Friday, March 19, 2010

What if we're not as smart as we think we are?

Human intelligence, how to measure it, how to reward it, and how to advance it, is not an easy thing to understand. What if, instead of being as has always presumed, it actually lies in the situation, distributed in the relationship between the person, the tools, and his understanding of their use, and amongst one's peers? Actually, none of this is a new notion except amongst those who have been completely out of touch, trudging the halls of academia. The paper I referred to yesterday is available as a .pdf download: Partners in Cognition: Extending Human Intelligence with Intelligent Technologies, Salomon, Perkins and Globerson. You might enjoy the article's discussion of mindfulness in tool use. As the article points out:
Given sufficient mindful engagement in the partnership, strong effects of working with an intelligent partnership can be expected. However, such partnerships challenge our traditional notions about ability. Usually we view ability, regardless of definition, as the potential of a person's mind, the property of that individual. But, once we couple intelligent technologies with a person's ability, the emphasis might shift to examining the joint system. After all, the system, not the individual alone, carries out the intellectual task.

Such a reconceptualization of human ability appears at first to be quite novel. But closer examination reveals that we have implicitly accepted it all along. As Olsen* points out, "Almost any form of human cognition requires one to deal productively and imaginatively with some technology. To attempt to characterize intelligence independently of those technologies seems to be a fundamental error." For example, we would not think of testing people's artistic abilities without the use of some medium such as brush and paint. As Pea has recently pointed out, once appropriate intellectual tools are employed, ability becomes distributed by "off-loading" some of the mental operations required unto the artefactual environment.
I would add to this discussion the notion that all tools are intended toward the same effect... that of "off-loading" necessary skill, required intellect and attention, distributing these things onto the artefactual environment.

*Olsen, D.R. (1986)Intelligence and Literacy: The relationships between intelligence and the technologies of representation and communication.

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