Category Archives: Week 4

Language and communication in a privatized society

When Deacon (1998) suggests that comparing non-human species communication with the use of a language is misguided, I wonder, using the same logic, why is it adequate to say “machine language”, or to consider encryption a non-human language? Is the symbolic representation embedded in their design enough to characterize them as languages?

If we assume that they are languages, one of their important aspects is that, to be produced, the mediation of gadgets such as calculators, computers is necessary. Going further, it is like to say that human beings produce technologies that allow them to create new languages. But I wonder what is the role of technologies in this creation? Can we say that they are co-creators of new languages?

The implication of a co-creator is the possible autonomy that one can foreseen for such technologies. I am here concerned with the foreseeable number of artificial intelligent machines that tends to populate our society more intensely, and their own role on that as co-creators. What could we expect? Is the ex-machina movie a plausible answer to this question, showing the autonomy of a robot taking an unexpected decision to the audience?

In this direction, one phenomenon studied by some scholars (the Brazilian Sergio Amadeu, for example) is the privatization of memory. The use of memory devices is a fundamental aspect of the current stage of technology and society development. Memory and memory slots could be considered, in Norman (1991) words, “cognitive artefacts” that contribute for our collective intelligence.  The capacity of storing kilobytes is now converted into terabytes or more. Through the readings I wonder if one can assess accurately to what extent technologies are co-agents, contributing to changes in our communication behavior, and consequently, in human beings’ language. I am not talking about the differences in spelling words, in building shorter sentences, etc. Because we are becoming more and more dependent on artefacts, such as code and decode encryption devices, our dependence on machines, and consequently, on companies, for us to save information – images, facts, knowledge – and ultimately to speak safely – is really disturbing.

Social network sites as cognitive technologies

Social network sites, viewed as collectively symbolic, cognitive technologies (Cole, 1996; Norman,1991), are technologies that materialize previously ideal cultural artifacts such as birthdays or ways of sharing information. Moreover, because it seems that, as Hollan, Hutchins and Kirsh (2000) hoped, the idea of continuously re-designing social platforms according to user uses and needs is a prominent practice in the social media business, these technologies are constantly evolving as they adapt to and also adjust these cultural artifacts over time.

If we consider certain actions we take on social network sites to interact with our “Friends”, we can see many of them are digitalized versions of things we used to do before having social media in our lives, such as wishing someone a happy birthday, but that have also been shaped in new forms by incorporated features in the technology—such as the Facebook feature that notifies you of your Friends’ birthdays and prompts you to post on their wall or send them a message. While we would congratulate people on our different social networks on their birthdays before social media, it is likely we would not have remembered everyone’s birthday and send them any type of message as often. Congratulating someone on their birthday is in itself a cultural norm; the idea of commemorating the date someone is born is a cultural act that is learned through ages of doing so across cultures, and part of institutions in various forms. At elementary schools, kids can sing to their classmates; and people can expect some paid time off work either through informal norms or laws, when they are older. And on social network sites, people can expect to be reminded of their contacts’ birthdays and to have their birthdays notified to them. Moreover, while wishing somebody a happy birthday could have been an ideal artifact, sometimes materialized in a gift or a card, on social network sites it is always materialized (and permanently archived) if we regard a digital message as such.

In wanting to keep this site focused on interpersonal communication, Facebook designers understood the significance of the birthday as a cultural artifact and modified the feature over the years to make it more prominent. Facebook algorithms will show you popular activity in your network of contacts and birthdays tend to be one, so a contact’s birthday tends to be on someone’s wall making it an “event” on a user’s feed. When you might have not been enthused about sending a message to a contact, seeing more people do it may give you a push and thus establish new lines of communication across networks. The construction of the birthday changes along with the emerging dynamics that take place on social network sites. In this way, our collective symbolic cognition about this artifact is carried on in an ever-changing way.

A similar example can be seen on Twitter, where we can see how users on social network sites also shape these cognitive technologies according to the type of use they need from it. When Twitter was originally designed, it did not have the now very famous Retweet feature, as the action of re-tweeting somebody was not considered by the designers. Once users started getting ahold of the system, they realized that part of how they wanted to communicate was by spreading information effectively within the character limit of the platform. A re-tweet allows a user to share somebody else’s message in a format that gives information about the post being somebody else’s (in saying it’s a re-tweet) and that links to that somebody, thus giving proper credit and making that someone easy to find (by linking to their username). While this practice, which required users to copy-paste somebody’s Tweet and format it as a re-tweet, was becoming popular, the designers of the platform took notice and made it into a button that facilitates the task. The platform now has a key feature that emerged from how users decided to share information through a collectively agreed on criteria. Retweets are now not only an indicator of how many times a message has been spread, but a symbol of popularity within the Twitter community. We can see here as well how social network sites, as cognitive technologies, serve as both mediators and objects of culture. Their users make use of them not only to express cultural norms but also to shape them, while at the same time these objects carry meaning on which users act.


Michael Cole, On Cognitive Artifacts, From Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
James Hollan, 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)

Constructor for kids (Lego) for developing cognitive thinking and learning process

Galib Abbaszade

I think there is no simple answer to this question – “yes” or “no”. All depends on the angle of view to the examined situation / phenomenon. For example: from personal view, despite new cognitive technologies make us faster, smarter, and stronger, they share with customer almost no information to understand them, the ways of their functioning and nature. The more sophisticated newly invented devices, the more they are presented like “black boxes” with almost no chance to comprehend them. In this situation “cognitive technologies” are tend to be more useful tools to accomplish some jobs. It may be the last model of Tesla, but it still just simple device for driver to move her/him from point A to point B and become helpful for a driver to change her/his task. On other hand, if we apply the third side view to the situation, then we can see the car itself and its driver in more systematic way, when a task may be accomplished by employing both parts of the system – a person-driver and a car.

As a sample of the cognitive artifact I thought to choose constructor for kids (Lego). The different parts of the whole set are different type of signs, symbols and artifacts themselves, which were invented and utilized from beginning from the ancient periods of human civilizations. As a samples of simple parts of the set, there are provided different types and colors of geometrical figures for the newly-born babies as a beginners in the sophisticated world. Their cognitive process of realizing environment resembles the whole process of inventing and understanding artifacts by the previous generations, but in significantly short period. The older kid, the more complex the parts of the set to prepare her/him for the modern life. All of them represent symbolic-cognitive artefacts and some of them resembling advanced technologies, like cars, computers, rail way system, etc. The different parts of the constructor set represents different types of symbols and represents the long history of human cognition development process.

Also, they may be used as samples of modularity, because sometimes each of them can match properly in different segments of the whole construction. They become as communication tool between real life and learning brain. Images of very basic and important things in human life become subjects of thinking way of the child, indicating and memorizing in the subconscious layer of the brain for the rest of the life. Later throughout the technology development process those images (houses, traffic signs, environment images, etc.) and symbols moved to the software programs designed both for kids and adults and completing the whole learning and developing process within the life time.

It also helps to develop distributed cognition from childhood, which indicates in obtaining collective knowledge.

And this instrumental learning process may initiate collective symbolic cognition from the real first days of the brain formation process.

Constructor for kids (Lego) for developing cognitive thinking and learning process.

Constructor for kids (Lego) for developing cognitive thinking and learning process.

Galib Abbaszade

I think there is no simple answer to this question – “yes” or “no”. All depends on the angle of view to the examined situation / phenomenon[i]. For example: from personal view, despite new cognitive technologies make us faster, smarter, and stronger, they share with customer almost no information to understand them, the ways of their functioning and nature. The more sophisticated newly invented devices, the more they are presented like “black boxes” with almost no chance to comprehend them. In this situation “cognitive technologies” are tend to be more useful tools to accomplish some jobs. It may be the last model of Tesla, but it still just simple device for driver to move her/him from point A to point B and become helpful for a driver to change her/his task. On other hand, if we apply the third side view to the situation, then we can see the car itself and its driver in more systematic way, when a task may be accomplished by employing both parts of the system – a person-driver and a car.

As a sample of the cognitive artifact I thought to choose constructor for kids (Lego). The different parts of the whole set are different type of signs, symbols and artifacts themselves, which were invented and utilized from beginning from the ancient periods of human civilizations[ii]. As a samples of simple parts of the set, there are provided different types and colors of geometrical figures for the newly-born babies as a beginners in the sophisticated world. Their cognitive process of realizing environment resembles the whole process of inventing and understanding artifacts by the previous generations, but in significantly short period. The older kid, the more complex the parts of the set to prepare her/him for the modern life. All of them represent symbolic-cognitive artefacts and some of them resembling advanced technologies, like cars, computers, rail way system, etc. The different parts of the constructor set represents different types of symbols and represents the long history of human cognition development process.

Also, they may be used as samples of modularity, because sometimes each of them can match properly in different segments of the whole construction. They become as communication tool between real life and learning brain. Images of very basic and important things in human life become subjects of thinking way of the child, indicating and memorizing in the subconscious layer of the brain for the rest of the life. Later throughout the technology development process those images (houses, traffic signs, environment images, etc.) and symbols moved to the software programs designed both for kids and adults and completing the whole learning and developing process within the life time.

It also helps to develop distributed cognition[iii] from childhood, which indicates in obtaining collective knowledge.

 

And this instrumental learning process may initiate collective symbolic cognition from the real first days of the brain formation process[iv].

[i] From J. M. Carroll (Ed.), 1991, Designing Interaction: Phycology at the Human-Computer Interface, Cambridge University Press; Cognitive Artifacts article by Donald A. Norman, p. 19 – 21.

[ii] James Hollan, 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)

[iii] James Hollan, 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)

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

 

Lego and Lego-like games – my thoughts of cognitive artifacts

After finishing this week’s readings, I find myself so unfamiliar with the true essence of symbolic cognition. I used to regard symbolic cognition as our feelings about color matching, pattern design and other things of design that are directly related to appearance. For example, the combination of red and green is obnoxious to most people without meticulous design. However, visual design is just a small part of the whole process. It is the symbol that externalizes our cognitive process supports the whole theory structure.

1.Lego and cognitive artifacts

Last week we discussed the definition of modularity, which can be perfectly explained by Lego toys. Lego’s basic component is a colorful plastic module with projecting tube on the top and matching hole on the back[1]. Just like constructing a house by laying bricks and fixing them with concrete or reinforcing bars, Lego bricks can be assembled in many ways. Cuboid is the simplest geometry that can be formed by Lego bricks. With numbers of Lego bricks, it is not difficult to realize sphere, ellipsoid and other complicated structures.

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The basic structure of Lego 

So how does Lego meet the concept of cognitive artifact? Let’s check the definition given by Mr. Norman first. In his book Designing Interaction, Norman defines cognitive artifact at very first as “ an artificial device designed to maintain, display, or operate upon information in order to serve a representational function.”[2] There are some key words here, respectively “maintain”, “display”, “operate” and “representational function”.

It is really easy to understand the word “maintain” and “display”. Lego today is regarded as an art form since with ten thousands of Lego bricks, we can duplicate almost everything we see in daily life. Like paintings, statues, books, and movies, the objects constructed by Lego can definitely show people what a vehicle, a building or a figure made by plastic bricks look like. It is the information that Lego can maintain and display.

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Lamborghini Veneno Roadster made of Lego bricks. Source:https://ideas.lego.com/projects/106343 

Concerning “operate”, I want to use a computer game that originates from Lego, Minecraft, to illustrate my idea. As we know, Minecraft can be regarded as a digitalized Lego, in which most units, including water, soil and wood, are presented in cubic form. Actually, what attracts many scientific geniuses to play the game is a component called redstone. Like graphite and metal in reality, redstone can be used as the material for constructing logical circuit. So asides from just assembling every brick together, we can transmit information by aligning the module by certain order.

Grassy-T-Flip-Flop_3166507

A simple redstone circuit consisted of Lego-like bricks. Source:http://www.planetminecraft.com/project/redstone-circuit-designer/

Thus, the representational function of Lego is clear. According to Norman, there are three essential ingredients of a representational system – the represented world, the representing world and an interpreter[2]. We use Lego and Lego-like games to duplicate the daily objects, test scientific rules and construct miniature CPU-like system with elaborate design and careful operation, thus crystallizing the ideas in our mind. That is the representational function of Lego and Lego-like systems.

2.Lego and distributed cognition

In Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research, Hollan, Hutchins and Kirsh mention three kinds of distribution of cognitive process[3]:

  • Cognitive processes may be distributed across the members of a social group.
  • Cognitive processes may involve coordination between internal and external (material or environmental) structure.
  • Processes may be distributed through time in such a way that the products of earlier events can transform the nature of later events.

Actually, users of Lego and players of Lego-like games are not isolated crowds. Just imagine the process of duplicating a car using Lego. First, it is inevitable for the creator to observe the structure of a real car. Maybe he needs to study the basic mechanical principles of a car or gauges the size and calculates the proportion of each part. It is undoubtedly the interaction between internal(ideas of making a Lego car) and external structure(learning the car’s structure). Then, other players will make comments and suggestions once the creator posts his prototype online. In this process, the creator himself is not the only one who participates in the process. Finally, the creator himself may get inspiration from the process , design a digital Lego software to assemble a car and publish it online, so it can be regarded as time-related. In fact, the success of Minecraft has really created a new game genre called Minecraft-like games, allowing players to make their own projects by assembling modules freely. For example, Besiege is a popular Minecraft-like game that encourages players to design their own machines. Besides Minecraft-like games, even the traditional triple-A games, like Fallout, The Elder Scroll and Grand Theft Auto, begin to add the system that allows players to custormize their houses, vehicles and weapons by combining in-advance-designed modules . Maybe it is still too early to say that Minecraft has changed the logic of following game designers, but the Lego-like games really change the history of gaming industry.


References:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lego

[2]Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991

[3]James Hollan, 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)

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

 

Chess as Cognitive Artifact

Chen Shen

 

After this week’s reading, the thing strikes me the most is how much our lives rely on symbolic cognition, and how little we know about it. Even how little we think about it. Moreover, the concepts I gleaned from the reading equipped me with new perspectives to think about familiar things. So I’d like to use the example of chess to illustrate what I learned this week.

Chess and game

By definition, Chess is a two-player strategy board game played on a chessboard, a checkered gameboard with 64 squares arranged in an eight-by-eight grid.1 It is one of the dominating board games in the western world now but has a long history of changing and adjusting. Chess is not a unique culture activity, many different civilizations played games from its earliest days, like Senet of Ancient Egypt, Go of China, and Backgammon of Ancient Roman. These all suggest a universal need in human mind to engage in imaginary battles by manipulating symbols.

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Chess and cognitive artifact

Here, I use the word chess mainly to mean its material parts, like chessboard and chess pieces, not the rules and cognitive procession happens in the player’s mind.

The definition of Cognitive Artifact presented in Donald A.Norman’s book is widely accepted, “A cognitive artifact is an artificial device designed to maintain, display, or operate upon information in order to serve a representational function2“.  The representational function of chess is to provide the players with a visual and tangible base to embody the present situation of the game. It displays an otherwise imaginary picture of the battlefield, skilled players have the ability to keep all moves and position in mind thus eliminating the necessity of a physical representation. But for one to develop such skill, chessboard and pieces are still inevitable. And also, since chess is a two-man game, by displaying the conceptional situations in different individuals are unified to keep the game smoothly going. It maintains a temporary snapshot of a certain time in the game. Chess is a game based on moves, which mean a finite opening evolves into nearly infinite compositions via moves. One has to think forward to imagine what’s the situation going to be and think back to trace hidden strategy of the opponent. So by maintaining, chess acts as an anchor to the present. In the meanwhile, chess game can be so long that rest between moves is needed. In such circumstances, chessboard and pieces act like an external information storage unit putting players to an utterly rest.  The operating part of chess is obvious, players move the pieces in turn to inform the opponent how he wants to change the status quo and renew the position of the game. So chess matches all criterions of the cognitive artifact.

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Chess and distributed cognition

As pointed out in the beginning in Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research by Hollan, Hutchins, and Kirsh, “distributed cognition refers to a perspective on all of cognition, rather than a particular kind of cognition3“. So I should not say chess is a distributed cognitive process, but chess is a great media to check the principles of distributed cognition.  The authors presented three characteristics:

  • Cognitive processes may be distributed across the members of a social group

A typical chess game is the result of engaging and interacting between two minds, sometimes even more. During the gameplay, cognitive process is like this: (we all know what happen to the poor Dr.B from The Royal Game by Zweig)

Venn 2 Circles Template

  • Cognitive processes may involve coordination between internal and external (material or environmental) structure

During the game, players also use notes to help them keep track of the game. In formal games,  players hit the timer after every move; in informal games, players talk to opponents or bystanders to exchange ideas. The process is like this:

Venn 2 Circles Template (1)

  • Processes may be distributed through time in such a way that the products of earlier events can transform the nature of later events:

No game is an island. Thanks to the algebraic notations, chess players can savor and learn from all the games in the history, which form a collective cognition. Also, the gaming history of any individual player has a different impact on his strategic choices now, so the process can be depicted like this:

Venn 2 Circles Template (2)

Chess and other key concepts of this week

Chess pieces also reflect the classification of representational relationship by Charles Sanders Peirce. The chess piece queen can be simultaneously  conceptual and material. The figure below is a typical queen piece. And next to it is the icon for the queen, we can see the similarity of the crown.

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Imagine a video chess game with sound effect for every piece, then the unique sound of queen is an index because they have a temporally sequential relation. In some restrooms in Europe, we can see signs like this on the door, and they serve as symbols because the connection is “mediated by some formal or merely agreed-upon link irrespective of any physical characteristics of neither sign(king and queen) or object(restroom)4“.

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Also, we can see, there is more than one type of the queen piece, they vary in all characteristics, but they can all be represented by the icon above, this is because “being iconic is an interpretive process produced by the receiver of the signifier, not something about the signifier”. And this kind of connection can only be gained through culture.3

Other thoughts and questions:

  • In Chapter 13 of The Symbolic Species, the author suggests that “human brain has been significantly overbuilt for learning symbolic associations5“. This reminds the once popular notion that we are now only using a small percentage of the full potential of the brain, even Albert Einstein only used 15%. I doubt such notions because from a revolutionary perspective the brain is a high-energy-consuming organ that uses 16% of our energy with only 3% of body mass. In the ancient time, if a certain mutational human had “overbuilt” brain with greater potential but no practical usage, he would have no reproductive advantage against those with a regular brain, and the extra energy cost of a more complex brain lower the possibility he passed on the mutation. I think the process of the evolution of brain was synchronized by the increasing  importance of language in human society, a co-evolution. Only in such circumstances a mutation could gain relative reproductive advantage and passed on the gene and set a stable mutational direction for brain evolution.
  • The “airspeed indicator in cockpit” is an excellent example to illustrate the importance of ethnographic research. Also, it reflects the core principles of user-oriented design. When dealing with artifacts with high technology, due to a low level of understanding, people tend to assume the design is flawless and blame all kinds of malfunction to themselves. But the hidden fact is, designers often know as little about user experience as user know the technology. And users can interact with the design in efficient and innovative ways that never occur to designers, so we should forgo the role and psychology of consumer and think design as a product, not a doctrine.
  • In Norman’s Cognitive Artifacts, he distinguished the personal view and system view of an artifact and argued that artifacts changed the nature of the task, which is so insightful. Our brain evolved in the prehistoric time, giving us the ability to communicate, invent, abstract, recognize patterns and many other abilities, but not all abilities. Many problems, though seem inseparable from modern life, like logic and probability is in fact what’s brain terrible at. That’s why people have observational selection bias, gambler’s fallacy and neglecting probilitity problem. One great thing about artifact is how they change tasks unfit for human brain into something brain is good at.

References

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chess
  • Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991
  • James Hollan, 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)
  • Terrence W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998
  • Colin Renfrew, “Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage.” In Cognition and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Symbolic Storage, edited by Colin Renfrew, 1-6. Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 1999.
  • Michael Cole, On Cognitive Artifacts, From Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996

Jieshu Wang – My Personal History of Abacus: From Physical to Mental

I’d like to talk about abacus—an ancient cognitive artifact that is still widely used in China. I began learning abacus to do arithmetic since I was six and interestingly, as time went on, there emerged a virtual abacus in my mind every time I need to calculate, which directly manifests the ideal-material-duality of artifacts mentioned by John Dewey, Marx, and Hegel[i].

1. Abacus as a Cognitive Artifact

According to Donald A. Norman, “a cognitive artifact is an artificial device designed to maintain, display, or operate upon information in order to serve a representational function[ii].” I will discuss how abaci fit in this definition.

The function of abaci is to do elementary arithmetic, specifically, using beads and their dynamic spatial relationships to represent numbers and their logic relationships. I used to play a 1/4 abacus that was suited to decimal calculation. It consisted of a wooden frame with beads sliding on vertical rods. Each rod was divided into two parts by a horizontal bar, above which each of the beads represents the number of five, while the lower beads represent ones.

The structure of an abacus. Source: www.icespune.com

The structure of an abacus. Source: www.icespune.com

An abacus could maintain and display information. As long as it stays undisturbed, the number represented by it will be recognized by anyone who knows the rules, even though he/she might not know what the number represents, say, the quantity of cows or the revenue of a pawnshop. Even if the positions of beads are disturbed—they are really apt to be messed up—it still maintains and displays the information of the initial state plus the action of disturbance.

Moreover, abaci could be used to operate information. Sets of rules must be learned in order to do that. For example, adding seven to a place involves following rules:

  • If the place you want to add seven has less than three lower beads in up position, then move other two lower beads to up position, and then:
    • If the upper bead is in its default state, i.e. the up position, then, move it to the low position;
    • If the upper bead is already in low position, move it to up position, and add one to the left place;
  • If the place you want to add seven has at least three lower beads in up position, then move three of them to low position, and add one to the left place.

Sounds tricky. A table of pithy formula, however, is used for memorizing the rules, in which, the entry for adding seven is simply “七去三进一,七上二去五进一”. Thus, playing abacus achieves two things:

  • From a system view, abacus offloads people’s cognitive efforts, which are limited in multi-digit and long serial calculation by unaided brain capacities, and ultimately enhances the aggregated system performance.
  • From an individual view, the initial tasks are changed, replaced by a serial of more physical new tasks as follows:
    • remembering the pithy formula (a process called precomputation by Edwin Hutchins);
    • moving the beads accordingly;
    • and translating the final state of beads into numbers.

2. Distributed Cognition of Abacus

Abacus has a long history in China, dating back to 2nd century BC. The shape, configuration, and formula have also evolved a long period to form the modern state. There are many stories, arts, and even music around the theme of abaci. For example, in the long scroll of Along the River During the Qingming Festival painted by Zhang Zeduan during Song dynasty, an abacus appeared on the counter of a medicine store[iii], as shown in the red circle below. Abacus has become a symbol for accounting in China and part of their cognitive process. Actually, in the absence of electronic calculator, learning abacus is an essential part in accountant training programs decades ago.

An abacus in Along the River During the Qingming Festival painted by Zhang Zeduan

An abacus in Along the River During the Qingming Festival painted by Zhang Zeduan

So, from a distributed cognition perspective, the cognitive processes involved in abacus do not only exist in individuals’ mind, but also distribute across social groups, through time, and in its unique culture.

3. My Mental Abacus

As Hollan, Hutchins and Kirsh mentioned in their Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-computer Interaction Research, distribution of cognitive process may involve coordination between internal and external structure [iv]. This reminds me of my mental abacus, an interesting experience that internalizes external artifact.

I don’t know what cognitive processes are going on in other people’s heads when they are calculating mentally, but for me, there exists a mental abacus in my mind, maybe due to heavy exposure to abacus training when I was little. That is to say, when I calculate, a vivid, three-dimensional image of abacus emerges in my head, with all the beads in their default positions. Then, I calculate by using a virtual hand to move the virtual beads according to the pithy formula and physical laws and then translate the final virtual beads position into numbers. The image can be enhanced by simultaneous actual hand movements. What is more strange is that sometimes, I even think my finger could feel the texture of the virtual beads—plastic, white, light-weighted, smooth, and cool like marble, attributes that may be associated with the forming of mental abacus and of which the specific neural circuits are retrieved by the emergence of mental abacus.

What is similar to the US Navy ships experiment by Hutchins is that, the cognitive processes required for a task are different from those processes actually used in the task, and just like the navigators who feel bearing as a direction in space relative to the position of their body instead of numbers [iv], this cross-modal representation is easy to go wrong. If the numbers are too long, then my mental abacus is easy to get fuzzy.

Nevertheless, I always wonder, what if I build a mental slide rule, can I calculate logarithmically?

4. Question

At last, I want to discuss a question. In his Cognitive Artifacts Chapter in Designing Interaction, Norman insisted that artifact could not change individual’s capacities. Rather, it just changes the nature of task performed by the person, in turn, extends the cognitive capacities of the whole system. I think, however, it contradicts with the co-evolution theory of language and brain in Terrence W. Deacon’s The Symbolic Species[v].

According to Cole, language is a cognitive artifact, just like hammers and tables[i]. Meanwhile, from his interdisciplinary study, Deacon stressed the importance of co-evolution of the human brain with language and symbolic cognition that then enabled human culture and technologies. This implied that artifacts do enhance individual’s capacities, both cognitively and physiologically—maybe through rewiring some vital neural circuits, otherwise, co-evolution would not have happened.


References

[i] Cole, Michael. 1996. “On Cognitive Artifacts.” In Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

[ii] Norman, Donald A. 1991. “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, 17–23. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[iii] Zhou, Raymond. 2014. “Honor the Past, Live in the Present.” China Daily, International Ed., January 4.

[iv] Hollan, James, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsh. 2000. “Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research.” ACM Transactions, Computer-Human Interaction 7 (2): 174–96.

[v] Deacon, Terrence William. 1997. The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton.