4. Cognitive Coupling

Heersmink (2012; 2015), following the complementarity principle, defines what he calls the dimensions of integration between embodied agents (humans) and cognitive artefacts that can be employed in examining these relationships. Heersmink argues that these should be seen as a multidimensional phenomenon with none prioritised above another. In no particular order, therefore, Heersmink defines these dimensions as:

  1. Information flow between agent and artefact, including one-way flow (from artefact to agent, where we simply look at the artefact to extract the information we require), two-way flow (typically where we store information on the artefact and subsequently retrieve it); reciprocal flow (a two-way flow that is incremental, additive, and cyclical, so there is a continuous information exchange); and system flow (where there are multiple agents and multiple artefacts cooperating in the exchange) (Heersmink 2012, 49-50; 2015, 583-6).
  2. Reliability of access, in the sense of the extent to which the artefact is required and can be relied upon. In part, this will depend upon the nature and properties of the artefact – for instance, battery-operated artefacts may be less reliable in that, unlike analogue artefacts, they may run out of power or suffer from ingress of water or dirt. Portability will also be relevant here – the ability of a cognitive artefact to be easily carried enhances its accessibility, whereas large non-portable instruments will be tied to a laboratory and hence less accessible (Heersmink 2012, 51; 2015, 586-7).
  3. Durability operates in terms both of the artefact itself (its robusticity and material quality) and its purpose – for instance, a total station needs to be durable because we engage and re-engage with it (couple and decouple) over an extended period of time rather than for a one-off event (Heersmink 2012, 51; 2015, 587).
  4. Trust – we tend to trust the devices we employ (why would we use them otherwise?) but what is this trust based upon? Typically, trust may be linked to familiarity – our trust grows as we use and come increasingly to rely on the artefact and understand the results it gives us, but trust may also be second-hand, through the fact that others use and rely on it (Heersmink 2012, 51-2; 2015, 587-8). Trust may also be linked to the openness of the hardware or software – closed systems rely on their utility, quality of output, and the reputation of the manufacturer as a means of engendering trust and conversely some find difficulty in trusting something that comes for free.
  5. Procedural transparency concerns the degree of effort and conscious attention for the embodied agent to deploy a cognitive artefact – something that is simple and instinctive to use is highly transparent, but many of the devices archaeologists use require training over time and hence are less transparent (Heersmink 2012, 52; 2015, 588-9).
  6. Informational (or representational) transparency relates to the ease or otherwise with which the human agent can interpret and understand the information represented by the artefact (Heersmink 2012, 52; 2015, 589-90). So, for example, a total station plotting three-dimensional data points directly to an onscreen map could be seen as having quite a high degree of transparency, whereas a proton magnetometer that requires the data to be downloaded and processed in a separate software package would have low transparency (and indeed the interpretation of the resulting plots is often not self-evident). Similarly, the graphical output of an XRF device is superficially transparent but requires expertise to interpret.
  7. Individualisation considers the level of adjustment or customisation available to the agent. At one extreme, this may tailor the device to the individual agent such that it becomes difficult for another to use it, or to adapt it for another task. On the other hand, a device may be easy to pick up, use and understand with little scope or need for improved efficiency or effectiveness, and hence it is not especially individualised. Furthermore, agent and artefact may both be adapted together in what Heersmink calls entrenchment, where the cognitive artefact is individualised according to the user's needs, and in turn the user's behaviour and cognition are adapted by the device in a manner reminiscent of the McLuhanite 'We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us' (Culkin 1968, 60). (Heersmink 2012, 52-3; 2015, 590-1).
  8. Transformation is the extent to which the cognitive artefact affects the representational and cognitive aspects of the human agent. This for example is the theme behind Nicholas Carr's controversial book The Shallows (2010), in which he argued that the Internet changes the way we read, think and remember. On a more basic level, however, we may need to acquire physical skills in order to use a device and in this way we adapt and transform to it, whether learning to use a keyboard efficiently or setting up a laser scanner. In the case of digital artefacts this transformation may be reversed – the device may be transformed by our intervention, either by adjusting it programmatically, or by dynamically updating the information it works upon, for example, and adaptive learning systems are becoming increasingly commonplace (Heersmink 2012, 53-4; 2015, 591-2).

Hersmink recognises that these dimensions overlap and interact; for example:

'If an artifact is not easily and reliably accessible, then it is hard to establish a durable relation to it. Further, reliability and durability often result in individualization. The more often a certain cognitive artifact is used, the more likely it is that it will be individualized and perhaps in some cases even entrenched.' (Heersmink 2015, 594).

However, he sees these dimensions as providing a toolbox for investigating the degree and nature of the integration between agent and artefact (Heersmink 2012, 55). In effect, therefore, we can use these dimensions as the framework for constructing a cognitive biography of a digital thing (after de León 2003).


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