Sunday, 14 October 2012

Understanding Computers and Metacognition

Winograd and Flores's "Understanding Computers and Cognition" has been a major influence on our thinking in the Institute for Educational Cybernetics. It introduced the principal themes of our work: the philosophy of technology and phenomenology of technological experience; the dynamics of communication and speech acts; and the cybernetics of biological self-organisation. Winograd and Flores's thesis (really, I think its Flores more than Winograd) is that computers are about communication. That hardly surprises us now, but the book was written in the early 1980s when the dominant paradigm for thinking about computers was Artificial Intelligence. There was no internet. So it was prescient.

Their deeper argument is that computers allow us to track the commitments we make to each other. That's very important, and I think, demonstrably true. You only have to look at your email management software to see this. But I think there is something more. It is something which has struck me as I have examined my blogging practice. It is not commitment I make to others that I track; it is the different levels of my own thinking: computers allow us to track our metacognitive reflexive states.

The account of "reflexive modernisation" presented by Giddens and Beck is being borne out by social changes that are underway. At the heart of these changes is the increased atomisation that reorganises the relations between individual experience and collective being. I think the 'collective' is increasing under attack - probably because it is the most dangerous politically - and in its place, 'networks' which are effectively controlled by the elite are substituted: these produce isolation which is the breeding ground for susceptibility to the risks produced by the elite. Computers, of course, are at the heart of this network.

Whilst risk requires isolation, with isolation comes more risk. However, isolation itself needs to be understood. It is, I would say, a meta-strategic problem. It is obvious to say isolation results from lack of 'other people', but it isn't the absence of others that creates isolation, it is the problem of being deprived of the means to make choices. 'Other people' and the shared experience, conviviality, etc provided by them is the means by which choices  can be made. Those are the conditions within which shared absence can be determined, and shared political action undertaken.

But although we are atomised into networks, human experience is much deeper than the expression the networks afford. Moreover, the networks provide the means by which individual experience can be inspected more fully. My thinking is in my blog yesterday and today, from last year, from the year before. I can trace my thinking (like a diary), but (unlike a diary) I can see how others have responded. I can see what they are interested in; what they are searching for. Personal analytics are important. Individuals can track their own meta-strategies and meta-cognition. Go deep enough down and the absences around the network start to reveal themselves. It is the absence around the network which is the deep shared absence; here there is authenticity once more; that may be where we can refind togetherness. As usual, technology is a double-edged sword.

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