TEL2-5 Distributed Cognition – James Hollan, Edwin Hutchins & David Kirsh

hutchinsOur lives are becoming more and more an integrated experience. We do things more in a networked way of doing, in relation with others, a certain culture/way of doing things, other non-human artifacts, etc. This way of living, and therefor inevitably, learning requires a broader perspective than the ones used in the past. People used to think in terms of information being studied, i.e. put into our heads, without any interference from the “outside world”. No matter where you are, what you do, the environment you do it in,… information is acquired in the same way. Hutchins & co. give us another view. They advocate that knowledge/cognition resides within us, but also in the world that surrounds us. Cognition is not a single entity, but is to be found everywhere…

  • Social distributed cognition: “Since social organization determines the way information flows through a group, social organization may itself be viewed as a form of cognitive architecture”. In other words the way we people live together as a group, and the rules that are hereby associated with, affect cognition. The social aspect of our being is having an impact on the way we learn and on what we learn.
  • Embodied cognition: “Well-designed work materials become integrated into the way people think, see, and control activities, part of the distributed system of cognitive control”. As a blind person’s cane or a cell biologist’s microscope, these are work materials that are an integrated part of these peoples way of thinking and perceiving the world around them, they also affect their learning.
  • Culture and cognition: “Culture shapes the cognitive processes of systems that transcend the boundaries of individuals”. The environment we live in consists of knowledge gathered through the years and offers us building blocks to build upon for new knowledge. Our culture’s way of doing things comes from this historical knowledge and we may profit from it for our personal gain. However this culture can also blind us from new knowledge if it is set in its (faulty) ways. Therefor we must be vigilant to keep our eyes and ears open and dare to take a leap in the unknown, from time to time, to discover new insights and new understandings.
  • Ethnography: “Cognitive activity is constructed from both internal and external resources, and that the meanings of actions are grounded in the context of activity – it is not enough to know how the mind processes information, but it also needs to know how the information to be processed is arranged in the material and social world”. Gathering information from the world around us and the way we use that information, maybe not literally, is important in our way of thinking. Our cognition is shaped by these materials and their inherent properties. Hutchins talks of the way pilots use the airspeed tape, “not only to gather information about speed as a number, but also to make perceptual inferences about relations among actual and desired speeds”.

In multiple examples Hutchins shows us our connectivity with our surroundings: direct manipulation, history-enriched digital object, zoomable multiscale interfaces, intelligent use of space. All of which point to the inevitable conclusion that we live in a connected, but also distributed world. Knowledge is to be found everywhere and the different actors at work all contribute to cognition.

In Hutchins’ theory of Distributed Cognition, I’m reminded of the Actor Network Theory of Latour but also (and again) of the Connectivist theory of Siemens and Downes. The idea that we as beings are highly interwoven with the world around us, means that also our knowledge and learning, our cognition is connected with this “outside” world. The number of connections between us and everything around us is astounding. The incentives that actually give us new direction are a highly important aspect of the way we gather new information, how we learn. In such a way, even, that they are to important to dismiss. Especially in our new and highly technological world where we are more than ever living in a connected/networked way.

When reading the paper, I was struck by an image of us, people, living/learning/being with the world the world that surrounds us, in a very organic/biological way. I mean, the way we interact with the “outside” world is very much like the natural world engages with everything else. In a way it gave me hope that we are discovering new, more natural, ways of living and learning.


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