Thinking Digitally

30 Nov

Thinking Digitally HOM logoIt seems to me that when thinking about what habits and dispositions are deployed by people who successfully use digital technologies to extend their thinking, we need to have a clear framework for visualizing the process. Without this, there is a tendency to collapse cognition into mere computer literacy, whereas I believe that there are new cognitive skills which we all need to cultivate in the digital era. To help set about creating such a framework I would like to look at a number of key concepts.

The first concept is that of cognitive load. Without going into a great deal of detail, cognitive load is used in cognitive psychology to explain the ways in which the limitations of our short term memory inhibits learning. Our short term memory holds information which we are busy processing. It is distinct from long term memory, information which has been committed to memory and can be recalled, hopefully at need. It is the information that we are currently working with. Short term memory is very small, unlike our long term memory, which is very large indeed. If you read to me a number, as long as the number is quite short, I can hold it in my short term memory and process it. If the number is too large, I simply cannot hold it in my short term memory, and it becomes mere gibberish! We often use cognitive strategies to increase the amount of information we can process at one time. If you read me a telephone number, for example, I could recognize the area code and set that sequence of numbers aside. I don’t have to try and remember them all, because I have that stored in my long term memory as an area code, and I can recall it later. This technique is called chunking, and it allows us to group information together so that we can hold more in our short-term memories for processing.

The second idea is that of cognitive offloading. Given the limitations on our thinking imposed by cognitive load, we need to off-load some of this onto our environment in order to function effectively. For example we do not have to remember a shopping list if we write it down. We could do mental arithmetic to add up a series of numbers, or we could offload that task onto a calculator. Cognitive offloading through writing helps us to think more clearly. Once on paper we can reflect back on an idea and work at it. If we try to hold an idea in our minds, it often slips off into the ether and gets forgotten – in my head at any rate! Once on paper, I can use that to make sure I don’t forget what I was thinking a few seconds ago. Writing, indeed language itself is the foremost form of cognitive offloading, allowing our raw thoughts to be stored in a retrievable form.

This leads us to the third concept, that of cognitive technologies. We use a range of technologies to help augment, extend or assist our thinking. these technologies crucially include the range of new digital technologies which are of particular importance because of their ability to create networked systems and give nearly instantaneous access to information and to other people. It is clear that digital devices, connected through the Internet offer vastly powerful cognitive tools. These tools may spark, as Stevan Harnad has argued a cognitive revolution or may merely offer vastly enhanced ways of doing things. Either way the sheer scale of the ability to access and share information nearly instantaneously has huge ramifications for how we think. With the advent of wearable, and embedded technologies we need to start to think of ourselves as cyborgs, if not in the literal sense, then certainly metaphorically. We may not all have chips implanted in us, but we are surgically attached to our smart-phones, and we use these for cognitive offloading at every turn.

And finally this cognitive offloading onto new cognitive technologies on a scale as never before, amounts to a distributed cognition, in which the human mind can meaningfully be said to reside not in the brain alone, but distributed across the network. Edwin Hutchins, for example, showed how navigation on board ship is not the product of an individual mind, but is distributed across the crew. This idea is somewhat spooky, much like the spooky effects of quantum physics somewhat boggle our minds! But anyone who has used a Community Of Practice on the Internet to solve a problem, used Google docs to collaborate on a project, or played a MMORPG will understand at a visceral level how cognition appeared to happen somewhere out there in cyberspace, rather than in any single location or head.

Given what we have said above, it becomes clear that whenever someone accesses information off the Internet, or uses digital devices as collaborative communicative devices they are, in some way using a network of devices and other human minds to think, to problem solve, to learn or to create. These things can be done well, or they can be done poorly, and successful thinkers develop good habits and ways of working. Thinking Digitally is about these good habits. They fall into five areas of concern and forms a suggestion for a framework for thinking about the habit of Thinking Digitally.

  • Computational Thinking is about the thought processes involved in formulating problems in such a way that they can be processed using computational devices.
  • Information Literacy is about how to access and evaluate information online.
  • Hacking The Environment refers to coding devices to allow one to control one’s environment.
  • Digital Literacy refers to the dispositions and approaches required to use digital devices to create/learn/problem solve. Not the functions themselves, the thinking processes behind using the technology. In other words it’s not about being able to use F7 to spell check, it’s about the habit of using a spell check in the first place.
  • Digital Citizenship or the dispositions necessary for living in the 21st Century. This encompasses all spheres of life, but focuses on the cognitive dispositions that underlie our active and responsible participation in the world.

I am using this framework to help develop strategies and frameworks for promoting digital thinking in my school. You will note that I have borrowed categories already currently in use. This brings many strategies and approaches fully-formed to the table, and should allow teachers to borrow from successful existing practice.

This does mean, however, that there are overlapping concerns. This is a working heuristic, which may sharpen in focus as it gets worked through.





5 responses to “Thinking Digitally

  1. Dorian Love

    December 1, 2015 at 10:31 am

    All valid, and fascinating points, Steve, but I can’t help thinking that the interface between digital and analogue is closing, and the boundaries becoming messy. To use your analogy of the digital clock, there’s a whole generation working its way through school at the moment who cannot read an analogue clock! Are they not thinking digitally? For them 10:30 has a meaning that is not exactly analogue!

    Or not?


    • Steve Covello (@idmodule)

      December 1, 2015 at 4:37 pm

      Dorian – Not sure what you mean between the interface between digital and analog. In the framework I presented, digital and analog are functional and discrete whose “gap” cannot be closed. Wilden: “An analog computer is defined as any device which ‘computes’ by means of an analog between real, physical, continuous quantities, and some other set variables…” such as a flyball governor, a map, ruler, thermometer, volume control (etc.) In this context, “computer” is not intended to connote a Mac or PC, but a device that “computes” some form of measurement by expressing it by analogy. The infinite increments expressed in the flyball generator is analogous to the infinite increments in the speed of the device it is connected to.

      Wilden: “A digital computer differs from the analog in that it involves discrete elements and discontinuous scales…”. This refers to my previous post about codifying analog information into a scale or pattern, which may have no likeness to that which it symbolizes. (There is nothing “two-ish” about the shape of the number two.)

      Wilden assembles all of this (impenetrably) into a thesis which explains how these forms of communication rely on each other to form meaning.

      It is not surprising that generations brought up on a certain linguistic frame of reference will discard the value of “old” codes. It isn’t that today’s generation is no longer thinking digitally — it is that they are no longer thinking in *that form* of digital information. As a literate society, it is not possible for us to NOT communicate digitally.

      However, what we are seeing is a transition towards a more network-driven form of boundary formation (which is inherently digital, in the Wilden sense): Human faculties are extended beyond a “one to many” form of communication to a “many to many” form. The semantics of this transition imply a different set of values, such as (among others) our presence as individuals towards our presence among members of tribes.

      Do modern youth “compute” in the analog sense? This is a bit too deep for me, but I’ll go out on limb and suggest that, as McLuhan would say, we become that which we are analogous to: from the oral culture, to the literate culture, to the electronic culture, to the network culture. Our sense of value is defined by intelligence in the sphere in which we dwell. Like the spinning flyball governor, we “measure” ourselves against a network-based value system.


      • Dorian Love

        December 2, 2015 at 8:15 am

        Steve, We regularly convert analogue to digital and back again in the physical world so there is most definitely an interface and as embedded devices become more common, and we become cyborgs, this will be true of our bodies too. This is definitely too deep for me! So all I have is metaphor to think with – I will need to look at Wilden’s work and think about it! Thank you for alerting me too it!


  2. Steve Covello (@idmodule)

    November 30, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    The closest I have seen in the literature of a definition of “digital” is in the essays of Anthony Wilden. Among them is “Essay VIII: Analog and Digital Communication: On Negation, Signification, and Meaning”. [ System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange, 1st and 2nd ed., Tavistock Publications, 1972 and 1980, French translation, Boreal Express, Montreal, 1983. ]

    “Digital communication”, says Wilden, is a form of information that has been quantified into a code of some form, and organized with a syntax or logic. Analog information, in contrast, conveys only relationships. The two forms work in complementary ways to convey information punctuated with meaning. For example, a digital clock can convey the logical symbols of a numeric pattern. But unless you are aware that the symbols represent a coded ordinal representation of the (analog) continuum of time, you would not know what message the device is intended to convey. Likewise, an analog clock can convey the analogous relationship of the movement of time through the movement of its hands. However, you still need the “code” that organizes the movement into the logic of timekeeping.

    Thinking digitally, then, if we are to extend Wilden’s thesis into the modern age, suggests that our motive for thinking is to construct, codify, and organize our world into a logical order. This is OK. But this mission omits the importance to understand “the spaces in between” the objects we have codified. Or, in other words, we need to better understand how our “digitalized” objects and connections are analogous to something that is fundamentally human.

    This is where we might start encroaching into McLuhan territory – “the extensions of man [sic]” – much as Mr. Love has described in Cognitive Offloading via technologies. McLuhan would likely critique these moves as causing human detachment between action and reaction, and the overall fragmentation of meaning in the Gestalt sense.

    My response here doesn’t dispute the necessity or value of Mr. Love’s habits and dispositions about cognition via modern devices and networks, or the tools needed to manipulate things. Rather, if we are to think more about something, I suggest that we should be thinking LESS digitally (in the Wilden sense) and more ABOUT digital information and how it is organized, in the analog sense. What do these connections mean, and what assumptions do we make about the actors within them? How does the logic or syntax of information punctuate our understanding of the validity or objectivity of information exchanged in networks? What is the impact of knowledge contained in decentralized networks (rather than books) on the human social and political experience?

    A simple analogy might be trying to explain how a particular message, such as a break-up between two lovers, is somehow different if it is delivered face-to-face, in a long form letter, an voicemail message, an email, or a text. The information is the same. But the manner of communication punctuates how the message is to be interpreted according to the conventions of human relationships.

    I vote to retire the term “digital” from the lexicon of teaching and learning. Leave the “digital” to the devices and network, and the “analog” to the humans who can think about them analogically.



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