Tuesday, November 08, 2005

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?


Blogger jmj said...

Could you explain trivialization a little more?

7:48 PM  
Blogger mdl said...

Hi, thanks for the prompt. First of all, I got the name wrong. It's Wegenroth Ulrich. Second, here's a quote:

Ulrich describea the "widening gap" between "profesionalization" of technologies and their "trivialization" which occurs when, "deeper, more complex levesl of technical design [become] accessible to only a handful of professionals, but are restructured at the level of th user interface and present themselves in a deceptively friendly form...when a new technology is met by suspicion and resistance in society, its acceptance is not won by reducing its complexity to make it intelligible and thus controllable by the general public, but by reengineering its interface to trivialize it." I dunno, maybe this doesn't apply because it assumes the privilege of choice among a consumer base versus employees subordinated in the workplace. Also, this guy's a sociology person from europe. They ask more of these kinds of questions than we do. I honestly think it's because they're more open to socialist implications in the workplace. and organic fritos. ;) (The article quoted is "Cultural Bearings of Technological Development" if you're interested.)

7:41 PM  
Blogger Anthony M. said...

Thanks, Megan, for being a bit more articulate and concrete about this than I managed to be. To offer a maybe dumb/simplistic example, if we accept Hutchins' framework, what do we make of the computational system that resulted in the production of cotton fiber before 1860 in the US? This is the kind of thing I've been struggling with through this book.

Now that you've stated the concern a bit more clearly, let me add some things, some of which might risk suggesting that this issue might not be worth worrying about...: One key issue that you bring up is that these cognitive systems don't just happen to emerge. In part, of course, the problems people face and their solutions do come about "naturally," regradless of any intentions. But they're also, in part, "designed" in favor of certain interests, as you put it. But to what extent is this "design" just the result of a collection of unrelated local decisions? (Or is this, in any case, "all" such developments are according to Hutchins' theory?)... um... Does Hutchins demonstrate that all work ("intellectual" or otherwise, highly regarded or not) is simple, local, trivial, etc? If so, is this, in itself, somehow a critique of (the justification for) certain power structures? If so, how effective is it?

Also, to what extent is it romantic/pompous/not so great to think that there's something "wrong" with "menial", un-grandiose work/projects, that the truly "human" thing to do is to actualize some grand scheme...? That is, should we agree with the "UNIX people" who make fun of "Wintendo"? I don't know. I go back and forth on this question.

Then there's something about "speaking for"...

8:05 PM  
Blogger mdl said...

Hmm. Interesting comments. Must think about them. The question for me is not so much how should we value menial tasks. It's about unfair hierarchies that present tasks in ways that unnecessarily stratify and limit compentencies...especially if it happens with a "hey, this is the 'natural process' rationale." People talk about how we can intervene in the way technologies are brought into the workplace. Technologies are inherently "ambivalent" and "flexible"; they can allow for practices other than ones that are oppressive/divisive. Hutchins, for sure, would not be one to argue that technologies "evolve" naturally, that they follow some kind of set trajectory...it's all contingent and social, and "artficial." I'm obsessing about this question because it's one of my personal research interests...and is part of my experience of how workplaces function...they often "essentialize" users into specific groups with certain "natural" affinities (I think anyway). And then, those with technical expertise and organizational sway reinforce these assumptions in the tools they design for workers. (to "break out" of this model is to critique workplaces in terms of Leg. Peri. Participation, and to rethink workplace identities in terms of "performance" rather than "essential" compentencies.) This seems like a good place to get specific about power and identity, rather than just talking in abstract theoretical terms (which is what I've normally done in the past).

Sorry for the novel, but your questions really got me thinking.

11:32 AM  

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