[xmca] Material intelligence: cognition extended through technology

From: Kai Hakkarainen <kai.hakkarainen who-is-at joensuu.fi>
Date: Tue Oct 30 2007 - 13:53:41 PDT

Dear Jay,


Thank you again for your insightful analysis of relational meaning making or
whatever term will be found for addressing these issues. I am also myself
fond of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory and especially his analysis
concerning actants, i.e., active and autonomous artefact laden with agency.
This relates to my interest in extending (material) cognition through

Originally, I criticized Latour because he disregarded personal
transformations involved in heterogeneous networks and wanted to eliminate
psychological explanations whatsoever. I even published an article about it
(Hakkarainen, K. (2003). Can cognitive explanations be eliminated? Science &
Education, 12, 671-689) by relying on Vygotskian arguments. The story of the
article was in itself interesting. It was originally a long essay written
during my doctoral studies at the University of Toronto in 1992. My
professors said that it was of the same quality as articles published in
respected journals. Because I did not, however, have developed knowledge
practices needed for scientific publication, I did not really know what to
do with it. I sent it to a famous professor for comments. He did not, of
course, respond because it was as really his role to comment a student’s
paper. So the essay was forgotten for ten years. After unsuccessfully
applying a professorship ten years latter, it become painfully clear that I
would need a large number of internationally refereed journal articles in
order to be ever successful. Consequently, I dug the Latour article among
other manuscripts out of my archives, worked through it in couple days, and
sent it to a journal in which it was shortly published. The knowledge
practices that I had developed across a decade made it an easy and
effortless process. It appears to me that this history, in a sense,
beautifully refutes many aspects of my Latour criticism. Without publication
related material intelligence, that Latour was revealing in his
investigations, scientific cognition just does not provide desired outcomes.

I can see that you have a very deep and integrated vision of the physically,
biologically, socially, and temporally distributed nature of human
cognition. One perspective that I would, however, like to foreground is the
historical development of human activity related to the Information and
Communication technologies that are transforming all spheres of life.
Professionals are working with more and more complex, open-ended and
incomplete knowledge-laden objects that break organizational, national, and
cultural boundaries, as many activity theorists have argued. It appears to
me that from these historical transformations emerge both specific
challenges and possibilities of expansion of human activity. For many
academic and personal reasons, I am myself interested whether, how, and to
what extent human personal and collective epistemic capabilities can be
augmented or extended with epistemic technologies and associated practices.
It appears to me that the material basis of our cognition is transforming
with the emergence of cyborg technology that can be integrated with the
human body (neural implants, wearable and mobile collaborative computing)
and provide more and more complex mediation for our collective activity. I
acknowledge that in this field there is a lot of hype and ill-grounded
optimism. I know from my own educational research that technology enhances
human activity only through transformed social practices. Nevertheless, I
think that the profound transformation concerning the very basis of human
activity (its medium, as Georg Ruckriem argue) provides socioculturally
oriented investigator non-trivial theoretical problems to solve. Perhaps
these historical changes are making human material intelligence (distributed
among the rapidly evolving heterogeneous networks of human and
knowledge-laden, autonomous, and smart nonhumans) as something that can be
more concretely empirically investigated.


Sincerely yours,





From: Jay Lemke [mailto:jaylemke@umich.edu]
Sent: Sunday, October 28, 2007 2:50 AM
To: kai.hakkarainen@joensuu.fi; eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] Material cognition and epigenesis


I am also very interested in the material aspects of cognition, or as I
would rather say, of meaning-making (to avoid a lot of the old-theory
baggage of the notion of "cognition" as such).

When we think of "distributed cognition" we need to think of it as
distributed in the sense that there are dynamical process in a complex
system that includes, at least: brains, hormones, muscles, and body actions;
these elements for other humans; the material environment including, again
at least, tools and artifacts, setting and its conditions (e.g. lighting,
noise level), and more distant or global aspects of the setting, such as
local barometric pressure, day vs. night, etc.

And then we need to also extend the distribution across time as well as
space, so that memory and biographical history, as materially embedded in
the individual body are included (and here we get close to habitus, I
think), and also the nature of the repeated traversals across typical kinds
of sites and activities in the social setting (e.g. reading books, using
machinery, etc.) which brings these more general aspects of the material
culture(s) in which the individual has been participating into the extended

While this might seem to be including everything and so nothing, we have to
remember that the task of analysis is to specify just which elements that
might potentially be involved in actions and choices, or problem-solving or
other displays of "intelligence" can actually be traced as playing a role,
and to what degree, and through what chains, linkages, or networks.

While we can take such ideas back to Heidegger's hammer, or Bateson's
walking stick, or Vygotsky's broom-as-a-horse, I find it very useful to make
use of Bruno Latour's notions of actor-networks (actors can also be nonhuman
entities in this model), though we need, I think, to add in linkages of
processes that operate on different timescales (acceptable in Latour's view,
but insufficiently emphasized), as for heterochrony.

Such a view does, I think, connect notions of the material support for
meaning-making to the discussion of epigenesis and neo-Lamarkianism. While
it is fascinating to contemplate biochemical pathways for acquired changes
to the adult to influence heritable DNA, to focus on that pathway seems to
me to simply re-instantiate the ideology or fashion for molecular

At a more macro-level, it is not so different when we imagine that the kind
of material environment provided by one generation influences the kinds of
thinking available or preferred by the next, and I would include affectively
influential elements of the environment prominently in such an analysis
(from emotional support for children to frequent encounters with scary

In between, we have the important notion, which I think is what Kai has been
emphasizing, that as we work with tools or in a culturally shaped
environment, the ways our bodies and brains typically work also alters to
adapt to the tools at hand and settings and activities in which we find
ourselves. This leads developmentally to Bourdieu's notion of habitus, which
can be seen as mediating across timescales, between developmental
longer-term processes and dispositions for action in shorter timescale
moments. Without doubt, some of these effects must appear in brain
chemistry, neuronal organization (cf. Edelman), and perhaps somatic and even
sex-cell DNA. But the whole point of epigenetic models is that even if
information is passed to the foetus, via DNA or maternal chemistry, it is
not solely determinative of phenotypic expressions. Evolution is the process
of adaptation to a RANGE of likely environmental conditions, and what is
inherited via DNA is a selective sensitivity to the kinds of environmental
input that trigger options within the range that the genotype can
accomodate. What we inherit is information about what features of the
environment we would do well to take into account -- from the chemical
environment of the womb to the linguistic environment of the home to, one
must suppose, the tool environment of the culture.

_How_ we respond to these elements of the "external DNA" is what I would
like us to understand better, case by case.


PS. In many theories of the origin of cellular life, the only heritable
information originally was external. DNA was its internalization, a step
that rendered the information both more reliably available and, by its being
then more insulated from current environmental conditions, capable of
indexing longer-term conditions-and-adaptations, as well as a range of
potential conditions-and-adaptations.

At 03:23 PM 10/27/2007, you wrote:

Dear Helena,


Thank you for your interest in material cognition. From my part these are
ideas that have only been recently elaborated and still being
work-in-progress: I am using this list deliberately to test and extend the
ideas in question. Thus far, I have just one conference paper (and couple
manuscripts) that I referred in another message in which some of the
concepts are elaborated a bit
( <http://www.lime.ki.se/uploads/images/517/Hakkarainen_Lonka_Paavola.pdf>
http://www.lime.ki.se/uploads/images/517/Hakkarainen_Lonka_Paavola.pdf ). I
currently am extending the ideas by relying on intuition that we can give
knowledge work a materialist explanation (rather than seeing it as a process
of playing only with ideas). One of the assumptions of our paper is that
humans have distributed minds so that we may see artifacts as part of your
mind ­ understood as a wireless network of intelligence (we are here
following here Merlin Donald’s and Andy Clark’s footsteps). We may interpret
the process of developing expertise as one in which artifacts literally
become a part of your cognitive architecture (in the form of long-term
working memory or something like that). Perhaps, the processes by which the
structure and functions of your brain become profoundly adapted to support
your activity may be seen as an aspect of material cognition. By following
Mike’s suggestion I am planning to go through Sylvia Scribner’s work in
order to deeper my understanding of her pioneering research on working


I feel strongly that my psychological education was so narrow that it did
not provide very good resources for understanding cultural cognitions.
Anyway, I presume that Bourdieu’s concept of habitus may be more useful than
the notion of tacit knowledge for understanding the kind of situation you
are referring to (habitus is a bit fuzzy notion and, thereby, not without
its problems). Wolff-Michael Roth has been using it in an illuminative way
to examine, for instance, teachers’ practices. From the epistemic
perspective the problem of your workplace case may be that the participants
are not themselves aware, and, thereby, unable to reflect on and
deliberately transform their habitus. They may just feel existentially that
their activity patterns do fit in the prevailing managerial practices.
Perhaps some sort of mirror material (videotaped practices) or
change-laboratory interventions would assist in making visible, reflecting
on, and transforming the practices in question.


I have come to understand that higher-level transformative learning ­ or
expansive learning that Yrjö Engeström has been talking all along ­ is
learning to does not only concern your beliefs but your practices and,
thereby also, habitus. Although this kind of learning has critical role in
many human pursuits (learning to do academic studies, learning to teach,
learning to publish), people are often not at all aware of it. Consequently,
tend to blame their own stupidity or lack of intelligence whenever there is
a failure to learn. When you are provided access to collective epistemic
practices, specific support tailored to your evolving epistemic
competencies, and as much time as you need you are likely to be able to
learn anything.


Sincerely your,




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Received on Tue Oct 30 14:07 PDT 2007

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