Monday, July 24, 2006

Human-Computer Interaction: Cognitive Science, Memes and Evolution

I am fascinated by the concept of how minds work and interact with tools and reading materials. I have loved thinking about this since I was an undergraduate thinking about linguistics. But this really affects my work now as a librarian. What happens when we read? What happens when we use digital resources? Is it different from what happens when we use print-based materials? Do our minds actually re-wire or restructure the brain to accommodate or better integrate with our tools? I think we need to consider these questions deeply to better understand the future needs of information seekers, and to develop new forms, indexes, filters and education for transmitting and sorting information.

The decoration, assuming that Blogger will let me post it, is from, who seem to do special effects for movies. This is their vision of a cyborg.

Jim's post on the Digital Natives/Digital Immigrant theory included mention of a number of interesting cognitive theorists. I followed up several and stumbled into very interesting posts on 3rd Culture Link. My search for Andy Clark on cyborg as currently describing the human-technology link, turned up this link to his essay, "NATURAL BORN CYBORGS?" at Clark, formerly director of cognitive science at Indiana University, and now a professor at University of Sussex, sees the human mind as integrated uniquely with all our tools. He seems to theorize that the recent changes wrought by use of digital tools move our modified brains to a new and distinctive state on a continuum begun with simple tools, and carried through the development of reading, writing and print:

the learning device itself changes as a result of organism-environmental interactions — learning does not just alter the knowledge base for a fixed computational engine, it alters the internal computational architecture itself. The linguistic and technological environments in which human brains grow and develop are thus poised to function as the anchor points around which such flexible neural resources adapt and fit.
Perhaps, then, it is a mistake to posit a biologically fixed "human nature" with a simple "wraparound" of tools and culture. For the tools and culture are indeed as much determiners of our nature as products of it. Ours are (by nature) unusually plastic brains whose biologically proper functioning has always involved the recruitment and exploitation of non-biological props and scaffolds. More so than any other creature on the planet, we humans emerge as natural-born cyborgs, factory tweaked and primed so as to be ready to grow into extended cognitive and computational architectures: ones whose systemic boundaries far exceed those of skin and skull.

... Even granting that the biological innovations which got this ball rolling may have consisted only in some small tweaks to an ancestral repertoire, the upshot of this subtle alteration is a sudden, massive leap in cognitive-architectural space. For our cognitive machinery is now intrinsically geared to transformation, technology-based expansion, and a snowballing and self-perpetuating process of computational and representational growth. The machinery of contemporary human reason thus turns out to be rooted in a biologically incremental progression while simultaneously existing on the far side of a precipitous cliff in cognitive-architectural space.
In sum, the project of understanding human thought and reason is easily and frequently misconstrued. It is misconstrued as the project of understanding what is special about the human brain. No doubt there is something special about our brains. But understanding our peculiar profiles as reasoners, thinkers and knowers of our worlds requires an even broader perspective: one that targets multiple brains and bodies operating in specially constructed environments replete with artifacts, external symbols, and all the variegated scaffoldings of science, art and culture.
Understanding what is distinctive about human reason thus involves understanding the complementary contributions of both biology and (broadly speaking) technology, as well as the dense, reciprocal patterns of causal and co-evolutionary influence that run between them. We cannot see ourselves aright until we see ourselves as nature's very own cyborgs: cognitive hybrids who repeatedly occupy regions of design space radically different from those of our biological forbears. The hard task, of course, is now to transform all this from (mere) impressionistic sketch into a balanced scientific account of the extended mind.

(Clark, p.5)

I find this argument to be very exciting, and it rings true to my own experience and observations. Another essay at, by Dan Sperber, a French anthropologist, "AN EPIDEMIOLOGY OF REPRESENTATIONS" link, mixes easily with Clark's thinking. Sperber considers the interactivity of human communication and thinking. He asks, what happens when we read or receive communication from another? And answers that we do not simply "Xerox" from one mind to another. When we read or listen to another, we are absorbing, not their ideas directly, but constructing our own meaning with the representation of the others' ideas. We may watch, for instance, how Julia Child fixes the turkey on television, but when we fix the turkey following her instructions, it inevitably is a different result! This is as true of our ideas as it is of our cooking:

I've been arguing for a very long time now that one should think of the evolved psychological makeup of human beings both as a source of constraints on the way culture can develop, evolve, and also, of course, as what makes culture possible in the first place. I've been arguing against the now discredited "blank slate" view of the human mind—now splendidly laid to rest by Steve Pinker—but it wasn't discredited when I was a student, in fact the "blank slate" view was what we were taught and what most people went on teaching. Against this, I was arguing that there were specific dispositions, capacities, competencies, in the human mind that gave rise to culture, contributed to shaping it, and also constrained the way it can evolve — so that led me to work both in anthropology—and more generally in the social sciences—,which was my original domain, and,more and more, in what was to become cognitive sciences.

How do the microprocesses of cultural transmission affect the macro structure of culture, its content, its evolution? The microprocesses, the small-scale local processes I am talking about are, on the one hand, psychological processes that happen inside people's brains, and on the other hand, changes that people bring about in their common environment—for instance the noise they make when they talk or the paths they unconsciously maintain when they walk—and through which they interact.
Just as the human mind is not a blank slate on which culture would somehow imprint its content, the communication process is not a xerox machine copying contents from one mind to another. This is where I part company not just from your standard semiologists or social scientists who take communication to be a coding-decoding system, a transmission system, biased only by social interests, by power, by intentional or unconscious distortions, but that otherwise could deliver a kind of smooth flow of undistorted information. I also part company from Richard Dawkins who sees cultural transmission as based on a process of replication, and who assume that imitation and communication provide a robust replication system.

...Dawkins himself has pointed out that each act of of cultural transmission may involve some mistakes in copying, some mutation. But if that is the case, then the Darwinian selection model isunlikely [sic] to apply, at least in its basic form. The problem is reconciling this macro stability with the micro lack of sufficient fidelity. The answer, I believe, is linked precisely to the fact that in human, transmission is achieved not just by replication, but also by construction.
If it were just replication, copying, and there were lots of errors of copy all the time, then nothing would stabilize and it’s unlikely that the selective pressures would be strong enough to produce a real selection comparable to the one you see in biology. On the other hand, if you have constructive processes, they can compensate the limits of the copying processes.

What happens is this. Although indeed when things get transmitted they tend to vary with each episode of transmission, these variations tend to gravitate around what I call "cultural attractors", which are, if you look at the dynamics of cultural transmission, points or regions in the space of possibilities, towards which transformations tend to go. The stability of cultural phenomena is not provided by a robust mechanism of replication. It's given in part, yes, by a mechanism of preservation which is not very robust, not very faithful, (and it's not its goal to be so). And it’s given in part by a strong tendency for the construction — in every mind at every moment— of new ideas, new uses of words, new artifacts, new behaviors, to go not in a random direction, but towards attractors. And, by the way, these cultural attractors themselves have a history.

Dawkins, of course, is only one of the people who have proposed new ways of modeling cultural evolution. He's important because he brings it down to the simplest possible version — there's a great merit in simplicity. He sees cultural evolution at the same time as being analogous to biological evolution, and as being an evolution almost independent from biological evolution: it has just been made possible by the biological evolution of homo sapiens, which has given us the mind we have, and which, so the story goes, makes us capable indeed of endlessly copying contents. We are supposed to be imitation machines, “meme machines” to use Susan Blakemore's phrase, and this explains that.

Dawkins, in a strange way, presents something very similar to the blank slate view of the mind. The blank slate view, as I was taught it in anthropology, says the human mind is capable of learning anything — whatever content would be provided by culture can be written on the blank slate. Well, the general imitating machine does more or less the same thing. It's capable of imitating just whatever type of content it is presented with, and the relative success of some contents against others, has to do with the selective forces. The idea that the human mind is such a kind of universal imitation machine is hardly better psychology, in my view, than the blank slate story.

Others, E.O Wilson and Charles Lumsden, Rob Boyd and Pete Richerson, have asked to what extent the evolved dispositions that both constrain and make possible culture are, in return, affected by cultural evolution itself so as to yield a kind of gene-culture coevolution. Instead of having two evolutionary scenarios running in parallel, one biological evolution, the other cultural evolution, you get some degree of interaction, possibly a strong interaction, between gene and culture. The general idea has got to be correct. The details, in my opinion, are still very poorly understood.

For a variety of reasons, I believe that memes are not the right story about cultural evolution. This is because in the cultural case, replication is not very successful in explaining cultural stability. I also believe that among the factors we need to take into account to explain cultural attraction of which I was talking before, are evolved aspect of the human psychology. The one type of scholarship and research that has to be brought into the picture, in my view, is evolutionary psychology, as defended in particular in the work of Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Steve Pinker and taken up in more critical ways by a growing number of developmental psychologists and of philosophers. To understand culture, we have to understand the complexity of the psychological makeup of human beings. We have to go to really deep psychology, understood both in a richly cognitive manner and with a proper evolutionary perspective, to put start explaining cultural evolution. We need a representation of a human mind that's complex in an appropriate manner, true to the empirical data, and rich enough indeed to explain the regularities the, stability, and the variability of culture.

This is them [sic] a different story, but it’s still a Darwinian story. It's a Darwinian story in the sense that it's an application of population thinking, which tries to explains the macro phenomena in terms of a micro processes and properties, and which doesn’t assume that there are types or essences of macro cultural and social things. Macro regularities are always the outcome of distribution of micro features, evolving all the time.

In this Darwinian story however, instead of causal processes in culture as split between robust replication devices and a variety of selection factor, we have a much more promiscuous form of causality. Cultural causality is promiscuous. Constructive processes always interfere with preservation processes. So we need to build models different from standard Darwinian models of selection, in order to arrive at the right way to draw on Darwinian inspiration with regard to culture, that is, we must generalize Darwin to the cultural case, rather than adjust it in a way which twists the data well beyond what is empirically plausible.


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