The theory of extended or distributed cognition usefully illuminates some of the seeming magic powers of the Internet. This theory states that the powers of human thought can partially be explained by the idea that our thought is not just contained within the mind, but that our environment acts as an important and integral part of every act of cognition. The mind is thus “extended” outside itself, and “distributed” across different mental “crutches”, including the body, outside objects and tools, the natural environment, and even culture and society generally. One paradigm example of extended cognition is the use of pencil and paper- which anyone who has ever done long-hand arithmetic knows allows us to complete cognitive tasks that otherwise would not be possible my the work of the mind alone.
The Internet and the many applications it supports seems to be the most powerful example of extended cognition since perhaps the invention of language. It allows us to massively “offload” terabytes of static information, to gain incredibly easy access to this information, and to freely modify and share this information. The Internet effectively allows us to significantly lighten the cognitive burdens associated with storage, access, and communication of information, freeing up the mind for more interesting and important tasks.
Which is great. The future is nigh, etc. But there is one area in which we are significantly behind the times: we suck at creating effective interfaces for exploring and utilizing the content of this massively extended shared “mind”. In particular, I want to complain about the browser.
I spend a huge portion of my waking life and cognitive energies working in a single Chrome browser window. This browser is the interface to my work environment, my school environment, and large parts of my social environment —not to mention my general thinking/time wasting/entertainment environment. How is all this diverse and dynamic cognitive activity represented? Via a flat grey window with lots of tabs, pretty much the same way it looked back in 1998.
The Internet and the different applications it supports are obviously powerful cognitive tools, capable of supporting a wide variety of extremely complex human activities. Yet the basic “window” to this world is incredibly simplistic and does not provide much cognitive “scaffolding”. The browser does not provide a complex, flexible structure to complement the complex, flexible activity of “being online”. This is a damn shame particularly because the Internet and its many environments and applications allow us to do incredibly advanced cognitive work, and yet the burden of organizing and keeping track of this complex cognitive work is left entirely to us and our naked, puny minds.
One of the most interesting ways to use the Internet in my experience is to think with the Internet- to conduct research and explore and enhance a train of thought via hyperlinked rhizome that is the Interwebs. Doing this, my browser window(s) come to look like a very flat visual representation of my stream of consciousness. I would argue that in many ways the browser window is the closest any technology has come to externalizing the flow of human thought. Written language is of course still the paradigm technology for storing and enhancing the flow of thought, but does not have the dynamic, “wormhole” characteristic that actual stream of consciousness thought does. What it lacks in complexity though, written language makes up for by helping us to clarify and organize our own messy thoughts, making them easily communicable to others. In contrast, the browser’s defining affordance is allowing the stream of consciousness to expand ever outward into potentially infinitely branching thoughts.
The browser window can radically extend the breadth and depth of our cognition– but it does not offer the precision and organization that are essential to a truly powerful cognitive artifact. It simply takes the flow of human thought and ideas and squishes it into a single grey bar of increasingly tiny tabs. What if a browser tried to incorporate some of the more refined cognitive tools of writing, that timeless organizer and externalizer of cognition?
I often find myself truly straining under the cognitive load of this interface, wishing for some or any of the powerful affordances we find in nearly any other interface- the power of written language, the power of GUI and the computer desktop– heck even the basic affordances of a physical desk.
For me, one great irony is that I very rarely use my desktop these days- my work is almost entirely in the “cloud”. It seems though that the desktop and its ability to organize things spatially, to nest things within discrete folders, to hold things in “static” memory for later access. (I suppose that a powerful bookmarking tool could take care of part of this, but not as comprehensively and accessibly as the desktop does.)
This last example is an extremely simple proposed approach to the problem of organizing the sheer amount of material and references that are generated in the act of browsing. But much more interesting would be to take a look at the unique properties of browsing and figuring out an organizational and graphical structure that could make the volume and complexity of data generated in the act of browsing truly useful, meaningful, and communicable. That is, to truly enhance our powers of cognition beyond adding breadth and depth, but also adding complexity and precision and meta-awareness of browser-thought.
Imagine perhaps if your browser automatically generated a graphical “tree” of your browsing history, showing different paths of thought. Each path could be labelled and perhaps even tagged, creating a visual representation of your train of thought when exploring a particular area. This tree could be stored and shared with others. It would help boost meta-cognition about your research, providing a “big picture” to help organize and structure your browsing. This big picture awareness could help to combat the tendency of hyperlinked browsing to suck you into informational wormholes, eventually losing track of your original train of thought entirely.
Overall, I think that both the Internet and the computer are obviously some of the most powerful cognitive artifacts we have ever made, and in just a few decades they have radically extended and enhanced our cognition. But we have not yet developed human-cognition-friendly interfaces for exploring these repositories. I would argue that the current state of the browser interface makes our unstructured access to these repositories almost more of a cognitive burden, giving us unlimited and unorganized access to more than a single mind can understand.
The browser is just one pressingly obvious example of a larger, systemic problem that we will need to face in the next few decades. The Internet is a massive, continuously growing area of extended cognition, yet it still exists largely as a massive “data dump”, with very limited capabilities to organize, process, and understand this data– to bring it back down to the scale of human understanding.
On a related note: “Real-Time Space-Efficient Synchronized Tree-Based Web Visualization and