3. Digital Cognitive Agency

In philosophical terms, discussion of cognitive artefacts is linked to contested debates concerning the extended mind theory, distributed cognition, and extended perception. Within archaeology, they are also closely associated with dialogues surrounding cognitive archaeology, neuroarchaeology, and agency more generally.

Cognitive artefacts may be seen in terms of functioning in a similar fashion to the equivalent human cognitive process. This is the basis for seeing computer reasoning as a model of the human mind, for instance. Clark and Chalmers (1998) argued that a proportion of a cognitive task could be conducted outside the human mind through linking the human agent in a two-way interaction with an external entity to create a coupled cognitive system. This external cognitive process is seen as an extension of the human mind through what Clark subsequently defined as the parity principle (2005, 2). This considers that if a function undertaken by an external device would be considered to be cognitive if performed by the human mind, then that device is functionally part of that extended cognitive process; hence:

'if an inner mechanism with this functionality would intuitively count as cognitive, then (skin-based prejudices aside) why not an external one?' (Clark 2005, 7).

This definition of the parity principle is not uncontested (see Menary 2007, 55ff, for example), since, for instance, it seems to allow for things to think independently in what Sutton calls uncoupled material-cognitive agency (2008, 40). Nevertheless, some archaeologists have built on Clark's model of the extended mind and parity principle. For example, in his development of a neuroarchaeology of the mind, Malafouris emphasises the importance of material culture in understanding human cognitive evolution:

'The extraordinary projective plasticity of mind and its openness to cultural influence and variation provides the basis for an ever-increasing representational flexibility due to external prosthetic means and symbolic technologies which then allow for culturally derived changes in the architecture of the brain.' (Malafouris 2015, 355).

Cognitive artefacts may be seen as such prosthetic devices that act back on their human makers and users (see Malafouris 2013, 154). Indeed, the ways in which humans and things interact with each other, act on each other, is fundamental to archaeological concepts of agency (for example, Dobres and Robb 2005; Gosden 2005), although the degree and nature of this is open to question (for example, Ingold 2011, 89ff; 2013, 91ff; Barrett 2014).

However, it is not necessary to subscribe to the extended mind or the parity principle in order to pursue the agency of digital things. An alternative approach to the extended mind is one in which human cognition is seen as being scaffolded or supported by external devices, without those devices necessarily demonstrating cognition themselves. Such cognitive artefacts may operate in different ways and using different functions such that they complement human cognition – in effect they extend what the human mind can do, rather than replicate it. Sutton defines this as the complementarity principle in which:

'… external states and processes need not mimic or replicate the formats, dynamics, or functions of inner states and processes. Rather, different components of the overall (enduring or temporary) system can play quite different roles and have different properties while coupling in collective and complementary contributions to flexible thinking and acting.' (Sutton 2010, 194).

Menary identifies these complementary relations as cognitive integration, where:

'… the coordination of bodily processes of the organism with salient features of the environment, often created or maintained by the organism, allows it to perform cognitive functions that it otherwise would be unable to; or it allows it to perform functions in a way that is distinctively different and is an improvement on how the organism performs those functions via neural processes alone.' (Menary 2010, 231).

This introduces an essentially asymmetric relationship between human agent and thing rather than the broadly symmetric interaction implicit in the parity principle. In some respects, this might appear to be akin to the distinction between 'primary agency' and 'secondary agency' (for example, Gell 1998, 21) in which, unlike humans, things do not have agency in themselves but have agency given or ascribed to them. However, the increasing assignment of intelligence in digital devices that enables them to act independent of human agents could suggest that some digital cognitive artefacts possess primary agency as they autonomously act on others – both human and non-human/inanimate things. Arguably this agency is still in some senses secondary in that it is ultimately provided via the human programmer even if this is subsequently subsumed within a neural network generated by the thing itself, for example.

This is not the place to develop the discussion of thing agency further (for example, see the debate between Lindstrøm (2015), Olsen and Witmore (2015), and Sørensen (2016)); however, the least controversial position to adopt here is to propose that for the most part the agency of digital cognitive artefacts employed by archaeologists complements rather than duplicates through extending and supporting archaeological cognition. They do this, for example, through providing the capability of seeing beneath the ground or characterising the chemical constituents of objects, neither of which are specifically human abilities. So there is considerable scope for considering the nature of the relationship between ourselves as archaeologists and our cognitive artefacts – how do we interact and in what ways is archaeological cognition extended or complemented by these artefacts?


Internet Archaeology is an open access journal. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

Terms and Conditions | Legal Statements | Privacy Policy | Cookies Policy | Citing IA

Internet Archaeology content is preserved for the long term with the Archaeology Data Service. Help sustain and support open access publication by donating to our Open Access Archaeology Fund.