Social Cognition: Cognition In the Wild

Posted on February 26, 2009 by


When I first learned about this book a few months ago, I thought it was literally about the cognitive abilities of peoples who live in “natural” surroundings.

It’s actually about open sea navigation on an armed forces boat, with metaphors, comparisons, and reference to Micronesian open water navigation.  According to the author himself, it’s this:

The phrase “cognition in the wild” refers to human cognition in its natural habitat – that is, to naturally occurring culturally constituted human activity. . . I have in mind the distinction between the laboratory, where cognition is studied in captivity, and the everyday world, where human cognition adapts to its natural surroundings. I hope to evoke with this metaphor a sense of an ecology of thinking in which human cognition interacts with an environment rich in organizing resources.

While I struggled with a lot of the details, there was still a lot of good springboard for thought.

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Stylistic Stuff:

This book took me a long time (over 2 weeks) to reach some sort of comprehension of part of its 374 pages.  It was filled with very interesting insights, but those were revealed in chunks through different chapters.  Still lots of wisdom for me though.  In between those chunks, the navigational speak, the rote details on the trip were difficult to comprehend and there wasn’t much explanation to them;  thusly, this held up my progress throughout the book.

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Key Points and Food for Thinking:

Even though the title was slightly misleading from the actual topic presented, I was still very intrigued by three things:

1)  The Meme of Analog vs. Digital:  Now this is a self-generated meme which I found in the story.  In the story itself though not explicitly stated, one theme was about our human “evolutionary” transition from analog to digital technologies.  Evolutionary gets the quotation marks because it appears were evolving with digital technology, progressing as if its a means of improvement, which in some respects is true, but also makes us more dependent upon technologies.

“Analog” signifies the directionally-based and infinite and “digital” signifies the location-based and finite.  “Analog” is directional and moving whereas “digital” is locational and fixed.  “Analog” can be synonymous with agent-centered possibly infinite movement, whereas “digital” is synonymous with precision and calculation.  These terms were a very rough way for me to distinguish the technology at use;  if it were “analog”, it may be based on going where the wind blows, but it’s reacting based on real world circumstances.   At the other end of the spectrum, “digital” is much more precise and faster, but is carrying out its actions based on its own (human-built) circumstances which is taken from an analog sample, it’s own representations, its own digits.  Analog vs. digital, a battle which digital is winning.

Where is this analog vs. digital in this book?

Hutchins uses Micronesian “traditional” navigation, as the contrast to the main part of the story: the navigation and position fixing technology used by US Military boats.  By my rough rubric, it appears that Micronesian navigation is the “analog” technology whereas the West represents the “digital” technology, which we are “evolving”, “progressing” into.  The story is framed in a way that romanticizes this Micronesian navigation system, which he only seems to know through literature, but he makes it clear that they are only one example to disrupt the idea that the way the US Navy navigates is the only and best way to navigate.

While I was dragging myself through this book, the analog vs. digital meme struck me as relevant to the ideas of human cognition itself.  “Human cognition” meaning reading and learning.  Reading and learning meaning comprehending.   Remembering roughly that “analog” is directional and moving whereas “digital” is locational and fixed, is it better to read and/or learn directionally and/or learn locationally?

Reading can be metaphorized as a journey, a navigation through words.

So with this metaphor of reading and learning as a type of navigation, are we better off reading and learning directionally or reading and learning locationally?  In other words, are we better off reading and learning things as they come up or are we better reading and learning things based on skimming and locating pieces of interest.

I’d pick the first.

As children, we probably have a directional method of learning, we pick up languages easily and take in all kinds of information.  It seems like a directional method of learning would benefit us in picking up systems and symbols of languages.

As we get older however, we’ve learned to filter and prune lots of that information.  With the transition into adulthood, we begin to become experts at doing things rather than just learning things, where we chunk things, develop generalized categories, and move towards tasks in life where we become not just consumers but providers and producers, which acts as a tradeoff from accepting and learning everything.

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2)  The “West” has built a dependence on modelling and reacting to representations of real-world phenomena as opposed to reacting to real-world phenomena.

Off this growing dependence on digital technology, where numbers, grids, spreadsheets increasingly are at use, we are able to build representations, models of things.  Models of things include maps of all kinds from bathymetric to those of the brain.  Were always trying to build miniature simulations and emulations of things in real life, presumably so we learn how to react to those things.  Building those representations takes lots and lots of work, money, and other people’s input.

According to Hutchins, Micronesian navigation was and still is a very effective system that has been utilized for centuries;  only a few canoes have ever been lost.   The driving point is that these otherized people have a system of navigation, it is effective, and it is probably even better rooted in the physical world.  All they need is the sky;  they read it, and subsequently go where they need to.

The “West” on the other hand relies on so many tools.  We build models and maps to represent terrains.  Without mapquest, for example, I wouldn’t know where to get anywhere.  We have built so many instruments to make any kind of navigation, we even put up signs on our streets to let us know where were going.

We are really damn reliant on our technology.  We are really damn reliant on building models and simulations.  We are really damn reliant on digitalism.  We are really damn reliant on putting things into numbers and grids as explored in the book the Numerati.  We might acquire precision, but that doesn’t mean we as individuals operating this technology are any smarter or superior to anyone.  Without our various tools, we become almost useless.

More than ever in a highly urbanized, highly globalized, internetized world, we are highly dependent on other people.  Despite the highly individualistic ethic that has pervaded the popular consciousness for centuries, without other people, would we know how to get our own food, get our own water, navigate our seas…?

Although I’m not sure I like this framing of West vs. “other”, it works, albeit as one way to highlight Western fallibilities and vulnerabilities.

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3)  There is a cultural forgetting involved in popular, Western discourse when representing the West versus the other.

One of Hutchins’ objectives was to show how aspects of thinking and technology in the West is historically contingent, that is something “artificial”, something mere humans created.  That’s a very obvious and easy-to-understand point, but often times in popular and public discourse, it’s not seen that way.

Just as you entrust your travel to a Boeing 747 rather than a magic carpet or a broomstick; just as you take your tumour to the best surgeon available, rather than a shaman or a mundu mugu, so you will find that the scientific version of truth works. You can use it to navigate through the real world. Science predicts, with complete certainty unless the end of the world intervenes, that the city of Shanghai will experience a total eclipse of the sun on July 22, 2009. Theories about the moon god devouring the sun god may be poetic, and they may cohere with other aspects of a tribe’s world view, but they won’t predict the date, time and place of an eclipse. Science will, and with an accuracy you could set your watch by.

Says Richard Dawkins, who thinks of sciences, which by implication means “Western”, which by implication means “European”, which by implication means “white people”  as the bedrock of knowledge that moves the world.  To a certain extent, it’s true, the Western sciences do make the big things happen, but when we start to think about the sources, the identities, the individuals of who exactly comes up with what technologies, that’s where things get dicey.

It is also likely that Richard Dawkins has forgotten (or perhaps never even learned) the historical contingencies of our technologies. We often don’t remember who comes up with what technologies.  Because technology has been embedded in our everyday Western lifestyles, in the way driving a car or locking your front door is embedded in our everyday lives, there’s a bit of a forgetting involved.  You don’t remember every single episode of you driving a car nor do you remember every single episode of locking your front door.

Similarly, as a culture, we don’t remember every single episode of people creating and inventing things in science.  All we are left with is the technology that we use.  We are then likely to believe then that all our technology knowledge came from a bunch of civilized white people.

In Dick’s statement, that technology (presumably put up by civilized, organized, rational white people) is put up in contrast to  “those other” people whose only form of knowledge appears to rely upon sun and moon gods and ancient healers with little to no logic and/or practical use whatsoever.

The point of Cognition in the Wild is that there is quite a bit of knowledge in other cultures, knowledge that can’t be understood or taken in by merely reducing and disparaging it.

All human societies face cognitive tasks that are beyond the capabilities of any individual member. Even the simplest culture contains more information than could be learned by any individual in a lifetime so the tasks of learning, remembering, and trasmitting cultural knowledge are inevitably distrbuted.