The Shaping of Human Cognition by Information Technology

John Weckert and Craig McDonald


There is much discussion about computer mediated communication but less about computer mediated perception and its effects on cognition, concepts and language. In this paper we focus on the relationship between information technology and how humans think, perceive and behave. An understanding of this relationship underpins our capacity to ethically use, or to avoid, technology.

Human experience of the world is the internalising of information, mediated by our conceptual structures, sometimes called our beliefs, opinions, views or values. These structures are the fabric of our thinking selves, the framework within which our perceptions and actions are constructed. They are not static; unlike programs in some sort of cerebral computing unit, they are being constantly built and modified for us by our experience.

But increasingly we work in a designed information environment where the characteristics of the computing technology are imprinted on the information and, through our experience of it, imprinted on us. The very way we think and perceive the world are being affected by information technology. It is possible that our lives are becoming easier in some ways because of Information Technology, but also becoming poorer as we lose touch with the non-virtual world and with more direct ways of perceiving that world. In losing skills, including skills of perception, to technology are we losing important human capacities too?

There is a vast literature which supports the view that language, as well as being a vehicle for communication, also influences how individuals experience the world. (For example see seminal works by Whorf, Wittgenstein, Kuhn and Quine). The basic idea is that words are more than labels which are attached to individual bits of the world. The view that words are just labels has been called the ‘myth of the museum’ (Quine). Language is closely linked with an individual’s conceptual structure. If we know the meaning of a word or phrase or its use, then we have a certain concept or concepts. Commonly, learning the new word, or term, involves acquiring the new concept and in some cases learning to perceive the world slightly differently. Suppose that we are tasting wine with an expert. She talks about acidity, astringency, oak flavours, and the like, of the various wines. She tells us which ones will improve with age, and which should be consumed now. Some of the features which she points out we can recognise, but others we cannot. In many cases we cannot taste or smell what she does. It is not merely a matter of us not knowing the relevant terms, nor of not knowing which attributes indicate aging potential or whatever. Often, even when the feature is explained to us we still not able to taste or smell it. Again with time and help we may be able to acquire this ability, but we certainly do not have it at the moment.

We suggest that Information Technology, considered broadly to include devices containing processing chips, which now pervades much of our lives, influences our cognitive abilities at least partly through mediating our perceptions of the world and partly through pre-processing. There is nothing wrong with a photographer using light meters providing that the skill of assessing light conditions without their use is not lost. The possession of that skill makes for a richer experience of the world. Use instruments rather than sight and touch to assess wool quality, but do not lose the ability to do it through visual and tactile experience. Use automatic pilots, but do not allow human pilots to become mere instrument readers. There are richer experiences in life than the reading of gauges. Use computers to assist in the administration of courses but do not forget that knowledge is too rich to be placed into boxes with obscure codes. Modern information technology is hastening the process of seeing everything in life in terms of the simply measurable. Measurement is useful, but it only concerns a small part of human existence.

Information technology, and the language embedded in it, increasingly stands between our senses and the physical world in which we live. The technology pre-processes data from the world imposing on it the conceptual structures of the technology developer. This is in marked contract to information technology of previous ages. The telescope, for example, enhances the work of the eye, but electronic sensors and systems (for example that report an enemy missile launch) have embedded the concepts of the technology developer and sponsor. The ethical capacity of one acting on information pre-processed by technology is reduced.

The multi-media modes of information technology work in a different manner to interfere with our ethical capacity. Rather than presenting processed measures of the world these technologies modify sensory input itself. Virtual reality augmented reality, enhanced reality and attenuated reality modes can be a more subtle intervention between out senses and the world.

A detailed exploration of the relationship between human cognition and information technology is necessary for a critical assessment of the ethical and social impacts of information technology use. It may be unwise to accept some technology unthinkingly simply because it makes various tasks easier. We might be losing skills that are valuable for our quality of life. At least we should be aware of the social and personal costs involved.