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Symmetry as a methodological move, part III

Posted by: on Jul 3, 2012 | No Comments
I've been discussing the principle of symmetry in actor-network theory on the blog. In previous posts, I've tried to use commonplace examples to demonstrate how, rather than being a form of pantheism or an antihumanist sociology, symmetry is simply a way of getting at certain relationships that are often overlooked or even buried in other approaches. When we examine these relationships in fairly restricted ways—weight requirements in elevators or falling bodies—symmetry makes a great deal of sense. But when we move to more complex phenomena, symmetry seems like a dicier proposition. 

For instance, let's consider cognition.

Latour famously proposed in Science in Action that we institute a ten-year moratorium on cognitive explanations of science and technology. (Hakkarainen criticized this moratorium in a 2003 Science and Education issue, complaining that Latour mentions this moratorium every so often, always extending it for ten years.) This moratorium came out of Latour's observations of scientific work, in which he noticed that scientists would assemble a large array of nonhumans and humans—instruments, procedures, lab techs, etc.—to perform science, then attribute the results to cognition. Without all of these nonhuman and human intermediaries, Latour argued, cognition could not have provided an adequate explanation.

Let's use an analogy. Suppose that as you walk home, you spot your neighbor on the roof. Do you think to yourself, "I am amazed that my neighbor can jump so high!" Or do you look for a ladder? Analogically speaking, Latour always looks for the ladder. He sees the alternate explanation—based entirely on human ability—as rather implausible. Yes, it's always a possibility, but (Latour might say) let's look for the ladder first.

This does not mean that actor-network theory is anti-cognition, as Hakkarainen and others have interpreted it to be. ANT is no more anti-cognition than a fork is anti-soup. 

No better demonstration of this point exists than Latour's positive review of Edwin Hutchins' 1995 book Cognition in the Wild. Latour declares: 
The results of Hutchins' inquiry are as devastating for psychology as the results of sociology were for epistemology or those of Shirley Strum for primatology. Everything that was crammed inside the mind of individuals is deployed outside and shared collectively with the culture, through the social connections and with the many cognitive artifacts the group has been able to devise. (p.55)
To put it another way: Hutchins, like Latour, looks for the ladder. 

But more than that, Hutchins refuses to separate cognition from mediating artifacts. In Hutchins' account, "cognition" is not confined to what happens inside the skull, but is instead distributed across a given environment. Latour summarizes the central claim of the book this way: 
cognition has nothing to do with the minds nor with individuals but with the propagation of representations through various media, which are coordinated by a very lightly equipped human subject working in a group, inside a culture, with many artifacts and who might have internalized some parts of the process. (p.56, Latour's italics).
To understand what's happening here, let's dive into Hutchins' book itself. Here's what he says about cognition in Chapter 2:
Having taken ship navigation as it is performed by a team on the bridge of a ship as the unit of cognitive analysis, I will attempt to apply the principal metaphor of cognitive science—cognition as computation—to the operation of this system. In so doing I do not make any special commitment to the nature of the computations that are going on inside individuals except to say that whatever happens there is part of a larger computational system. But I do believe that the computation observed in the activity of the larger system can be described in the way cognition has been traditionally described—that is, as computation realized through the creation, transformation, and propagation of representational states. (Hutchins, 1995, p. 49)
So Hutchins approaches the notion of cognition by defining it narrowly, as computation. In committing to this computational account, Hutchins takes a radically symmetrical perspective. Rather than drawing lines between what transpires inside and outside one's head, Hutchins examines computation—and thus propagation of representational states—wherever it happens. He brilliantly demonstrates that much of what we might have assumed was expertise or intelligence is instead attributable to how these representational states propagate. For instance, he argues that by all rights the sailors he studied should not have had the depth of experience needed to perform the navigational feats they performed; but these feats were attributable to the entire system of sailors plus other computational media. 

(As a side note, this book had a deep impact on me as I was planning the study for my doctoral dissertation. For instance, as I was developing the notion of the genre ecology in my own work, I ran across Freedman and Smart's 1997 article "Navigating the current of economic policy," in which they coined the term "genre ecology" and modeled it after Hutchins' concept of "tool ecology" in this book. After reading their article, I picked up Hutchins' book, and its influence was key to my understanding of genres as co-mediating each other.) 

To get at what Hutchins is trying to say, let's leave the ship for a moment and look at what he says late in the book about Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment. Imagine, he says, a room in which John Searle sits. Outside the room, people bring slips of paper on which they have written questions in Chinese. One by one, each person passes her or his slip of paper through a slot in the door; a few moments later, the person receives a reply, also written in Chinese. 

Does Searle know Chinese? Perhaps. Let's suppose that in one scenario, Searle knows how to read and write Chinese and is composing answers on the fly. In a second scenario, Searle doesn't know Chinese, but has several baskets of Chinese characters plus a rulebook that tells him how to combine them to respond to certain strings of characters. (The second scenario is very similar to that of Fred Saberhagen's first Berserker story, "Without a Thought.") In the second scenario, Hutchins argues, Searle doesn't know Chinese, but (for our purposes) the room does. Or to put it another way, the "cognitive properties of the sociocultural system" are different from "the cognitive properties of a person who is manipulating the elements of that system" (p.362). Cognition—in the narrowly defined sense that Hutchins uses the term—is stretched across the human agent and the environment, resulting in accomplishments that could not have resulted from the human agent alone. Searle has a ladder.

And with that, we can see why Latour does something that critics such as Hakkarainen haven't caught. He lifts the moratorium on cognitive explanations:
When I published Science in Action in 1987, I proposed a "moratorium" on cognitive explanations, which had been so freely and cheaply entertained by epistemologists. ... I did not know that I would be able to safely lift the ban, less than 10 years later, since in the meantime, cognitive explanations would have been dissolved past recognition [by Hutchins]." (p.62)