Your World, Reified in Your Pocket

It seems obvious, but I can think of no better example of an everyday digital device that cloaks a large quantify of forces and agencies than the smart phone. To use Hollan, Hutchins, and Kirsch’s three tenets of distributed cognition, the smart phone provides examples of socially distributed cognition, embodied cognition, and culturally embedded cognition.

Socially distributed cognition. Smart phones put both local and broad social networks of knowledge at our fingertips. We can text our husband to measure the basement’s square footage while when we’re at the paint store or our colleague to check the number of visits to a certain page of our website from a meeting. We can also tap and contribute to living encyclopedias of knowledge through websites and apps like wikipedia and wordreference.com.

Embodied cognition. One obvious way in which our smart phones interact with our bodies is by making this interface to so many resources portable. For example, we can use our smart phone for a self-guided tour of a city, walking around and exploring without fear of getting lost. We can play music on our smart phone and spontaneously practice tango in a park. Smart phone use may also be affecting our posture.

Culture and cognition. As Hollan, Hutchins, and Kirsch put it “Culture is a process that accumulates partial solutions to frequently encountered problems.” (Hollan et al p. 178) Smart phones are conceived and designed out of culture and they participate in a feedback loop of shaping the culture that shaped them. The intuitiveness of so many components of smart phones that we take for granted is due to cultural reference points. Would we understand the iconic interface so well without experience with desktop computers? Calling, text messages, email, camera, even apps like Words with Friends or Facebook draw from our familiarity with these tools in other contexts.

Smart phones were constructed according to our culture, bodies, and social tendencies, and they in turn contribute to those spheres of our reality. We live in a world where we expect to be able to access a textual and possibly graphic history of our lives (email, text messages, social networks); get directions or identify our location; fact-check anything; and entertain ourselves and others on demand. All thanks to a “thing” that fits in our pocket.

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About Liz Sabatiuk

Be it through digital media, Argentine tango, or interdisciplinary studies, I seek connections. Discovering unexpected connections is crucial to solving the complex problems of today’s world. And the feeling of connection – to self, community, and the planet – can drive us to make changes large and small in our lives and the lives of others. I’m pursuing an M.A. through Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology program to learn to better identify, explore, and facilitate these connections. When not studying at Georgetown, I create and edit content for Bedsider.org, a birth control support network that makes birth control easy.