Computation as a Practice of Discovery (Katie)

Never did I ever think that I would explore computational thinking. I’ve typically approached academic thinking and reasoning concretely, and perhaps too narrowly, especially in light of my decision to apply to the CCT program. Until now, I’ve believed technology to be constructed in opposition to human intention. However, since the beginning of the semester, I’ve started to see that the meeting point of technology and communication can be studied by exploring human meaning systems and technology as more than a black box.

Thinking in a way that bridges computation, cognitive science, information theory, semiotics, and linguistics has helped me to connect the dots between humans, computers and intelligence. I’ve started to view computer systems less as machines devoid of human reasoning, but instead as computational devices that are capable of extending and distributing human cognition. As cognitive agents, we use computer systems as a space to explore information processes through different concepts, designs and abstractions.

I have also begun to view this process on a historical continuum. As Dr. Irvine explains, “a contemporary computational system (large or small) is a design for implementing pre-existing human symbolic-cognitive processes to enable ongoing interpretations through the interactive metamedia design for all our digital encodable symbolic artefacts” (Irvine, 3). In other words, these interpretations are situated in time and the represent our current environment. They are moving pictures of meaning making. Because computers are a physical symbol system, they produce “an evolving collection of symbol structures” as they move through time (Simon, 22).

If we view computers as a way to understand human behavior, we can explore the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity as it relates to signs and symbols. That is, the objective parts of information are related to signs, while the observer of those signs is subjective because he or she imposes meaning on them (Denning, 808). Human symbolic thought is founded on the idea that we draw meaning from collectively “perceptible material and physical structures” (Irvine, 4).

Finally, I have a clearer understanding of computation as a practice of discovery. Through the extension of human cognition via a computer system, we can identify patterns that stand for something vs. those that do not. We use media, signal and symbol representations to identify the significance of these patterns. In other words, “the association between a representation and what it stands for” can be examined through computing (Denning, 808). In the context of a computer system, we act through an interface, which has specific design features and software layers that map pixals onto our screen in a particular way.

Although there is still much to learn and digest, I have started to chip away at the idea that “Intelligence is the work of symbol systems,” by bringing together different academic and scientific disciplines (Simon, 23). Computational thinking has helped me better understand the connection between computing, information and semiotics in the context of our socio-technical system.


Martin Irvine, “Introduction: Toward a Synthesis of Our Studies on Semiotics, Artefacts, and Computing.

Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996. Excerpt (11 pp.).

Peter Denning, “What Is Computation?” Originally published in Ubiquity (ACM), August 26, 2010, and republished as “Opening Statement: What Is Computation?” The Computer Journal 55, no. 7 (July 1, 2012): 805-10. Note the important revised definition of “computation” by leaders in computer science:

Peter Wegner, “Why Interaction Is More Powerful Than Algorithms.” Communications of the ACM 40, no. 5 (May 1, 1997): 80–91.