[Tech sequence] My fundamental theorems of cognition, technology, and the social

I’m working on a series of posts on tech philosophy, but before diving into the relationship between technology and the self, I think it will be helpful to lay out some fundamental theorems of cognition and technology as it relates to us as social beings. 

Just so I am being explicit, here are my model primitives.

  • Homo sapiens are special because we are sapiens. – Monkeys, ravens, octopuses and other animals use tools. Tool usage doesn’t make us special. Sapiens have something else, wisdom. The various forms of this name undergird the essential nature of humankind. We might consider ourselves to be homo faber (philosophical), homo economicus (rational), homo politicus (political), or even narrans (storytelling). [link]

    • As philosopher Dan Ihde rightly noted, “There are no human cultures which are pre-technological…” 
  • Sapiens use abstract expressions. – Chimpanzees do not point, or at least not in the way humans do. Although they might hear the vocalizations of other apes and assume the presence of a predator without seeing it, the one who vocalizes will always have sight of the the predator. They cannot, unlike humans, point to things that are not there; they cannot express information about an absent thing. To some, this might seem like a minor distinction, but for those concerned with language, it is a gulf, separating the simple communication of higher apes and other social creatures, from the defining feature of humanity, language. To be more concrete, we can express abstract gestures.

    • Humans are the only species on the planet with visible sclera. As anthropoligist Doug Jones explained it, “In most mammals, including chimpanzees, the sclera (white of the eyes) is not visible. It’s hard to tell where a chimpanzee is looking, easy for a human. Human eyes make it easy to cooperate in sharing attention, a first step in developing shared intentions.” 
    • Towards about age 4, a child will develop an ability called Theory of Mind, which is a set of skills that allow it to understand that other creatures perceive the world differently to itself. This is the beginning of abstract thought.  
    • We are sapiens, wise, because we can understand and communicate abstract expressions.
  • Cognition has roots in embodied metaphor. – Rationality is built on top of, around, and integrated with emotion, and in turn, that emotion in embodied, it is physical. When we talk of love, we talk about falling in love or having butterflies in our stomach. We use bodily metaphors to talk about complex emotions. In employing these ideas, we situate ourselves in the world and find our footing. Complex apes understand simple metaphors. 

  • Cognition uses abstract metaphors. – Deirdre McCloskey opens The Narrative of Economic Expertise with a bold charge, “It is pretty clear that an economist, like a poet, uses metaphors. They are called ‘models.’ The market for apartments in New York, says the economist, is ‘just like’ a curve on a blackboard. No one has so far seen a literal demand curve floating in the sky above Manhattan.” To understand celestial bodies, we might use curves. To understand the forces acting upon a bridge, we construct a model.

    • The term model does a lot of work. It is an encompassing work that includes a range of related terms. Models, frames, frameworks, shorthands, or heuristics are all tools, they point to the same goal, which is an organizational schema that helps to break down and simplify complex data. 
    • As I noted in an earlier post, “Rhetoric is fundamental and its analysis should be central to more political and economic discussions.”
  • Cognition is embodied and is instrumental. – “The embodied cognition approach focuses attention on the fact that most real-world thinking occurs in very particular (and often very complex) environments, is employed for very practical ends, and exploits the possibility of interaction with and manipulation of external props. It thereby foregrounds the fact that cognition is a highly embodied or situated activity — emphasis intentionally on all three — and suggests that thinking beings ought therefore be considered first and foremost as acting beings.”

  • We are social. – This should be self-evident, but I am especially fascinated that we have a tendency to assign agency to inanimate objects. The study of animacy perception, as it is called, stems from work by psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. In 1944, they created short videos, only about 2 minutes long, showing two triangles and a circle moving towards and away from each other in what seemed like a story. Participants watching the video later described a rich interior life to the triangles and the circle, ascribing intentions, emotions, and personality to the simple objects. The findings have since been replicated across a number of different domains. But animacy perception doesn’t just apply to simple objects, it constantly pops up in our modern world. Robot dog owners give their techno-pups funerals. Some 80 percent of Roombas are named, according to the company. Corporations, as well, are granted agency.

    • Paradoxically, people feel most authentic when they betray their true nature and conform to likable, socially approved qualities. [Scientific America]
    • If clicking with someone feels like you’re “on the same wavelength,” it turns out there’s a good reason for that. In what’s called “interpersonal synchronization,” people click in an unspoken meeting of the minds about how long to linger before a museum painting or when to get up from the coffeehouse table. Such synchrony occurs when an overheard remark triggers in both of you a simultaneously raised eyebrow, when what you see on your companion’s face reflects the feelings and thoughts inside your own brain. Your body language matches, what catches your attention catches his, you become impatient at the same time about the same things. [PNAS]
  • We engage in social performance. 

    • Sometimes, the dramatistic pentad is helpful as a tool of analysis. Developed by the other great Burke, Kenneth Burke, the dramatistic pentad understands actions through five rhetorical elements: act or what is being doing, scene or the setting for the action, agent or the person doing the acting, agency or the means by which the action occurs, and purpose or the reasoning and rationale behind the action.
    • Even if education is signaling, signaling in society is important.  
  • We use social cues to understand the world, or cognition is social.

    • “Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier & Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy…prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective. [The New Yorker]
    • Extended mind thesis – “If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (so we claim) part of the cognitive process.” (Clark and Chalmers, 1998)
  • Technology extends cognition and action. – McLuhan needs to be saved from his worst detractors. He was right about the importance of the medium but he was wrong about a lot else (like hot and cold media). Here is a better understanding of McLuhan “all technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous systems to increase power and speed” (Extensions of Man, p 90). Again, McLuhan has half of the story. Remember, “cognition is a highly embodied or situated activity — emphasis intentionally on all three — and suggests that thinking beings ought therefore be considered first and foremost as acting beings. "

    • Seyed Razavi: “In an example provided by Merleau-Ponty, consider a blind person using her cane to feel her way around without being consciously aware of the cane itself. As Wheeler points out, this is not just an example of transparency, although it is that as well. It is also a case of the device being used by the blind person to discover facts about the world. The cane acts like one of her other biological senses. When we see or hear without difficulty, we are not aware of our eyes or ears doing the mediating for us and likewise for the blind person and her cane. ‘Put another way, the blind person’s experiential interface is with the world beyond the cane, not with the cane itself’ (p. 3).”
    • The Majority Illusion: “In some cases, the structure of the underlying social network can dramatically skew an individual’s local observations, making a behavior appear far more common locally than it is globally. We trace the origins of this phenomenon, which we call ‘the majority illusion,’ to the friendship paradox in social networks. As a result of this paradox, a behavior that is globally rare may be systematically overrepresented in the local neighborhoods of many people, i.e., among their friends. Thus, the “majority illusion” may facilitate the spread of social contagions in networks and also explain why systematic biases in social perceptions, for example, of risky behavior, arise. Using synthetic and real-world networks, we explore how the “majority illusion” depends on network structure and develop a statistical model to calculate its magnitude in a network.” [arXiv]
    • “In both experiments, higher usage of smartphones led only to a diminished ability to interpret and analyze the deeper meaning of information. However, Study 3 showed that, after a 4‐week interval, the difference in the ability to interpret and analyze meaning between lower and higher phone usage groups was no longer evident. The findings of this study suggest that, even in the rare cases where smartphones might alter cognition, this effect is likely transitory.” (link)

McLuhan foregrounded the object where my project emphasizes the relationship between the subject and the object. Updating McLuhan for the digital age requires a revamping of his idea with a better understanding of cognition.

Here is a shot: Technologies are extensions of our embodied cognition, which occurs in particular and complex environments, is employed for very practical ends, and interacts with other agents for some outcome. Technology allows for quicker and powerful cognition/action. 

This is why I place a premium on affordances. Affordance is a term introduced by James Gibson, which references all of the possible actions that a user can undertake in relationship with an object that can affect the world. For example, a chair not only allows people a thing on which to sit, but it also affords users also stand on. Extending this fundamental argument roots our analysis.


First published May 28, 2021