Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Cognition and Tool Use

“A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing.” – Emo Philips

In tracing the development of the modern mind, Donald and Shaffer/Kaput highlight the major cognitive transformations which allowed for new ways of remembering, retrieving and ultimately, defining human culture. What makes humans unique from animals is the ability to represent ideas through symbols or other representations. These symbols can be creatively designed, voluntarily retrieved and, taught, often through imitation. The whole body can be used to represent an idea or event, either remembered or created. In addition, human ability to speak allows for faster and more efficient transference of information, but isn't the only form of communication available. This allowed for things like tool making and expression of the past to be taught, which included the need to remember. However, this, in turn, created more complexity in social life, as longer memory was needed to coordinate daily and communal life. Therefore external memory forms were needed, such as graphic representations and text. This then forced the human brain to develop more abstract ways of thinking, remembering, and recalling information. However, Shaffer/Kaput argue further that the computer allows for much deeper cognition, as it performs lower level processing (so the person doesn't have to), which allows the person to focus more on the representation of thinking, not just the process of thinking.

Donald states, “This suggests that high levels of literacy skill may entail considerable costs, as indeed has been suggested by literature comparing the cognitive competences of oral cultures with those of literate. Oral memory and visual imagery are often listed among the skills that may have been traded off against literacy.” (p.746) My question – Is this truly a cognitive difference or is it a socially created difference? In other words – nature vs nurture?

I also find it a little ironic that Donald uses the metaphor of the human brain as a computational machine with external memory and processing capabilities, whereas Turkle is playing down the computational and processing capabilities of the computer in order to highlight the human-like abilities of simulation and interaction within computer.

Which leads to Turkle's discussion of identity in the age of the internet. She believes that the computer has gone beyond just being a tool or mirror of humans, but rather a place people go to create new identities and communities. As this is happening, the space between “real” life and virtual life is slowly diminishing. Many Multi-User Domains(MUD) users believe their virtual lives are as real and important as their “real” lives. From the earliest paper and dice games like Dungeons and Dragons, MUD allow people to be more than players; they become authors, who can create an identical persona or wildly different one. And, with anonymity, they can try out several different identities. “Windows have become a powerful metaphor for thinking about the self as a multiple, distributed system” (p. 14). These identities are formed by choice and my the identity inflicted on the user by the environment and other users – which makes it fluid and constantly changing. At times, it is difficult to see the difference between a person created character or a machine created character. The form and function of the computer has and is changing rapidly, and with it, brings a sense of “instability of meanings and the lack of universal and knowable truths” (p. 18)

At one time, people with multiple personalities were consider to be possessed my demons or mentally ill. However, Turkle sites that some MUD users who have multiple characters, often with extremely different personalities and goals. Is this self-medication of sorts for people who feel splintered by modern life? Or, does acting out these lives make if more difficult to accept “real” life? Will it become the norm to have a real life and multiple cyberlives? And those who choose not to partake, will they be the ones considered mentally ill?

“Mathematics is not about calculations . . . [it] is about understanding a problem, representing it in an external processing system and being able to use the information produced . . . in a meaningful way.” (Shaffer/Kaput, p. 111). For as much as computers are accepted at home, I am still amazed at the arguments and recriminations for using calculators in the math classroom and audio books in English. How can we help people see that this isn't just taking shortcuts, but just the tools that they are, which allow students to think more deeply about topics, rather than focus on basic skills?

Donald, M., (1993). Precis of Origins of the Modern Mind with multiple reviews and author's response. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16:4, pp. 737-91
Shaffer, D., & Kaput, J. (1999). Mathematics and virtual culture: An evolutionary perspective on technology and mathematics education. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 37, 97–119.
Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster

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