The Cognitive Leap of Faith (Ojas + Alex)

When analysing the process through which computing became the dominant metamedia platform of the symbolic and cognitive technologies we utilize everyday, we were able to identify two main concepts; permanent extendibility and extended cognition.

Looking at permanent extendibility, what stands out to us is the transience of digital media. Through computing, we are able to mimic the ephemerality of much of our cognitive process. For example, just as the concept of “dog” or “book” exists in a cognitively incorporeal space, the files we save, edit, delete, or otherwise alter exist on our computers are impermanent. This extendibility is an incredibly powerful tool allowing for the multitudinous levels of abstraction necessary for modern cognitive and computational tasks. The Ship of Theseus paradox is an interesting thought experiment that we found pertinent to this particular concept. Namely, what or where is the cultural artifact if it is permanently extendible? It’s one thing in the triadic model of semiosis to be dealing with physical, unchanging artifacts, but where do we place artifacts that are by nature always in flux?

It seems to us as though extended cognition is the guiding principle by which advances in computational and software interfaces evolve. Last week, Ojas had a blog post on the “phenomenological trickery” of the mouse, which was a great example of closing the cognitive-technological gap. It’s very easy to take these interfaces for granted, but when compared to older forms of computers, such as Babbage’s Analytical Engine, we really see how much more intuitive modern interfaces have become. These advances have led to a lowering of the threshold for computational learning and interaction, which was crucial for getting to the levels of widespread adoption we’re seeing now.

As far as technologies go, we believe that the innovations in computer networking born out of XEROX PARC and ARPA have been hugely influential in our modern computational landscape. This is especially clear when we consider that one of the major features of computer networking that made it commercially successful was e-mail (Campbell-Kelly et al 284). Combining the affordances of word processing with networked computers across space allowed for conversations to take place over this network. Of course the lineage from Vannaver Bush’s Memex to Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad to Alan Kay’s Dynabook is well noted within the readings, but perhaps most importantly, Doug Engelbart’s GUI innovations were critical in bridging the cognitive-technological divide. Creating graphical interfaces that are intuitive and factor in the concept of affordance was an enormously important step in getting computers to become effective symbolic representation tools.

When reading about Alan Kay and his Dynabook, we were amazed at how many of the concepts and innovations he developed that have actually been implemented in our modern computational technology; most obviously the iPad. But there was also a fundamental distinction between Kay’s work and the technologies we have now. Kay’s designed the Dynabook to be used for “symmetric authoring and consuming”. The concept of sharing and the spirit of openness seem central to Kay’s design process. We surmised that this came from his desire for this technology to be used as a learning tool, or as Kay says “qualitatively extend the notions of reading, writing, sharing, publishing, etc. of ideas”. Our modern computers are often designed to be inherently siloed devices, which most likely comes from the particular incentives of commercialization. So we suppose one could say the differences a culture clash took place between the Kay/Xerox PARC/ARPA communities of innovation and the Microsoft/Apple corporations that were took those inventions and made them available to the masses.

An interface feature we propose to realize Alan Kay’s vision for the dynabook is the integration of image recognition in the cameras on our phones. Much like we can use natural language processing to interact with computers with textual search engines and virtual assistants, an image recognition feature in cameras allows us to interactively engage with our environments. For example, if someone were to use this feature on a piece in an art museum, they could scan the piece, and this would automatically hyperlink to relevant articles in art history, criticism, other museums the piece has been in, etc. This could lend itself to an open-source, networked, encyclopedic database of image-entries which students actively engage with by consuming, editing, and producing knowledge on the subject.


  1. Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command, pp. 55-239; and Conclusion.
  2. Campbell-Kelly, Martin and William Aspray. Computer: A History Of The Information Machine. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2014.
  3. Greelish, David. An Interview with Computing Pioneer Alan Kay
    . Time Magazine, 2013.
  4. Alan Kay’s original paper on the Dynabook concept: “A Personal Computer for Children of all Ages.” Palo Alto, Xerox PARC, 1972).