Power of Cognition

Storytelling is vital to human cognition in making sense of world and reality that we construct in living our everyday lives. The production of language and symbolic meaning-making in film has many layers from production, mediation, communication within the film and outwards to the audience. In Mindware, Clark presents the mind as a “meat machine” and as a biological computer system that is separated from all other things on this planet by self-awareness and thoughts; our meta flow of thoughts about thoughts and our reason-respecting flow of actions are structured in such a systematic way that we have the ability to watch and comprehend commentary on the degradation of human communication and acknowledge “languages” that we don’t understand. Throughout the readings, I was reminded of the Disney-Pixar film “Wall-E” which can be evaluated by it’s combinatorial meaning systems, grammar and distributed cognition both in it’s creation as a computer animated production and in it’s story and characters. As an example, I will use the clip below to demonstrate how people make sense of the film in it’s current form and how it showcases the three different instances of human symbolism and meaning. 


Two major points are to be made of this scene:

1. Wall-E and his robot counterparts do not speak English except for names, yet their beeps and non-verbals are familiar and continue the narrative.   

2. There is obvious meaning to the depiction of humans living cognitively through technology, a warning and foreboding of the loss of “real” human communication system and cognition of the collective group.    

The film follows the life of an A.I that has emotions and “falls in love” with another machine, Eve. The story does not have include a lot of human speaking until Wall-E encounters them on a spaceship. What is intriguing about the movie is the way it moves the story along , knowing or at least expecting that the audience can follow based on verbal and social cues associated with human grammar. The ability to manipulate the movements and “expressions” of the characters through CGI help to make the robots seem “human” with their reasoning and expressive language capabilities despite their machine like experience. Their actions and emotions make sense to us as we follow them on the screen because it plays out a basic narrative that we are all familiar with, boy                                                               meets girl, girl is “kidnapped,” boy goes to save girl. Intriguingly, even though the robots are clearly machines, it is easier to assign them gender roles, provided by the cognitive stimuli in the form of symbolic human tones and actions, to make the story more meaningful and follow the complex and logical structure of the human through process. Or in this case, the belief in lack of logic when involving love. In this sense, and in many other films, this narrative is a form of grammar where the viewer knows the basic story, but as it is reformatted, are able to engage with the people, or in this case robots, based on the affordances of the environment around them.

The second part of the film focuses on Wall-E’s interaction with the humans who live on flying chairs, communicating right next to each other via futuristic skype-like screens rather than face-to-face. This human “dystopia” presents a look into the effects of distributed cognition. Wall-E’s  interactions on the abandoned Earth are mainly with non-living external artifacts, excluding his pet cockroach. He instead watches movies on TV and exhibits a sense of loneliness from lack of communication with others. When he encounters Eve, and later the humans, his cognitive environment changes. Additionally, the humans display an interesting example of the idea of distributed cognition as an interaction between human and technologies and social organization itself as a form of cognitive architecture. (Hollan, Hutchins, Kirsh) Humans have entered a state in which technology has taken over many of the cognitive actions that were once performed face-to-face and mediating all relationships through technology. It is a more extreme example of what many people are arguing today about how technology is rewiring our brain and how we perceive the world and relationships. The entire culture of social practices and interaction with external artifacts has changed in the community of humans in the film, with Wall-E being  more cognitively able than the meat machine of the human brain.

On a side note, this short blog on “The New Yorker” looks into creating a simulation of the human brain in computers: The Brain in the Machine

Andy Clark, Mindware: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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.

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