Wednesday, November 02, 2005

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?


Blogger Jim said...

I'm glad you brought up Burke again. I'm working on a paper one Burke's views of technology right now, so this helped me think about some of those ideas.

In terms of the pentad, how can we categorize Hutchins' description of distributed cognition (the group as "machine")?

It seems like Hutchins is speaking in terms of agencies most of the time. That is, the tools people use are his focus. But when we start talking about larger groups, have the agencies slipped into the background? At this point does he shift into a discussion about scene maybe?

Maybe the pentad doesn't work so well with these theories - since they're articulated in terms of emergence?

3:15 PM  
Blogger Eileen McGinnis said...

At the risk of sounding like a remedial reader: I wanted to respond to the point made here and in a few other posts about the simultaneous pleasure and difficulty of reading Hutchins. As John notes, the navigational details and cognitive theory are inextricably linked, involved in an intricate dance of sorts. The book is almost (dare I write it?) Coy about exposing a concept here and there; as the chapters build, we see a bit more leg (I mean, theory). Again, this is part of the pleasure in reading the book, but it does require some patience for someone used to getting a sense of the framework for the argument before reading over the details. I was wondering if anyone has reading advice/strategies? Did you all just read the chapters in a linear fashion?

3:38 PM  
Blogger Anthony M. said...

I'm not sure if what you're getting at here is the same thing I was thinking about in relation to the first chapter. Are you wondering about the ethics of the overall (emergent) cognition? That is, are you maybe worried that maybe what a cognitive/social system thinks/does overall, as it's end product, might be unethical, while the contributing actions of individuals are seemingly innocent...? And is it that maybe the overall result is all the more evil (wrong word, sorry) because of the individuals' removal from it???
If it's something like that, then that's cool, but it's not what i'm talking about.
I'm worried about taking for granted that some nodes in the system get cushier jobs than others and get to control the output of those others. (Remember that nodes are people in this case.) Sometimes certain nodes get to determine how much other nodes contribute to the overall system and get to determine the value of those others' contributions. If we adopt Hutchins' perspective, do we have to just take this for granted and say, "well, that's how the system works".

What happens when some nodes take credit when good things happen and pass the blame when bad things happen? I guess maybe when this happens frames of reference are switched and we have to consider the system(s) differently...?

5:27 PM  

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