(1998-09-30) Shalizi Edwin Hutchins Cognition In The Wild

Cosma Shalizi reviews Edwin Hutchins, Cognition in the Wild. Human beings coordinate their actions to do things which would be hard or impossible for them individually... It was a commonplace of the Enlightenment, that most sociable age, and the philosophes were even, it seems, the first to realize that thinking, too, can be a collective activity, one conducted and amplified by social groups

Science is, of course, the most prominent and successful example of what we might call, by analogy with "collective action," collective cognition, but it is certainly not the only one.

The nineteenth century, and to a lesser degree this one, have witnessed a dramatic expansion in the numbers of us engaged in administration, bureaucracy, management, oversight --- that is to say, in formally-organized tasks of collective cognition and control

These are corrupt, inefficient institutions which work poorly... Yet to run any one of these institutions at the level of honesty, efficiency and efficacy which makes Piffleburg grumble would have demanded the full powers and attention of even the ablest Roman propraetor or T'ang magistrate

That all of those institutions, plus the ones not restricted to a single city, could be run at once, and while governed by a very ordinary slice of common humanity, would have seemed to such officials flatly impossible.

The immediate question this raises, of why we are so much better at collective endeavors than the ancients, can be answered fairly simply. To a first approximation, the answer is: brute force and massive literacy

This would do us no good if our ideas of administration were as shabby as those of our ancestors in the dark ages, but they're not: we inherited those of the ancient empires, and have had quite a while to improve upon them

We've been over parts of this before, looking at James Beniger's book on The Control Revolution and Ernest Gellner's Nations and Nationalism.)

All this is in the realm of technique; when it comes to theory, we are quite at a loss.

Now, in a sense, this problem has been approached by many of the social sciences. Historians and sociologists of science have investigated the ties between the social structure of scientific communities and their intellectual achievements.

of the most interesting research on these problems has been done by economists. The great Friedrich Hayek (that is, FA Hayek the profound social scientist, not to be confused with his evil twin, Friedrich Hayek the right-wing ideologue) was apparently the first to point out that markets perform a kind of collective cognition or calculation which would be beyond the scope of the individual actors in the markets

Since his time, the economists have devoted considerable thought to how the way a group is put together

Some of this work, like Kenneth Arrow's Social Choice and Individual Values and Mancur Olson's Logic of Collective Action --- is now classical, and, under various names, it's an active, thriving area of inquiry

Still, however valuable these works, all of them take for granted (more or less) that we are capable of collective action and cognition; but why is this so? Many animals are not

Fortunately, there is a discipline which studies what happens between the ears in the way of cognition, decisions and the control of action. Naturally enough, it calls itself cognitive psychology, or cognitive science, or just "cognitivism."

It has slouched across these pages before, but a brief review of the leading ideas of its orthodox forms might not be amiss, especially since the book under review (I promise, there is a book under review) disputes many of them.

The orthodoxy, then, as laid down in, say, Herbert Simon's Sciences of the Artificial, or The Computer and the Mind by Philip Johnson-Laird.

runs more or less as follows. Cognition, whether human, animal or artificial, is a kind of information-processing, taking place, in our case, in the brain

One particularly well-studied kind of cognition, sometimes taken as the paradigm of all cognition, is problem-solving, conceived of as turning a representation of the problem, step by step, into a representation of a solution, or something close enough to a solution to satisfy the problem-solver.

For the orthodox cognitivist, collective effort is just another particular environment for the several cognitive agents involved, one in which all the usual principles apply. Much of the trouble of making things work will be in communication, in getting sufficiently similar ideas of the world into everybody's head that that they agree, near enough, on how to change it

These problems have not been totally ignored by cognitivists, but they've not exactly been burning issues either. Edwin Hutchins proposes to change that

has conducted valuable field-work, studying navigation on a US navy ship based in San Diego, with this problem in mind. In fact, he wants to use this work, or rather his interpretation of it, to launch a complete reformation of cognitive science

Computational salvation is achieved, not by the individual, but by the whole "socio-cultural system" (a Phrase Which Must Be Destroyed, and accordingly shall not be used again here), and is demonstrated not by correctness of representations (Hutchins goes out of his way to be agnostic about whether people have internal representations of various and sundry things), but by actions.

Let us examine the grounds for his reformation.

Hutchins's field evidence consists of very detailed records, taken in the early 1980s, on the performance of the navigation crew of a helicopter carrier ship he calls the Palau, principally as they fix their location and plot their course near shore.


A single person can do this, if he's not too rushed

Close to shore, the Navy gets worried, and demands fixes every few minutes, so the task gets broken down: naval flunkies take the bearings, a different flunky tells them when to take the bearings, and so on. There's a fairly rigid protocol for coordinating all these actions, and for communicating their results in a usable form, and specialized instruments for making the job easier.

So, what does all this actually show? Well, that...

These are not exactly earth-shaking results; in fact, they're about what common sense says to us

there are two big problems with allowing Hutchins to press the new wine he wants from his heaped-up evidential grapes. The first is that he's done, really, nothing to show that this kind of shared, collaborative computation doesn't just constitute a special environment for the old-fashioned, symbol-processing problem-solvers of cognitive science.

I can, in fact, readily imagine someone like Herbert Simon snarfing up Hutchins's facts to illustrate orthodox notions

The second problem is that, when it comes to explaining how people "think together," Hutchins doesn't so much theorize as wave his hands with vigor and emphasis. Nobody else has a theory of this subject either, of course, but that's much less of a worry if you're not making it the heart, and very nearly the end-all and be-all, of cognitive science

Nothing he presents looks like a representation which can't be localized to a single person.

This doesn't mean that Hutchins is necessarily wrong, but it does raises suspicions in someone trained to think that social phenomena are explained by "real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity," rather than by a reified History or Culture or Society.

This almost neo-Platonic fondness for making abstractions into things is part of a syndrome, wide-spread in American social science, for which Hutchins might almost serve as an type-case

he's plodding, dull, and pedantic, and capable of producing an explanation of the fact that speed is distance divided by time so obscure it confused even me, after I've spent years teaching it

Alas, it was written by someone who's a prime candidate for membership in Gellner's proposed "Hermeneutics Anonymous"; by far the most valuable thing in it is the ethnographic data, presented in mind-numbing detail.

the rest of us will find our time better spent elsewhere.

Note on Cognitivist Orthodoxy. For a sound discussion of orthodox cognitivism and the various heretical, schismatic and infidel sects, see Daniel Dennett, Brainchildren: Essays on Designing Minds

Edited:    |       |    Search Twitter for discussion