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Cognition in the Wild (Bradford Books) Revised ed. Edition
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I study software engineering processes, especially software quality assurance techniques. I'd been troubled by the linear, cartesian reasoning we use in our field to justify some practices and deprecate others. What Hutchins did for me is open the door to a whole different way of thinking about cognitive processes in relation to technology. Up to the moment I was drawn to the interesting title on the shelf of a Barnes and Noble bookstore, I had only a vague idea that there are people who study how other people think and make decisions. Since then, I've discovered interesting ideas about how to organize and train software testers from lots of different fields. But it all started with Cognition in the Wild.
What's so special about Cognition in the Wild? I think there are a few factors at work:
- Hutchins style of writing is personable and readable.
- His conclusions are supported by vivid and detailed accounts from the bridge of a warship. I felt like I was there, with him.
- His ideas about naturally situated cognition are so immediately applicable to any system where a group of people are producing an intellectual product.
- His description of the paradigmatic differences between Western and Micronesian navigation practice helped me make sense of similar fundamental differences among factions in my own field.
Since I discovered this stuff, I've oriented my SQA process work squarely toward helping people think better in groups-- a social cognition focus.
It's a book about the cognitive task of ship navigation, but at the same time it's a book about distributed cognition in general, including organisational learning, the question of representation, and other highly relevant topics.
The field of cognitive science is still a place of almost religious debate about turing machines, problem solvers, representation, intelligence and other theoretical concepts that have in common that they can be discussed, but usually not observed directly. One could easily gain the impression that there was some kind of uncertainty principle special to cognitive science that prevented us from watching "the mind".
It's the biggest strength and achievement of Hutchins' book that he came up with the elegant solution to watch "the mind" by observing humans deal with problems using the cognitive tools (systems of representation and 'real' tools as well) that have developed over the centuries. It's almost ironic to see how well this works. By providing further evidence that cognition is generally a distributed task that is done by interacting with cognitive tools, Hutchins proves to be a philosopher in the Wittgensteinian sense who "shows the fly the way from the fly bottle (of mentalism)."