Assignment 16: “Distributed Cognition”

paper: Hollan, J., Hutchins, E., & Kirsch, D. (2001) "Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research." In J. M. Carroll (Ed.) Human-Computer Interaction in the New Millennium, ACM Press, New York, pp. 75-94. (distributed on paper)

Summary and Analysis

In reading this paper most readers find the idea of distributed cognition and the specific examples interesting. Nathan reflected the thoughts of most readers when he listed three specific descriptions of distributed cognition that stood out

With respect to examples, Scotty found the duality of indirect manipulation of objects that represent concepts and the manipulation of objects themselves and the examples of the pilots displaying a radar test pattern as a reminder of fueling in progress fascinating. Adam found the example of historically-enriched objects intriguing. Finally, Scotty and Zack also mentioned that although the paper emphasized the idea of culture as reservoir it did not explicitly deal with the issue of resource allocation and how it may positively or negatively affect each individual's cognitive success their ability to access the common reservoir to support their learning, reasoning, and problem solving process.

With respect to items that they did not find interesting, most readers mentioned that the article is dense and hard to read; possibly due to the required qualitative research methods and cognitive science knowledge that most didn't have. Adam mentioned that he didn't understand what might be involved in cognitive ethnography (for example). However, most folks appreciated the examples that helped to clarify the text.

Despite these difficulties, most thought that the article advocated for a holistic approach to the design of user experience by viewing the user and her environment as a tightly coupled system where the users view objects in the environment not only as elements of control but also elements of representation and information storage that supports the user's problem-solving process.

Most mentioned that the old HCI foundation referred to the individual as the unit of analysis that results in the specific implementation of the WIMP (windows, icons, menu, and pointer) approach where the focus is on how an individual manipulates a system. The new approach is where distributed cognition implemented as systems, such as Pad++, that allows users to use the system interactively as repositories of knowledge and other resources that allow users to approach problem-solving in their preferred and perhaps new ways. Indeed, from my own perspective, the user, the proposed environmental objects, and cultural /collective knowledge are actors (not just physical objects). For example, Jody mentioned cognitive off-loading to the system as a hallmark of the new foundation. In addition, at least two readers mentioned that the Pad++, as an example of the system that uses this new paradigm, reminds them of the EDC with its zoom-able interface, interactive nature, and support for collaboration. Finally, a size-able number of readers also found that these points are not particularly new since most have seen these ideas before in the EDC and other systems discussed in this class.

With respect to the Clever project, most reader mentioned that they the systems described in the video implements elements of distributed cognition. Jody's comments that the Clever projects "incorporates shared cognitive processes", cultural, and community knowledge through Web2Gether. Henry, Nathan, and Dyvia et al mentioned that these systems also implement cognitive off-loading to environmental objects through situated prompting and community-based (and shared) cognition through the Lifeline monitoring capabilities.

Finally with respect to Neil Postman's quote, most folks felt that it is very applicable to the article since it argues that anatomy is not destiny in the sense that augmentation can help us to compensate, and exceed, our inherent capabilities. Some such as Ryan felt agreed with this quote since for he interpret it to mean that we don't have to settle for poorly designed HCI and that good HCI (that incorporates distributed cognition) will allow us to surpass our individual limitations. Others, are more measured in their agreement. Adam, for example, feels that distributed cognition is only one tool – and like the eyeglasses may only address part of the problem for HCI. Zack expressed the fear that this continually drive for improvement is not all good: that there is a point where we can be too advanced (such as Bill Joy's admonishment that the future doesn't need us?). Scotty brought up the issue of equity: have cash and you too can be improved. And that HCI need to perhap address issues of equity as part of its theoretical foundation? With respect to the issue of equity, I feel that distributed cognition also need to incorporate not only social science's methodology but also its critical analysis of power distribution and access to resources in society as well.