Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wifi Liberator and Property


Last summer, when I came back from my home, Korea, I had to stop by the Atlanta Airport to take a connecting flight. I was little bit anxious because I hadn’t checked my email box for about 15 hours. However, when I opened my web browser, I was very surprised to know that I had to pay about 8 dollars to 10 dollars to check my email. The wireless service was being provided by 5 network companies (Boingo, Concourse, SprintPCS, Access, Opti-fi) from $7.95 to $9.99 in daily fares (

The internet has become essential to our lives. In some countries, especially economically developed countries like the U.S., governments acknowledge that broadband Internet service is crucial to their people ( We, especially younger generation, can do nothing without a network. A network is more than just commercial goods. However, the internet is ruled by several providers. For home users and business users, the network is provided with a relatively reasonable price. However, it is true that users have to pay high cost in a public place for just a short time of usage.

So, individual users seek ways to access internet without cost or with low cost. There are several technologies to use/share a network without permission from a corporate network provider. Wifi Liberator, the tool to make an open private wireless node, selected by Ars Electronica 2008, is one of them. Wifi Liberator is “an open-source toolkit for a laptop computer that enables its users to liberate pay-per-use wireless networks and creates an open node that anyone can connect to for internet access”(Gerfried & Christine, 2008). According to Jonah Brucker-Cohen, the developer says that this toolkit is for free access to the internet in a public space.

This open private wireless network by this free-access technology would be very useful for individual internet users who want to share a network with other people and to get free access in a public space. For the whole society’s communication, sharing information among community members, having more chance for using a network is very important. However, this belief for openness of network and free access conflicts with ownership and property matter, because, in most countries, a network is considered as commercial goods.

So, in this paper I will talk about the ownership and property issue for sharing a network among individual users through consideration of Wifi Liberator. Considering this technology could be one case of thinking about values behind network sharing technologies, especially when they are used in a public space.

Value definition - Ownership and property

Ownership is a general right to property. It “entails a group of specific rights, including the right to possess an object, use it, manage it, derive income from it, and bequeath it”(Friedman & Kahn, 2007, p. 1252). According to Friedman and Kahn, the basic concept of a property right about a tangible object is simple. The owner of an object can keep it, use it, let others use it. and give it away (Friedman & Kahn, 2007). However, it becomes complicated when the property right is applied to intangible things like service and technology. Especially, in IT industry, the concept of property is very complicated because the limitation and boundary of the product is blurred. Let’s think about e-mail service. I use Hotmail. The service provider gave me an account with 2GB of capacity on the provider’s server. I can send and receive mails freely and modify the environment as I want. I can make folders and a contact list. The service provider cannot delete or modify my information and settings because they are mine. However, they can change the layout and design of “My” email box even though I don’t want to change it. So, at some point, “My” email box can look strange. The reason that this happens is because I get the right of partial use of the service/technology. The right of possessing technology and the right of using technology is different, and the boundary between the two is also blurred. So we have to be careful to consider the property rights of IT technology.

Usually, when we buy a physical product, we possess everything about the product. However, when we buy a technology, in some cases, we just buy the right of use of the technology but not the technology itself. In this case, the provider of the technology is still the owner. In his article “Toward a Theory of Property Rights”, Harold Demsetz says that “an owner of property right possesses the consent of fellow men to allow him to act in particular ways” (Demsetz, 1967). So, the owner can decide how to split and sell of the product , usage of the product, or right for the product. The buyer or consumer of the technology have rights to use the technology in limitation prescribed by the technology provider. However, the selling practice of the owner should be to the extent that a consumer can consent.

In the case of Wifi Liberator, Individual users and corporate wireless network providers violate each other’s property right according to who owns the network and the extent of property rights for the network usage. Does the use of the technology violate the network provider’s property rights? Can the network provider control everything for the consumer’s use of the network?


Corporate Wireless Network Providers: For using the network, basically, the network providers expect only the user who paid for the service to use the network. They don’t want their paid-user to “make available to anyone outside the premises the ability to use the service”( So, using network sharing technology is considered to violate terms and conditions of the contract between a user and a network provider.

Usually, network providers invest many resources to make the network. They have to develop, buy, and install hardware and software for providing the service. So they would expect to make a profit from the service and have the right to protect their products. Also they expect others in a community not to interfere with their actions for their products (Demsetz, 1967). Using Wifi Liberator has a possibility to interfere with providers’ exercising their property rights by blocking the possible users who would use the network service paying money if they don’t have the technology.

Individual Users: Once paying money for the network and getting an account, a user gets the right to use a certain amount of network. The amount is limited by the service provider. So, in a user’s stance, how to use the network should be up to each user. Sharing their property using Wifi Liberator is not something to violate network provider’s property rights. The technology is just for a small group of people around the paid-user. Also if the user decides to share the network, his/her network quality would be decreased, so using the technology doesn’t mean unlimited sharing for the majority of people.

The ownership of the provider doesn’t mean controlling everything for how to use the network. For this matter, if we only rely on the corporate network providers and their practice, individual users have to spend a lot of money for using networks. In many cases, a user has several devices that need to be connected to the internet. However, the network providers require to be paid for each device ( For example, if you play an online game with an iPhone and check email with a laptop, you have to pay for two lines just for a few clicks and a small amount of packets. So, where are consumers’ rights?

Government: Government has to make regulations for the development and use of certain technology and judge terms and conditions of a certain product and contract to protect each social member’s property rights and for the whole community’s benefit. If the two, corporate network providers and individual internet users, are direct stakeholders, a government would be an indirect stakeholder.

A government has to solve the conflict between the two direct stakeholders’ property rights. It might have to judge where one or both of the two stakeholders violate the other’s property rights. Also, it has to consider whether the wireless network in public space should be considered commercial goods that can assign property rights to certain companies or whether the network should be considered a kind of public utility, sometimes partially. In making regulations, if it is commercial or private goods, it has to more focus on protecting properties of corporate network providers, and if the network has characteristics of public utility, it should be more generous for using technologies to help individuals’ free access.

Works Cited

- Demsetz, H. D.(1967). Toward a Theory of Property Rights. The American Economic Review, Vol. 57, No. 2. 347-359.

- Stocker. G & Schopf. C, (Eds.). (2008). Ars Electronica 2008, Hatje Cantz,

- Friedman, B., & Kahn, P. H., Jr. (2007). Human values, ethics, and design. In Sears, A. & Jacko, J. (Eds.). The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications, 2nd Edition. (pp. 1241-1266). Lawrence Erlbaum.




Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Cockpit to Computer Consequences...

Distributed Cognition in an Airline Cockpit takes an unusual standpoint towards understanding the principles of cognition themselves. Situating the research in the flight cabin of a commercial jet (or at least a simulated flight cabin) seems almost too esoteric for many to understand the intricacies of the interactions. However, because distributed cognition relies heavily on representations and how interactions manipulate, control, and process these representations, the cockpit itself is actually an ideal stage.

Both Hutchins and Klausen find that even though they only extract a very small portion of the interactions in the cockpit, they are able to derive a wealth of information about interactions and distributed cognition. They emphasize repeatedly that the cockpit is not a collection of separate entities; rather than considering it a Captain, First Officer, and Second Officer sitting in a control room, they note that it is in fact a complete system. Both the crew and cabin constitute a complex series of interactions within this system that functionally represent the ideas of distributed cognition.

Consider the fact that the crew is required to communicate to get their job done. This, according to Hutchins and Klausen, shows a transmission of representational media through space. The idea that when we talk to one another, especially in a system, we are verbally representing ideas, is not new. The researchers refer to locutionary aspects (as well as the derived illocutionary force and the perlocutionary ideas) of speech that carry us from one idea to another without explicitly demanding or demonstrating our intentions. However, the importance of the verbal aspects to distributed cognition is paramount because it is indeed a means by which information is moved around the system from one participant to another.

Interestingly, verbal communication is not the only way in which information is moved within the system. Non-verbal cues and pauses in communication all suggest what the researchers call "expectations." Expectations occur when we anticipate information coming from some representational medium and we act accordingly, allowing us to act efficiently within the system. For example, when the pilots are responsible for changing the altimeter alert mechanism after being cleared by the ground based air traffic controller (ATC), they follow a set of expectations that draws their hands towards the alert mechanism just as they ask the question of the ATC.

More importantly, regarding expectations, is the fact that when we follow a set of expectations in a system, we are able to coordinate our abilities within the same system. Once we are calibrated in a familiar area (such as how the pilots calibrated their positions in the cockpit), we can almost immediately begin to accomplish our set tasks. Interestingly, the study notes many consequences of this coordination, but also recognizes that it is restricted to a limited domain, especially one in which familiarity is key. Still, Hutchins and Klausen are able to effectively demonstrate that the system itself follows many ideas of interaction that they had set forth.

How does distributed cognition apply to HCI? How can we use distributed cognition to better interact with machines? The first thing that caught my attention with regards to this dilemma is expectation. As the researchers demonstrate, cues from certain media will allow us to form expectations about how we perform. I consider this to be a critical element of HCI, especially an efficient HCI. If we can follow a machine in front of us through a set of expectations, I think we can not only use it effectively, but efficiently. However, one of the things we must always consider when designing an interface with a machine is how these expectations are formed. Are they derived from previous experiences with different, but similar machines? Do they emerge from trial and error with the machine in question? It is difficult to say which is the best launch pad for these answers, but I would venture to guess that a hybrid of the two circumstances would best attain the desired results. After all, the pilots in the essay had never worked together before, but were able to complete a system of interaction because of previously known expectations from several different representational media.

Moving information between a human and an interface is also an interesting question, because generally we lack verbal cues. In my experience, there is a general silence observed when interacting with a computer, and aside from a few expletives that may come forth when things aren't going according to plan, most of my interaction within the HCI medium is silent. However, I do wonder if this is the case for everyone. Do most people interact quietly with their computers or do we create our own verbal cues and "redundancies" (back-ups or reiterations of the ideas we wish to describe)?

When we consider the system of HCI, we are not always looking at a one-to-one relationship between the human and the computer. In fact, with the advent of the internet, we have become reliant on taking that one-to-one interaction and exponentially increasing it. We no longer communicate with the computer alone, but use the computer as an avenue to communicate with others from all around the world. This creates a vast network, an immense system of users trying to coordinate their ideas on an almost global level. Interestingly, this does not always rely on a sort of co-temporality. Look at the popular website Using wikipedia, one can modify information (and consequently expectations) with authority. However, because this does not always occur at the same time, the system does not need people working simultaneously for it to be successful. However, the system does not close there. Rather, through a vigilant system of notification (reinforced by denied expectations when the information is wrong), the greater system of distributed cognition allows the information to generally maintain its integrity.

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 -

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Adobe Connect For Distributed Cognitionists

Article summary

Edwin Hutchins explores, in his paper “Distributed Cognition in an Airline Cockpit,” the ideas of information flow in an environment, how the information is represented and utilized, and performance structures in a given environment. I believe one key point is that any kind of interaction can be analyzed with distributed cognition for HCI purposes, as long as there is some kind of language or information being transferred between two or more mediums. A lot of complex tasks today require more than just one person (or control device) to succeed. Another point is that “trajectories of information” play a key role in “expectations of action.” The trajectory of information will have multiple paths and the expectation of which path is chosen will not always be upheld. That paper also mentions how “intersubjectivity” can help initiate and control and information flow. When the expected trajectory is not met, intersubjectivity can quickly solve the miscommunication. One other important point is that “redundant feedback” creates checks and fail-safes. Redundant feedback creates multiple representations of information and allows for crosschecking of mediums (Hutchins, 2000).

Adobe Connect

I would like to apply these ideas and key concepts of distributed cognition to my experiences with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Learning Management System. However, doing a full analysis on RPI’s LMS would be like doing a full analysis on a Flight transcript (a bit hefty for the requirements of this blog). Alternatively, I have chosen to do an analysis of Adobe Connect, a segment of this LMS. Adobe Connect allows for an online solution to distance learning. User are given the experience of classroom learning by means of chatroom, visual webcam feeds, live audio, and shared computer screens. Through these means of communication, distance students are connected digitally to local students and staff.

Who and what is interacting?

Hutchins mentions in his paper how the pilots of large jets today not only communicate with each other, but they also communicate with the control devices of the plane and information being sent from control towers (Hutchins, 2000). What kinds of interactions and between what objects occur on Adobe Connect? The chat room is the primary form of communication with the distance students to the classroom and professor. The chat room also connects students to each other. The chat in Connect is particularly interesting because distance students are required to be in the chatroom to connect to the digital class. However, it is optional for local student to enter the chatroom during class. The main effect of locals not being in the chatroom is an absence of locals directly talking to distance students. Consequentially, a lot of distance questions are not answered or misunderstood as the Professor is preoccupied teaching the class. Similar to Hutchins example of the cockpit, there are three participants interacting with Adobe Connect (the cockpit). The Professor is the Captain; he manages the environment and tries to mediate the paths of information that are happening simultaneously. The local students are the first officers. They fly the plane (the conference room) and communicate with the control tower when necessary. The distance students are the control towel and ask questions that are confirmed by the first officer or captain.

Trajectories of Information

In Adobe Connect, the tools of communication are kind of like gauges and parameters in an airplanes cockpit. With all of these communication devices to control, there are multiple possible paths that the information can be channeled through. Hutchens says, “Given the content of the Captain’s plan, we attribute to him an expectation concerning the reply from Oakland Center. His radio call is the opening turn in a conversation with a highly predictable structure. The expectation is that ATC will answer, saying something like, ‘Nasa nine hundred, climb and maintain flight level three three zero.’ If the F/O was attending to the Captain’s request, he may also have formed this expectation (Hutchins, 2000).” If we turn the situation to a class about to start with the intention of having audio/video broadcast to the distance students the expectation might turn into, “Given the content of the Professor’s plan, we attribute to him an expectation concerning the reply from distance students. His introduction to the class verbally and video initiation of video and PowerPoint is the opening turn in a conversation with a highly predictable structure. The expectation is that Distance students will answer, saying something like, ‘Hello Professor, we can here you loud and clear.’ If the Local students were attending to the Captain’s request, he may also have formed this expectation.” What happens when the expectations are not met? How do we deal with the problem to quickly revise the plan?


Intersubjection is a communication form explained by Hutchens to be, “An interaction in terms of speech act theory. What a speaker actually says is called the locutionary act. The force of what is said is the illocutionary act, and the intended effect is the perlocutionary act (Hutchins, 2000).” Intersubjection can naturally occur when expectations are not met. For example, the Professor’s plan is to start the class with an audio video greeting, but the video freezes and the audio cuts out. This is an unexpected experience for the distance students. Their immediate reaction would be to wait a few seconds, weeding out the idea that it might be a temporary glitch. The next step would be for the distance students to enter the problem into the chatroom. The locutionary act would be the distance students asking something like “audio?” If any of the local students are in the chatroom or looking at the projection of the chatroom behind the Professor, then they will get the illocutionary force that a request to fix the audio is occurring. Without answering the question the local students will perform the prelocutionary act of asking the Professor to fix the audio connection. After, the Professor might say something like “Oh, excuse while I re-establish my connection.” So even though the distance students are directly connected to the Professor through the chat, they had to communicate to him indirectly through the local students. The reason that this worked is because the local students naturally understood that the question “Audio?” would infer the connection has difficulties. Then the Professor noticing someone with a raised hand and distressed looked, realized something might be wrong with the presentation. This is why it could be helpful to have redundant information and safeguards.

Redundant Feedback

Now I will stick with the same situation of audio and video dying during the Professor’s presentation. Referring back to having many possible paths for information I will list a few way that the distance students could have communicated with the room or Professor. The chat capabilities of Connect involve a public or private chat to anyone in the room. Say that maybe the distances students try to publicly type “Audio?” again, but this time no one locally notices. The distance students will realize by the continuation of the Professor’s lecture that their input is lost. This time the local students try to private message the professor and local students that are in the chat. The local lecture still continues, so the distance students resort to a last method of input. In Adobe Connect anyone in the Chartroom can raise a digital hand to imply that they have a question about what was said. When a few of the distances students carry out this action, a few of the local students notice. Now as the local students see that the professor is still lecturing, they might physically raise their hand. This signals to the teacher non-verbally that an issue had occured. Through the variety of way that attention could be brought to the local class the information got passed on to “The Captain.” Hutchins mentions the “control yolks” and “side-stick controllers.” Adobe Connect Definitely has more of a “control yolk” system where what the Professor see’s is what the students (or Co-pilots) see. This redundancy allows for intersubjection in a lot of case because when a student raises his or her hand and is looking at the projection of the chatroom, the Professor can immediately look at his screen and see the issue at play non-verbally.


The parallels that can be drawn, between Hutchins’ examples of the flight simulation and examples of the Adobe Connect Learning Tool, are endless. Clearly there are interactions between more than just people in this system. Distributed Cognition analysis has shown that the technology of Adobe Connect is appropriately implemented to allow such distance communication. Whether it be through expectation, intersubjection, or redundant information, the messages still get through and the Captain’s plan continues.

Works Cited

Hutchins, E. (2000). Distributed Cognition in an Airline Cockpit. La Jolla: University of California.