Thursday, August 9, 2007

Why is the research area called "Augmented Social Cognition"?

Over the last few years, we realized that many of the information environments are gradually turning people into social foragers and sharers. People spend much more time in communities, and they are using these communities and social networks to share information with others, to communicate, to commiserate, and to establish bonds. This is the "Social Web" that people in the Web2.0 movement is talking about.

In my view, what is different about this new Web 2.0 environment is that people are sharing information today in a fundamentally different way from how they are used to. One example is Wiki systems like Wikipedia, which is a fascinating collaborative editing environment for creating an encyclopedia. The collaboration that happens here is very different from passing documents back and forth using traditional email, because you have (1) automatic versioning, and (2) you can always go back and find out who contributed what (transparency). Developments like this have taken a lot of the burden off of users. The features reduces the time it takes to collaborate with each other, thus enabling users to collaborate much more effectively with other users.

We sensed that this style of enhanced collaboration began to have an impact on people’s work, so that’s why we proposed and formed a new research area here at PARC, in April 2007, to go after some of these concepts in depth. The name of the group came from a discussion I was having with Mark Stefik and others in UIR, where I started to call this new research area “Augmented Social Cognition" (around March of 2006.)

Why did I call it “Augmented Social Cognition"? For that, we should go back to the definition of "Cognition".

Many years ago, the researchers in the User Interface Research group at PARC like Stu Card, Peter Pirolli, and myself, agreed that we needed scientists from the field of cognitive science and psychology together with people who are well versed in computer science, graphics, and information visualization. We believed that the fusion of these two areas was fundamental to advances in user interfaces.

During this time, I never bothered to look up the definition of "cognition." When I finally did, I was pleasantly surprised. The definition of cognition is “the faculty of knowing; the ability to think, remember, and reason.” That’s so succinct and so simple. But it can encompass so much.

By extension, we started becoming very interested in what I was calling “social cognition.” Now, as it turns out, the phrase “social cognition” has somewhat been used in psychology in the past, but with a different meaning. In social psychologists' usage, it means the individual cognitive processes that relate to social activities. To explain it somewhat simply, basically, it’s about scheming to insert yourself in social networks or social activities of social processes. But I actually think that’s a terrible definition for the phrase.

If cognition is the ability to remember, think, and reason for an individual, then social cognition, by extension, should have the definition: the ability of a group of people, community, or culture to collectively remember, think, and reason. As an example, our ability to remember history by writing it down on paper or stone or computer and share that with other people is a form of social cognition. Wikipedia is an example of social cognition. A group of people getting together to create a written history of our knowledge on this planet.

So now the reader probably can guess what “augmented social cognition” means. It is the enhancement or the augmentation of a group of people’s ability to remember, think, and reason.

No comments: