Category Archives: Week 8

Calendar and Cognitive Process


In Clark’s impressive article The Extended Mind, the author uses the example of an Alzheimer patient to elaborate that the material out of human’s physical body boundaries, in this case Otto’s Notebook, should also be considered in the cognitive process. This statement is astonishing, yet persuasive, since the author has eliminated almost all disputations that why couldn’t the “Notebook”, to certain extent, be regarded as the analogue as regular human memory.

But I have some tiny doubts about this brilliant theory:

1) Alzheimer patient Otto is an extreme example, whose brain has almost totally lost its capability of memorizing so the Notebook here takes on a complete substitution. But if we consider a bit general situation, then it seems that so many things play more or less the role of that “notebook” in everyone’s daily life, thus becoming the so called “extended cognition” and taking part in the cognitive process. Then where’s the border of this extension? To which point does this process end?

2) Back to Otto’s example. As an Alzheimer patient, Otto can only remember things for a very limited time. Then even if he wrote the information down before, like the address of a theatre, then when he heard something related again, how could he remember the fact that he heard this before and his “writing down” action, which led him to check the notebook?

For the first question, I find in Clark’s another article, Surprising The Mind, some statements can explain. Discussions on whether the mind is extended and how it works come from and aim for practice and application in reality. External material symbols are meaningful and regarded as “extended cognition” because they have effects on humans to make judgements and then take actions. So the “extended cognition” should only extend to those symbol systems closely related to people’s actions, and the cognitive process ends as soon as the judgments are made and actions are about to being taken.

Calendar is a good example. Calendar is a database storing number information, like date and week, which is hard for people to precisely remember all of them. People will check the calendar what’s the day of a certain date, or to see whether they are available for a date. They can then take notes on the page, which serves as a reminder when that day comes. By the definition of Clark’s, calendar is a kind of “Notebook”, an extended cognitive process.

Calendar is a symbol system, with concrete contents that every one living on the earth share and acknowledge its meaning (like the custom of 7 days a week, 12 months a year). In Chinese culture, as well as some others I believe, the calendar functions as more than a “database” or a “reminder” in people’s life.

This is a typical page of the calendar used in old times, while many people especially in rural regions still use today. As you can see, a lot of information is presented on the page, among which the “auspicious” and “unpropitious” categories value the most. In traditional Chinese culture, owe to the season, the position of a star in the sky and some other reasons (from generations’ life experience to pure superstition), every date has its own features, according to which people should and should not do some activities. All these information is decided by an official agency (such as an Imperial Astronomical Observatory in old times), printed on the calendar, and then annually issued to the whole country.

The most common example is marriage. Until at most twenty years ago, it is a quite rare incident in China that a couple get married on a random date. Elderly members in the family will carefully check the calendar, pick an auspicious-for-marriage date, then the couple is allowed to get married.

This cultural tradition, materialized and reflected on the calendar, controls every one’s significant events from sowing the field, moving into new house, going for traveling, to even cutting hair in old times. The calendar here is clearly an extended cognitive process, as Otto’s Notebook, weighing a lot when people making decisions. This symbol system, at most time completely makes no sense why today is great for cutting hair but tomorrow is not, is collectively formed as part of the culture and everyone accepts. The calendar is just an external storage, which people will turn to and retrieve information from when necessary. In fact, there’s a group of people who can really memorize all these stuff and the “theory” behind (there’s an occupation for these “professional” people, usually respected!). In this case, the calendar serves the same as these people’s memory.

This role of the calendar as an extended cognitive process, however, is also dynamic. For most young people now, they don’t buy these “auspicious” and “unpropitious” stuff any more, and obviously they will not decide when to cut hair or when to have a date by the information on the calendar. So the calendar here doesn’t function as it used to do. When the information has no effect on people’s actions, the calendar ceases to be part of the extended cognitive process, even though all information still printed and announced as usual. Then some other things may replace the calendar as extended cognition to determine young people’s behavior, like constellation.


Texting as a Cognitive Technology

It’s nowhere near difficult to recognize that the smartphone has already symbolically turned into an extension of the mind. Even Chalmers brings light to this in his forward. So much so that people today judge your character not by your kindness or jokes but by how fast you type or how quickly you reply. We don’t always “text as we think” similar to how we don’t always “speak as we think”. However, the fundamental cognitive advantage texting presents us is that we have a lot more room to exercise our thoughts before hitting send. We draft type, edit, insert emojis, choose a meme , pick a sticker, add hashtags and so on before even deciding to hit send.

In the context of texting, the other person’s texts are (sort of) permanently etched digitally within the box, forever giving you access to what they said verbatim. You don’t have to consciously make an effort to remember everything the other person is talking about, as you would normally do in a face-to-face conversation, but because you can always go back to the chat box to read what they said again, much of our cognitive load is reduced and as a result, our performance is increased. We think quicker, text multiple people at the same time (multi-communicating) and reply faster with not just words, but with emojis and memes to make our response more meaningful.

One important way texting allows us to express “intersubjectively” accessible meaning is by way of auto-correction built into the technology. When we type a wrong word (usually a misspelling), or sometimes in the case of an inside joke, the bold red underlining of that word instantaneously signals the mind that it is not a real word and therefore you should not be using it. For example, if you wanted to include a word from your native language using the English alphabet on your phone, because you want to communicate with that person (who also knows the native language) in a different way by making a joke, the word would still be underlined implying that it is not understood by anyone (symbolically, since the type is in English).

The signs and symbol repertoires that we have today and constantly building on do indeed contribute to our cognitive scaffolding not opening new areas of meaning, but releasing a force of agency to act on a new level of abstraction with the new label. At the same time, the signs and symbols we have are available to be utilized by any human being, waiting to be “anchored”, owing to its distributive capacity. Finally, I would say that Pierce was indeed on the right track to understanding how signs and symbols work, and believe that many of the ideas in this week’s readings had been expressed by Pierce except that he didn’t assign any proper labels for the concepts rendering them not original ideas, when that is not necessarily true.



Martin Irvine, Introduction to the Theory of Extended Mind and Distributed Cognition.

Andy Clark and David Chalmers. “The Extended Mind.” Analysis58, no. 1 (January 1, 1998): 7–19.

Jiajie Zhang and Vimla L. Patel. “Distributed Cognition, Representation, and Affordance.” Pragmatics & Cognition 14, no. 2 (July 2006): 333-341.

Notes Application On Iphone

After thousands of updates, the notes application on iphone are now delicate and capable of many different tasks. It is one of my favorite app.

I want to remind myself that I will have a semiotics class on Thursday afternoon, so I create a piece of note like this. Firstly, I typed the full name of the class on the first line, and then type the time of it in the second, all with the virtual keyboard of the phone. What I was doing is offloading my memory to an external media that exists beyond my brain. If I have a habit of using the notes app on my phone to relieve the burden of my memory and checking it regularly, the app would become a part of my extended mind, through which my cognition reach the environment around me and create an affordance that is not achievable only by my mind. My mind can forget things, more than occasionally, but as long as I check my notes regularly, things will be done in time. The fact that I create notes to remind future self also reflects that cognition can be distributed over time.

If you look closely to the picture, the background of the notes contains the grains of actual notebook paper, which is the object of this app if it is seen as a representamen in Peirce’s terminology. We can tell that the designer of this apps clearly wants to borrows some properties of actual notebook also by looking at the paintbrush function. Why do the designer imitate the properties of actual notebook? Maybe he has learnt some semiotics and knows that people sometimes shift back and forth between properties of representations and those represented. For example, we use the paintbrushes in the notes as well as virtual keyboards.

After I typed some notes, I suddenly decided to calculate the amount of time we will have spent in this class throughout the semester. It is too complex a multiplication to figure it out only by my mind, so I use the paintbrush function to help my mind with the calculation (though of course, the calculator app will be a better option). Contrary to the fact that the typed notes are only records of my thoughts for future reference, the equation is a crucial part of how I did the calculation. It is another example of extended cognition.

If I want to share my notes to my fellow classmates to remind them of the class and tell them to cherish the happy time we have in the class, I would touch the button in the upper right corner and this piece of note can be sent through multiple ways. When my classmates receive the note, I would have offload cognition to other individual by ways of technologies, by which we can tell that cognition can be distributed among the members of a social group. Though they use different brands of cell phones, and my handwriting is extremely ugly, they will perceive the information conveyed by the notes because of our shared cognitive scaffolding–English language and numerals.

The edge of distributed mind will end…where?

(These weeks reading got me excited because I can’t stop thinking about corresponding possibilities of distributed minds in sci-fi films, and how it reflex our information theory on technology doable and ethically acceptable.)

I finally understood why professor Irvine said my writing on implanted technology would meet its viable philosophy soon. The biological lock, the photographic contact lenses, the implanted headset…all those devices are given the term by “cognitive technology”. In this prospective, our anthropology development surely is a path (inventing and) absorbing different tools to become our external entity to the brain. Our cognitive technologies develop faster and faster, and we can achieve more cognitive accomplishment with the help of these environment support. So I assume it is fair to say that our distributed mind has became wider and wider alongside the path.

Then I try to fit in some examples within active externalism. The twin Yifan in Paleolithic Age had the same mind with the myself in 2017. However without the systematic languages, she couldn’t express her idea properly to clansman. Without the calculator, she couldn’t calculate how much the square root of three is. Not to mention without the smart phone, she couldn’t communicate to friends on the other side of the university, like I’m doing right now. Her extended cognition is limited, but the cognitive capability of the brain stays the same with me.

Then consider another twin Yifan in… 2049ish. Probably the interface in Ironman has become real. With such realistic affordance, she can do complex cognitive task by easily offloading her cognition to the literally interactive interfaces, and do simple cognitive task more casually with high level affordance. Unlike the twin, I use relatively indirectly designed external representations like using the mouse to click “delete” button to delete something, while the twin Yifan can “grab” the file with real hand, and “threw” it at the dustbin like what she does in daily routine, or just waving her finger, bouncing off the file etc. The function of our cognitive tech has been broadening and visualizing and life-experience-simulating and simplifying. One word for all, “affordancing”.

See 《Ironman excerpts of interfaces affordance》on

This kind of external cognitive artifact in the Ironman movie, as far as I’m concern, reflexes the wish of our human to design an interface that has no interface at all. My opinion stays the same as weeks before, as the best vision of affordance will be that, the individuals mind and the artifact are so combined in which way might reach two entirely different directions of design: on the one hand, to offload all the internal representations externally. In that case, memory, knowledge and even belief can be seen and altered by anyone authorized and can very much likely to produce more problems than solutions as showed in sci-fi show Black Mirror. On the other hand, to upload all the external representations internally, endowing human the power of computer and wiring every individual mind together as showed in an episode of another sci-fi show Doctor Who. These two are extreme cases won’t ever work. I only use them to point the direction of possible design trend of A.I interfaces.

At last, I’m feeling like asking a quite useless (or philosophical) question here, but the future definition of distributed mind will find its edge on…where exactly? If A.I developed a mind of its own, passing the Turing Test, do we still rely on them to retrieve information like Inga and Otto? And do they still remain a distributed coupled system to human brain? We viewed Blade Runner weeks before, so take it for example: suppose our cognitive technology (the replicant) has developed its own cognition, do they still belong to us as a (cognitive) tool?

And I really struggled with the idea of cognitive ethnography. What exactly does that mean and how that applied to extended mind and distributed cognition? Could we talk about it on class meeting? Maybe throw some examples?