I have studied immersive phenomena over the years, and still am fascinated by what Finnish language so aptly catches with the idiom “Muissa maailmoissa” (literally: “in other worlds” – my dictionary suggests as an English translation “away with the fairies”, but I am not sure about that).
There is a growing concern with the effects of digital technologies, social media, and with games and smartphones in particular, as they appear to be capable of transporting increasing numbers of people into other worlds. It is unnerving to be living surrounded by zombies, we are told: people who stare into other realities, and do not respond to our words, need for eye contact or physical touch. Zombies are everywhere: sitting in cafeterias and shopping centres, sometimes slowly walking, with their eyes focused in gleaming screens, or listening some invisible sounds. Zombies have left their bodies here, in our material world, but their minds and mental focus has left this world, and is instead transported somewhere else.
The problem with the capacity to construct mental models and living the life as semiotic life-forms has always included somewhat troublesome existential polyphony – or, as Bakhtin wrote, it is impossible for the self to completely coincide with itself. We are inaccessible to ourselves, as much as we are to others. Our technologies have not historically remedied this condition. The storytelling technologies made our universes polyphonic with myths and mythical beings; our electronic communication technologies made our mental ecosystems polyphonic with channels, windows, and (non-material) rooms; and our computing technologies made our distributed cognition polyphonic with polyphonic memory and intelligence that does not coincide with our person, even when designed to be personalized.
Of course, we need science fiction for our redemption, like it has always been. There are multiple storyworlds with predictive power that forecast the coming of shared sensorium: seeing what you see, with your eyes, hearing your hearings. We’ll inevitably also ask: how about memory, cognition, emotion – cannot we also remember your remembering, and feel your thinking? Perhaps. Yet, the effect will no doubt fail to remedy our condition, once more. There can be interesting variations of mise-en-abyme: shared embeddedness into each other’s feeds, layers, windows and whispers. Yet, all that sharing can still contain only moments of clear togetherness, or desolate loneliness. But the polyphony of it all will be again an order of magnitude more complex than the previous polyphonies we have inhabited.
In the 1970s and 1980s the concept ‘cognitive engineering’ was used in the industry labs to describe an approach trying to apply cognitive science lessons to the design and engineering fields. There were people like Donald A. Norman, who wanted to devise systems that are not only easy, or powerful, but most importantly pleasant and even fun to use.
One of the classical challenges of making technology suit humans, is that humans change and evolve, and differ greatly in motivations and abilities, while technological systems tend to stay put. Machines are created in a certain manner, and are mostly locked within the strict walls of material and functional specifications they are based on, and (if correctly manufactured) operate reliably within those parameters. Humans, however, are fallible and changeable, but also capable of learning.
In his 1986 article, Norman uses the example of a novice and experienced sailor, who greatly differ in their abilities to take the information from compass, and translate that into a desirable boat movement (through the use of tiller, and rudder). There have been significant advances in multiple industries in making increasingly clear and simple systems, that are easy to use by almost anyone, and this in turn has translated into increasingly ubiquitous or pervasive application of information and communication technologies in all areas of life. The televisions in our living rooms are computing systems (often equipped with apps of various kinds), our cars are filled with online-connected computers and assistive technologies, and in our pockets we carry powerful terminals into information, entertainment, and into the ebb and flows of social networks.
There is, however, also an alternative interpretation of what ‘cognitive engineering’ could be, in this dawning era of pervasive computing and mixed reality. Rather than only limited to engineering products that attempt to adapt to the innate operations, tendencies and limitations of human cognition and psychology, engineering systems that are actively used by large numbers of people also means designing and affecting the spaces, within which our cognitive and learning processes will then evolve, fit in, and adapt into. Cognitive engineering does not only mean designing and manufacturing certain kinds of machines, but it also translates into an impact that is made into the human element of this dialogical relationship.
Graeme Kirkpatrick (2013) has written about the ‘streamlined self’ of the gamer. There are social theorists who argue that living in a society based on computers and information networks produces new difficulties for people. Social, cultural, technological and economic transitions linked with the life in late modern, capitalist societies involve movements from projects to new projects, and associated necessity for constant re-training. There is necessarily no “connecting theme” in life, or even sense of personal progression. Following Boltanski and Chiapello (2005), Kirkpatrick analyses the subjective condition where life in contradiction – between exigency of adaptation and demand for authenticity – means that the rational course in this kind of systemic reality is to “focus on playing the game well today”. As Kirkpatrick writes, “Playing well means maintaining popularity levels on Facebook, or establishing new connections on LinkedIn, while being no less intensely focused on the details of the project I am currently engaged in. It is permissible to enjoy the work but necessary to appear to be enjoying it and to share this feeling with other involved parties. That is the key to success in the game.” (Kirkpatrick 2013, 25.)
One of the key theoretical trajectories of cognitive science has been focused on what has been called “distributed cognition”: our thinking is not only situated within our individual brains, but it is in complex and important ways also embodied and situated within our environments, and our artefacts, in social, cultural and technological means. Gaming is one example of an activity where people can be witnessed to construct a sense of self and its functional parameters out of resources that they are familiar with, and which they can freely exploit and explore in their everyday lives. Such technologically framed play is also increasingly common in working life, and our schools can similarly be approached as complex, designed and evolving systems that are constituted by institutions, (implicit, as well as explicit) social rules and several layers of historically sedimented technologies.
Beyond all hype of new commercial technologies related to virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality technologies of various kinds, lies the fact that we have always already lived in complex substrate of mixed realities: a mixture of ideas, values, myths and concepts of various kinds, that are intermixed and communicated within different physical and immaterial expressive forms and media. Cognitive engineering of mixed reality in this, more comprehensive sense, involves involvement in dialogical cycles of design, analysis and interpretation, where practices of adaptation and adoption of technology are also forming the shapes these technologies are realized within. Within the context of game studies, Kirkpatrick (2013, 27) formulates this as follows: “What we see here, then, is an interplay between the social imaginary of the networked society, with its distinctive limitations, and the development of gaming as a practice partly in response to those limitations. […] Ironically, gaming practices are a key driver for the development of the very situation that produces the need for recuperation.” There are multiple other areas of technology-intertwined lives where similar double bind relationships are currently surfacing: in social use of mobile media, in organisational ICT, in so-called smart homes, and smart traffic design and user culture processes. – A summary? We live in interesting times.
– Boltanski, Luc, ja Eve Chiapello (2005) The New Spirit of Capitalism. London & New York: Verso.
– Kirkpatrick, Graeme (2013) Computer Games and the Social Imaginary. Cambridge: Polity.
– Norman, Donald A. (1986) Cognitive engineering. User Centered System Design, 31(61).