Cognitive subroutines extensions

Posted: March 17, 2005 at 9:00 am in cognition

In my last post about cognitive subroutines, I extended the idea to allow for us to use other people as part of our internal routines. I was using this in the idea of team building, but this idea of leveraging elements outside of ourselves can be extended even further. While I was at the Whitney yesterday, I was poking around their bookstore and saw a book called Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, by William J. Mitchell. I picked it up, flipped through it, and every page I flipped to seemed to have an interesting observation. So I bought it on the spot. The other book I’d brought on this trip (Politics of Nature by Bruno Latour) was just proving too dense for me to deal with, so I figured I would read this instead. It’s excellent. He describes how our individual selves are slowly melting into the environment where it’s hard to say where our “self” ends. A great non-cyber example he gives is of a blind man walking down the street using a stick to navigate. Is the stick part of his sensing system? Absolutely. Is it part of “him”?

Tying this back into the cognitive subroutines theory, in the same way that cognitive subroutines can rely on other people to perform part of their processing, it’s obvious that it can rely on other external mechanisms as well. I don’t bother remembering where anything online is any more, because I can just use Google. On the output side, I don’t have to think about the individual physical actions necessary to drive a car; I just think “I want to go there”, and it pretty much happens automatically. So we can use elements of our environment to increase our processing power, and to increase our ability to influence that environment.

In fact, this is really interesting, because it gets back to a question I asked at the end of this post, which was how to reconcile this theory with the ideas in Global Brain. By expanding the scope of the cognitive subroutines to include external influences and external controls, we then build in the power of the collective learning machine, because each of us will choose which elements of the external environment to leverage. Things that are useful, whether as mental constructs for easing cognitive processing or as physical artifacts for increasing our control, will get resources shifted towards them.

This is essentially the idea of the meme at work. A good idea, a good viewpoint of looking at the world, is viral in nature. I come across a way of looking at things. I start using it, and it explains a lot to me, and I find it valuable. I start telling other people about it, whether at cocktail parties or via this blog. If they find it useful, they pick it up. And so on and so forth. It gets incorporated into their internal cognitive subroutines, and soon it is embedded so deeply that they can’t distinguish it from “reality”.

I was thinking about this recently in the context of books. I like reading, obviously. I like books with ideas, books that express a certain viewpoint on the world. I was trying to answer the question of why I read, what makes a book like Me++ so compelling to me? I think it is this opportunity for picking up new ideas, new cognitive subroutines that I can then apply elsewhere. I described in that original cognitive subroutines post that moment when a bunch of synapses light up, and a whole new set of connections are made in my brain. There’s almost an audible click as ideas lock into a new formation. And books are a way of finding those formations. They are an opportunity to hook the ideas I have in my head into the unfathomably large set of ideas that is already out there in the space of human knowledge. Books help me to find ways to hook my ideas into those of thinkers past, as well as giving me the ability to leverage the insights of those thinkers, by not having to recreate their work.

It’s about the network of ideas. An individual idea isn’t very useful or exciting to me. It’s about how it hooks into a big picture. This is probably because I’m a highly deductive thinker. When I was a physics student, I would struggle woefully for the first half of the term, as they introduced individual concepts in an isolated context. At some point, though, the light would go on, and I’d see the whole structure, and then it all made sense; I could see how the individual concepts fit together, and how to use them. I need those kinds of structures to sort through ideas. That may be an individual thing, though.


This isn’t the clearest post I’ve done. But I like the direction this is heading. I think I have a provisional way of hooking the cognitive subroutines theory into the global brain network emergence theory. I like Me++’s idea of extending ourselves out into infinity, and how that applies. I like how I can tie it into my own tendencies, from liking to read, to deductive thinking. This is actually getting to the point where it’s almost coherent and consistent. Now I just have to put together an outline. Yeah. Any day now.

2 Responses to “Cognitive subroutines extensions”

  1. The Rantings of Eric Nehrlich || Emotional Design, by Donald Norman || March || 2005 Says:

    […] So there’s not much that’s new to me in Emotional Design. I did like his partition of thought and design into the visceral (pre-conscious initial reactions), behavioral (learned structures corresponding to our experiences (which I think is essentially the same idea as cognitive subroutines)), and reflective (conscious thought, generalizations and recursion). He spends some time delving into how the three levels interact in design; for a good chef’s knife, it’s satisfying on the visceral level (”Ooh, shiny!”), behavioral level (it performs consistently and precisely), and reflective level (appreciating how its form follows its function). More importantly, he addresses situations where the three levels are in conflict, where something is viscerally attractive, but reflectively repugnant, like junk food, or viscerally repugnant and reflectively attractive, like most of modern art. […]

  2. The Rantings of Eric Nehrlich || The importance of feedback Says:

    […] We’re all familiar with this concept. When we pick up a hammer and hit a nail, we’re not thinking about the hammer, we’re thinking about the task of hitting the nail. The hammer is invisible to our conscious thought; it has been absorbed into our extended self (Me++ explores similar ideas). […]

RSS feed

LinkedIn profile


. @squawalpine mountain run is an ice rink. I saw several people take bad falls on it. Might want to actually make your mountain rideable.

Recent Posts

  • The challenge of humanity
  • The Generalist Is In
  • Challenging oneself
  • Instigating unhappiness
  • There are no shortcuts
  • Random Posts

  • Thinking different
  • The Idea Factory, by Jon Gertner
  • Stories from the chorus
  • Sweeney Todd
  • Henry Rollins and Cornell (March 24-28)

  • Archives

  • Categories