cognition's earthrise

If you do not know then Wikipedia will happily tell you that the 1968 photo known as “Earthrise” (unsurprisingly taken by an astronaut) has been called the “most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” Why? Presumably because it presents the Earth as a cohesive yet fragile entity. In any case, “Earthrise” captures something about the ecological turn in the humanities from ecocriticism to ecocomposition.  The general ecological/environmental movement asks us to rethink our relationship to the world. The world is not ours to exploit nor is it simply the backdrop for our history. Perhaps it should be obvious by now that we are actors on a global scale in our ecology. Ecohumanities movements take up these environmental concerns but also adopt an ecological view toward their traditional objects of study. E.g., what does it mean to view composing as an ecological process? In short, one decenters the human from traditionally anthropocentric studies of what we have so firmly understood as human activity that we have called them the humanities.

Distributed cognition moves in this direction with thinking. Typically when I see discussions of distributed cognition, they are more along the lines of extended mind, of tools for thought. That is, they illuminate how various technologies allow us to engage in cognitive activities we wouldn’t normally be able to do. Think of a calculator or even, a la Walter Ong, how writing technologies shape our thinking. However one might also conceive of distributed cognition as the way humans and machines interact to undertake cognitive tasks no individual human could accomplish. Edwin Hutchins’ classic example is the docking of a naval vessel, but I’m thinking Wikipedia.

Eco-cognition would seem to be another matter altogether. One might think of the noosphere. Indeed some have compared the ecocritical concept of the anthropocene with the noosphere, as both point to a shift where human cognitive-technical capacities develop to a point of have an impact on the global ecology. The noosphere suggests the emergence of some collective human consciousness, a shared ecology of human thought. The noosphere though does tend to keep the human at the center. Another angle would point toward panpsychism where all objects are thinking or at least might be thinking.

I have a slightly different interest. If thinking is real, then why would it not join other real things and processes in an ecology? If thinking is distributed then it partly, maybe largely, happens beyond the purview of our conscious experience of it. Just as our subjective experience of ecology in general is incomplete, so too is our subjective experience of cognition.

So perhaps cognition needs a kind of “Earthrise” moment, one that captures the shared yet fragile context in which we think.

2 thoughts on “cognition's earthrise

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  1. If we could have read this post in the 70s as a message from the future, having read Bateson and having been taught by him, we would have understood it better than many of our contemporaries would.

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