Understand Our Technologies from a New Angle

After this week’s reading, I know that cognitive technologies are those that connect human’s mind with outside world and construct a loop between our body and task, within interaction in environment. Cognitive-symbolic artifacts are embodiment of cognitive technology, symbols and humans’ mind. By using these technologies and artifacts, humans sacrifice parts of their brain’s function, however, in my opinion, the gain outweigh the pay. They further help us address tasks in an easier and more understandable way.

Symbolic-cognitive artifacts appear hundreds of thousands of years ago, and nowadays they exist everywhere in our daily life. They already become parts of our culture and our mind. Computational and media technologies brought by informational and technological revolution constitute important and even necessary part of our work, study and life. Can you imagine your life without any media? Take television as an example. From this “black box”, we can watch soap operas, talk shows, sports event and etc. These television shows happen across time and there are many kinds of technology behind these shows to product them, including video shooting and edition, voice recording and computer processing. These technologies help human store their voice and image, making these symbols not restrict to our mind and body, and coming out to be stored in artifacts so that they can exist beyond time and reach to different people-beyond environment.  In this sense, we understand the artifact television better because we not just see it as a machine- a mechanically, electrically, or electronically operated device for performing a task as described in Merriam Webster Dictionary-but also see the deeper meaning inside it: it represents our mind, our voice, our image and our memory and further keeps them without threat of time and disseminates them without limitation of distance.

“Cognitive technologies” and “symbolic-cognitive artifacts” also help us understand the design principle of computational and media technologies. From the definition of cognitive technology mentioned above, we know that once we look something as an artifact, we can analyze it with the whole system which includes human’s body and mind, outside environment and the interaction between them. The design principle, for example, “constraints” limits interaction between us and artifact. In this way, it decreases the rate of error. In contrast, the design principle “visibility” amplifies the interaction between them. Designers should design products based on conceptual model because it will help human build an interaction with products. They should also design products with consideration of their surrounding environment to make sure that user could interact with the product in a proper way. Kindle can be a good example to illustrate these principles and show us why understanding media and computational technologies from cognitive an artifact’s angle is better. Kindle’s design is quite simple, with only one button, one interface and one black-white screen. This simple hardware design helps users avoid mistakes since there are no more choices for us to insert or touch. Besides, the screen is of reasonable size so that we could read it with more comfort. Kindle is also very light and we can hold it on hand for an hour without feeling our wrist painful, which provides us better user experience than reading paper books. There is no certain environment where we use Kindle because we don’t read books in a certain place in most situations. That’s way Kindle is designed to be portable in order to meet our habit. If kindle is analyzed merely as a machine, it will be difficult for us to understand its relationship with us and the design principle behind it.

In sum, understanding media and technologies as cognitive technologies and symbol artifacts will give us a new angle to analyze the technologies around us and reconsider not only our interaction and relationship between them, but also step forward to another level about design principle.



Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2008.

Kate Wong, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6: 86-95. 2005.