Category Archives: Week 4

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.

Social Media is a Drug

Maybe it is true that human beings have developed symbolic thinking as early as the Middle Stone Age, as Henshilwood believes and it has been deeply rooted in our minds to this current day. We are surrounded by artefacts and as Cole suggests, we cannot view artefacts just as objects. He said, “Artefacts are simultaneously ideal and material. They coordinate human beings with the world and one another in a way that combines the properties and tools.” I am very interested in examining the cognitive artefacts in our everyday life and in this week’s essay, let’s look at social media.

Social media is ubiquitous and it is especially true for young people. Everyone I know uses at least two social media. Social media is a drug because we have a basic biological imperative to connect with other people, which directly affects the dopamine release in the reward pathway. Millions of years of evolution are behind that system to get us to come together and live in communities and to share things and socialize. So there is no doubt that social media that optimizes this connection between people is very addictive. I will admit that I am pretty addicted to social media, especially Instagram and Weibo. Every day I spend an average of 1 hour, 51 minutes on Weibo and 1 hour, 28 minutes on Instagram. It has definitely gotten much worse due to COVID. With the lockdown and social distancing, social media seems to be the only way for lots of people to connect. Yet, one major reason why I want to discuss social media is because it is going out of control.

The media technologies as cognitive technologies has become so advanced that sometimes I think social media apps know myself much better than I do. There is a classic saying that goes something like, “If you are not paying for the product, then you are the product.” Lots of people may just think, “Oh Instagram or Facebook is just a place for me to like pictures and connect with my friends.” Yet, the very goal of apps like these is to keep people engaged on the screen and to get people’s attention as much as they can. Have you ever noticed that sometimes you just search something on google and then you open up your Facebook page, and that exact thing you just searched is now appearing on your Facebook ad? That is by absolute no coincidence. The reason why companies like Facebook and Google is this mega-successful is because of the fact that they make great predictions. But how do they do that? Data. A ton of data. Everything we do on the internet and social media is being watched and measured: what kind of image does one look at and how long does one look at it. Think about our social media feed. Every time you refresh the page, something new pops up and it almost always is something that you may be interested in. This kind of cognitive technology is gradually modifying our behaviors, hacking into our psychology and exploiting the vulnerability in human psychology so that it can provide growth, engagement and user sign-ups for companies like Facebook or Twitter.

Think about your pencil. You wouldn’t not think of it as a tool because no one has ever blamed a pencil for meddling with political elections. But social media isn’t just a tool; it’s a carefully designed artefact that aims to use your own psychology against you. This is very bad and scary. What’s worse, the more I think about the ever-advanced cognitive technology behind social media, the more I worry about one day, scenes from Black Mirror or West World might become an reality. Yet, I have no willpower to get rid of social media for good because I am already addicted.



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

Michael Cole, On Cognitive Artifacts, From Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. Connected excerpts.

Computers as Symbolic Cognitive Artefacts

Rather than simply considering computation and media technologies as merely manufactured products, viewing these technologies as “symbolic-cognitive artefacts” provides an insight into their design principles, allowing a possibility for critique and even a scope for recognising improvements.

Let’s look at the computer. For a long time, the computer meant this assortment of a separate display unit, a mouse, a keyboard, a CPU. But then we had the laptop, the mobile phone, the Mac desktop, the tablet, and new technologies continue to develop. The computer is now looked at as a device to work on a wide variety of cognitive tasks from painting, photoshopping, designing, writing to even guiding weapons systems. But at the core of it lies algorithmic processing. Its essential task is to execute lines of codes. An algorithm is a finite sequence of welldefined, computer-implementable instructions, typically to solve a class of problems or to perform a computation, and this definition has not changed since the time of Ada Lovelace, the first programmer. (The Definitive Glossary) (Fuegi & Francis, 2003)

When computers are looked at as more than devices or machines, we can peer behind their current functionalities and look at “the cognitive” and “symbolic” continuum that we are part of. (Irvine, 2). The essence of computing is still algorithmic and we come closest to this essence when we look at it as a symbolic cognitive artefact. “We are simply at one point in a longer “cognitive continuum” that begins with language and symbolic representation, and expands into our ability the think with and represent multiple levels of abstraction (spanning writing, mathematics, symbolic media like images and combinations in film and multimedia, and computer code).” (Irvine, 2) As a machine, the computer has undergone a redesign for the past 70 years. As a symbolic cognitive artefact, the computer has gone through centuries of redesign. It began materially as fingers combined with a rule — of how to count on fingers and add and subtract. Computation on the basis of rule-following stretches back to logarithmic tables, where massive computations could be carried out by indexing numbers on a grid. By looking from a symbolic artefact POV, we become aware that logarithms, Charles Babbage’s Analytical engine, ENIAC, and the MacBook are all united by this lineage of evolving computation.


Analytic Engine (first described in 1837)

Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (1945) –  the first electronic general-purpose digital computer. Able to solve “a large class of numerical problems” through reprogramming.

When we look at the MacBook, we talk about its processing speed in terms of how fluid the transitions on our display will be. When we talk about the RAM we think about how many applications at a time could it handle. Don Norman explains that this way of looking at cognitive artefacts is called the personal view (Norman, 20). But within the system view, we look at an expansion of cognitive capabilities from the former state (either without a machine or with an inferior machine) to the latter state (the more powerful computational machine). 

The awareness of the computer as a cognitive artefact brings to light its symbolic manipulation capabilities in the backdrop of all such previous artefacts that functioned towards the same goal as that of a computer. We forget that calculations and following procedures is what computers were made for. To this effect, outdated technologies might still have something to teach us.

Don Norman gives an excellent example of this notion of antiquated symbolic systems that are not necessarily always inferior. He takes the example of the tally systems, the Roman numerals, Arabic numerals (modern number system). If we want to perform computations like additions, multiplications, etc then yes, the Arabic numerals are superior. But if we consider tasks like comparing numerical values, the tally system is superior as it allows the user to see which tally marks are lengthier. The length corresponds to the numerical value allowing for a more natural mapping. Roman Numerals try to accomplish the best of both worlds by being symbolic yet allowing length of the number to represent numerical value to an extent. (Norman, 32)

There might be problems in the history of the design of computers that led to certain constraints that led to certain designs. But when we look at the computer as a symbolic cognitive artefact, the intent behind designs comes forward and we can subject it to scrutiny once again. Maybe the roman numerals will inspire another number system again and maybe Babbage’s analytical engine has yet to teach us something that only the advent of microprocessors could make available.


Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Read pp. 17-23.

Fuegi, J; Francis, J (October–December 2003), “Lovelace & Babbage and the creation of the 1843 ‘notes'” (PDF), Annals of the History of Computing, 25 (4): 16–26, doi:10.1109/MAHC.2003.1253887, S2CID 40077111

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Cognitive Artefacts for Design Thinking” (seminar unit intro).

“The Definitive Glossary of Higher Mathematical Jargon — Algorithm”. Math Vault. August 1, 2019. Archived from the original on February 28, 2020. Retrieved November 14, 2019.

Cognitive Artifacts – Business Cards and Clocks

Mary Margaret Herring

When reflecting on this week’s prompt, I thought about the business card as an example of an everyday cognitive artifact. Norman (1991) defines a cognitive artifact as “an artificial device designed to maintain, display, or operate upon information in order to serve a representational function” (p 17). In this way, business cards can be thought of as cognitive artifacts because they store information about a person on a card that can be shared. On a business card, a person usually lists their name, title, and contact information as well as the logo of the business that they are working for. The card can be shared with others to help them remember information about the business person – like their title or where they work – and how to get in touch. Business cards allow us to off-load memory onto the card.

While considering business cards, it became clear that the cognitive function of business cards has been replicated online. Businesses use “Meet our Staff” pages to introduce their employees and provide their contact information. Or, a person can consolidate their business cards by adding the peoples’ information to their phone as contacts. Similarly, Google knowledge panels pull contact information from websites and display this information in the search results for easy access. It seems that while the method of storing and displaying information online is much more complex than handing someone a paper business card, the function of the business card as a way to off-load memory becomes clear.

Another cognitive artifact that I considered was a timer. I often set timers while cooking so that I can focus on other tasks while one part of my meal cooks. By setting a timer, I can free up some mental space by not having to keep a mental record of how much time has passed. It seems that the design of timers or clocks can be manipulated in interfaces as well. For example, when I use Netflix on my phone, I have to swipe down on the screen to see what time it is. The clock is hidden from me. Similarly, when a person presents a PowerPoint presentation, their clock is hidden. I suspect that these interfaces are designed in this way to keep the audience from keeping tabs on the time. Netflix wants users to stream their content longer and PowerPoint wants the audience to focus on the presenter’s message. It is harder to accomplish both of those tasks when there is a clock reminding everyone that they have assignments to complete today or another meeting to attend in 5 minutes!

By viewing technologies as symbolic-cognitive artifacts, the designer is able to better understand the function that the technology needs to have. Irvine (n.d.) states that “[w]e are simply at one point in a longer ‘cognitive continuum’ that begins with language and symbolic representation, and expands into our ability to think with and represent multiple levels of abstraction” (p 2). If we apply this example to the business card example, we can see how such a simple artifact can be adapted into a technological form with basically the same function. Apps allow users to swap contact information, businesses upload their contact information to Google knowledge panels to make it easier for users to find and many (higher-level) employees can be found on company websites. While these technologies are much more complicated, it is clear that their function is not that different than a simple business card.


Irvine, M. (n.d.). Introduction to Cognitive Artefacts for Design Thinking. Manuscript in Progress.

Norman, D.A. (1991). Cognitive Artifacts. In J.M. Carroll (Ed.), Designing Interaction: Psychology at the Human-Computer Interface. Cambridge University Press.

Cognitive Artifacts:Watches and Audio Players

I will describe two kinds of cognitive artifacts in the article, watches and audio players.

As an artifact to tell time, a watch is an evolving product of a clock. A clock is also a kind of cognitive artifact. Time is expressed by symbols (numbers) on the surface of a clock. With a clock, people can read the current time, document the length of time, or calculate the length of time. As the development of time, people invented portable clocks, and made them more and more convenient to use for everyday life. Thus, there came clock watches, pocketwatches, and wristwatches (mechanical watch). Then, people can not only read time by staring at the bell tower or listening to the bell, but also know the time when they were working in the factory and calculate how much time is left if they didin’t want to be late. The first half of the watch development history shows that people have more chances to interact with “time”. Later, electronic watches hit the market. With more functions and more precisely expression of time which applies millisecond as the minimum unit to calculate time, now people can communicate with “time” in more ways. For example, anyone can use it to record running performance, or use it as a alarm, or read time in late midnight without light. Now, the latest version of watch is smart watches, which expand the scope of functions of a watch in a surprising way. The smart watches can corporate with smart phones, so users can not only interact with “time”, but other apps in the smart phones. As Norman says “When the informational and processing structure of the artifact is combined with task and the informational and processing structure of the human, the result is to expand and enhance cognitive capabilities of the total system of human, task, and artifact.”

An audio player has a language or system to process (input and output) the audio signal. With such a player, people can record, review, and play sound. Its supporting symbolic system is sound and music. In earlier times, sound was recorded in different kinds of media, thus there appeared different audio players, like LP players, cassette players, and CD players. The portability and capacity become better and better with the development. Latter, digital audio players came into reality with better portability, larger capacity, higher audio quality, and more extra functions. Thus, people can pleasantly enjoy music and sound in more situations. Now, audio player has become a function of a smart phone. The audio player’s symbolic system has become a small part of the smart phone’s integrated symbolic system. Wherever a user go, wherever the smart phone goes, and wherever the audio player goes, the interaction between the user and audio player is expanded to the largest extend.

Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Zölzer Udo, “Digital Audio Signal Processing.” John Wiley and Sons, 1997.

Analyzing everyday cognitive artefacts

Victoria Gomes-Boronat

According to Cole, a cognitive artefact is, “an aspect of the material world that has been modified over the history of its incorporation into goal-directed human action,” (117). The keyword “goal” is what allowed this week’s readings to finally click for me. I couldn’t help but think of Trello, the organization website that my consulting firm uses to assign tasks, store information/media for clients, and keep clients updated on progress and updates. The website’s and application’s design is optimized to help users meet their personal and professional goals.

Trello descends from the memory and performance aid that we call a “to-do list”. Its design resembles a typical stacked to-do list, and you are able to mark the level of progress, due date, and who the task is assigned to for each task. You can also include descriptions, media attachments, and links in the tasks for further aid.

As you can see, you are able to create stacked to-do lists. However, you can also use that functionality to create a list of resources.

Looking at Trello through the system view, you would see it as a memory aid that enhances performance, however, through the lens of the personal view, Trello would actually be changing the user’s task. As norman explains,

The use of a list instead of unaided memory introduces three new tasks, the first performed ahead of time, and the other two at the time the action is to be done:

  1. The construction of the list;
  2. Remembering to consult the list;
  3. Reading and interpreting the items on the list. (21)

The act of creating a list on Trello would be considered to be “pre-computation”. Not only does it require some sort of pre-planning, but it can also be done whenever is convenient and by anyone on the team (Norman 21). That’s right- Trello boards can be shared with members of your team and/or clients. Team members and clients may then consult the lists, add information, message others, and create and assign tasks. This functionality leads us to distributed cognition.  Distributed Cognition is defined as:

A process in which cognitive resources are shared socially in order to extend individual cognitive resources or to accomplish something that an individual agent could not achieve alone. (Lehtinen)

Trello is a prime example of an “artificial device designed to maintain, display, or operate upon information in order to serve a representational function” (Norman 17). In this case, it’s primary functions are information storage, task delegation, team cooperation, and memory/performance aid.

Another cognitive artifact that we can focus on is a photo-sharing application called VSCO. VSCO serves as an online photo album and journal with the added functionalities of photo editing. What differentiates it from photo social media apps such as Instagram, is that while you can follow accounts, the interaction between accounts is very limited. There are no likes or comments on photos so it creates a vastly different online environment. Users are encouraged to create art with their photography and to not be limited by social constructs or what would be socially acceptable or “liked” on other traditional social media platforms. According to Cole, this characteristic would classify VSCO as a tertiary artifact, meaning that in the world of VSCO  “rules, conventions, and outcomes no longer appear directly practical, or which, indeed, seem
to constitute an arena of non-practical, or ‘free’ play or game activity,” (121).

As I said before, VSCO also functions as a sort of photo album and journal, therefore, it also aids in information storage and memory. It is a wonderful app that allows users to craft/represent the world they live in without the social constructs that you would normally find in other applications.


Michael Cole, On Cognitive Artifacts, From Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. Connected excerpts.

Lehtinen, Erno & Hakkarainen, Kai & Lipponen, Lasse & Veermans, Marjaana & Muukkonen, Hanni. (1999). Computer Supported Collaborative Learning: A Review.

Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Read pp. 17-23.

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