Understanding computers and cognition : a new foundation for design

by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores.

Currently reading.

Chapter 1

Quote: in designing tools we are designing ways of being.

Is this cybernetic? An interactive system feedback loop?

Quote: Jastrow, "The thinking computer" (1982): thereabouts-portable, quasi-human brains, made of silicon or gallium arsenide, will be commonplace. They will be an intelligent electronic race, working as partners with the human race.

So much of mind is in the machine. I grew up with a computer. I use it to think, without it, I’m not sure what form my mind would take. To think of these computers as part of their own "intelligent electronic race" but this being difficult to separate from me (apparently, as one of the "human" race). And it causes me to feel as though I’m not necessarily a part of the human culture, content without these machines.

Chapter 2

Regarding the "rationalistic tradition":

Quote: What do you do when faced with some problem... situation... identifiable objects with well-defined properties... general rules that apply to... properties. Apply the rules logically... drawing conclusions.

Quote: Much of our book is an attempt to show the non-obviousness of the rationalistic orientation and to reveal the blindness that it generates.

Quote: Sentences can represent the world truly or falsely... but their grounding is in correspondence with states of affairs they represent... Sentences say [boolean] things about the world... What a sentence says about the world is a function of words contained and their structures. The content words of a sentence can be taken as denoting objects, properties, relationships, or sets of these.

Quote: Simon, Admimstrative Behavior (1976): rational decision making is a process of choosing among alternatives... Listing all the alternative strategies, determining all the consequences, evaluating these sets of consequences... impossible for the individual to know 'all' alternatives or consequences... very important departure of actual behavior from the model of objective rationality. It is impossible for the behavior of a single, isolated individual to reach any high degree of rationality.

Quote: In the day-to-day business of research, writing, and teaching, scientists operate within a background of belief about how things are... Efforts to understand and modify the research programme are made within that same context, and can never escape it to produce an 'objective' or 'correct' approach... we need to replace the rationalistic orientation if we want to understand human thought, language, and action, or to design effective computer tools.

Chapter 3

Regarding hermeneutics and interpretation:

Paraphrase: Text continues to be read and serve as source of deep meaning, in spite of changes in culture and language. Is meaning definable in absolute, independent of context? Is is definable only within original context? Is it possible to transcend culture and history to recover correct interpretation?

Paraphrase: Objectivist school, text must have meaning independent of interpretation. Ideal is to completely decontextualise the text.

Paraphrase: Opposing objectivist school, articulated by Gadamer, act of interpretation as primary. Interpretation as interaction between the horizon of the text and horizon brought by the interpreter. Every reading of text constitutes an act of giving meaning through interpretation.

Paraphrase: Any individual is continually involved in acts of interpretation. Assumptions implicit in language, a language learned through interpretation, language changes the individual, constitutes the background of beliefs and assumptions, determines nature of our being.

Quote: Gadamer, 1975: The self awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life. That is why the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being.

Contrasting again with rationalistic orientation, quote: We inhabit and our actions take place in a real world of objects. There are objective facts about the world that don't depend on interpretation. Perception is a process by which flawed facts about the world are registered in our thoughts. Thoughts about action can cause physical motion.

Antithetical to this is, quote Kant: scandal of philosophy is no philosopher had been able to answer the question "How can I know whether anything outside of my subjective consciousness exists?"

Quote: Heidegger, 1962: the scandal is not in this proof but such proofs are expected and attempted again and again.

The authors discuss how Heidegger and Gadamer rejects the Platonic view (objective reality) and the solipsistic view (subjective reality) and instead they say both exist as a singular thing. "Existence is interpretation" and prejudiced interpretations of reality aren't false, but a necessity.

Quote: Our implicit beliefs and assumptions cannot all be made explicit. The inevitability of this circularity does not negate the importance of trying to gain greater understanding of our own assumptions so that we can expand our horizon.

Quote: Practical understanding is more fundamental than detached theoretical understanding. Detached contemplation can be illuminating, but it also obscures the phenomena themselves by isolating and categorizing them. Much of the current study of logic, language, and thought gives primacy to activities of detached contemplation.

Ready-to-hand, the world in which we are always acting unreflectively.

Praxis, concernful acting in the world.

Thrownness, the condition of understanding in which our actions find some resonance or effectiveness in the world.

Quote: We do not relate to things primarily through having representations of them.

Heidegger rejects mental representations. Our tradition is to believe what we perceive is represented in our minds. If we act rather than contemplate, then we don't use representations, so do they exist?

I've known programmers who often hold misconceptions about other people or situations. They also tend to write unscalable code, that is, the code is hardly extensible without breaking or rewriting it. The tradition of mental representations may be a key to these correlating behaviours.

Quote: Meaning is fundamentally social and cannot be reduced to the meaning-giving activity of individual subjects. A person is not an individual subject or ego, but a manifestation of Dasein within a space of possibilities, situated within a world and within a tradition.

Regarding thrownness:

In an example of being in a role of authority, one might experience thrownness as: Being 'thrown' in action independent of will, as it necessary by the situation. Thrown onto instincts, as expected by conversational convention. Flowing with the situation, due to complex social dynamics. The use of the language you know creates situations, rather than only making statements about them.

Regarding breaking down and readiness-to-hand:

Objects nad properties only arise as "present-to-hand" when there is a breaking down. When beings are in a state of action, the situation and everything within it appears as a process. When something becomes relevant by necessity, for example, something breaks and behaves in a way that creates unexpected situations, then this is when the components will go through "breaking down" to "become present" and then no longer within the situation that is ready-to-hand.

The example given is a hammer not being "a hammer" when hammering, but being part of the process not as a separate entity, alongside the hammerer's arm and the nail being hammered. But when the hammer is missing and there's a nail to be hammered, then a breaking down results in an isolation of the hammer as an entity.

Somewhat difficult to relate to, or maybe fully grasp, as I don't necessarily feel like things simply fade into a collective process where I can't simultaneously be aware of something like a tool, while also using that tool. The same fate of interpreting a given circumstance in order to provide a useful example could be the point of this exercise.

Chapter 4

Cognitive theories require a concrete explanation in terms of deterministic physical systems. This is difficult to do, especially in terms of concepts such as how some x knows y. It was often thought possible to take the "distinctions and relations" (e.g. knowledge vs perception) in mental domain and use this to examine/explain the causal mechanism (physical domain).

Humberto Maturana, biologist, experimental neurophysiologist, couldn't operate within this paradigm and observed the possibility of a different understanding. His writing introduce new terminology in order to make it possible to describe these observations.

Quote: The network of meanings will gradually evolve as the different ideas are developed and the links of their interdependence laid out.

The authors encourage readers to read the original sources cited in the book.

Quote: Perception must be studied from the inside rather than the outside - looking at the properties of the nervous system as a generator of phenomena, rather than as a filter on the mapping of reality.

Quote: the nervous system does not have 'inputs' and 'outputs.' It can be perturbed by structural changes in the network itself, and this will affect its activity, but the sequence of states of the system is generated by relations of neuronal activity, as determined by its structure. Maturana argues that all activity of the nervous system is best understood in this way.

Quote: The focus should be on the interactions within the system as a whole, not on the structure of perturbations. The perturbations do not determine what happens in the nervous system, but merely trigger changes of state. It is the structure of the perturbed system that determines, or better, specifies what structural configurations of the medium can perturb it. From this perspective, there is no difference between perception and hallucination.

Quote: Maturana, 1970: Learning is not a process of accumulation of representations of the environment; it is a continuous process of transformation of behavior through continuous change in the capacity of the nervous system to synthesize it.

Notable Bibliography

Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time (translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson), New York: Harper & Row, 1962

Heidegger, Martin, The Question Concerning Technology (translated by William Lovitt), New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

Maturana, Humberto R., Biology of cognition (1970). Reprinted in Maturana and Varela (1980), 2-62.

Maturana, Humberto R., The organization of the living: a theory of the living organization, Internatzonal Journal Man-Machine Studies, 7 (1975),313-332.

Maturana, Humberto R. and Francisco Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, Dordrecht: Reidel, 1980.