Monday, October 26, 2009

Hive Minded?

Intro – Musings on Distributed Cognition

I must admit when I first glanced at the information on Distributed Cognition, I immediately thought of the “hive mind" concept of the Borg from Star Trek fame. I found it fascinating to contemplate that cognition might be thought about not necessarily as a function that takes place in one brain, but among brains and (sometimes unspoken) collaborations between them, between the objects and systems in the environment.

Morality of the big bad Borg aside, that social group is a distributed cognitive system, made of thoughts, objects and of course, ultimate human-machine integration. It also represents a rebellion to traditional theory that asserts that we are not just individuals perceiving, transforming representations internally and storing for later use – that we are unconsciously part of a more complex system. In this system, the beings continuously receive and interact with information and objects in our environment, transmitting thought and memories to objects around them, which in turn is ‘picked up’ as useful information by others as well.

An example in present day is suggested in the use of tags and tag clouds in a social network. Tags link thought together as a group – and while many contribute, no one individual holds the key to understanding them – they are semantically collective and understood within one’s context and also in a group context.

If the tenets of Distributed Cognition are correct, we are much more complex in our processing as a species than previously thought. We may be each and every day in a process of complex interchange and transmission of thought, memory and action across domains of understanding – and to a large degree, without knowledge of it or at the least how it occurs.

For me, the question grows bigger – how do we transmit pertinent information to other beings “in the wild” and across a domain? Can it all be explained through physical interactions, gestures or cultural generational messaging such as storytelling or reporting - or can some kind of unseen energy, such as telepathy, for instance, have any place here? I bring it up in this context because it cognition seems to occur quickly and often spontaneously, which makes me wonder just how fast species can possibly communicate without such phenomenon. Where for instance, do the archetypes come from that seem to be shared among cultures who have had no contact, such as the mystery of the pyramids found in two distinct places on earth?

The thrust of this paper is not to go in any depth into those questions, rather to review the theoretical premise and fundamental components of Distributed Cognition and its application to design. However, I do offer some closing thoughts on these ideas at the end – for the “unspoken” communication lightly touched on, is some of the most thought-provoking of all claims about human understanding.

What is Distributed Cognition?
Distributed Cognition is scientific framework which at its core, asserts that “human knowledge and cognition are not confined to the individual” [1]. Distributed Cognition extends the reach of “what is considered cognitive beyond the individual as a “unit of analysis” to encompass interactions between people and with resources and materials in the environment [2]. The old metaphor of the computer as applied to humans, is no longer appropriate nor complete – (i.e., the notion that like a computer, the individual perceives and then transforms symbolically the input from the world into internal representations, which are always remembered, and finally responds in output according to these internalized memories) – requiring all memory to be placed “inside’ our brain. A process is not cognitive simply because it happens in the brain, or even between many brains. [2] Rather, the totality of cognition occurs in a broader system of interactions with others and with external objects as they are representative of themselves, without internalization.

Distributed Cognition implies a more system in which the living body mediates internal and external representations to interpret, understand and interact with the world. The concept of “embodiment” simply means our skills, capabilities and thoughts are embodied in us. Our bodies are the mediary between our consciousness and the world, and our being “situated” in the world and all its objects with their own representations (not just our internal ones) is how we can interact [4]. These concepts differ from the traditional thinking in that all the cognitive processing goes on inside the skin and skull.

Additionally, a basic tenet is that the study of cognition must be done within the context of culture; that while traditional views do say that culture merges from the activity of humans, in Distributed Cognition there exist the notion that that the activity of humans - which interacts with material artifacts and practices - also shapes cognitive processes, particularly those distributed over ‘agent” / people, artifacts and environments. It is worth noting that Edwin Hutchins devoted a whole book to this called “Cognition in the Wild” [3].

Distributed Cognition looks for cognitive processes, wherever they may occur, on the basis of the functional relationships of elements that participate together in the process. [2] The classic example is Hutchins’ study of the airplane cockpit, where the system dynamically operates to perform specific operations, using humans, artifacts and objects in the environment for it to work. [3]. It presupposes that living beings coordinate their individual perceptions and actions (consciously and unconsciously) with the artifacts surrounding them.

Pasquinelli, in her paper “New Wave theories of Cognition” says that the concepts of Distributed Cognition are well-suited to the study of “robotics, biology, infant psychology, even the neurosciences, as these disciplines must take into account the relationships and interactions between the brain, body and the external world” [4]. These disciplines can use this framework to study how the individual coordinates and interacts with the representations in their surroundings to come to understanding of the world.

Relationship to Activity Theory
Distributed Cognition draws from aspects of activity theory, which theorizes that “when individuals engage and interact with their environment, production of tools results.” [1] The tools become objects of use by others, and therefore become useful in shared activities. Tagging is a perfect example of this.

Examples of Distributed cognition
WIKI also provides a great example, which I copy in its entirety because I believe it is very helpful in understanding the context:
“Distributed cognition is seen when using paper and pencil to do a complicated arithmetic problem. The person doing the problem may talk with a friend to clarify the problem, and then must write the partial answers on the paper in order to be able to keep track of all the steps in the calculation. In this example, the parts of distributed cognition are seen in:
· setting up the problem, in collaboration with another person,
· performing manipulation/arithmetic procedures, both in one's head and by writing down resulting partial answers.
The process of working out the answer requires not only the perception and thought of two people, it also requires the use of a tool (paper) to extend an individual's memory. So the intelligence is distributed, both between people, and a person and an object.”

Edwin Hutchins who formulated Distributed Cognition, provides the classic example of the cockpit, the plane is flown not by individuals and their single memory systems, and not just by autopilot either, but through a complex cognitive system where individuals rely on external representations (such as controls and devices) and others gestures (unspoken) that serve to jog memory and initiate important actions that must take place when flying an airplane [3].

How it works
The ‘distribution’ of cognition occurs by placing memories, facts, or knowledge on the objects, individuals, and tools in our environment. Representations can be either in the mental space of the participants or externally within the environment; further, “cognition occurs through time, process and among systems …” [1]. Thoughts are not isolated processes, and complete understanding or cognition comes from a collective of inputs and perceptions from others, and from objects and artifacts in one’s surroundings.

WIKI suggests Distributed Cognition breaks down into three distinct types of processes.
1) Cognitive processes may be distributed across the members of a social group
2) Cognitive processes may be distributed in the sense that the operation of the cognitive system involves coordination between internal and external (material or environmental) structure.
3) Processes may be distributed through time in such a way that the products of earlier events can transform the nature of related events. [1]

Fundamental components

Some of the fundamental components and concepts that help us frame understanding are listed here:

1) Humans will typically “offload” memories onto objects, individuals and interactions/communications in our world – to help us reduce internal load, and aid recall. Offloading might occur by using a calculator or writing down a grocery list. (Design implications in other examples are reviewed in the Implications for Design section below).

2) Objects with historical data attached give us clues upon which to make decisions (such as the “well worn door handle”) which provides clues not only to the individual, but to others in the environment that “this must be the door!” This supports the notion that we are “coupled” with our environment, in that we act/react not just through taking information in and processing it, but utilizing tools and objects and their representations external to our own minds.

3) We coordinate the representations with others in the system (i.e., our thoughts are a result of the influence of the perception others in the system, not just our own – again, I cite tagging).

4) Finally, our perceptions are not fixed, but continuously draw from the world as we interact with it – we continuously adapt. One might say traditionally we also say this, but the subtlety is that in traditional cognitive theory, we perceive once and internalize a representation of the world to be used again. Not so in the concept of Distributed Cognition - ongoing “activity seems to be the common denominator” [4] in that the “embodied, situated natural organisms (and artificial ones as well) continuously perceive and interact to form representations, and representations are not just internal but external.

Implications for ethnography and design

Hollan, Hutchins and Kirsch [2] propose Distributed Cognition as a new foundation for HCI research and design of digital work materials. Specifically, we can take a look at how they discuss the process by which digital objects can be designed and arranged to “cue recall, speed up identification and generate mental images faster – making changes to the external world to save costly and potentially error-prone computations” [2].

One example is to “encode historical information” which helps us to remember the meaning or significance of an object, for example depict copy history in source code so that a particular section of code was based on copy of other code and perhaps be led to correct but in the code, not just in current code but the previous code. One could also apply history of use to remember a work stream, such as highlighting menus that were most recently used.

Other examples of helping recall include users having the ability to rearrange their own spaces, which is based on the tenet that bodies are situated in space and interact with the external objects to suit their cognitive needs. The authors cite studies on the game Tetris, where players physically were able to manipulate forms (moved the elements around) to suit their recall needs, and save computational effort. Another example and rich with possibilities for design, was that users would create “piles” of files to be acted on later, presumably for actions such as potential deletion, or conversely, covering affordances that they did not want to use like deletion affordances – essentially constraining their view to save time and prevent errors. So, the takeaway is that providing users a method for constraining views is a recall optimization technique we can use.

As far as cognitive ethnographic studies, the significance to me was that we need to look more closely at the ways people do their work beyond the tasking, to how they utilize their environment to optimize cognitive load – something that might be easily overlooked in traditional studies where artifacts are not considered as important as they should be.

Application to Social network design
Distributed cognition is a useful approach for (re)designing social aspects of cognition by putting emphasis on the individual and his/her environment. What I found particularly interesting were the applications, such as distance learning application, where individuals and technologies are interacting cognitively, distributing knowledge through complicated sets of interactions and technologies and those for social organization, where distributed cognition can be thought of as the community. There are many opportunities to test and study these through a framework like Distributed Cognition.

Challenges to the theory
Critics might argue that regardless of what we think about how cognition is explicated in the world, the precepts are not that different from what it is currently practiced in observing and designing for humans in their environment. In HCI we are trained that we are constantly being influenced by and interacting with objects in interfaces; artifacts of history are used in persona making, and understanding the cultural and lingual contexts are also important to design.

So, in terms of the nature of the knowledge getting out and growing, on one hand we might say do we need yet another new approach that explicitly says now “it’s a whole (new) cognitive system?”

Having asked the question, still, promoting the concept of “distributed cognition” as a framework of study does seem to warrant further use since we are beginning to see applications in which we cannot completely explain cognition in terms of only one individual.

Epilogue – The Hive Mind maybe not just for the Borg or the Bees

We obviously have no such tightly integrated man-machine culture on earth such as the Borg, but there are overtones of collective thought as possible in Distributed Cognition. Of course, we are moving towards technological/social systems that integrate the body, mind and machine/objects, but also we have unanswered riddles that indicate we might be more tightly integrated as a species like even the bees than we might think. There are times when our connections with others are simply not consciously understood; Hutchins acknowledged that the pilots had an “unspoken” communication, and also cites how people “feel” a specific bearing in navigating a ship. [2]. There are times when we seem to experience this unspoken communication across time and space - like those calls from Mom which happen an instant after you are ready to call, and says she was “just thinking” about you, or those clairvoyants who say they “feel” what happened in a crime and are often right .. Could there be any validity to thoughts being ‘picked up’ over time and space without physical contact?

Let's look at two anecdotal ideas purported in the “The Hundreth Monkey" and the notion of “morphic resonance.”

“The Hundredth Monkey” was a book by New Age positivist Ken Keys, who asserted that once a critical mass of thought is developed, energy is basically transmitted and posited in other’s minds. It’s unscientific origins comes from a study of macaques in which Dr. Lyall Watson (1938-2008) in his book Lifetide[5] asserted that it only takes 100 or so monkeys to reach a threshold of new tool use, after which monkeys from far away will understand and start using the same tool (in this case, supposedly monkeys starting washing sweet potatoes, and it was reported that groups hundreds of miles away started doing the same thing almost spontaneously). Watson himself admitted no proof and was in fact, afraid to print his results. He had been working with these animals in the wild for quite some time, and indicated he relied “largely on memory and intuition” but felt strongly that this is what happened….

In Rupert Sheldrake’s “morphic resonance” theory, “morphogenic fields” resonate from bodies in a way that thoughts and memories become learned and imprinted - paranormal “tools” if you will, that form the “the basis of memory in nature … the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species“[5]. Despite the oft-described "magical thinking," is there something here to explore?

The point is, not whether to believe such nonscientific studies, but to look at the questions they raise. If telepathy is too far-fetched, at least Distributed Cognition can be a reasonable framework in which to study how the transmission of human thought might occur on a more granular level and find plausible explanations. We found out that the world was not flat nor the center of the universe, and we did this through discoveries in new tools, mathematical formulas and the sharing of great thinking across cultures and groups. Distributed Cognition may be a great lens through which to ultimately understand the connections between us, as humans, machines and environments which sometimes provide only silent cues.

At the very least, as we approach a more obvious mind-machine system - we should not focus on worrying that the human element be trivialized, but rather on understanding how we can shape, extend and enhance technology, tools and objects to improve our lives individually and collectively. Applying the frameword of Distributed Cognition may be a fitting exercise not just for design, but for improving the state of the planet in general.


[1] Wikipedia on Distributed Cognition -
[2] Hollan, J., Hutchins, E., & Kirsh, D. (2000). Distributed cognition: Toward a new foundation for human-computer interaction research. ACM Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction, 7(2), 174-196.
[3] Hutchins, E. & Klausen, T. (1996). Distributed cognition in an airline cockpit. In Engestrom, Y. and Middleton, D. (eds). Cognition and Communication at Work. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
[4] Pasquinelli, E, “New Wave Theories of Cognition: The advocating of the embodied, situated, enactive characters of cognition”, institute jean Nicod – EHESS Paris
[5] Carroll, Robert T, The Skeptics Dictionary, 1994-2009, online link to
5.1 Hundredth Monkey –
5.2 Morphic fields -

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