Distributed Cognition

Mood: quizzical quizzical
Now Playing: I Have Nothing (Whitney Houston)

I’ve been trying to get my ahead around three concepts: Vygotsky’s idea of psychological tools, activity theory and distributed cognition as I think they’ll all form part of my literature review.

Anyway, yesterday I was reading Gavriel Salomon’s paper on “No distribution without individuals’ cognition: a dynamic interractional view” which he wrote in 1993. I thought this paper would help me understand things from my point of view. As I’ve noticed in activity theory and distributed cognition there seems to be more emphasis on the tools rather than the individual, at most times it seem as if the individual is incident to the fact rather than perhaps the person who is running the system. I think I’m a very individual cognitive person and hence my reasoning may be influenced from these thoughts.

Anyway, Salomon is saying something similar to what I’m thinking except it was very hard trying to make my way through the maze of different theories and considerations. One of the things that Salomon talks about is the way that Lave (1988) sees

person-acting-in-settings whereby cognitions are ‘distributed – stretched over, not divided among – mind, body, activity and culturally organised settings (which include other actors)'” 

It’s this stretching over that seems quite confusing – cognition is seemed to be divided between objects and people. Pea (1993) – in the same book – preferred to refer to it as ‘distributed intelligence’ since he didn’t believe that objects can have a cognition. So guess in Pea’s manner that cognition is a wholly human activity. However, in one of his earlier papers, Pea (1985) he talk about cognitive tools such as computers, pen etc. which acts as cognitive thinking reorganisers within a functional system (he was keen to debunk the word amplifier). I think in this case the functional system has evolved into the distributed system.

Anyway, although keen on reading Salomon paper I can’t say he has given me a strong argument for the individual (I really want one) – or perhaps I’m just too dense to understand what he is actually trying to say. One of the things, he does mention is cognitive residuenot certain it is something he coined or it comes from elsewhere. Basically, he says that in a distributed cognitive system when the individual is there he will learn something in that system and retain it (this is what is the cognitive residue) and apply or transform its application in a completely different distributed cognitive system, and thus it is the individual (and all other individuals) pool together their cognitive residue and causing it to redistribute and create more cognitive residue – and this is the individual cognition we cannot ignore, the learning is not all in the cultural/social chrysalis that the post-Vygotskian theorists seems to want to put the hold human race into (ok, probably the last bit is more me ranting rather than Salomon’s view :D).

Salomon seems also to ridicule (perhaps too strong a word) of Pea’s (1993) idea that the individual can off-load their “cognitive burden onto a a tool or onto human partners“. I haven’t read the full paper by Pea – so, not quite sure what Salomon is alluded to, but I don’t like the idea of saying we “off-load” our cognitive burden … when we give it to the other people – what do they do with it then? Do they off-load it back to us? Certainly, their is some individual cognitive thinking occurring there which is processed and then returned to us (or perhaps as Vygotsky says – internalised) – perhaps using their own conceptual and procedural knowledge which some may have acquired through a social/cultural heritage.

I feel ambivalent about saying some in the last sentence but this social/cultural heritage is very screwy – pretty much everything we do is within some environment, we live on earth our intelligence is  going to be shaped within that environment but does it mean that it is the main influence of our intelligence or we have some say in it as well? (I think I may be getting confused now :D).  

Anyway, what gets me, is that all systems are connected – how do you know where one ends and one begins, how do you define the boundaries, how do you know where your cognition has stop being distributed? Are we saying it is only the specific tools or person we are sharing it with? How about the environment – let’s say the ambiance helps in cognition being better? Which is true … if the temperature is conducive  the one is more likely to do work – but is that a product of the social/cultural history that we carry? Or something from our evolutionary history? And would this be part of the distributed system? You see the same thing happens in activity theory – where are the boundaries? At least in individual cognition the boundary is much more clearly defined. (I know although I’m doing this rant – I may just turn around and use distributed cognition or something of the same ilk in my literature review and be perfectly fine with it).

Anyhow, just one last statement from Salomon about having:

 “a search of effects of distributed activities to a search for the effects with them … the former pertain to cognitive residues in the mind of the individual, the latter pertain to the structure of the activity when the tools and social surrounds for distributed cognitions are available”

I’m not quite certain what all of that means conclusively but Salomon thinks it is something of importance because he keeps mentioning it, I’m not certain whether the prescribes to the notion of or with. I think it might be of but not certain, well I believe in the of rather than the with.

 Anyway, will list the four reasons why Salomon thinks we cannot ignore the individual (so I can for remember in the future):

  1. Some everyday experiences and observations do not require cognitions to be distributed (I think in this sense he means off-loaded to a person or a tool)
  2. Higher-order knowledge such as skills and operations may not be able to be distributed
  3. When representing the world as an activity, the individuals’ representation cannot be ignored (I think he is referring to activity theory triangles!)
  4. Using only situated and distributed cognitions provides “only frozen pictures of states that neither grow or develop” i.e. that is without incorporating the individual’s cognition.

One of the things that I’m wondering is how did one extend Vygotsky’s idea of a psychological tool (in which he meant mainly higher mental) into a physical tool such as computer etc or even a person. I’ve got to find the paper which does that – guess it must be Leon’tev (sp?).  Because basically what is being said is that the original psychological tools mentioned by Vygotsky are now external cognitive tools (which is a bit of a strange terminology since it gives the impression that the tool can think which we all know that it can’t!).

Anyway, gonna submit this now … I know sometimes I tend to ramble – but hoped it made logical sense in most places 🙂


  1. Gosh. I dont think I’ve read Soloman, and I’m rather pleased I didn’t. I liked Roy Pea, and I think if you go to Yvonne Roger’s website at the OU, you’ll find a link to her clear guide to Distributed Cognition which sounds lot easier to understand. http://mcs.open.ac.uk/yr258/publications.html#2

    I’ve not gone into the depth that you have and am still trying to avoid Vygotsky (but he keeps hiding around corners and leaping out at me).

    My understanding of DC is that it is an advancement on the original idea that cognition took place only inside the head of the individual, to say that artifacts, whether technological or other, played a part in the cognitive process and could not be ignored. The edited book by Kaptelinin (unspellable) and Nardi says that DC and actor network ignore the social and that activity theory takes account of that. But I’m not so sure that is true. From what I understand, DC could be applied quite well to your black-box, glass box, open box theory. With black box, the individual may not need to keep all the cognitive processes in their head because the black box does it all. With glass box they have the choice, and with open box they just have to do it because the open box does not offer them any representation of what they are attempting to resolve.

    Hope this helps. Maybe you too should try to catch a chat with Yvonne. She certainly helped me an enormous amount, even though it was to move away from distributed cognition 🙂

  2. I’ll have a look at that website – probably I could better understand this whole distributed cognition things because probably I’m taking it from the wrong angle. And I think you may have something there about the black-box, open-box and glass-box and the cognitive processes – I think I just might have to tease it out a bit more. I guess in the black-box they’re off-loading more whilst in the glass-box a little less and in the open-box even less. Perhaps full off-loading does not occur in the open-box … it is something to consider.

  3. Nope, not in iMET programme, but I’ve had to read Roy Pea which is beginning to make some bad memories 🙂 … I’m working with mathematics learning with software and hence have to read some of his stuff!

  4. Hi Noel … I’ve never read it but had a quick glance at it. It seems quite interested but the thing about distributed cognition and activity theory to me is that they tend to ignore (or rather minimalize) the individual’s cognition.

    I was surprise that Halverson (2002) said that in activity theory that the individual is at the centre of everything – because to me my impression of activity theory is that the artifact is the centre of everything or rather placed rather upone a pedestal (why else is it always at the top apex of the triangle!).

    However, Nardi (2002) in a response to Halverson’s paper put it back aright and indicate that the individual is the situation and that “individual consiousness arises from practical activity” (which to my outlook really means the artifact – because how else would you get the practical activity – and again it centres around the tool!)

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