John Searle explained distributed cognition with the metaphor of a man assembling “Chinese” in a closed room. Using a rulebook, the man assembles strings of Chinese characters into grammatical structures and pushes them out the door. It isn’t accurate to describe the man as understanding Chinese, Searle construes, but, rather, it is the entire room that knows Chinese.[i]
Many of us now live almost exclusively in the Chinese room. Every day, we participate in systems that cognize collectively, from apps that make use of our fitness, happiness or buying patterns to thermostats that learn our living habits. This is the Internet of Things or IoT: flows of data from objects and devices forms an information-rich, “smart” environment, indeed a system of interpenetrating environments, in which the feedback we currently associate mainly with “screen” devices increasingly arrives via many other avenues.
One result is a certain fluidity in how we interact with information and objects. We can't help be but challenged in our old idea of our human selves being separate from our environments; it's being replaced with a sense of cooperation with our environments, environments of which we are components, not masters. Not only does this blur the boundaries of the individual, it blurs the boundary between human and machine. The implications of this new way of living are interpreted by some as apocalyptic, by others as transcendent; the realities, as always, are likely to fall somewhere in between.
For my own part, I’m cautiously optimistic. I'm particularly curious to find out how the IoT will influence our understanding of, more than our technological or social-technological environments, the natural world. Will having to understand ourselves as part of larger mechanics in everyday ways help us to relate to natural systems in new ways? Or, to put it differently, will disrupting our sense of human mastery allow us to enter into more productive systemic relations with natural elements? I hope so.
[i] Searle, J.R. “The Chinese Room Argument.” Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science (2001).