World Wide Weird: Rise of the Cognitive Ecosystem

Braden R. Allenby at Issues: “Social media, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and the data economy are coming together in a way that transcends how humans understand and control our world.

In the beginning of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, an ape, after hugging a strange monolith, picks up a bone and randomly begins playing with it … and then, as Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra rings in the background, the ape realizes that the bone it is holding is, in fact, a weapon. The ape, the bone, and the landscape remain exactly the same, yet something fundamental has changed: an ape casually holding a bone is a very different system than an ape consciously wielding a weapon. The warrior ape is an emergent cognitive phenomenon, neither required nor deterministically produced by the constituent parts: a bone, and an ape, in a savannah environment.

Cognition as an emergent property of techno-human systems is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, it might be said that the ability of humans and their institutions to couple to their technologies to create such techno-human systems is the source of civilization itself. Since humans began producing artifacts, and especially since we began creating artifacts designed to capture, preserve, and transmit information—from illuminated manuscripts and Chinese oracle bones to books and computers—humans have integrated with their technologies to produce emergent cognitive results.

And these combinations have transformed the world. Think of the German peasants, newly literate, who were handed populist tracts produced on then-newfangled printing presses in 1530: the Reformation happened. Thanks to the printers, information and strategies flowed between the thinkers and the readers faster, uniting people across time and space. Eventually, the result was another fundamental shift in the cognitive structure: the Enlightenment happened.

Since humans began producing artifacts, and especially artifacts designed to capture, preserve, and transmit information, humans have integrated with their technologies to produce emergent cognitive results.

In the 1980s Edwin Hutchins found another cognitive structure when he observed a pre-GPS crew navigating on a naval vessel: technology in the form of devices, charts, and books were combined with several individuals with specialized skills and training to produce knowledge of the ship’s position (the “fix”). No single entity, human or technological, contained the entire process; rather, as Hutchins observed: “An interlocking set of partial procedures can produce the overall observed pattern without there being a representation of that overall pattern anywhere in the system.” The fix arises as an emergent cognitive product that is nowhere found in the constituent pieces, be they technology or human; indeed, Hutchins speaks of “the computational ecology of navigation tools.”

Fast forward to today. It should be no surprise that at some point techno-human cognitive systems such as social media, artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G, cameras, computers, and sensors should begin to form their own ecology—significantly different in character from human cognition….(More)”