Cognitive Artifacts and Access

Jalyn Marks

Cognitive artifacts reference “the information processing role played by physical artifacts upon the cognition of the individual” (Norman 18). More simply, cognitive artifacts “enhance cognition” (Norman 20).

Norman writes on the ways in which cognitive artifacts influence the behavior and approaches taken to accomplish tasks:

    1. “Distribute the actions across time (precomputation);”
    2. “Distribute the actions across people (distributed cognition);” and,
    3. “Change the actions required of the individuals doing an activity” (22).

A few examples of every day cognitive artifacts that I use are the notes that I write myself on sticky notes–stuck to my computer and reminding me of things to look up later and tasks to complete, my calendar, which helps me plan out my time for school, work, and socially, and my mobile banking app, which aids me in tracking my finances. I have grown up accustomed to referencing these three items so frequently that I am dependent upon them in order to function on a day-to-day basis.

This idea of functioning, decision-making, and working within a society brings me to the topic of free will. “Individuals are active agents in their own development but do not act in settings entirely of their own choosing” (Cole 104). Using my examples above, I was born into a culture that expects me to turn assignments in on time or risk a bad grade or losing my job, which could lead to me being unable to pay my bills, which could lead to me being unable to meet my basic needs, like having food to eat or a place to sleep at night. I have the freedom of choice when it comes to the cognitive artifacts that I use and how frequently I use them, but my culture expects me to figure what works best for me on my own.

There’s no standardization, one-size-fits-all cognitive artifact that meets everyone’s needs. Some cognitive artifacts, like writing in a notebook or learning to read time are taught in school and are common knowledge, but others, like which banking app to download or what dietary food chart to reference, help perpetuate systemic inequities. The cognitive artifacts that I use compared to my neighbor differ depending on various levels of support and access. The access granted to me by the setting I find myself in has a huge impact on my quality of life.

My setting, the culture I find myself in, “can be understood as the entire pool of artifacts accumulated by the social group in the course of its historical experience” (Cole 110). Now, this makes me think of people excluded from the social group, specifically people who communicate differently, either because they speak a different language or have a disability. Cole references American anthropologist Leslie White, who wrote about the shift of objects becoming not just a thing or tool that is used to an artifact; artifacts influence language and behavior, they carrier symbolic meaning and alter values (120). Having been introduced now to cognitive artifacts, I believe they can be utilized to expand the values of society in order to improve access for all.


Works Cited

Cole, Michael. Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

Norman, Donald A., ed. John M. Carroll. “Cognitive Artifacts.” Designing Interaction. Cambridge University Press, 1991.