and how the use of these affordances literally reorients one’s entire perception of the world. Hutchins is making me think that it’s best if affordances and schemas aren’t the same thing (as I was postulating in my previous blog). It’s not that we can’t conceive of them this way. The pieces still fit on a larger scale. But, I think to collapse these two concepts is to flatten the terminology. Affordances (such as landmarks for one group, and stars and conceptualized islands for another) create a way to perceive the world and understand relationships between objects in that world (to build schemas). I want to keep things just like that. Nobody mess that up, okay? I just folded that up all tidy. I don’t want it wrinkled.

One more thought: I would like to share my favorite moment in the text, which happens when Hutchins describes to the "conceptual blind spot”: From page 79:

"[the western representation] contains some very powerful assumptions about the relation of the problem solver to the space in which the problem is being solved. First, it requires a global representation of the locations of the various pieces of land relative to each other. In addition, it requires a point of view relative to that space which we might call the "bird's-eye" view. The problem solver does not (and cannot without an aircraft) actually assume this relation to the world in which the problem is soon as [a Western navigator] leans over his chart, he is no longer conceptually on the boat; he is over the sea surface, looking down on the position of his craft in a representation of the real local space."

Wow. Could we ask for a better example of the god-trick of science/technology and the "shift" described by standpoint epistemology? (discussed in another blog entry).

China and the Navy

I loved Sean's narrative so much I need to scrap my original post in favor of this one... The external/social systems in China that Sean experienced sound surprisingly flexible (going from old fashioned thermometers to scans in just a few weeks is amazing). But, what also is amazing is the way that Sean as a system adjusted to all the unexpected changes in course. Sean, have you thought about that? You served as your own navigation team--as if the entire navigation crew of the Palau was inside your self.

Hutchins' description of the embodied system that is the Navy is fascinating. And, I would be even more fascinated to know how he would qualify or describe the computations that occured in Sean's "mind" throughout his wild ride in China.

The Ethics of Computation

I actually cheated and read chapter nine of Cognition in the Wild a few weeks ago (or two weeks ago; it's all becoming a blur for me at this point). He makes an interesting comment in that chapter about what computation is, and I thought it would be valid to bring the point up because he alludes to it in the three chapters we were assigned for this week. (Speaking of which, though it is wonderfully written, it is terribly slow to read; Hutchins embeds his theory in the narrative of his sailing stories, which makes it almost impossible to skim the text to find the “important” parts.)

Hutchins makes a point of describing how computation is distributed across many devices (note the way he refers to navigation tools as analog or digital computers). He seems to use the model of computation to refer to processes that were called cognition in our other textbooks (I don’t think this is a problem, or that he is making a necessarily different argument than, say, Shore or Clark; I just thought it was interesting to note). By the final chapter he expands this idea to include groups of individuals operating as computing (cogitating?) “machines.” When computation tasks are being handled by actual human actors, the question of what types of computation tasks are legitimate to ask those actors to participate in arises. For example, Kenneth Burke uses the example of scientists working on weapons technology to complicate the idea that there is such a thing as “pure science” that can be divorced from real-world effects.

My thinking has reached a dead end here. Does anyone else think this is a legitimate issue to discuss in terms of cognition/computation?

off the charts

What an absolutely thrilling read! The first section of Hutchins reads like a novel…and has inspired me to write completely off-topic. Hutchins’ experience on the Palau forcefully brought home to me how when systems work, you don’t really notice them, but when something goes wrong, the scaffolding that holds the system together becomes so overwhelmingly apparent that it can be extremely disconcerting.

Two years ago I was wandering around Western China (as you do) when the SARS virus broke. Within two short weeks, this sprawling country was transformed. An invisible killer was at once everywhere and nowhere; the media was being secretive and contradictory about the extent of the epidemic; tourists – because we were extremely mobile and painstakingly obvious – were being hauled off buses, questioned by armed police, and subject to mandatory temperature checks. Every country in the world suddenly required people traveling from China to be quarantined for up to two weeks. Since hospitals were the environments where the disease was most commonly spread, this was not an attractive option.

I was stranded somewhere up on the Tibetan Plateau and had been refused entry into Tibet proper because an outbreak of SARS in such a poor region would be devastating. Since the concentration of casualties was principally in the East, and Tibet was closed to the West, I headed North, skirting the Taklamakan Desert and eventually hitting the Silk Road. Every few hours, I was hauled off buses to have my temperature checked by inefficient stick thermometers. It was freezing, and by the time the official could read the mercury bar on the thermometer, the reading suggested that I should be clinically dead. This usually prompted laughter from all concerned (mine tinged with a slightly nervous hysteria). Within days, everyone was wearing nasty surgical masks, and I was suspiciously eyed by all locals. Foreign equaled disease, and though I could not speak Mandarin, I gleaned that many media reports were blaming tourists for the spread.

Within weeks, this chaotic situation was transformed. Instead of being taken off buses, officials in gleaming white body suits, rubber boots and very complicated masks would come onto the train or bus and point guns at everyone’s forehead with state-of-the-art temperature-taking guns! Everyone was zapped, and those with a high reading were unceremoniously hauled off the bus. The media was awash with anti-SARS propoganda. People were encouraged not to spit (a national pastime); saccharine anti- SARS anthems blasted out from TVs and radios everywhere (think “We are the World” through a helium fog). Even the glorious Chinese fake rag trade cashed in on the delirium: walking down any metropolitan street you could spot fake Fendi, Gucci or Prada anti-SARS apparel. (In the face of an international epidemic, one simply must accessorize.)

By the time the spread had been brought under control, I was hiding out in a yurt somewhere close to the Pakistani border, freezing my ass off and surviving on nasty yak-butter tea. When I finally emerged, SARS protection mechanisms had been completely sublimated into the culture. Temperatures were screened as you walked in the door of a public transport building, the masks had disappeared, eerily empty trains were once again teeming with people. In the space of a few short weeks I had changed from a human being to a potential disease-carrier and back to a human being, and no one batted an eye. The whole experience was an incredible lesson in how environmentally tangled we all are, how systems adapt ferociously quickly to change or threat, how radically contingent are entire sense of reality really is. Reading Hutchins, I felt this urgent sense of how networks of communication, technology and human cognition really function – and I am sure that we all have experiences in our lives when who we think we are and how we relate to our environment is radically called into question. And maybe my ultimate point in this digressive narrative is this: while we may sometimes get lost in the theories under discussion, maybe our navigation charts lie not only between the covers of a book, but among the synapses and electrical pulses that connect our lived experience to the world.

Navy Navigation 101

Insightful...provocative...a delightful read. Cognition in the Wild is definitely approachable in its narrative approach. However, I'm waiting for the meat. Understandably, Hutchins needed the first couple of chapters to provide the context to understand how important context is in cognition. His presentation of the Navy world is very thorough, and I feel like I now actually know something about our country's armed forces, which is impressive in itself. However, with only a couple of chapters under my belt, I feel like that's all that I know, and that's no cognitive wonder.

Where Hutchins is building, though, gives me a feeling of potential. For example, his discussion of the importance of history in understanding "even the most commonplace" concepts of navigation smells a bit Fleck-ish, since "progress" is contextually defined. But that's as much as I've really gotten. Yep. That's as deep as my cognitive hole goes this week. I'm sure Hutchins will increase the depth of my understanding over the next two weeks, though, and I'm content to ponder Micronesian emergency islands as a sigh of relief that I'm not in the Navy pecking chain escapes my lips....


From navigation to education

I am really enjoying reading Cognition in the Wild, but so far I have only read chapters one and two which give descriptions of life and work onboard a navy ship and on navigation in Micronesia in rich detail. I have to admit though that in terms of the principles of navigation I was confused pretty soon. I have a really hard time understanding how you get a boat to go into a certain direction. I tried to sail a tiny boat once and it was a frightening experience for me and my colleague, and I gave up geo-studies a few semesters ago because I just could not get into my head how exactly the earth rotates and what effects that has and so on. As you can see, I am just trying to find an excuse for being thrown overboard by the principles of navigation. Therefore, I will now deviate far from navigation (hopefully not too far) and turn to educating children.

What really stuck to me after the first two chapters of Hutchins was: There is no one best representation! Although the Micronesian navigators base their navigation on different representations than the navy crew onboard the Palau and the researchers who worked with the Micronesian navigators, both representations work great for the persons who hold them and they build the basis for their computations. When I think back to my developmental psychology courses, so many times we dealt with childrens’ misconceptions and how to overcome these. Of course I would not want my child to grow up and keep believing that the earth is flat or for my child to hold two images of the earth, a round one in space and a flat one which we stand upon. But instead of confronting the child with his misconceptions directly and ruling out any discussions about it (and risking that he will hold on to it very tightly because it is a safe ground for him), sensitivity to the child’s concepts seems more appropriate. Why does a child hold a particular concept and how does not that help the child to make sense of the world and to act in it? This also has implications for schools. I remember my 11th grade math class. There were students who had been taught by different teachers for the previous years and these teachers had used different external representations for and different ways of solving certain math problems. Instead of acknowledging that students were using different representations, the math teacher tried to impose his way of externally representing the problems and eventually a number of students were left behind. So it seems to me that teachers should be more sensitive to students’ representations and acknowledge that these might work just as well as the teachers. In another class I have this semester, we talked about different types of teachers’ knowledge. The understanding of students’ representations would certainly fall under “pedagogical content knowledge”, understanding how a certain group of students learn in a particular subject, which instructional methods can help them best and where their difficulties lie.

Embodied Embedment

Once again, I can’t help but feel that the sequence of our readings adds itself a layer of cognitive dissonance and growth. Had I simply picked this book up at a book store, (which I would have because of the catchy title), I would have been put off by the navigation theme. However, it’s quite apparent to me that I’m coming at this book in a completely new light because of our past texts. These first three chapters felt like “legitimate peripheral participation” as we went aboard with Hutchins. The details overwhelmed me even though his writing is so readable. It is the feeling you get when you get a new job or basically enter into any new community of practice or thought collective. We get a sense of stepping into military vs. civilian life including hierarchy and the terms that go with it. This brief initiation made me wonder what a Strauss and Quinn centrifugal/centripetal perspective of military life would look like.

Moving on the heart of the matter, Cognition in the Wild, extends those ethnographic/anthropological views (Lave & Wenger; Chaiklin & Lave) to an in depth embodied embedment. What I mean to say is that by taking navigation as the unit of analysis to explore human cognition, the environment and tools are so relevant they cannot be ignored or dismissed. However, I must admit that I keep tripping over this word “computation” – does it not trigger for anyone else a schema of numbers and jargon from computer science being applied to human thought? I was somewhat relieved when Hutchins explicitly defines it as “the propagation of representational state across representational media” (p118). I had to pause here though and ponder…are computations not unlike Fleck’s “facts” – that which we redefined as social agreements? Could representations not be social agreed judgments stemming from judgment states and judgment media? Hmm? Perhaps this will all become clear later or maybe my thoughts are simply “lost at sea.” Can anyone navigate me back to shore?

computation isn't a bad word

First, I'd like to say that "Welcome Aboard" was just really fun to read.

Now, on to computation:

"The implemenational details [of computations] have been largely ignored in the past. This may be due in part to the notion that in informational-processing systems what is important is the structure of the computation, not the means of implementation...The material means in which the computation is actually performed are implementational detals for the system, but they set the task constraints on the performance of the naviagations staff" (51).

This is about when I decided I was going to really like this book. Computations are constrained by how they're implemented - the two are not separable. This is why Hutchins is so interested in tools, they offer a place to study where implementation and computation intersect. It also seems to be a good way to get around the "heavy lifting" that Peg talked about a couple of weeks ago. We don't have to talk in the abstract - we can just study the tools and how they're used.

I'll be interested to see how he talks about what's "computed by the system as a whole and what is computed by the individual navigation practitioners" (51). He says this will happen in later chapters.

Wild on Cognition!

In reading the first three chapters of Hutchins’ Cognition in the Wild, I found it to be a wonderful but confusing experience. ;-0 Hutchins is a great writer as his first chapter gives so much detail that I felt I was there on the military ship with the author. My father was in the Navy on an aircraft carrier during the Korean War, so I felt I was getting closer to him by understanding the terminology and social hierarchy that exists on the ship from Hutchins’ explanations of the Palau. However, at times, I did get lost in some of the descriptions Hutchins gave of the navigational tools and systems that he experienced on the ship. But, he does a great job in explaining the environment, the people involved and the resources at hand on this ship from an ethnographic standpoint.

By the second and third chapter, I was glad to see how Hutchins was tying in some of the navigational tools into theoretical concepts. His comparison of European and Micronesian navigation was thoroughly interesting and helped me realize how much we rely on tools to be our cognitive base or knowledge structure but that in some cases, the environment we create also contributes to how we formulate our knowledge and representation of concepts like navigation and direction. So, what we think is in our minds is really not.

In the third chapter, I thought this excerpt was great at explaining Hutchins’ view on cognition, “The environments of human thinking are not “natural” environments. They are artificial through and through. Humans create their cognitive powers by creating the environments in which they exercise those powers. At present, so few of us have taken the time to study these environments seriously as organizers of cognitive activity that we have little sense of their role in the construction of thought.” (169) This passage made me think about our previous readings in how much our constructions, understandings, assumptions, and representations of information and data in our minds are shaped outside of our mind in addition to within. I think Hutchins speaks of the same thought collective from most of our authors in the class but more so along the lines of Lave and Wenger, Varela, et al, and Clark.

I was wondering how much Hutchins view in these first few chapters ties into technology. Hutchins does view the navigational tools and systems on this ship as technologies, but I am viewing technology from a Web standpoint. Particularly, how much our blog in its entirety is setting a specific construction of thought and cognition over the semester and how much each of our posts and comments contributes to how that knowledge is built? But, also how much our individual experiences in uploading and posting our comments through the tool of the blogger system are impacted by the way in which we are giving information to each other and how we are interpreting it when we read it before we meet on Thursdays? Also, how others who may randomly surf the web may find our blog and read it as well as experience it? How does our joint contribution of our knowledge on the blog form the information or knowledge about cognition for ourselves but for those who may happen upon our blog in the web sphere?

A bonus post from EMcG?!

For classmates who were interested in some of the implications of THE EMBODIED MIND for literary criticism, I wanted to point you to the William Paulson book, THE NOISE OF CULTURE, which is on the recommended reading list for this course. I was giving Paulson the once-over as a potential source for a paper in another class, and came across the following:

“Biological science is becoming increasingly a science of information, a cybernetics of the living, a science of the codes, the order and disorder that interact to define autonomous living systems. The last concepts thought to be the special province of the humanists are, in their turn, becoming a part of the discourse of science, even as the humanists squabble over them in a debate uninformed by science and dominated by positions of traditionalism and nihilism.” (28)


“…if we remain intimidated concerning the prospects for extracting knowledge from a literary discourse that we all know how to deconstruct, we would do well to consider this remark by the theoretical biologist Francisco Varela: ‘Our knowledge, including science, can be accurately empirical and experimental, without requiring for it the claim of solidity or fixed reference.’ That is the closure of Western metaphysics, understood in its productive rather than its deconstructive dimension. If knowledge, and scientific knowledge, can do without fixed reference, then the rigorous and justifiable questioning of the referentiality of literature’s language need not lead us to view literary discourse as a formalism removed from the world….” (29)

Although I haven’t given him a thorough reading, I was intrigued to see a literary critic exploring some ideas from cognitive science (operational closure, autopoiesis) as early as 1988 (and quoting some of Varela's earlier work w/ Maturana), so I wanted to call your attention to/re-recommend the book.

Hutchins's Little Black Box?

Over-sensitized by the Varela and the Clark readings, I was initially surprised by Hutchins’s (ostensible) black boxing of what’s going on inside the individuals on the ship. So, in taking the navigational system as the cognitive unit of analysis, is the question of cognition inside the mind rendered moot (because we can’t understand individual cognition without its interplay with external artifacts, accumulated cultural schemas, etc.)? Or is it just not Hutchins’s question?

However, in Chapter 3, I came across the following: “I propose a broader notion of cognition [than symbol processing] because I want to preserve a concept of cognition as computation, and I want the sort of computation that cognition is to be as applicable to events that involve the interaction of humans with artifacts and with other humans as it is to events that are entirely internal to individual persons” (118). I am fading fast, so perhaps I am drastically misreading this quote, but is he suggesting here that cognition as modeled with navigation as unit of analysis is analogous to cognition that’s internal to an individual? If not, what does this quote mean? Perhaps I am making this more confusing than it need be…

In any case, with six chapters remaining, I will be anxious to see how this issue of internal cognition gets treated/developed in later chapters.