Invisibility and cognition

Currently in a reading group, we were reading some definitions of “What is Cognition” (

1. There were criteria

  • that were very vague (“complex, human-like”, “something more complex than associative learning”) or very “all-inclusive” in order to include animals;
  • others that IMHO were too narrow: to involve “sentence-like mental representations”, “the use of concepts”, or “the ability to use a model”, “causal reasoning”, or to involve “intentional states” — all of which McGilchrist would probably attribute to the narrow view of the left hemisphere.

Other criteria made sense to me: that cognition is

  • not just automatic/ scripted (“behaviors that escape characterization as a […] scripted program”, or “effortful [distinguished from] automatic”),
  • and conscious (“typically available to conscious awareness”).

Now it struck me that many resonating criteria involved invisibility:

  • absence (“absence of direct stimulation” (Suddendorf), “freedom from immediacy” (Shadlen), “stimulus-independent” (Bayne), “exclude any behaviour to a goal stimulus that is actually present to the animal’s senses” (Webb), “processes that originate in the brain rather than solely with environmental stimuli” (Chittka)),
  • abstraction (“certain abstract operations in between [peripheral senses and motor output]”, Intro),
  • and imagination (Bayne, Mather).

Dashed contours of a rabitt in a magician's cylinder

Some others could at least be related to invisibility:

  • predictions (Chittka, Suddendorf) — of an unknown (invisible) future,
  • transfer (Chittka, Clayton) to new contexts — and to the invisible future,

and maybe even the following ones:

  • flexibility (“behavioral flexibility” (Chittka), “flexible problem solving” (Clayton), “flexibility, as in predating routines” (Mather), “elemental features: flexibility […]” (Shedlon)),
  • adapting (“handling information in an adaptive way” (Heyes), “adapting to environments that were unanticipated”  (Shadlen)).
  • adjusting (“adjust to changes in the world”, Webb),
  • and even the intention mentioned above — which has to do with that unknown future!

2. So, what does this prominent role of invisibility mean for our relationship with artificial intelligence and tools?

First, I think, it emphasizes the importance of externalizing tools (as discussed in week 3), to make invisibles more visible and thus alleviate the cognitive tasks. So, @gsiemens was spot on when he pointed to external devices as early as 2005. (And I cannot resist a hint to my own tool here :-))

Second, it makes it even more difficult to define a relationship between human and artificial cognition: All machine ‘cognition’ is in some way invisible, it is all virtual. So, dealing with the invisible, with the absent, from a reality and presence starting point, as humans do, is strictly speaking impossible for a machine. Or is there an error in my reasoning?

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Zettelkasten visualized

This is the famous Zettelkasten of the systems theorist Niklas Luhmann in a video from 1989.

Now the University of Bielefeld has put it online.

It is in German but it would be a pity if it missed a wider audience, because it is not only an interesting sociology resource, but it has an incredible wealth of cross references.

So I updated my think tool to try some visualizations of its links. The most peculiar thing is the hierarchical numbering scheme of the zettels. I tried to visualize these as a tree, at least the first thousand zettels. But navigating on such a large map, you can get seasick.

The editors in Bielefeld have assembled some “threads”. They do not closely correspond to the numbering scheme. I tried to visualize the relationship in a long map showing the threads alternately as red and black. But you can still get seasick. These threads show a very linear view of the network.

Therefore I created a third view option showing all the cross references. Here I think you will not lose your orientation, even if some long jumps are occasionally needed. Normally you can navigate within the neighborhood.

Finally I’ll show you how you can try it out for yourself. Just download the demo resources, and start the java version of the condensr without installation right from the browser.

If necessary you can also start the demo directly in the brwoser, but this is a very limited version.

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April 7, 1959

Sixty years ago today, I started school.

We got a big School Cone and were very excited. Continue reading

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#OpenLearning19 Required Blogging?

In the resources for this past week, there were mentions of required blogging. I am very much in favor of blogging, but I am not sure if I would like to be forced to do it.

Traffic sign turn rightFirst, it’s not everyone’s taste. Since at least Mak, S. F. J., Williams, R. & Mackness, J. (2010), we know that Blogs and Forums are different. And exactly because I myself prefer the (more asynchronous) blogs over the (more synchronous) forums, I empathize with learners who have the opposite learning style, erm, preference.

Furthermore, my problem is to come up with an idea on demand. I like it when I encounter something remarkable and I can sit down and reflect on it. But I don’t want to search for something remarkable to write about. These are two very different modes of operation of the mind.

So I wonder if the requirement may put students off blogging, such that they won’t continue blogging after the course is over. In other contexts, ‘open’ connotates two ways of ‘free’: free of charge and without obligation or, as Suber said, free of most restrictions. Yes, I know that open does not equal free, but I am uncomfortable with the combination of openness and force. In connectivism, openness is combined with autonomy, diversity and interactivity, instead.

Posted in OpenLearning19 | 6 Comments

#OpenLearning19: Paper-like OERs

How are Open Access or OER similar and how do they differ? This is a question of this week of #OpenLearning19, and I found it very worthwhile to think about it.

Both research and teaching materials have in common that copying them does no longer cause expenses. But both need to have some added benefit for being widely shared. For Open Access research, such an additional incentive exists since almost 350 years, as Suber’s chapter on the reading list impressively shows: writing for impact. For OER teaching materials, by contrast, merely transforming paper copies to gratis online copies, is probably not a sufficient benefit for them to flourish.

While the problem of OERs is certainly a lot more complex, there is one simple aspect where paper properties are still perpetuated into the digital world. It is the doctrine of the so-called Split Attention Effect which demands that an annotation needs to be close to the item it refers to.

Of course, for a paper resource, e.g. a diagram of a plant with all of its components, it is very plausible that it costs too much effort to scan the entire page to find the appropriate description item. (The older ones among us might remember former crossword puzzles that had little numbers referring to a text column, and how cumbersome it was to look up “5 down” or “6 across”, before the cue texts were integrated into the grid cells).

But OERs might implement some interactivity and display the descriptions upon clicking an item? Why isn’t this done much more frequently? IMHO this is because it is done by popup windows and delayed hovering labels, and these are distracting and intrusive and just annoying. But the doctrine of proximity demands that they are close to the items being described, because this doctrine has been carried over from the paper world into the digital world — as if a horseless carriage still needed a nosebag full of oats.

Motor carriage

Horseless carriage (Wikimedia, public domain)

Instead, descriptions could be displayed in a fixed location, one at a time. And the student could write their annotations into this location, as well, which would add even more interactivity.

Posted in OpenLearning19 | 3 Comments

#OpenLearning19 Pre-Week

Our task for OpenLearning19 is to annotate this text about the ’30th birthday’ of the web, and to reflect here on the annotations.

What I picked for annotation, are two keywords (Gopher, and Virtual Library curation) of the web history because I am grateful that the text mentions these things that seem almost forgotten already.

Many accounts of the web history sound like the story about a Saint, or as if the web had arrived on a single day like an asteroid. In my memory it was a collective effort of many people and a gradual development of the infrastructures. And I think it is useful to remember this when we are now supposed to collectively fix it.

Here are two older blog posts about my differing experience of this history,

  • one about gopher vs. early www,
  • another about the virtual library.

If you want more, here is a picture from 1994 (archived later), showing how a browseable ‘virtual’ library catalog could appear much more ‘real’ than a merely searchable card catalog. Index cards, a basement rack storage, a bookshelf and database symbols.

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#OpenLearning19 test post

Hello from Heidelberg


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Augmenting human intellect

With the help of 26 other annotators, I tried to understand more about Doug Engelbart’s visionary textAugmenting Human Intellect“, and especially to understand why some visions about amplification have not come true, despite his plausible argumentation.

He hoped that the human intellect would not only be augmented by a smart computer “clerk” (such that their combined capacity would increase), but that the intellect would indeed be amplified through using this clerk. He makes this plausible by extending the Whorf hypothesis. Whorf says that our thinking is affected by using the ‘tool’ of language. And now Engelbart extends this to the synergistic system of “H-LAM/T” “(Human using Language, Artifacts, Methodology, in which he is Trained)”: The combined ‘tools’ L, A, M, and T together will then similarly affect, and amplify, H’s intellect.

Why didn’t this work? What went wrong?

I think if we carefully read how Engelbart imagined his clerk, in contrast to how we see our modern computers, we might get a hunch.

My observation was in particular, that he did not describe such a fixedly defined way of interaction with, and separation from, the clerk as the modern ‘interface’ that we are used to. Rather, the user seemed to continually readjust this division of labor. The user “would find it very natural to develop further techniques on their own“, and he would offload and externalize a very internal part of their thinking, and would entrust it temporarily to the clerk.A robot and a human hand in hand.

This externalizing of thoughts, may seem difficult to understand if all we can imagine to be externalized is words and sentences, just as they are uttered or scribbled — as if thoughts all consisted of words and sentences. Piaget asked children what they use for thinking, and they responded they think with their mouth. And if we use our computer just like a better typewriter, it’s not much different.

In this case, even Engelbart’s clerk cannot amplify us any more. And the extended Whorf hypothesis will not work, but we will stick to the basic Whorf hypothesis — which also lends itself to an explanation why we equate language with thinking: language has so much amplified our thinking that our raw, unverbalized concepts now seem inferior. But it’s them that Engelbart’s vision builds upon. The concept structures lead to symbol structures, and these, in turn, can be externally manipulated.

(For more details, you may need to refresh the browser view. In many details, I found confirmation for the design of my tool, in particular the single notecards, the split screen, the size ratio, and in many places, the big emphasis on rearranging.)

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Agile book sprint

This great book on Perspectives of Agility (in German) was written over the weekend in an agile book sprint by a group in Karlsruhe, and I am following their invitation to ask ‘agile’ questions.

So: How can agile methods cater to the different temperaments and styles — in particular, of those colleagues who just don’t thrive in the synchronous, live, face-to-face meetings?

Our Bundesland is well-known for its tinkerers and inventors (“schwäbische Tüftler und Bastler”), and many of these need a few hours of undisturbed retreat to puzzle about a wicked problem. It is not that they were just generally slower — on the contrary.

And the big advantage of a Sprint being that the short term memory is still fresh during the few days, does well apply for them, too. And they also benefit from the large whiteboards with drawings and post-its that Jake Knapp’s book “Sprint” describes like the collective working memory spanning up the rich big picture, and they also benefit from the effect of Design Thinking which Christina Wodtke so aptly put: “Move memory out of your head into the world” … “see connections”.

It is just that they don’t feel optimally comfortable in the quicker oral discussion. Some people love textual online discussions which are not much slower than face-to-face — still quick enough for the short-term memory — but may be as deep as the literati’s letters of the 18c. This digitalization is still missing in the typical business meetings where the whiteboard is full of paper stickies, and the facilitator is the only one who is able to both read the details and see the overview.

I am sure that a good facilitator will mitigate the discomfort of those who are often falsely referred to as ‘introverts’, and she or he may even try to get them heard among the notorious loud voices. But still, some people just don’t like the interactive rapid-fire so much as seemingly everyone else, and they would prefer to take some written and drawn stuff away into their room, and return the next day with a significant step forward. Otherwise, they may become grim enemies of the Agile and see the frequent stand-up meetings just as humilating pain.

Can Agile leverage their skills, too? (Maybe some software may help which combines details and overview better than the post-its wall?)

Update: See also “Extraversion und die Medienwahl von Projektmanagern” (Extraversion and Media Choice by Project Managers), via Toolblog of Jan 31.

Posted in Cognitive Styles | 1 Comment

What is Digital Literacy?

I responded to this questionnaire (titling is theirs, and also the loss of paragraph marks).

Dark red page header; Defining Digital Literacy. Exploring perspectives on Digital Literacy. What is digital literacy? How to contribute

What is Digital Literacy?

Like traditional literacy, it is not only the mastery of the tools, such as reading and writing. Rather, there is a connotation of higher abilities which are arising from being intensively exposed to books, or to the digital, respectively, and I will talk about them in the second section.

Mastering the new tools with confidence means losing the discomfort which mostly comes from either disinformation or IT insecurity. Both have in common that most users cannot evaluate the trustworthiness of systems and sources on their own. In both cases, one can try to rely on central authorities, or ask a friend. If you trust a friend’s email attachment in too naive a way, their imprudence may ripple across your circles because you may be trusting their virus who really sent it. Similarly, the friend may have retweeted a falsehood from a false central authority because evaluating the authority, too, is difficult. But if your friend is aware of you trusting them, they might be more cautious. So, it is important to ask the right friend who, in turn, relies on the right friends, too, rather than on questionable central mass sources.

Of course there is not always enough time to ask a friend, so, the first skill is to decide whether I feel safe enough without the friend or if I should stop and wait for him or her — for example, to install some app or to change some settings. And there are some minimal questions that a digitally literate person should be able to answer for themselves. Most prominently, this involves a permanent awareness of one’s logins and of one’s backups, i.e. what would happen if a file was lost or if a password got stolen.

Once the basic confidence is achieved, it is important to be aware of the big temptations of a depersonalized communication: that email can contain much sharper attacks than face-to-face, that social media can be used to evangelize and anonymously promote some agenda, or that the smartphone can be used to interact with friends as if it were a remote control.

What impact does digital literacy have on your personal, professional, and spiritual* life?

The exposure to the web has the most impact, IMHO, through the following affordances: asynchronous exchanges that foster reflectivity, the opportunity of serendipitous breadth, the practice of individual picking and unlimited depth, and encounters with resources and people of unprecedented diversity — in short: it fosters open minds.

And digital tools are more than a new format for reading and writing. If you look beyond their being a new form of a typewriter and of a library card catalog, you will find truly new affordances, many of which simply enhance our capability of sorting and rearranging our thoughts — in short, they foster flexible minds.

Focussing literacy too much on digitized reading and writing, by contrast, may mislead us to damn it, to waste attention, and to trust paper sources more than a general critical thinking would warrant.

Who are you? (context matters)

My name is Matthias Melcher, by training a mathematician, and while I am not a digital native, I would not call me a digital immigrant, either, but rather count myself to the pioneers. From 1981, I have worked in a university computer center and e-learning center, and now I am retired, and blogging and developing a think tool.


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