Friday, 14 September 2012

Bias Frontiers, Wonder Wastelands

This is a continuation of a recent post, The Mind Jell-O Problem, in which I delved into the sticky issue of the cognitive divide between literate and oral cultures.  To begin, literate, or more correctly chirographic cultures, are not polar opposites to oral cultures.  This is not an either or situation.

But this is the source of the most frequent criticism I have heard when I begin to discuss differences at a cognitive level.  There are very few purely oral cultures remaining because of the pervasive reach of technology and education.  Also, from time to time we find traces of an oral cultural past, a sort of vestigial limb, such as anachronistic aphorisms.   Do not, I repeat do not infer an evolutionary continuum from oral to chirographic.  While there may exist a spectrum of cultures exhibiting degrees of orality and chirographic qualities, there is not a progression toward a pinnacle, a perfection, an evolved mode of communication.  There merely exists a spectrum with all variations, all types of communication cultures out there together.

Describing the differences at a cognitive level is, at first, quite challenging.  (cognitive refers to mental activities we do such as think, remember, infer, categorize, reason, and use language.)
Overcoming my own literate-bias in how I articulate communication and thought processes begins to feel as thought I am walking on eggshells.  Even the idea of a spectrum of variation is a bit problematic.  It organizes by categories, more this or less that, slotting and pinning cultures to a concept wall.  A very chirographic way of describing the situation which fails to capture the dynamic qualities of communication and culture.
Walter Ong, in his book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word was similarly conscious of his own literate-bias.  He observes that most previous research takes the view of literate equals dominate/normal and oral equals other/outside normal.  It is clear that he takes great pains to remove this bias from his own writing.  But at times it becomes tedious or forced.  I begin to wonder, will there come a time (perhaps we are there already) that someone will read his careful scholarship on cognitive difference and react in the way we might react today to some early scholarship about gender, race, sex or any other study of dominate vs. other?

To use an example from feminism, there are some who find it offensive to take such care to avoid bias.  When there is a constant focus on bias, on difference, that focus serves to reinforce the concept of difference and inferiority.  By pointing it out all the time, we (society) seem to be saying women are fragile and must be protected, 'please don't forget they are different, they are other.'

But the aim in this exploration of cognitive differences is not to focus on the differences as scalar, as progressing  from elementary to evolved.  Primitive to perfection.  The aim is to remove the attachment of value to gradations along the spectrum, and to simply acknowledge that more than one variation exists. After which, the possibilities of how to address the preferences and patterns of sense-making fly wildly open for developing new technologies.

Tools for managing information and communication should mirror the methods or sense-making strategies for their cultures of use along this spectrum.  What is optimal for one culture might be a hindrance to another.  Commercial manufacturing already changes design for cultural specifications.  In ICT, we have seen variation from a chirographic perspective (keyboards and script), and we have not begun to consider how orality impacts other cognitive elements of design such as organization, recall, analysis, etc.  

So many avenues to create new designs for new markets coming online if we cross this frontier.