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Week 10 Reading Notes: Distributed Cognition


Each of the readings for this week focused on the organism’s (human’s) relationship to its environment and the totality of the system–what Bateson calls “organism plus environment” (p. 455). In Form, substance, and difference, Bateson investigates the overlap between formal premises and actual behavior. At the foreground of this investigation is the question of survival. He begins by examining traditional approaches to the relationship, namely Darwin’s theory of evolution that posits natural selection as the primary unit of survival (p. 456. This theory, Bateson argues, leads to the destruction of environment and thus the destruction of the organism. Rather than the strongest or most unyielding of organisms, Bateson posits, a flexible organism in the environment is the unit of survival.

Crucial for understanding this position is Bateson’s conception of Mind. Discoveries of cybernetics, systems theory, and information theory have created a shift in epistemology that no longer positions mind as the explanation–instead, it is the thing that must be explained (p. 456). At the center of this explanation is the importance of difference, which Bateson identifies as synonymous with “idea” and result in “effects” (p. 458). From this perspective, it is a difference that makes a difference that serves as the elementary unit of information. We perceive differences through both internal and external pathways that help us map the environment. While other theorists have created a dichotomy between mind and substance, Bateson’s approach considers both.

An organism adapts to the environment through a transformation resulting in behaviors of trial and error that are coded and transmitted through internal and external pathways. In this sense, then, he explains that “if you want to explain or understand anything in human behavior, you are always dealing with total circuits, completed circuits. This is the elementary cybernetic thought” (p. 465). The mental system demonstrates the characteristic of trial and error and, according to Bateson, “the way to delineate the system is to draw the limiting line in such a way that you do not cut any of these pathways in ways that leave things inexplicable” (p. 465). In this way, Mind is synonymous with cybernetic system–”the relevant total information-processing trial-and-error completing unit” (p. 466). From this perspective, Mind is part of the ecosystem and Bateson argues “the individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body” (p. 467). Human survival, then, is the result of the mind’s ability to code and transform the body’s relationship to the environment.

This relationship is further explored by Gibson‘s theory of affordances. Gibson argues that objects in the environment afford human actions. For example, a solid, flat ground affords walking and a small rock affords throwing. He points out, however, that an object’s physical properties must be measured relative to the individual animal as an affordance of support for a species.

Throughout the chapter, Gibson explains the concept of affordances, acknowledging that other animals and humans also serve as affordances–indeed, social interactions rely on an individual’s perception (or misperception) of what another individual affords him or her. He identifies existing concepts of environment, such as an ecologist’s niche and how those correlate with his theory of affordances (a “nice is a set of affordances”). Objects can have multiple affordances, so Gibson emphasizes the importance of understanding that to perceive an affordance is not to classify an object–the potential multiplicity of affordances actually complicates the ability to classify objects. Additionally, positive and negative affordances are determined by their effects (beneficial or dangerous) rather than an individual’s level of enjoyment of the experience.

In the final reading, Norman expands Gibson’s theory of affordances to graphical design, focusing on what he calls perceived affordances: the perception that a meaningful, useful action is afforded by the design. In product design, her argues, real and perceived affordances “need not be the same.” Physical affordances exist–keyboards, computer screens, etc.–but perceived affordances determine whether or not users recognize the availability of affordances.

Norman also identifies the importance of cultural constraints and cultural conventions when designing perceived affordances. Designers must operate within the cultural understandings of how results are afforded by certain actions, even though many of those actions are arbitrary (a horizontal scroll bar, for example). He concludes by offering four principles for screen interfaces:

  1. Follow conventional usage, both in the choice of images and the allowable interactions
  2. Use words to describe the desired action
  3. Use metaphor (even though he believes this can be harmful)
  4. Follow a coherent conceptual model so that once part of the interface is learned, the same principles apply to other parts

Key Terms

Affordances: what the environment offers (provides or furnishes) to an animal; implies complimentarity of the animal and the environment (Gibson)

Attached objects: items that cannot be removed from earth without breakage (Gibson)

Barriers: environmental objects that do not afford locomotion (Gibson)

Bioenergenetics: economy of energy and materials; boundaries at the cell membrane or skin measurements; additive or subtractive (Bateson, p. 466)

Creatura: Jung’s second world of exploration–effects are brought about by difference (Bateson, p. 462)

Cultural constraintslearned conventions that are shared by a cultural group that limits design/action (Norman)

Detached objects: items that can be removed from earth without breakage (Gibson)

Economics of information: budgeting of pathways and probability; budgets are fractionating rather than additive or subtractive; boundaries enclose rather than cut off pathways

External pathways: travel of information (perceived differences) by propagation of light or sound to the sensory organs that transform it to internal pathways (Bateson, p. 459)

Internal pathways: travel of information energized by the metabolic energy latent in the protoplasm which receives, recreates, or transforms it and passes it on (Bateson, p. 459)

Mental System: the unit which shows the characteristic of trial and error (Bateson, p. 465)

Niche: a set of affordances (Gibson)

Perceived affordance: the perception that an action is possible (Norman)

Plemora: Jung’s first world of exploration–events are caused by forces and impacts; there are no distinctions or differences (Bateson, p. 462)

Principle of occluding edges: law of reversible occlusion, reliant on opaque and nonopaque surfaces. Afford hiding (Gibson)


It seems that all three of these readings focus on the idea of totality–the survival of the ecosystem is dependent on the relationships within it. Bateson and Gibson both argue that human actions that center on the survival of humans will destroy the ecosystem. As humans manipulate and adapt the environment to make it easier for them to survive, they change the ecosystem to the detriment of the organisms within it and, eventually themselves. Although Norman is talking about graphic design, there seems to be a similar idea. We must design within the cultural constraints or conventions or the product will not be used–the system will fail.

While I didn’t fully understand all of Bateson’s concepts, I found the argument about fractionality interesting. It seems that he’s saying we cannot add to or subtract from an environment. Instead, the environment exists as is and all of the elements within it are fractions of it, including how information is coded, processed, and transmitted. Behaviors are complete systems of activity and the environment is a part of that system.


Bateson Documentary:

Ecological affordances:

Ecology of Mind Revisited:

Don Norman’s website:


Bateson, G. (1987). Form, substance, and difference. Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology (pp. 454-471). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc.

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The theory of affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design, Retreived from