Wednesday, November 09, 2005

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?


Blogger asw said...

I wanted to address the last part of your post in regards to the distinction between individual and socially distributed cognitive tasks. From what I have garnered from the text, it seems to me that Hutchins is not trying to make a distinction between the two but trying to combine them into one.

I was thinking back to our class last Thursday and how much we were discussing the fact that Hutchins releases the boundaries between the internal and external. That they emerge together at the same time -- it seems to me from reading the 6 chapters now that the naval ship cannot lead itself nor can the naval crew guide the ship by themselves. They rely and depend on each other and emerge together at the same time. Perhaps this is an alternative solution to your question? Not sure if this helps...perhaps I am on the wrong path?? Amy

5:21 PM  
Blogger mdl said...

Hello there Eileen--I like your oxymoron--blindingly lucid. And you pose an interesting question. I'm not that far along in the book, but I am wondering if he's refusing to frame the question in those terms? He says something about how even trying to understand cognition independent of external tools is to ignore the "real" cognition that occurs with the tools (if I'm understanding this--I think I need someone to set me straight as well). You know what it seems like to me...? It's almost like the debate about what's internal versus external has been so central so far, (how do things get internalized, what about structural couplings and emergence, what's the relationship between cultural schema and cognition, etc.), that it feels odd that it's almost brushed aside in this work?

7:18 PM  
Blogger jmj said...


I think mdl is right in pointing out that Hutchins may be avoiding the question (my take on it, not hers). An interesting side point is taht in his discussion of the ship that crashes, the problem isn't necessarily in the viewers--the captain and the mate both had sound explanations for what they saw--but in the system. The correct information wasn't communicated to the person who could do something about it. In this example, discussing the indvidual minds would seem to be moot, since the fault is in the system.

1:35 PM  
Blogger IB said...

Eileen, your questions are great! I have been pondering some of these issues myself, but could not have formulated them so well.

It is hard to imagine an example of entirely internal computation. Perceiving something in the environment and forming an internal representation would be a propagation across representational media but not an entirely internal one. It seems to me that propagation of representational states across representational media is very much connected to sensory modes. But maybe I am getting this wrong. Could there be an entirely internal computation in Hutchins' sense at all? - if no boundaries are set to cognition by skin and skull.

Hutchins might have avoided to make more clear assertions about individual cognition because distributed cognition is easier to examine. Rich data can be collected from observing behaviors, interactions between individuals, including language, and interactions with artifacts. Maybe the later chapters will provide us with better answers.

3:43 PM  

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