The Cognitive Ecosystem

So, why the name anyway?

As an initial disclaimer, I use the term in my own, not-actually-accurate way compared to what, say, Wikipedia thinks it means.

The cognitive ecology I like to practice is more a view of thinking and learning as a network of ideas forming the substrate upon which knowledge grows. Ideas - whether inventions, art, language, ways of seeing the world, anything - don't spring from nowhere. (In this case, Digging in the Epistemic Commons lays some of the explicit groundwork for my thinking here.)

Digging in the Epistemic Commons
Using the ideas of Gabriel Tarde, Ludwig Wittgenstein and George Herbert Mead, writer and critic Stephan Wright reflects on the question of how, in a capitalist knowledge economy, to prevent intellectual property from being commodified and knowledge from becoming increasingly privatized.

Things like language, art, science, and public opinion all reflect - and presuppose - a common agency among people. Each of them only exists among people, by a shared consensus. (This is not to say that, for example, science is only true if people believe it - but that it only takes on utility when known.)

As Wright notes and I blatantly reuse: "an invention which is not imitated simply does not exist socially."

Imitation is sociability. We define ourselves as what sets us apart from those around us, and are only ourselves in the context of others.

We learn to speak a common language which predates us and which, whatever modest impact we may have upon it, is destined to outlive us. We are what we are in that language by observing how others interact with us and adjusting our relationship accordingly.

Forming an individual identity happens as a result of meeting others and familiarizing ourselves with the knowledge, customs, language, art, and opinion shared by the group we're a part of - all held in an "entirely informal collective trust." The content of this trust forms as a part of socialization - of each person meeting the rest of the social world. Individuality and self-definition are defined using this collective trust as part of the process of coming to understand it. That "collective trust" is the cognitive ecosystem of the group, and that ecosystem shapes what knowledge and ideas can grow from it. Individuals define themselves as for or against some political topic - but the topic is a shared understanding. One can only be "normal" or "weird" in the context of the social group which collectively defines those things.

Language, art, science, and public opinion are all collective goods, which exist in infinite supply and are actually magnified in their usefulness - not lessened - when shared, copied, or remixed. "Any consumption of knowledge is, at one and the same time, production of new knowledge" - it can't be taken, or stolen, or even given, only cloned or imitated. An invention is what happens when several different imitations collide and are remade in a new combination - but always built from the raw material of imitation.

Knowledge production is "an inherently collective and expanding process based on invention and imitation." This means that creative works themselves are a means of production - reading a book actually creates new knowledge, when the thoughts and ideas already in the mind of the reader collide with what they're reading.

What I write here will rarely be new. It will likely never be groundbreaking. But by remixing thoughts, sharing what I know, inventing and imitating, I can make my own small contribution to the cognitive ecology of my readers, and perhaps create some fertile soil, somewhere, in which a great idea can grow.