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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: Sun, 11 Apr 2010 22:07:48 -0400
Message-id: <w2l5ab1dc971004111907n6b6b7a2fw7e4e316fc9c3a39f@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Dear John and Pat,


[JS]This is the kind of thread that can go on indefinitely without making
much, if any, contribution to the methods for developing ontologies.

Agreed. I've just never come across a coherent criticism of McLuhan that wasn't a severe misinterpretation, and I've looked very hard. This will be my last response on this topic. Note though, there can be a very real connection to how one develops an ontology, but i'll leave that to the side for now.

[JS]I'm sorry that I stated my original point without enough qualification
to clarify the point I was trying to make.  But in summary,

 1. The basic cognitive machinery for all humans is established in
    the first 3 years during which the basic biological needs and
    interactions with parents or other caregivers are the major
    influence -- not technology, including writing.  In fact, some
    technology, such as television can be a deterrent by reducing
    the amount of human contact.

I agree with this. The basic cognitive machinery is relatively stable. However, like the weather, there are enormous variations in its manifestation. How we choose to, and in what contexts we employ which cognitive machineries is highly dependent on the technologies / frame of mind we are in. When writing on the computer, with access to the internet, the type of thought that comes out, with all the attendant references, links etc, is very different than a conversation conducted say by letters over a several month period.  Of course, we being humans, the net results of our thoughts would be accessible in both, but more likely, flow more easily in one vs the other.

Imagine we spoke what you just said. The "content" is the same, but I'd have to have a pretty good memory to remember what your point #2 was. With symbolic representation, it's there, plain for me to refer to. How I think about, process and use what you said has changed...



When I am engaged in argument with my friends, a general rule of thumb we employ is to interpret each others' remarks in the most reasonable manner. We get to the crux of our disagreements much more quickly in this way.

There are several comments of yours which completely baffle me. Do you really think so lowly of me(?) to think that I'm making such absurd claims. Hilarious... Anyway, see below.

On Sat, Apr 10, 2010 at 3:37 AM, Pat Hayes <phayes@xxxxxxx> wrote:

On Apr 9, 2010, at 7:56 AM, Ali Hashemi wrote:

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?

Yes, I am suggesting exactly that. 

I think you are misreading what I mean by "consider space." The laws of physics are still the same. Our idea of what it means for a person to be at a particular location in space is completely different! You in Florida can communicate with me. You can be here in a matter of minutes. I am at a loss how you do not see how this changes how I think about space. 

That the way we form, exchange, communicate and shape our thought has not fundamentally changed?

And that, yes. I see no evidence that our *thinking* has changed because of technology. We still read Homer and understand, and even empathize with, the thoughts of his characters. Their ideas and thoughts have not become alien or incomprehensible. 

!!! How in the world did what I say come to mean "because we think of space, communication, etc. in different ways, reading Homer would be incomprehensible". ? This is beyond absurd and a complete red herring.

Nowhere does the claim that "the activities and technologies one engage in affect and alter our employed patterns of thinking" lead one to conclude that "these changes render artifacts and experiences from the past inaccessible."  The absurdity of this example makes me think you have not really understood the point at hand.

Let me go back to an example you "debunked" in an earlier email:

[AH] 3) Which brings me to the last example. Consider communities where the predominant form of transport is:

a) driving
b) biking
c) walking

Each person in these communities will have a fundamentally different conception of space, location, time etc.

[PH]Again, I think this is highly unlikely; and I know that there is no evidence for it. When railway travel was introduced to English culture, nobody had ever travelled faster than about 20 mph, and many doctors predicted that speeds over 35 mph would be fatal. But they weren't, and the introduction of the railway, while having many profound social and economic changes, did not seem to change people's notions of space, location or time.

Aside from the fact that this is a specious argument (just because someone using a hammer broke a glass doesn't mean hammers don't work...), what you write is not only consistent with what i've been arguing, but demonstrates the point quite well.

For one, the car (and railroad) decreased the abstraction of space-at-a-distance. Whereas long distances (say 500km) when walking were serious impediments, a car contracted what it meant to traverse this space. Bringing entities in the car-driving range into roughly the same conceptual store as those when walking.

But more acutely, the rules of what movement is in space changed too, which is also why there weren't all these accidents. The way people understood space when walking (or riding, but lets stick to walking for brevity) were completely altered. When walking, the wind is generally enjoyable, I can walk quite closely behind another, I can swerve immediately. What it means for me to be in space is quite different than when I'm driving, people are abstracted to their cars. I need to follow only at a safe distance. I rarely care about the visages of other drivers, but of their tools.

Not only that, but consider the implications of what space means to an urban planner. An urban planner, emphasizing a car wrt to space might design cities on grids. It might also lead one to centralize shopping into malls, and delegate the pedestrian use of space to small, unwelcoming sidewalks on busy thoroughfares. The ontology of space and roads for an urban planner who considers only cars will be vastly different than one who considers other forms.

Or more importantly, a planner who actually has experience / engages in significant walking will be able to better understand how to translate the understanding of space and time via walking much better into a city design than one who mainly commutes by car.

I can't imagine how much more obvious this point could be.

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.

Nothing is incontrovertible. And this claim is, IMO, a contemporary myth, a kind of widely accepted assumption without any foundation.

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.

Of course. The *sound* of the cello suite is uniquely auditory. But that is a different (and trite) claim.

Not at all. The content of the music is ostensibly the same. Access to this information is mediated by our senses. I'm surprised that the first example wasn't picked up. Note, orientation of sound source does not affect my interpretation of said sound - i.e. sound in its raw form is less suited for communicating that "something is upside down" -- it just isn't supported by the medium. Of course you could use sound to make that claim in language, but that's a different medium.


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

True, of course. But a platitude. 

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...)

More *aware*, I am not so certain of. I do not find that I am *aware* of using my eyes when watching TV. I simply watch, using my eyes (of course).

I spoke loosely. You are attending more to your eyes that say your sense of touch. The fact that you are sitting on your couch (unless it is uncomfortable etc..) is not something you will generally notice...

3) Habitual, repetition of the same types of actions affects one's disposition

Again, is there any evidence for this? I am not sure what it means, actually: what do you mean by disposition here? And do you mean to imply that seeing or hearing are actions?

I mean to imply that watching is an action (the rest of the body is relatively passive, the brain functions differently than when reading etc.)...

Disposition i mean the attitudes. I.e the fact that eating fast food makes one impatient changes that person's disposition. Hence, if that person were to be required to consider something, they will be less likely to use those parts of their cognitive machinery that is employed for careful consideration. Instead, said person will likely use the parts of their cognitive machinery that is more rash, abrupt and immediate. Hence how this person thinks in this context is fundamentally different than if they were not impatient.

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

Well, at some level that is no doubt inevitably true. At the least, one can become skilled at certain kinds of perception due to familiarity. When I first came to the USA, I found the rapid-fire switching of topic in news programs almost dizzying: now it is second nature. But I don't accept that this is usefully referred to as any kind of 'bias'. 

It would really help if you stopped thinking I was arguing some sort of exclusive / strong position. If I am habituated to watching "30 minute" television programs which are themselves interrupted every 7-9 minutes with 30 - 180 seconds of commercials (which contain "emotional conclusion / association" messages). And if the vast majority of these 21 minute programs contain a very similar story arcs, the same level of content complexity (aimed at the perceived "average joe"), and generally resolve all the issues / conflicts that arise very neatly so that everything can be reset for the next week. Then you will be biased to perhaps not expect, but appreciate this type of thinking more often. It will be far easier to understand an argument in this form than one which breaks these norms.

By Jove - your experience proves exactly my point; if you would only care to interpret it reasonably instead of as a cheesy strawman... :D

The same way that the cultural shock you experienced was discomforting and dizzying, and after a bit of time, habitual exposure to said phenomena made the parsing of such content "second nature." Now think about it going in reverse. You are habituated to rapid-fire, quick conclusions etc. Might not then long arguments, complexity etc. be dizzying? Would you not be "biased" against arguments employed / communicated in said form? Especially if you weren't in an environment which habituated you to these complexities, would you not be more suspicious of arguments in this form?

Would you not prefer the argument presented in a familiar form, in a familiar style? Especially if it is packaged and delivered to you via a pseudo-authority figure that you empathize with on some level? This is exactly and only what I mean by bias and fundamental shift. Your cognitive machinery is still all there, though obviously you do not make use of all of it. Indeed, which aspects of it you choose to employ are largely (tho not completely) dependent on your culture. And let's be clear, culture includes very immediately, how you choose to express your thoughts (an essay written on a cellphone is much different than one on a computer!).

In Japan, novels written on cell phones have become very popular. Are you arguing that the same types of ideas are communicated in these ( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/world/asia/20japan.html ).

Of last year’s 10 best-selling novels, five were originally cellphone novels, mostly love stories written in the short sentences characteristic of text messaging but containing little of the plotting or character development found in traditional novels.

“It’s not that they had a desire to write and that the cellphone happened to be there,” said Chiaki Ishihara, an expert in Japanese literature at Waseda University who has studied cellphone novels. “Instead, in the course of exchanging e-mail, this tool called the cellphone instilled in them a desire to write.”

Indeed, many cellphone novelists had never written fiction before, and many of their readers had never read novels before, according to publishers.


Rin said ordinary novels left members of her generation cold.

“They don’t read works by professional writers because their sentences are too difficult to understand, their expressions are intentionally wordy, and the stories are not familiar to them,” she said. “On other hand, I understand how older Japanese don’t want to recognize these as novels. The paragraphs and the sentences are too simple, the stories are too predictable. But I’d like cellphone novels to be recognized as a genre.”

Forget about the "this will ruin writing." That's an interpretation based on the very basic observation that different forms/types of thought are generated / disseminated. Feel free to disagree with Postman's conclusion (I disagree with many parts of his work too), but the basic chassis of analysis is quite apt.

This is all I, and indeed, McLuhan (and Postman's analytic technique) are laying claim to. I have no idea what makes you so upset.

 Does the above acceptable to you?

Mostly not, no. 

See above.

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…

You could indeed, but I would still fail to see what point you believe yourself to be making.

Indeed. This seems to be crux of the problem...

Anyway, see below for one last attempt.
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

Actually, no. You seem to be repeating familiar cliched complaints about the dumbing-down of American democracy, etc. etc. , all of which I am familiar with and all of which I fail to see any hard evidence for. Plato thought that teaching people to read was a disaster because it would ruin their memories. My father thought that TV was a kind of brain-rot. My son believes that playing video games all day leads to brain rot. I don't believe any of this, Seems to me that people are about the same as they always have been, no better or worse, and that they will likely go on being about the same for the forseeable future. 

Incidentally, Jon Stewart makes a very similar point here:

It's a curious thing when sometimes the most honest news is in a satirical comedy show...

I'll additionally cite one more study and one more article.


Nothing conclusive, but yet another drop in the ever increasing bucket for the fact that the tools we use alter how we think. Again, not the base cognitive machinery, but which parts of it are employed / emphasized / focused upon. This is a key distinction that seems to be consistently.... forgotten.

(relevant excerpt:

[CD] I believe -- really believe -- in the stirring words of the Maker Manifesto: if you can't open it, you don't own it. Screws not glue. The original Apple ][+ came with schematics for the circuit boards, and birthed a generation of hardware and software hackers who upended the world for the better. If you wanted your kid to grow up to be a confident, entrepreneurial, and firmly in the camp that believes that you should forever be rearranging the world to make it better, you bought her an Apple ][+. 

But with the iPad, it seems like Apple's model customer is that same stupid stereotype of a technophobic, timid, scatterbrained mother as appears in a billion renditions of "that's too complicated for my mom" (listen to the pundits extol the virtues of the iPad and time how long it takes for them to explain that here, finally, is something that isn't too complicated for their poor old mothers).

The model of interaction with the iPad is to be a "consumer," what William Gibson memorably described as "something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It's covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth... no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote."

The way you improve your iPad isn't to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps. Buying an iPad for your kids isn't a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it's a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

Dale Dougherty's piece on Hypercard and its influence on a generation of young hackers is a must-read on this. I got my start as a Hypercard programmer, and it was Hypercard's gentle and intuitive introduction to the idea of remaking the world that made me consider a career in computers.

This is another prime example. The implicit message in the ipad is that one should simply purchase one's problems. That is part of the indirect message of this medium. In contrast, as the writer notes, the implicit message in the Apple ][+ was, if you have a problem, you dive in and figure out what to do.

Imagine I grow up in a culture where linear connections are emphasized. I will be more likely to look for and recognize said types of patterns. This doesn't mean it's impossible for me to learn other ways of thinking. However, I will be primed / biased to look for these patterns.

Alas, if you reject that these two products don't bias one towards different types of thinking, if you reject that the patterns of thought, the dominant metaphors do not affect how we employ our cognitive machinery, then there is no hope for this conversation.

, but if you need more convincing, I suggest you consult the reading list of nearly any Public Relations, Media Studies or Critical Theory

Thanks, but I won't bother. Ive spent too much time already dealing with cross-disciplinary communications among the, er,  softer sciences. 

Pat Hayes

I wish you well Pat. My friends have suggested that you have no interest in understanding what I've been trying to communicate and that I ought not bother to engage further. I have had difficulty appreciating why this simple point has been so arduous to communicate.

If you wish, we can continue this offline. I only as that you:
(a) state what you think I'm claiming
(b) state what evidence would be compelling for you

At that point, it'll be abundantly obvious if I should throw in the towel.


Founding Director, www.reseed.ca

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