hunting and gathering in the digital age

I’m in the midst of reading Peter Morville’s Ambient Findability. His discussion of the connections between the contemporary challenges of human information interaction (HII) and our paleolithic cognitive wetware, as articulated in evolutionary psychology and elsewhere, interests me and connects with some of the thoughts I’ve written here about paleorhetoric, as well as in The Two Virtuals.

Basically I understand Morville’s point here to be this: our brains evolved to process information in the context of pre-historic hunting and gathering. Symbolic behavior came along later, piggybacking on this cognitive context.  This is sometimes called "information foraging" (Wikipedia).

This is a behavior that we are all familiar with, every time we make our way to the Google search box or find ourselves browsing. Perhaps we are looking for something specific that we’ve seen before (but forgot to bookmark). Maybe we’re looking for some specific piece of information (e.g., how to cook wheat berries). Or maybe we are engaged in a less specific search: much like our foraging ancestors, we’re just looking for something good to eat. How do we make our decisions? Are we regularly making rational choices along a decision tree that leads us ultimately to the best possible result?

Of course not. We’re human. Post-human maybe in the sense that we don’t (and never have) reflected historical notions of human-ness. But we are still human, still bodies. As Morville notes, "Since being happy broadens our thought processes and facilitates creative thinking, attractive products that make us happy can improve our ability to use them. In effect they work better because we work better. Small gifts (and flattery) can have similar positive effects. But why are we so susceptible to these superficial elements? How can such smart beings be so shallow?"

Those a good questions. My perspective comes from a different angle. I see this history of information interaction (going back to Aristotle) as operating on slowly developing ontologies and epistemologies, not to mention ethics! One result, as we all know, is that knowledge has been (is) viewed as fundamentally rational and organizable by rational means. The other result is that humans are capable of rational thought, that some portion of us (e.g. our souls) is purely rational, and that we should act rationally (that’s where the ethical injunction appears).

As Morville notes, we are beginning to see ourselves in different, cognitive terms. In addition, I would add, we might begin to see information in different terms as well. It would not necessarily be to our benefit if we were strictly rational beings (if such beings are even possible, if rationality actually exists). Our feelings give us insights, as do our intuitions. We ought not to pretend we understand our wetware so very well.

So the question then becomes how to build information systems that better recognize our humanity. We see this (and fail to see this) in language all the time in its affective, supplemental force, beyond the "message." And the humanities as a constellation of disciplines is focused on such questions. It is in this arena that we have something to offer in understanding media, communications, and information.


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