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  • Writer's pictureJunaid Bedford

Towards Collective Intelligence: A Perspective on Cognition

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

Named, by the American Society for Information Science, as the best Information Science book of 1987, and recognized by Byte magazine as one of the top twenty all-time most influential books ever written on Information Technology (“Best information science book award: Past winners,” n.d.; Flores, 2012, Introduction, para. 12), Winograd & Flores (1987, p. 15-16) note, in this book of theirs entitled Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design, that the rationalistic paradigm has been held in such high esteem that it is perceived to be “…the very paradigm of what it means to think and be intelligent” (Winograd & Flores, 1987, p. 16), for our current understanding, they point out, is embedded in this paradigm (Winograd & Flores, 1987, p. 79). This paradigm, they note, is in need of re-examination as a source of understanding, since it impacts upon, and gives orientation to, human behaviours and practices (Winograd & Flores, 1987, p. 14).

In order to understand the rationalistic paradigm, Winograd & Flores (1987, p.15) note that the following question may be posed as a starting point to elucidate it: “What does one do when faced with a problem whose solution one cares about?”; they proceed to answer the question as follows:

  1. Characterize the situation in terms of identifiable objects with well-defined properties.

  2. Find general rules that apply to situations in terms of those objects and properties.

  3. Apply the rules logically to the situation of concern, drawing conclusions about what should be done (Winograd & Flores, 1987, p. 15).

When one’s thinking-doing is governed by a rationalistic orientation of cognition (perception, knowledge, and understanding), as in the above rendition, 1 to 3, one’s behaviours and practices are, in turn, ‘shaped’ by this orientation. To find general rules and subsequently apply them to a situation in order to solve a perceived problem, is to reduce the solicitations experienced and the range of emergent affordances, in a situation, to a ‘form’ that can ‘fit’ within, and is consistent with, the restrictive ‘boundaries’ of the found general rules. Such a mode of cognition is reductionist. In contradistinction, Dreyfus (2014, Introduction, para. X) explicates a more-in-tune-with-human-nature orientation of cognition, comprising the embeddedness of a human actor in her situation, highlighting the need for an awareness of the situation’s solicitations and the emergent affordances for action in that situation, a ‘process’ of cognition which Schön (1992) aptly described as a knowing-in-action-as-it-unfolds “…conversation with a situation” (Schön, 1992, p. 125). Dreyfus (2014, Introduction, para. 11) pointed out that, in skillful coping, one’s mode of being, in situations, is not primarily rational-reflective, but instead perceptive:

When I am engaged in skillful coping – “in the flow,” as we say – my ability to stay in the flow depends not on a deliberative assessment of competing desires and motivations, but rather on the world drawing me into and sustaining me in a single clear course of action – the one which will allow me to maintain a sure-footed stance. This view does not require the mediation of mental or psychological states. Rather, through learning and practice, I become attuned to the world in such a way that the situation itself presents to me “reasons” for action that immediately draw on my body, soliciting a response (Dreyfus, 2014, Introduction, para. 11)

Since the rationalistic orientation emphasizes the formulation of, manipulation of, and reflection over perceived representations (or the codification of knowledge) of real-life situations as the ‘mainstay’ of cognition, in an a priori sense (Winograd & Flores, 1987, p. 15), the possible implication is that solicitations and affordances, which are not consistent with the found general rules, would be deemed irrelevant to the situation, and subsequently ignored, as preference (‘dictated’ by the rationalistic orientation) would be given to the ‘authority’ of the found general rules over the apparently-seeming ‘inconsistencies’ experienced in a situation (Spinosa, Flores, & Dreyfus, 1997, p. 23). When such an orientation dominates the psyche of one’s being then one could perceive that cognition, in its entirety, constitutes an act of reflection over codified knowledge (e.g., such as accumulated facts), instead of being located in the sense-making experiences of real-life human affairs, of which the use of, and reflection over, codified knowledge forms a part. The former perception of cognition is solidified by the rationalistic view of the function of language which, according to Winograd & Flores (1987, p. 17), is to semantically correspond to real world objects and represent them truly or falsely; consequently, the rationalistic view of thought and intelligence amounts to the brain’s manipulation of perceived representations (Winograd & Flores, 1987, p.18). The rationalistic paradigm has been (and still is) so pervasive that it has permeated our ways of thinking-doing so much so that we are unable to notice, easily, its influence on our activities and actions (Winograd & Flores, 1987, p. 32). This paradigm is so deeply ensconced within our thinking-doing, due to the effects of the Industrial Revolution, that we cannot perceive of acting in the world without some form of representation to guide our action, whether mental, textual, or other, as though humans are machines under the ‘control’ of someone or something ready to receive instructions to act (Gharajedaghi, 2011, p. 10). Yet, taking purposeful action in situations does not require predefined ‘representations’, as Spinosa et al. (1997, p. 18) note:

We respond to a situation that appears in terms of the actions we can take. We respond to the ongoing solicitations and not to the facts a detached observer would notice. As we drive we don’t observe how far we are turning the wheel. The road constantly requires adjustments, and we are simply involved in adjusting. We understand this involved coping as normal and secure. Only when there is a disturbance of some sort do we appear to ourselves as agents, with beliefs and desires directed towards goals that require some particular action (Spinosa, Flores, & Dreyfus, 1997, p. 18).

The human mind does not work like a machine, it does not require the ‘fuel’ of (representational-instructional) data for its functioning, rather it operates in a non-algorithmic fashion (Penrose as cited in Baets & Oldenboom, 2013, p. 39), thus when sketching the role of a competent manager, managing in complexity, in a twenty-first century environment, Baets & Oldenboom (2013, p. 254) noted that “…machines cannot realize values and cannot make intuitive choices. Machines cannot choose between multiple possible truths; managers who behave and think as machines cannot do so either.” Yet it is machine-like thinking that has permeated management practice, according to Winograd & Flores (1987, p. 19). Competent managers are choice-making and value-creating doers, not compliance actors (Martin, 2009, pp. 133–150). Since the rationalistic paradigm is based on the assumption that cognition lies in an act of reflection over codified knowledge, it fosters an “…individual-centred conception of understanding” over one that is “…socially based” (Winograd & Flores, 1987, p. 78), because if, as the aforementioned assumption implies, cognition occurs in this way, then consequently an act of reflection over codified knowledge, ‘de-situated’ from the flux of experiencing, i.e., from the ever-flowing, meaningful stream of consciousness of unmeasurable continuity (Sebald, 2015, p. 150) and “…inseparability of all life” (Baets & Oldenboom, 2013, p. 139), would suffice to yield, in a priori fashion, all possible insights for taking action without the need for context embeddedness and the awareness of presence (Sebald, 2015, p. 150). But it is not possible to predict all possible insights for future action by way of context-free reflection over codified knowledge (as opposed to improvising from the solicitations of a situation in hermeneutic-cyclic fashion), since codified knowledge is antiquated to the requirements of unfolding situations even though it may be generalized from a multitudes of past cases (Baets & Oldenboom, 2013, p. 73; Senge, 2006, Chapter 13, para. 11). When an attempt is made to symbolize, spatialize, or conceptualize consciousness, it is no longer consciousness, but a reduction of it into discontinuity and measurable quantification (Baets & Oldenboom, 2013, p. 34). Such is the defining ‘character’ of the rationalistic paradigm (Sebald, 2015, p. 153), which, in short, causes human actors to make attempts at reducing the richness of reality to symbol form and taking for granted that all intelligibility lies in symbol form – consequently this paradigm functions to shape and conserve rationalistic-inspired behaviours and practices in one’s life, in general, and in the work place, in particular (Spinosa et al., 1997, p. 20). Galilean thought brought to intellectual prominence a “…de-situated understanding of people and things” (Spinosa, Flores, & Dreyfus, 1997, p. 5), since Galileo attempted to explain all of Nature in terms of fundamental laws. A detached style of thinking about the world, in general, and problematical situations, in particular, emerged as the epitome of Western intellectualism, following Descartes’ generalization of Galilean thought with a robustness of clarity (Spinosa, Flores, & Dreyfus, 1997, p. 6). As a consequence of this revolution in thinking, the culturally acceptable view of serious intellectual activity would now occur in the spirit of detachment, in a de-situated and dispassionate fashion, extracted from the immediacies of a situation, reflecting as a context-free, objective observer. Such thinking functioned to reinforce an individual-centred conception of cognition over one that is socially-oriented (Spinosa et al., 1997, pp. 6–7). Cartesian thought, emerging from Descartes, has transformed the education process into rational-reflective learning, a process that is limited to book knowledge, the accumulation of facts, and multiple-choice questions – cutting the learning experience, facilitated by dialogue, between student and professor, promoting detached, context-free learning, as noted by the serial entrepreneur, professor, member of the Club of Rome and Budapest, founder of the ZERI think tank (regarded by the 2015 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report as the seventh most innovative think tank in the world with regard to policy ideas and proposals (Mcgann, 2016, p. 141)), Gunter Pauli (Pauli, 2014). Pauli (2014) further notes that in the world of business practice people are “Cartesian in heart and soul”, because, he notes, they analyse, debate, hypothesize about what to do, and attempt to create the perfect business plan before acting, and the result of all this, he forcefully notes, is that “…we do nothing” (Pauli, 2014). As Spinosa et al. (1997, p. 8-9) point out, we find Cartesianism going strong in our everyday practices when:

  1. We wish for the architect’s plan of the whole before we build a building, write a book, begin a career, or raise a child.

  2. We sense that muddling through, and learning as we go along, are deficient.

Since Cartesianism would have us think that it is possible to grasp a whole with the mind, humans proceed to act in ways, which are consistent with this assumption. However, Senge (2006, Chapter 9, para. 3) points out that “…none of us can carry an organization in our minds – or a family, or a community. What we carry in our heads are images, assumptions, and stories.” Based on this assumption one would attempt to grasp the whole by accumulating more and more knowledge of a domain of concern, as an ‘omniscient’ actor in the world, until one is capable of exercising control over it in such a way as to be able to predict future outcomes concerning it. But humans are not capable of controlling the emerging complexities of real-life situations as the Cartesian assumption would erroneously have one believe (Checkland, 1999, Soft Systems Methodology -- The Parts, para. 2; Gandomani, Zulzalil, Ghani, Sultan, & Sharif, 2014; Sewchurran, 2008; Spinosa et al., 1997, p. 9). If, by way of an example, one looks at a market, then it is a non-line­­ar, dynamic system consisting of humans relating with one another, commodities, exchanges and transactions; it consists of multiple variables interacting together in a web of interdependence beyond the control of human beings. Baets & Oldenboom (2013, p. 73) cite Ilay Prigonine, the Nobel laureate, who developed a key insight concerning dynamic systems, such as a market, namely, that it is not possible to extrapolate the future from the past, since the nature of a dynamic system is such that its non-linear evolution through space and time obscures any traces of its historical development (Baets & Oldenboom, 2013, p. 73). The implication of this insight is that it is not possible to locate an established pattern, by way of recourse to codified knowledge of the past, as the source from which the future may be reliably predicted. Baets & Oldenboom (2013, p. 73) note that:

…no-one has ever succeeded in predicting a market potential, market shares or future relationships between competitors. The financial markets are the most eloquent examples of this failure but, for any dynamic market, it is equally impossible to forecast other than in the short term. (Baets & Oldenboom, 2013, p. 73)

Yet, if one looks into the world of business, and zooms in further to locate the worldview of knowledge workers engaging in activities involving strategy, one finds that the dominant worldview is Cartesian-rationalistic because their activities entail rigorous planning processes in an attempt to create the perfect plan before action takes place (Martin, 2014); furthermore, a strategy is perceived, in this worldview, to be something an organization has as opposed to something it does (Johnson, Langley, Melin, & Whittington, 2007, p. 207). That which an organization has, in this worldview, refers to the codification of knowledge contained in some artefact that is perceived to contain the necessary knowledge and wisdom for action of, amongst others, differentiation, diversification and join-venture strategies (Johnson et al., 2007, p. 3). In this worldview artefacts are to be followed strictly, almost in law-like-deterministic fashion, since much work was put into perfecting their production. Lafley & Martin (2013) note, in their best-selling book on strategy, that “…management teams had been trained over decades to see strategy reviews as anything but an opportunity to share ideas. Traditionally, it had been their job to build an unimpeachable plan and to defend it to the death” (Lafley & Martin, 2013, Chapter 6, para. 6). This does not bode well for conditions of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity -- when things change for which planning could not cater, when variables were selected for focus into which emerging situations cannot ‘fit’. If this worldview of strategy work is honed further, organizations eventually turn into bureaucracies consisting of watch dogs of compliance and control, stifling creative capacities, energies, desires and the will to act purposefully, with suppressing feelings of guilt for lack of conformity and compliance with artefacts such as strategic plans (Liedtka, 2007; Sewchurran, Smith, & Roode, 2010). A socially-based orientation of cognition results in the generation of knowledge and the development of understanding, which “…arise from [an] individual’s committed participation in mutually oriented patterns of behavior that are embedded in a socially shared background of concerns, actions, and beliefs” (Winograd & Flores, 1987, p. 78). This orientation expands the understanding of cognition from one that is individual-centred to one that is socially oriented, from one in which humans place a dominant focus on a representational map of ‘reality’, as the source of knowledge and understanding, to one in which people place increased awareness on the (actual) territory of ‘reality’, in which a map may or may not be used while navigating it, since “…meaning and language, arising from and tied to continuous [social] activity, cannot be telescoped into representations or mental contents, which themselves acquire the property of being about something by virtue of how people use and react to them” (Schatzki, 2001, p. 21). To perceive that cognition is limited to a rational and reflective process occurring in a de-situated (scientific-experiment-inspired) sense, and that it constitutes, in its entirety, an act of reflection over perceived representations of the life world (à la codified knowledge) is to limit the possibilities for expansive ways of seeing, thinking and understanding (Baets & Oldenboom, 2013, p. 175; Engeström, 2000; Sewchurran, 2008). By perceiving of cognition in such a limited way, one would exude behaviours, and engage in practices that would limit one’s cognitive prowess to the:

  • Narrowness of bounded rationality (Cicmil, Williams, Thomas, & Hodgson, 2006; Gregory & Muntermann, 2014; Sterman, 1994; Weick, 1989) of individuality, at the expense of locating intelligibility in the nexus of social centrality (Gharajedaghi, 2011, p. 59; Spinosa et al., 1997, p. X).

  • Narrowness of sense-making, meaning-making, and meaning-giving as a dominant activity of detached deliberation over perceived representations of the real world (Baets & Oldenboom, 2013, p. 33), at the expense of sense-making, meaning-making, and meaning-giving as an ongoing-non-linear process of practical involvement in, conversation with, and experimentation in the messy arena of life’s affairs, embedded in the interdependent nexus of human activities and emergent meanings, organized around shared understandings, in which the use of codified knowledge forms a part of the ‘uncovering’ and illuminating of better understandings of real-world situations, and in which codified knowledge is perceived as simulacra in the real world rather than representations of the real world in any true-corresponding sense (Checkland, 1999, Chapter 8, para. 26; Gill, 2014; Houghton, 2012; Laverty, 2008; Schatzki, 2001, p. 20; Spinosa et al., 1997; Winograd & Flores, 1987, pp. 78–79).

Simulacra, according to Schatzki (2001, p. 203), are distinct from representations in that the former are “…things in the world, with a multiplicity of relations to other things” which manifest their utility in the ‘light’ of (contextually-relevant) practices paving the way for new possibilities for human action, in contrast to the latter, representations, which are perceived to denote a “…semantic content that intervenes between knowers and the world” (Schatzki, 2001, p. 203). Simulacra thus facilitate coherent communication and cogent debate, between participants, about purposeful change in the world. They do not represent the world in any true sense, but help humans to organize their thinking-doing in order to enact purposeful change. The idea of simulacra is found in, for example, low-fidelity, or low resolution, prototyping (in the Stanford d.School model of Design Thinking), which is a means to help knowledge workers navigate real-world complexity in order to design solutions to wicked problems with disciplined imagination (Jobst & Meinel, 2014, Chapter 7, para. 3; Liedtka, 2014; Sadler & Kress, 2014; Silva da Silva, Martin, Maurer, & Silveira, 2011; Vetterli et al., 2013). It is also found in Checkland & Poulter's (2006, p. 11) use of Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), in which models are to be perceived as intellectual devices (not descriptions, mirrored-representations, or parts of the real world) to mediate meaning and to facilitate structured debate about real-world problematical situations in order to enact purposeful change. Based on the above perspective, hopefully it becomes more clear to you that a rationalistic orientation of cognition (of perceiving) ‘imposes’ a limitation on people such that it limits what one is capable of seeing and understanding in real-world situations. It fosters a de-situated-cum-individualistic outlook, and approach, to life’s affairs, on the one hand, and on the other, it creates the false idea that intelligibility is located in representations of reality such that one could (be tempted to) develop a bureaucratic attitude of conformity to representations of the real world, as opposed to observing, adjusting and responding to the nuances, cues and intricacies of real-world situations (which cannot be captured in text).


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