Saturday, November 06, 2004

The Internet as Distributed Cognition

The word "meme" is one of the most pervasive memes in the blogosphere, and rightly so. Ideas, phrases, talking-points, etc., often catch on, or don't, and gain a life of their own in blog posts and internet articles. One of the more recent examples is the "moral values" issue which has somehow come to be viewed as the issue of the election, despite the fact that there is no empirical evidence to indicate that this issue was any more influential in 2004 than it has been in the past. While it may be productive to use the meme metaphor when thinking about the ways in which such ideas become distributed throughout the minds of many individuals, I think there's another way of thinking about it that might capture more of what's going on. In many ways, the development of such ideas (and not merely their proliferation) is similar to the sorts of phenomena discussed within the distributed cognition approach to cognitive phenomena. This approach doesn't just highlight the ways in which ideas are transmitted and reproduced, but also explains the ways in representations of and reasoning about them develops over time and across individuals. It might be interesting, then, to treat the blogosphere, and the internet in general, as distributed cognition.

Distributed cognition is a fairly new idea (first proposed in the late 80s, but only recently gaining some popularity) that is opposed to the traditional Cartesian views of the mind that are prominent even among materialists in philosophy of mind. Here is a short description of the D.C. approach from Yvonne Rogers and Mike Scaife:

The distributed cognition approach is concerned with cognitive phenomena that cover a wide spectrum; from analysing the properties and processes of a system of actors interacting with each other and an array of technological artefacts to perform some activity (e.g. flying a plane) to analysing the properties and processes of a brain activity (e.g. perceiving depth). To date, however, most attention has focused on cognitive systems of work practices, like cockpits, air traffic control (Halverson), software teams (Flor) and engineering (Rogers).

The Distributed Cognition approach emphasises the distributed nature of cognitive phenomena across individuals, artefacts and internal and external representations in terms of a common language of ‘representational states’ and ‘media’. In doing this it dissolves the traditional divisions between the inside/outside boundary of the individual and the culture/cognition distinction that anthropologists and cognitive psychologists have historically created. Instead, it focuses on the interactions between the distributed structures of the phenomenon that is under scrutiny.
For the most part, researchers studying distributed cognition focus on work tasks, such as flying a plane or navigating a ship. However, the same types of principles may also be applied to other types of reasoning and behavior as well. For instance, in the blogosophere, the ways in which individuals represent and reason about certain concepts is often a product of the dynamic interactions of multiple individuals over time. This dynamic exchange of ideas can create products (new concepts, or new representations of old concepts) that had not existed prior to the interaction of multiple minds. In essence, blogospheric discussions can be viewed as attempts to solve problems, and the problem-solving behavior is distributed across multiple minds and external media.

You might be thinking that this is just the way all interactive dialogue (and multilogue) works to produce epistemic and cultural innovations, but that is really my point. Instead of thinking about dialogue in the traditional ways, in which individual, informationally-encapsulated minds interact through external symbols, we can treat these instances of interactive reasoning as distributed cognition in which multiple minds are intertwined across time. Also, instead of thinking about these interactions from the perspective of the selfish reproduction of the concepts and symbols themselves, as the memetic approach does, we can focus on the ways in which the distributed aspects of the representing and reasoning about these concepts and symbols reproduces and recreates them, reaching novel solutions to difficult conceptual problems.

UPDATE: Brandon from Siris alerted me to this post of his on the same topic. It's better than mine, so you should go read it instead.


Anonymous said...

I argued something like this in the context of the Killiam memos issue; although I wasn't thinking of the distributed cognition approach when I argued it, the fact that I've read a few things on this subject probably influenced me at points when I was just typing the post off the top of my head. The post is here

Posted by Brandon

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Anonymous said...

I wrote something similar to that in a paper in ECAP05's proceeding, but more specifically on the moral mediation brought about by the Internet. Here the paper:


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