Scale of Cognitive Tools

Disambiguation: common use of the term "cognitive tools" means learning with the aid of media / technology. Here, I am talking about tools that we use to support cognitive processes in a slightly more general meaning: thinking, remembering, creative cognitive work. As a hammer extends my hand and arm, cognitive tools extend my brain.

What makes Pen and Paper similar to, and different from, an Electronic Cash Register

Take a piece of paper and a pen. You can do everything with it. Well, Not Everything of course, but - let's see:

Did you expect there to be so many things you can do with that? I probably missed a dozen other things that you can think of.

I am saying that pen and paper form a cognitive tool because they enable me to do a lot of things that Stephen Hawking could do in his head but that are just too visual, complex, tedious, or whatever to make that convenient for me.

By contrast, look at a cash register. With this, you can

A cash register also is a brain extension tool: you could do that in your head.

Why would I ever prefer to use a cash register, when there are so many things I can do with pen and paper?

The cash register is of course optimized for a specific activity. Optimization might aim for reducing effort, potential for errors, potential for mischievous manipulation, and increase overall efficiency. Those are all good things.

When you single out a specific activity and optimize for that, or if you just choose a specific technology, you might be reducing the variety of uses for a thing. Sometimes you might even preclude some uses completely, e.g. giving rebates based on personal taste.

I would like to simplify the question to this scale:

Scale from universal to specialized

Think about how you think. Which tools do you use? How do they facilitate, how do they inhibit specific ways of working?

Can a tool have the effect of limiting the thinking you do, because there are concepts that cannot be expressed with this tool?

Some examples from my experience:

Of course, there's the right tool for the job. I'd like to emphasize, though: When you're looking for a tool to help with a specific acitivity, you can find pairs of tools A and B that both list that activity as an intended use, but one gives you more freedom than the other.

Be wary of the restrictions your tools impose on your thinking!

jan 2017-06-19