Michael Cole and Jan Derry: We Have Met Technology and it is Us

[Readings] (09.23.08, 10:39 am)


The authors set out to bridge what they consider to be a false division between intelligence and technology. The idea of technology is something that is artificial, and usually electronic. Intelligence is seen as something that enables reason and planning, and is a biological property of individuals. The authors’ notion of technology is a tool-mediated social practice, which enables a very different model of intelligence. In this context, intelligence is “a process of adaptation to, and transformation of, the conditions of life.” (p. 2)

Artifacts are both ideal and material. This idea derives from Dewey, and is supported by constructivist philosophy. This unity is also something that exists in cognition: material and symbolic are tied together in thought, departing from Cartesian dualism. The authors outline levels of artifacts as identified by Wartofsky, which move artifacts from primarily material to primarily symbolic.

The authors continue by looking at how artifacts augment cognition, and some of which are explicitly psychological tools. This notion comes from Vygotsky, but the idea that tools are used to augment understanding extend back from Francis Bacon. The cognitive prosthetic continues through Norman (and also through other figures in early computer science, notably Vannevar Bush and Norbert Weiner). Norman’s principles are bulletted here: (p. 6)

  • A representation is a set of symbols that substitutes for the real event.
  • Once we have ideas represented by representations, the physical world is no longer relevant.
  • Representations are abstractions so good representations are those which abstract the essential elements of the event.
  • The critical trick is to get the abstractions right, to represent the important aspects and not the unimportant. This allows everyone to concentrate upon the essentials without distraction from irrelevancies.
  • Representations are important because they allow us to work with events and things absent in space and time, or for that matter, events and things that never existed — imaginary objects and concepts.
  • A person is a system with an active, internal representation.

This is an interesting approach with which to analyze representation. Norman uses this but focuses exclusively on the ideal or conceptual level and denies the material element in the cognitive. Further, the authors criticize Norman’s neglecting of the environment and broader social context surrounding the use of artifacts.

The negotiation between intelligence and technology leads to a reconsideration of the role of culture in cognition. When intelligence and culture are bridged, artifacts become material and conceptual aids to cognition. The idea of culture as a large pool of knowledge is heavily challenged. The authors cite Geertz as circumventing the ideal/material dichotomy, using semiotics as a means to embed culture in material artifacts.

The authors continue exploring Geertz, specifically his theory that the nervous system requires culture in order for human development. This argument is followed by Quartz and Sejnowski, who encourage the neurological aspect of culture, and the extension of intelligence and cognition into the environment.

To bridge the connection between technology and intelligence through culture, the authors give the example of the use of the Abacus in Japan. The tool was delivered culturally and developed a cultural role and function. Additionally, there is a cultural intelligence associated with it that becomes evident in highly skilled abacus users.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorCole, Michael; and Derry, Jan
TitleWe Have Met Technology and it is Us
JournalIntelligence and technology
Tagsanthropology, psychology
LookupGoogle Scholar

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