Last year, before coming to CCT, if you had asked me what “computation” meant, I would have given you some vague guess that had some relation to a math equation or a computer coding system. I entered graduate school with no experience in computer interactions or coding, and during my undergraduate experience, many of the classes that I took were filled with notions that humans were very separate from computers – computers and technology were often cast in a negative light.
It would be an understatement to say that Semiotics & Cognitive Technologies has not only taught me many new concepts in regards to human meaning systems and cognitive-symbolic artefacts, but it has also challenged what I previously thought about the relationship between humans, computers, and technology (which seems like a very classic CCT lesson).
Perhaps the most important lesson that I’ve learned throughout the course of the semester is one that has changed a previously conceived notion that, as Denning wrote in “What is Computation,” while “computation” used to be a word that related to the mechanical steps that were followed in mathematical functions (806), that is not the only way that the word can be interpreted. This class has taught me that “computation” is much more than simply a way of dealing with math. As Dr. Irvine wrote in this week’s reading, both computation and digital media are methods for “physically encoding” both human sign systems along with the more mathematical operations that can be performed with these systems in order to create a variety of things that we use and interpret each day (Irvine, 1). In other words, computers are certainly a component of computer science, but they’re not the only part of computer science. Instead, they are used as a way of creating more opportunities for computational processes (Irvine, 2).
I never believed that computational systems could be equated to the human brain. But it is because of the slow, gradual, and very interdisciplinary nature of each week’s reading that I’ve come to realize that the computer, and all other forms of technology, are simply an add-on to what humans have been building upon all along. Step by step, our technology has become more sophisticated and more capable of doing amazing things. However, at the center has always been the very human concept of symbol systems – we would have no use for computers or technology if we could not draw an ounce of meaning from them.
As Herbert Simon wrote in “The Sciences of the Artificial,” both the computer and the human brain are artifacts that belong to the category of physical symbol systems (21). I thought that that page of the reading served as a prime example of many of the concepts that we’ve learned so far – the human brain and the computer are similar in many ways; they both process information, interpret meaning, and produce an output. While I once thought that they were completely separate entities, I now realize that each works hand-in-hand, and together, they create a very powerful pairing.
As we get closer to finishing up this semester’s class, I’m able to reflect back on all of the concepts we studied. Somehow we went from reading about artefacts such as ancient beads to Pierce’s triadic model to Alan Kay’s DynaBook concepts. But amazingly, they’re all connected through the concept of meaning – each item or concept either contains meaning, or assists in creating or interpreting meaning. I find that fascinating, and I look forward to seeing how technology progresses and better-enables us to express our ideas and learn more about the ideas of others. One of the major takeaways from this class, a simple but important concept, is the idea that we’re constantly evolving. Even while technology now seems so advanced, especially compared to some of the early computers (or the telegram!) that we’ve learned about, the advancement of technology is still not over.
- Martin Irvine, “Introduction: Toward a Synthesis of Our Studies on Semiotics, Artefacts, and Computing.”
- 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:
- Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996. Excerpt (11 pp.).