In reading Hutchins’ analysis of the implications of extended mind vs. distributed cognition, I was struck by the very reasonable way he described the subjective nature of thinking about distribution:
…to take the distributed perspective is not to make any claim about the nature of the world. Rather, it is to choose a way of looking at the world, one that selects scales of investigation such that wholes are seen as emergent from interactions among their parts. The boundaries of the unit of analysis for distributed cognition are not fixed in advance; they depend on the scale of the system under investigation, which can vary as described below.
Can the Bedsider program (where I work) be an interface to thinking about this concept?
The website itself was designed to be a cognitive tool to extend the minds of users to incorporate accurate knowledge about pregnancy prevention and sexual health. It is designed to give individuals access to an immediate sense of all the ways to prevent pregnancy (with a visual “method explorer”) and then to provide more detail on demand. We provide video interviews of people talking about the birth control they use, which we hope will serve as alternatives to “real” interactions with people in an individual’s social circle.
Bedsider has some customization at this point, as you can see in the screen capture above – users can set up birth control and appointment reminders, earn rewards, and save health center information to their profiles. Eventually we’d like to do more with customization such as allowing users to bookmark content or to “subscribe” to their method to get updates, news, and detailed information.
One important way in which Bedsider is “distributed” is through partnerships with health care providers. To stretch the metaphor, we see providers as a crucial extension of our programmatic mind both in terms of their knowledge and in terms of their connection to our target audience. We need them to help make sure our resources are accurate and useful and also to help our resources reach our target audience. We also need them to actually provide the health care that makes it possible for our audience to put their knowledge and intention to prevent pregnancy into action.
In exchange, we provide providers with tools they can use with their patients to provide better health care. Providers can sign their patients up for birth control and appointment reminders as well as testing reminders for sexually transmitted infections. We work with them on tools for waiting rooms to help patients familiarize themselves with their birth control options before their appointments. Providers can also customize the information about their clinics/offices in our database to let people know about their services.
The goal of Bedsider is to reduce rates of unintended pregnancy among 18- to 29-year-olds in the United States, so the program itself aims to distribute cognition to create collective behavior change. While the program is “human-centered” and seeks first and foremost to be a resources for individuals, the individuals are part of the big picture of creating change on a societal and cultural scale. Like Hutchins’ systems, accomplishing the desired goal involves influencing complex interactions on individual, interpersonal, and cultural levels.