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Re: [ontolog-forum] Cultural variation in cognitive machinery

To: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Ali Hashemi <ali.hashemi+ontolog@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Fri, 9 Apr 2010 10:56:53 -0400
Message-id: <u2w5ab1dc971004090756ic19de56fpca65fb8ee697068@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Dear Ontolog,

I apologize for the length of this message, I am generally internetted only through phone, so I am being thorough in my intermittent access. I have tried to make the last section of the message more relevant to the ontology mission.


Dear John, Dan and Pat,


Thanks for that ... response. Perhaps as an exercise, we can reflect on the very fact that you and I are able to have such a conversation.

For fun, let's briefly devolve the history of languaged communication.

Before internet, we could phone. Assuming we'd had met or exchanged information, either you or I would have had to call the other. Additionally, if you made the call, I'd have to happen to have the time to talk (or pre the cell phone, had physically been in the same location that you were calling).

And before the phone? We could try to carry on this conversation via what, a telegraph? I suppose each day, we would excitedly go to the telegraph station to see the short, dotted response. You know, Twitter, but old school.

And before that? Well we could mail, I guess airmail or before that, rail or boat or perhaps horse, or lights along an imperial road. It might take days, weeks or months, but I guess it'd make the anticipation of how this conversation would evolve all the more intriguing.

Let's also consider the act of writing. Imagine instead of typing, at what, 40-120 words per minute, we had to grasp a pen and write these messages on paper. For me at least, the type of thought that comes out through pen is profoundly different than when on the computer. Imagine if we had to use a quill and ink, refreshing the tip every few minutes?

And what if we had to use stone? To communicate our ideas, you and I, living in different locale would either have to send each other stone carvings or happen upon one another in some fair town, a port most likely, and sit down to an enlightening discussion. If I were on another continent, to carry out this conversation, would require a commitment of months to travel to a common physical location. I would certainly hope that the results of said conversation would be worth that time!

Now, were you actually suggesting that the way we consider space has not changed? That the way we form, exchange, communicate and shape our thought has not fundamentally changed?

Our agency in space has increased. Our projection of mind, ability to share and engage has been transformed.
Our understanding of a social network has changed. The very notion of what it means to be a productive, living human being is radically different.
The fact that you and I take this projection of thought and language through space for granted – the fact that it is so trivial, trite and assumed that we, one located in Quebec, the other in Florida can so easily converse at near instantaneous speed is exactly the point. Remind me again, how is this all complete fantasy?

It is incontrovertible that different senses, different sense modalities are more suited to different types of knowledge. Even if I turn my speaker upside down, sound still comes at me right side up... I can stare at sheet music all day, but I at least, won't really appreciate Bach's Cello Suite No.6 in D Major unless I hear it.

Now I certainly am not taking the strong position. I won't deny that there are other routes to such appreciation, but obviously, certain ones are better suited. And our lifestyles reinforce these choices and have other attendant effects...


As this email is long, I won’t go into the details of the rest of your post, but if you like, I can do so…  I do have to however remark on the attack on Postman (I don't recall McLuhan proclaiming "the world is going to hell, or at least to some undesirable place, in a handbasket.")

I wish I had Postman’s book physically with me (it’s been lent out to a friend), or that I had a pdf copy, but alas, my everyday assumptions of this work in space and time are challenged.

I have become so used to thinking of text as remotely accessible, that it is only in the absence of such access, I can appreciate that it is quite remarkable what was once considered an intimately physically bound artefact has been transformed into “mere” electricity…

Let's quickly unpack the implicit assumptions in McLuhan and Postman.

1) Our interaction with the world is mediated by our senses
2) Depending on what we are doing, we are engaging our senses in different ratios (i.e. watching TV, we are more aware of what our eyes see; playing basketball, we are more aware of our sense of touch; listening to music, we are more aware of our hearing...)
3) Habitual, repetition of the same types of actions affects one's disposition

And here's the "leap"
4) Different media, technologies, lifestyles will draw out and engender biases in those who repeatedly engage in them

 Does the above acceptable to you?

Now extend this basic premise to public discourse. Simply because of the over exuberant tone of your post, I'm tempted to ask if you've been hiding under a rock for the past 20 years. However, I’ll leave that as a voiced temptation.

More relevantly, consider a news broadcast in 2010 vs. one in 1960. Consider a "serious" interview today, to one 30 years ago. Is it even conceivable we might have a televised Chomsky - Foucault debate today (irrespective of whatever one thinks about their ideas)?

About the most complex message that the current US presidential election affords (quite literally), is "hope and change."

Policy is reduced to soundbites. Public awareness of issues is (with many many exceptions) dominated by knee-jerk reactions and cartoonish television personalities. Voters are spend inordinate amounts of time trying to decide whether evolution should be taught in school, or whether two men or two women should be allowed to enjoy the same rights as others.

I could go on and on… Again, due to my limited internetting, I would need to physically go to a library to access the requisite research, and I am not very inclined to do so right now. I'm sure you can see what I'm saying :D, but if you need more convincing, I suggest you consult the reading list of nearly any Public Relations, Media Studies or Critical Theory or any number of other related graduate level programs.

John and Dan,

I believe our misunderstanding if at all, hangs on the phrase “fundamental change.” See below for what I’m calling “fundamental change.” The Pirahá culture is indeed quite remarkable, and as Dan pointed out in the reference to Nisbett, there are indeed well demonstrated cultural effects. I would also add this recent study, http://www.physorg.com/news189262051.html  (Daniel Casasanto, Olga Fotakopoulou, Lera Boroditsky, “Space and Time in the Child's Mind: Evidence for a Cross-Dimensional Asymmetry (p 387-405)” Cognitive Science (2010). ) Now it would be interesting for a follow up study to see if children from societies which read right to left also look at the timeline right to left.

More recently, these works by Gianquinto provide some interesting insight to the differences that visual thinking affords:


And in the interest of making this post more relevant to ontolog in a direct way, I would recommend the following two papers:

Eugene Wigner, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, 1960. ( http://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Wigner.html )
and in response ( http://www.ias.ac.in/currsci/feb102005/415.pdf )
and finally
Y. Lazenbik, “Can a Biologist Fix a Radio? or, What I Learned while Studying Apoptosis.” Biochemistry, Vol 69, No 12, 2004. ( http://protein.bio.msu.su/biokhimiya/contents/v69/pdf/bcm_1403.pdf )

I mention these only as inspiration. I don't wholly agree with the conclusions of any, but they spur tasty thinking.

Mathematics and formal logics are media. They come equipped with a way of accessing or more accurately, fruitfully representing the world. Note that we are often interested in only those results which carry exploitable properties. The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis actually applies to formal languages, where certain thoughts are simply inexpressible.

Moreover, when we use formal ontologies, our chosen language of description / representation biases, selects and focuses our attention on the useful constructs available via said language.

This is one of the reasons why COLORE pays so much attention to well developed theories in mathematics. It is also incidentally one of the reasons that semantic mappings are facilitated when one describes parts of the world using at least first order expressivity. The idea of logical lego-like building blocks follows quite naturally from this, and corresponds roughly to the modules and their arrangement into core hierarchies in COLORE.

There are broadly to approaches to expressing something in a formal language. Fit the world into the language, or see which parts of the language correspond to the world. Both approaches at the same time make sense to me.

Now I'm not suggesting that this is the single correct characterization of the problem space, but simply that this perspective leads to (and has led to)
some useful results. It is not a panacea, but a woefully underused tool at our disposal.


Founding Director, www.reseed.ca

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