Week 3 Distributed Cognition


Today’s lecture covers the topic of Distributed Cognition. Distributed Cognition builds on the tradition of Cognitive Science, which aimed to explain human cognition as computation. Distributed Cognition is a theory that looks at how cognition occurs not just in our heads, but also in the world. It applies the computational view of cognitive science to processes in the world. It differs from cognitive science in the following two respects:

  • The unit of analysis is expanded from just being what goes on inside a person’s head to include the whole system that achieves computation.
  • It expands the range of mechanisms assumed to constitute cognitive processes from mental processes to physical and social interactions.

Researchers working from a Distributed Cognition perspective have highlighted the role of the tools that people use, their social organization and their cultural context in cognition. Distributed cognition researchers look for the ways that cognition is distributed within a computational system. They identify three ways that it can be distributed:

  • Across the members of a social group.
  • Between internal and external representations.
  • Through time, such that the results of earlier events can transform the nature of later events.

The basic attitude of Distributed Cognition could be summed up as:

Work is more than the activity of a single individual working alone and without tools.

The goal of Distributed Cognition is then to identify and explain the extra tools, resources, and social relations that people draw on to carry out their work.

Critical Questions

  • Distributed Cognition makes no distinction between people and artefacts. Both are treated as ‘media’ that hold and transform representations. Therefore, as Nardi remarks, “Messy cognitive activities conducted every day by ordinary humans, such as interpretation and imagination, are difficult to consider within such a framework.” (Nardi 2002, p.273)
  • Is computation an appropriate metaphor for understanding all people’s activities?

Practical Task

Your task for this week is to analyse the activities that occur in the Library in the terms of Distributed Cognition. In groups of two or three, first identify a ‘cognitive process’ in the library. Observe people engaged in this process and attempt to map it out. See if you can:

  • Map ‘information flows’
  • Find out how information is represented and transformed.
  • Find ‘cognitive artefacts’ or other concepts from this week’s lecture and readings.

You should prepare a short (5-10 minutes) presentation of the results of your interview for next week’s class.


Lecture slides are available.


  • Hollan, J., Hutchins, E., and Kirsh, D. “Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction”, ACM Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 7, No. 2, June 2000, pp 174-196.
  • McGarry, B. Extract from “Things to Think With” Unpublished PhD dissertation, the University of Queensland. 2005, pp 34-45
  • Nardi, 2002. Coda and Response to Christine Halverson. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 11(1), p.269-275.

Web Resources

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