Cognitive Offloading Dances with Critical Theory


Within the last two days I’ve had two thoughts that have decided to dance with each other.  I’ll introduce the partners — cognitive offloading (or not) onto the environment and critical theory.

The dance was initiated by observing the following situation at work.  If someone is in a position of authority and asks a subordinate to do something pointless – that is, the request kind of doesn’t actually make sense, no matter how well-intentioned, because the authority is out of touch with the codes, the client’s intent or goals in this instance, regulations, what the vendors can/will provide, and/or the tools of production – then the subordinate, if given the choice or the opportunity to put it off won’t perform the requested task.  But if the subordinate’s livelihood is dependent upon the authority and the authority demands it – even though we’ve established that it is in fact an ill-conceived if well-intentioned request – then the subordinate will feel compelled/coerced into performing the pointless task.  Many subordinates – too many – will not feel it there place to question the authority, point out the flaw, or have a discussion, assuming instead that the authority knows something that the subordinate does not.  The subordinate will work hard enough and take it all seriously enough that they will in fact generate and/or find something of value and mistakenly think that what they’ve come upon is in fact that enigmatic point which the authority sought.  The authority benefits by playing along as if knowing all along that the discovered element was in fact what was intended.  In this way the authority gets to reap the major portion of the benefits.  In summary, performing work, even if misguided, usually uncovers or creates something of value that justifies doing it.  Which is unfortunate from the perspective that it can mask the fact that the authority did not know what he/she was talking about.

Observation of the workings within an architecture firm made me contemplate this.  The codes, programs, and products change so quickly that a senior staffer cannot possibly know what the specifics of the work at hand entails.  But at one time, the staffer did know.   And that knowledge is similar enough that it allows the staffer to talk authoritatively, at least conceptually.

As I read, Natural-BornCyborgs,by Andy Clark, I’ve thought more about this idea that we (humans) tend to offload significant amounts of information and process into our environment in formats and settings which prime us for accessing and utilizing it quickly, efficiently, and effectively.  In essence, we allow ourselves to become highly dependent on our environments to perform required tasks.  Having such a strong tie to the affordances of the environment increases the stakes emotionally and psychologically with regard to the significance of and changes to the environment, which means we are inclined to believe we maintain the close integration even as it is slipping.  The environment is bound to change.  Certainly in our time, we, for better or worse, accelerate that rate of change, perhaps significantly beyond our ability to assimilate our changes.  This very fact threatens our ability to trust in offloading.  If and when we realize that we have lost the connection, we may feel hurt or angry or decide it is not worth investing in the ‘new, latest, and greatest.’  Then, either we offload less and reduce our productivity, or continue to offload but endure heightened stress as a result of the ever-present uncertainties resultant from the rate of change.  Bringing it back to the scenario I observed of the misguided boss’s request — the boss at one time had a close, accurate, intimate relationship with the details and production of performing architectural work, and relies on that conceptual scaffolding as though it is still valid, perhaps only partially aware, if at all, that those cognitive scaffolds are outdated, deteriorating, or faulty.  The subordinate, meanwhile, has a much clearer, more accurate relationship to cognitive scaffolding for production and the details of the project — his/her scaffolding for production is stronger, newer, more developed and refined — but does not yet (and perhaps never will) have an awareness of and relationship to the larger business and organizational aspects (structures) of the project.  Thus, both parties are operating in an environment in which they cannot trust the scaffolding of the authority as much as they would like.  His/her cognitive offloading is no longer ‘fresh.’  This is a problem.  This is clear to the subordinate but may not be clear to the authority.

A possible reaction is to mistrust offloading altogether and to rely more on only what one can hold in one’s head.  Paradoxically, by reacting against offloading, a person learns to value life without depending as heavily upon the benefits of offloading.  The unintended result is to sharpen one’s selectiveness of offloading.  That is, while we can choose to rely less on offloading, we can never completely divorce ourselves from it, since it is an innate tendency.  Thus if we do it by default, then in reacting against it we are only becoming more selective in how we use it. This is a reaction against the subconscious tendency to get  overly dependent on the environment to the point where one may not fully utilize one’s ‘onboard’ capabilities.  But for the person who rejects offloading, a selectiveness develops — because it is impossible to completely divorce oneself from the influence of the environment and using it to cue and structure thought and action — whereby the person not engaging in offloading as much ends up more soberly seeing it for what it is and therefore more soberly sees where it is truly beneficial as opposed to detrimental.  The lure to re-commence offloading, at first only for those supremely profitable instances, is great, and an anti-offloader will commence offloading more as it regains value, thus the pendulum swings back the other way.

So the realization is that there may be something like a harmonic frequency for human use of cognitive offloading that exists for each of us as a natural frequency of our existence and we do well to respect it.  Human capacity to offload information storage and process priming into the physical environment and to access such through methodological interaction is itself a complex, nuanced, active and changing online system which can settle into homeostasis.

Lastly, it is possible to consider the ‘anti-offloading’ end of the spectrum, from a critical theory perspective and read into it a certain anti-corporeality — that is, a denial of our minds’ uses of our bodies’ natural affordances — which can be seen through a critical theory lens as representative of Nihilistic/Stoic/ascetic points of view and modes of existence – as reactionary to the uncertainties inherent in a time-locked, disjunctive biological process which has slipped out of homeostasis and therefore makes the organism uncomfortable – as a reaction to pressures to exceed the functional limits of the system — that is, it is possible to see the philosophical tendency toward Nihilistic/Stoic/ascetic points of view and modes of existence as part of the homeostatic system itself — as governors helping to regulate our use of cognitive offloading. Such philosophies and modes of behavior are corrective measures to keep our use of cognitive offloading tuned to a range in which it is most lucrative. 

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