Category Archives: Technology and cognition

Use of multiple computer monitors raises questions about cognition and productivity

The New York Times reports:

Workers in the digital era can feel at times as if they are playing a video game, battling the barrage of e-mails and instant messages, juggling documents, Web sites and online calendars. To cope, people have become swift with the mouse, toggling among dozens of overlapping windows on a single monitor.

But there is a growing new tactic for countering the data assault: the addition of a second computer screen. Or a third…

David E. Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan whose research has found that multitasking can take a serious toll on productivity… Warned that productivity can suffer when people keep interrupting their thoughts by scanning multiple screens rather than focusing on one task.

The relationship between technology use and cognition

At least as far back as Lev Vygotsky, psychological scientists and others interested in human cognition have considered the relationship between humans’ technology use and cognition. Vygotsky, for example, saw humans’ mediation of ‘tools and signs’ (i.e., technological innovations, both concrete and abstract) as a key part of the learning process, while psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that using technology has a recursive relationship with cognition – as we use tools to accomplish some task, our thinking about the task itself can change.

In this article from The Atlantic, writer Ross Anderson examines the growing body of technologies and methods explicitly designed for ‘cognitive enhancement:’

It could be that we are on the verge of a great deluge of cognitive enhancement. Or it’s possible that new brain-enhancing drugs and technologies will be nothing compared to how we’ve transformed our minds in the past. If it seems that making ourselves “artificially” smarter is somehow inhuman, it may be that similar activities are actually what made us human.

Are automated flight controls causing airline pilots to lose some of their flying skills?

The Associated Press (via the Huffington Post) reports:

As planes become ever more reliant on automation to navigate crowded skies, safety officials worry there will be more deadly accidents traced to pilots who have lost their hands-on instincts in the air.

Pilots use automated systems to fly airliners for all but about three minutes of a flight: the takeoff and landing. Most of the time pilots are programming navigation directions into computers rather than using their hands on controls to fly the plane. They have few opportunities to maintain their skills by flying manually…

BBC: Computer algorithms “increasingly control how we interact with our electronic world”

BBC News reports:

Behind every smart web service is some even smarter web code. From the web retailers – calculating what books and films we might be interested in, to Facebook’s friend finding and image tagging services, to the search engines that guide us around the net.

It is these invisible computations [computer algorithms] that increasingly control how we interact with our electronic world.

At last month’s TEDGlobal conference, algorithm expert Kevin Slavin delivered one of the tech show’s most “sit up and take notice” speeches where he warned that the “maths that computers use to decide stuff” was infiltrating every aspect of our lives.

Data mining will spur innovation, new report argues

The New York Times reports:

Data is a vital raw material of the information economy, much as coal and iron ore were in the Industrial Revolution. But the business world is just beginning to learn how to process it all…

Mining and analyzing these big new data sets can open the door to a new wave of innovation, accelerating productivity and economic growth. Some economists, academics and business executives see an opportunity to move beyond the payoff of the first stage of the Internet, which combined computing and low-cost communications to automate all kinds of commercial transactions.

The new report from the McKinsey Global Institute, which is cited in the NY Times article, is available online here (PDF).

The psychology of belief and perception

Writing for Wired.com, Jonah Lehrer reviews research on belief and perception:

It turns out that the human mind is a marvelous information filter, adept at blocking out those facts that contradict what we’d like to believe. Just look at this experiment, which was done in the late 1960’s, by the cognitive psychologists Timothy Brock and Joe Balloun. They played a group of people a tape-recorded message attacking Christianity. Half of the subjects were regular churchgoers while the other half were committed atheists. To make the experiment more interesting, Brock and Balloun added an annoying amount of static – a crackle of white noise – to the recording. However, they allowed listeners to reduce the static by pressing a button, so that the message suddenly became easier to understand. Their results were utterly predicable and rather depressing: the non-believers always tried to remove the static, while the religious subjects actually preferred the message that was harder to hear.

New York Times reports that “supercomputers alter science”

The New York Times reports:

Computer power is transforming the sciences, giving scientists tools as important to current research as the microscope and telescope were to earlier scientists. Their use accompanies a fundamental change in the material that scientists study.

Individual specimens, whether fossils, living organisms or cells, were once the substrate of discovery. Now, to an ever greater extent, researchers work with immense collections of digital data, and the mastery of such mountains of information depends on computing power.

The physical technology of scientific research is still here — the new electron microscopes, the telescopes, the particle colliders — but they are now inseparable from computing power, and it is the computers that let scientists find order and patterns in the raw information that the physical tools gather.

Computer power not only aids research, it defines the nature of that research: what can be studied, what new questions can be asked, and answered.