About this seminar

CCTP711: Semiotics and Cognitive Technology
Professor Martin Irvine
Communication, Culture & Technology Program
Georgetown University

About the Course: Description, Motivation, Objectives
This new course will introduce major topics of current interdisciplinary research and theory on human meaning systems and the nature of symbolic and cognitive technologies (media, computation, and communications). The course will be led as a research seminar with students developing their own weekly and ongoing research and contributing their own findings and discoveries in the class sessions. We will use the seminar as a learning lab where we will map out the major interdisciplinary questions and research areas and ways to apply them to our core concerns in CCT.

Backgrounds for “Cognitive Technologies”
“Cognitive Science” itself is a large, interdisciplinary field and covers all dimensions of cognition (perception, memory, neurological disorders), but we will focus on research in the areas of language, symbolic thought, communication, and use of cognitive artefacts. We will investigate the nature of symbolic cognition in all human meaning systems from language, writing, and images to computer code and digital media, and uncover how the functions of technical mediation in our recent technologies are extensions of core human collective-cognitive abilities. Our main objective is learning how we can best describe the features of human meaning systems and understand their recent implementations in media, interfaces, and computational architectures. We will begin with major testable hypotheses from cognitive science research for understanding the core functions of symbol systems their principles for “open extensibility” in current and future technical implementations.

The Learning and Research Context
Motivated by research in the cognitive sciences, many disciplines are now converging on major questions surrounding the nature of human symbolic cognition and cognitive technologies (the technologies for symbolic representation, media, information, computation, and communication). We will draw from key research and theory in several intersecting fields: linguistics; the study of meaning systems and human symbolic artefacts (semiotics); communication and information theory; media theory and human-computer interface (HCI) design; computational thinking and theories of computation; cognitive anthropology and archaeology; artificial intelligence; and philosophy of language and mind.

We will work both on both macro and micro levels, studying the research literature on the big questions of mediated human symbolic cognition as well as on implementations in specific media and recent combinatorial media in digital technology. Each student will work through a case or example of technology to study and analyze throughout the course (e.g., a mobile device, an interface, a PC). Concluding case studies will include Google Glass and developments in hybrid media design.

The course will be conducted as a seminar, and grades will be based on weekly student writing (on WordPress site), in-class presentations, a group project, and a final research project (a case study of an instance of current cognitive technology that can be better understood through the methods in the seminar).

By the end of the course, students will have acquired important interdisciplinary tools, concepts, and methods for analyzing computational and digital media technologies as:

  • implementations of core human capabilities in symbolic cognition
  • technical methods for extending and distributing collective cognitive capabilities in designed artefacts
  • representations and transformations of meaning in collective symbol systems for communication and creativity
  • interfaces to meaning processes that motivate the design of technical mediation
  • interfaces to networks of human agency and cognition
  • Students will also learn the application of this approach to designing interfaces, apps, and better human-computer interactions.