The Distributed Cognition of Television

A media artefact that I usually like to view things through is television. I thought that it was particularly useful this week with so many concepts being introduced to take things back to where I’m comfortable. This week introduced distributed cognition, and the ideas of how language and symbols interact with the human mind, how that has evolved, and also how we use metaphor to make meaning. According to Hollan, Hutchens and Kirsh, the theory of distributed cognition looks beyond the individual cognition of a person and includes interactions between people as well as with the outside environment and materials. Some components of this are the coordination of internal and external, and the idea of memory. Things that happen now can be products of earlier events, and rely on that memory. “The relations between internal processes and external ones are far more complex, involving coordination at many different time scales between internal resources—memory, attention, executive function—and external resources—the objects, artifacts, and at-hand materials constantly surrounding us.” (Hollan, et. al).

The television medium shows a modern example of distributed cognition. Shows rely on a lot of different players and parts to be successful. The interaction between the creator and the writers, the producers and the actors, the editors and the musicians all make a television show what it is. Beyond that is the audience. The people behind a show rely on the memory of the audience to keep up with a long-standing story. Television is an ongoing art form and something that requires the worn-in feel that they talked about wanting to replicate in modern HCI. Symbols, language, and meaning making are also extremely important to a successful television show. Especially in genre shows, there are certain signs that let you know what to expect. In a comedy, you expect a physical pratfall or a even a laugh track which reminds you when to laugh. In a spy drama, you expect twists and turns. In the horror genre, you know that once someone runs up the stairs, they’re probably going to get killed. Metaphors can also be hugely effective to evoke an emotion or to impart a feeling without having to write it out as exposition.

The example that pops to mind is The Americans, a show that just premiered last week. The show is set in 1981 in D.C. and features a married couple who run a travel agency in Dupont Circle. Except it turns out that they’re really KGB agents planted in the US to gather intel during the Cold War, and their marriage is arranged through their government. To make matters more complicated, they’ve been in their marriage for 15 years and have had children together and might be starting to actually have feelings for each other. One of the largest aspects of the show is the idea of the Cold War as a metaphor for their marriage. With all of the espionage and lies, can a spy really know or trust anyone? Can you really ever truly know your spouse? There’s giving and taking and changing relationships. There’s diplomacy and cooperation. There’s a sense of allegiance, whether or not you’re having a good day, to each other. Beyond that is the symbols of a bunch of different things. There’s the indicators throughout that denote the time period: the fashion, the music choices, the references to Reagan and certain astronauts. There are symbols of a(n outdated) spy show: wigs and disguises, interrogations, high-speed chases. The writers behind The Americans are betting on the audience’s memory of the new characters and the plot, but also of the historical implications of the time. They’re trusting you to get the genre and to roll with it. And I think there’s the certain feeling of responsibility to give you what you’re expecting – the drama, the high stakes, the close calls. On top of all of this is the fact that the show is based off of a true story of Russian sleeper cells that were discovered living in New Jersey in the early 2000s. Does that cognitive memory need to be tapped?

I think overall that television requires that sort of distributed cognition due to its serialized nature. Shows with big casts and multiple seasons require an almost working relationship between viewer and writer. There is an entire world that is made in which people need to suspend their own realities and join to understand. The grammar of serialized television includes all of these elements.  By combining so many different elements, such as the written words, the visual components, the music, and the story, a lot of different meaning and symbols need to be deconstructed to be understood as a whole. This also requires the knowledge from viewers of each of these aspects, and their reaction can ultimately impact the show. If things aren’t working, the creators will be forced to fix it or they’ll be at risk of going off air. Since television lasts longer than film, it has become much more collaborative with its audience, which can add even more to the distributed cognition. There’s an additional landscape putting in their inputs.



Deacon, Terrence W.  The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain.        New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Hollan, James, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsh. “Distributed Cognition: Toward a New   Foundation for Human-computer Interaction Research.” ACM Transactions, Computer- Human Interaction 7, no. 2 (June 2000): 174-196.

Lakoff, George. “Conceptual Metaphor.” Excerpt from Geeraerts, Dirk, ed. Cognitive Linguistics:            Basic Readings. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2006.