Cyborg Thinking: Cognition, Context, and Complementation

I’m writing a chapter about mobile trends, and one of the things I’m concluding with are the different ways we need to think to take advantage of mobile. The first one emerged as I wrote and kind of surprised me, but I think there’s merit.

The notion is one I’ve talked about before, about how what our brains do well, and what mobile devices do well, are complementary. That is, our brains are powerful pattern matchers, but have a hard time remembering rote information, particularly arbitrary or complicated details.  Digital technology is the exact opposite. So, that complementation whenever or wherever we are is quite valuable.

Consider chess.  When first computers played against humans,  they didn’t do well.  As computers became more powerful, however, they finally beat the world champion. However, they didn’t do it like humans do, they did it by very different means; they couldn’t evaluate well, but they could calculate much deeper in the amount of turns played and use simple heuristics to determine whether those were good plays.  The sheer computational ability eventually trumped the familiar pattern approach.  Now, however, they have a new type of competition, where a person and a computer will team and play against another similar team. The interesting result is not the best chess player, nor the best computer program, but a player who knows best how to leverage a chess companion.

Now map this to mobile: we want to design the best complement for our cognition. We want to end up having the best cyborg synergy, where our solution does the best job of leaving to the system what it does well, and leaving to the person the things we do well. It’s maybe only a slight shift in perspective, but it is a different view than designing to be, say, easy to use. The point is to have the best partnership available.

This isn’t just true for mobile, of course, it should be the goal of all digital design.  The specific capability of mobile, using sensors to do things because of when and where we are, though, adds unique opportunities, and that has to figure into thinking as well.  As does, of course, a focus on minimalism, and thinking about content in a new way: not as a medium for presentation, but as a medium for augmentation: to complement the world, not subsume it.

It’s my thinking that this focus on augmenting our cognition and our context with content that’s complementary is the way to optimize the uses of mobile. What’s your thinking?

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