Monday, December 06, 2010

Book comment: Andy Clark “Supersizing the Mind—Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension”


The book “Supersizing the Mind—Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension” by Andy Clark is a great account for the idea that our thinking and our minds are not only a matter of the brain. Clark is developing the idea of the “extended” mind in contrast to what he calls the “brainbound” idea of thinking. Even though this book is primarily a book on modern cognitive science and its different models and explanations of thinking, it also has a broader interest and also practical consequences.

I am of course reading this book from the perspective of my own interests in interaction design and design theory. Reading the book from such a perspective makes it very easy to be supportive of the major ideas discussed since they make intuitive sense. This is interesting since Clark notes that in cognitive science this proposed theory instead is commonly seen as too radical since it goes against an intuitive understanding of thinking.

The basic argument in the book is that humans do not merely think with their brains, but with their bodies and with their immediate environment, artifacts and systems. And that thinking is not only the abstract cognitive activity but influenced and informed through the “use” of bodily and sensory actions. This is for Clark an important theoretical position and he states it as “I believe that human minds and bodies are essentially open to episodes of deep and transformative restructuring in which new equipment (both physical and “mental”) can become quite literally incorporated into the thinking and acting systems that we identify as our minds and bodies” (p 31). Clark goes through a number of examples on quite detailed level that all lead to and taken together create his larger argument. He discusses robot research, the body, material symbols, the limits of his theory, what the brain becomes with if this view is accepted, and more.

One consequence of the view of thinking that Clark argues for is that thinking and acting becomes circular and a feedback system. Humans develop tools that in turn help them to think in certain ways, which again leads to new tools. He writes “The linguistic scaffoldings that surround us, and that we ourselves create, are both cognition enhancing in their own right and help provide the tools we use to discover and build the myriad of other props and scaffoldings whose cumulative effect is to press minds like ours from the biological flux.” (p 60). Of course, this quote also has some other quite powerful consequences, related to evolution and language. Clark writes “For examples, both educational practices and human-built structures (artifacts) are passed on from generation to generation in ways that dramatically alter the fitness landscape for individual lifetime learning” (p 62).

So, we humans develop artifacts, tools, and systems as a way to “do” or make things change in the “real” physical world but at the same time these tools alter and influence, or maybe more appropriately support our ability to think. Clark again “We thus comes to what is arguably the most radical contemporary take on the potential cognitive role of nonbiological props, aids, and structures: the idea that, under certain conditions, such props and structures might count as proper parts of extended cognitive processes.” (p 68).

Clark goes on discussing some general and philosophical issues and challenges that a theory like this faces, as well as, very detailed and empirically grounded concerns raised from within cognitive science studies.  One issue that Clark discusses is that with this view, thinking becomes a spread out activity located partly in the brain and partly somewhere else. From a cognitive science perspective this creates a lot of problems on how to study thinking, it becomes a bit “messy”. Which in terms can be seen as it creates a “high explanatory cost” for anyone who wants to study thinking since it becomes such a complex “system” instead of the neatly coherent and located “brain”. This is however not necessarily an issue for those of us who just want to use this theory as a tool in our own fields.

Reading this book from the perspective of design theory is fascinating and at the same time interestingly not very challenging. The notion of extended thinking is quite accepted in design and is also developed into approaches, methods and techniques used by designers. Designers always collect ideas, use notebooks, sketches, etc. all as a way of thinking, and not as a way of collecting information or knowledge.

We can find this developed more theoretically in the works of for instance Donald Schon who famously wrote about the idea that designers externalize their ideas in sketches and prototypes and that as a consequence the “world speaks back”. He argued that this “conversation” is at the core of any thinking aimed at creating the which does not yet exist, and where there are no logical systems that can prescribe the thinking process, instead it is all about explorative thinking. There are several books on the value of constantly sketching, of saving designs, of having notebooks, of surround yourself with artifacts to create a rich environment that stimulate and becomes part of your thinking, etc. In almost all the cases the argument among design thinkers is that these are “thinking tools” and that it is not possible to think without them.  It is clear that these “techniques” are not seen as informational, instead they are seen as part of the thinking process itself.

In the same way, designers are always thinking about the particular, about the artifact, and know that when you design an artifact or system you design tools that will become part of users “thinking”. The focus on objects, artifacts, and systems has probably made this kind of thinking quite natural and intuitive for designers. Clark mentions that for the mainstream cognitive science community his “expanded” perspective might seem too “messy” or “fleshy” (two concepts used by Clark). This bodily, material, physical and artifact centered view is therefore in a way intuitive for designers and easy to accept and understand.

The great value of Clark’s book is that he is making a strong case for a highly important way to think about thinking, which should be of interest to any designer. His argumentation is also based on scientific research which means that he is much more careful with definitions and claims, than people in design areas who make similar claims.  So, even the overall message in Clark’s book is less provocative for designers there is a lot to learn from this book.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Book comment: Cass R. Sunstein "Going to extremes--how like minds unite and divide"

A few years back when I read Cass Sunstein's book "Republic 2.0"  I was immediately impressed both by the message and the argumentation. In his most recent book "Going to extremes--how like minds unite and divide" he comes back to the same topic but more grounded and with a broader scope. The topic of this book is the idea of "group polarization".  Sunstein defines the phenomenon like this: "When people find themselves in groups of like-minded types, they are especially likely to move to extremes." (p 2). This means that when people meet with other who have similar views they reinforce and strengthen these views, to the point when they may be seen as extreme. This can happen around any topic and Sunstein gives many examples in the book. People may become extreme in their views on politics (something Sunstein uses a lot), health, sports, religion, etc.  Sunstein uses the major part of the book to show research that in different ways support this idea. He explores many aspects of the idea and paints a broad and convincing picture of the phenomenon.

The more I read the book the more complex the notion of "group polarization" becomes. Sunstein starts our with more definitional reasoning about how to understand the concept,  later he moves on to questions such as if polarization is good or bad, and how or if  it is possible to "handle" it. Of course, he also discusses some of the ideas he presented in "Republic 2.0" about internet as a very efficient tool  in creating "group polarization", but here he is more balanced in his reasoning and also bring forward and explores "good extremism".

As always, it is a pleasure to read Sunstein. The writing is extraordinary clear and easy to follow. The argumentation is wonderfully straightforward. As you reader you do not have any concerns with not understanding the author. Instead, the clear argumentation really invites the reader to analyze and critique the author.

For anyone who studies groups, communities, organizations, or any other assembly of people, this is a great book. It has implications for anyone thinking about social media and internet usage. However, the book does not makes things easier and it does not give the reader any prescriptions to follow on how to achieve certain group results, but it truly add to a more foundational understanding of group behavior.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Favorite books in Design Theory, Version Deux

In 2007 I posted a post with the same title as this one. I read this old post today and saw that it is time to update the list. This is how I introduced the list in 2007:

"I had a meeting today with a PhD student from another department and was asked what to read if you want to get into the more theoretical and philosophical aspects of design and that had influenced my work. It was a good exercise and I came at least up with a few books, even though I am sure I have forgotten some that might be even more influential on my thinking."

So, I have kept the old list and added some book that I had forgotten or that have been published since then. Even though I have only picked book that have had serious influence, the list keeps growing. I do not always have the full references but instead some have links.

The list is in no particular order, so here we go:

Lundeqvist, Jerker. (1982?) "Norm och modell" (Norm and Model). in Swedish
This was Jerker's PhD thesis and it really opened the door for me to design theory!

Simon's book is a must in the area.

Maybe the most influential book for me.

Lawson, Bryan. "How Designers Think"
Lawson's book really helped me to form my own understanding of design.

Dunne, Joseph "Back to the Rough Ground"
Probably the best book ever on practical knowledge and judgment.

The best contemporary book on design theory.

Lawson, Brian. & Dorst, Kees. "Design Expertise"
A really good introduction to what it means to be good at design.

This book was first published in 1969 and is a wonderful book on the relation between craft and design, functionality and aesthetics.

Alexander, Christoffer. "The Timeless Way of Building"
Even though Alexander is more famous for his pattern language work, this is the book that is fundamental.

Of all the readings in philosophy of technology, this is the one that has influenced me the most. A wonderful critique of contemporary design and technology.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Still one of the best and maybe only books in psychology that has direct influence on how to think about design.

A book so full of great ideas that it is almost too much. Latour makes the case for reality in a way that makes sense to design theory, it is all about the particular, about here and now.

Marcuse, Herbert. "One-Dimensional Man"
All about the consequences of getting stuck in our understanding of the world, and why we have to critically break out of dominating thought figures. 

and finally some self-promotion...

Nelson, Harold & Stolterman, Erik. "The Design Way - Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World"
Well, our book is out of print, but we are working on a 2nd edition that  will be published by   MIT Press in 2011 (if Harold and I can finish our writing).

Well, I will maybe update and add more later.....

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Book comment: Robert Nozick "The Examined Life--philosophical meditations"

As a philosopher Robert Nozick is mainly known for his 1975 book "Anarchy, State and Utopia" where he develops his arguments within political philosophy. But to me, it is one of his later books that has inspired me, and that is "The Examined Life--philosophical meditations" that came out in 1989.

This book contains about 25 essays that cover highly diverse topics even though they all have to do with how to live a life and the meaning of life. I read this book many years ago and it made a strong impact on me. I have recently started reading it again and realize even more that it has a lot to offer for anyone with an interest in design theory.

The basic theme in the book is the notion of reflection or examination. Nozick writes "examination and reflection are not just about the other components of life: they are added within a life, alongside the rest, and by their presence call for a new overall pattern that alters how each part of life is understood." This idea goes of course back to Aristotle and his famous notion about the "examined life". Nozick's book is an attempt to support such reflections and examinations of life in a way that is less philosophical (or theoretical) and more related to everyday experinces, such as, death, love, aging.

One of the core themes in the book is about value and meaning. Nozick devotes several chapters to the question about how we can know what makes something valuable and meaningful. All his reasoning resonates well with an everyday and intuitive way of thinking. For instance, he writes "Still, when all other things are equal, the more concentrated thought that goes into making something, the more it is shaped, enriched, and laden with significance." (p 14).

I have over the years used two of the chapters in the book in my teaching and also sometimes in my writing and that is the chapters "14. Stances" and "15. Value and Meaning". In our book "The Design Way" we use Nozick's model from chapter 15 as a way to discuss and analyze value and meaning when it comes to things and systems. This is a wonderful chapter and should be read by anyone who is interested in what makes an artifact or system valuable or meaningful. Nozick's analysis is simple, clear, and highly useful.

I know that a lot of people have problems with Nozick due to his early writings and his political views, but I find this book exciting and intriguing, and completely liberated from political philosophy. It has an style, tone, and language that you seldom find in book from professional philosophers. Another favorite example of a similar book in this style is Richard Rorty's "Philosophy and Social Hope". These are not typical philosophy books. They do not require the special and intricate knowledge and language of the professional philosopher, but they still rest on a stable foundation that can only be provided by someone who really knows the topic.

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