Salomon on Distributed Cognition

Gavriel Salomon clarifies the oft-cited term ‘distributed cognition’:

I have come neither to bury the idea of distributed cognitions, on the basis of which I am developing new computer tools, nor to praise it. For the idea is novel and provocative. However, it can be carried too far. As is the case with so many other newly coined terms, “distributed cognitions” strongly illuminates one facet of an issue, sending to dark oblivion others. For the person with the hammer, the whole world looks like a nail; glass, toes, and skulls become endangered species. The same applies, I think, to distributed cognitions. The individual has been dismissed from theoretical considerations, possibly as in antithesis to the excessive emphasis on the individual by traditional psychological and educational approaches. But as a result the theory is truncated and conceptually unsatisfactory.

The issue of where cognitions reside, particularly when discussed in an educational context, cannot be dealt with in an either (in one’s head)/or (distributed) fashion. We have to consider the possibility that, while cognitions can be distributed, they need a few “sources” for this distribution such that they can operate conjointly. We also have to consider the possibility that each of these so-called sources, or intellectual partners, can also grow such that each subsequent joining of partners will become more intelligent.

Before we proceed, however, I would like to make a few comments about the word “distribution.” To be sure, the term means the absence of a clear, single locus, as when family responsibilities or financial investments become distributed over different individuals or portfolios. But this, of course, is not the whole story. Distribution
 also means sharing – sharing authority, language, experiences, tasks,
 and a cultural heritage. Unlike cognition and ability, which are tradi
tionally seen to reside solely inside the individual (leading to the inevitable disregard for social, situational, and cultural contexts), distributed cognitions do not have a single locus “inside” the individual. Rather, they are “stretched over” (Cole, 1991; Lave, 1988); they are “in between” and are joindy composed in a system that comprises an individual and peers, teachers, or culturally provided tools.

Although I will try to show that not all cases of distributed cognitions are of the same nature, still, all of them share one important quality: The product of the intellectual partnership that results from the distribution of cognitions across individuals or between individuals and cultural artifacts is a joint one; it cannot be attributed solely to one or another partner. As Pea (1985) has put it, “Intelligence is not a quality of the mind alone, but a product of the relation between mental structures and the tools of the intellect provided by culture” (p. 168). The diagnoses rendered by a physician working with colleagues or with an intelligent expert system are the products of the distributed cognitions, “stretched over” the whole system. …

My point of departure is based on an article of belief: In a rapidly changing world, one of the most crucial outcomes one expects of education is students’ ability to handle new situations and meet new intellectual challenges. This would include the ability to off-load intellectual tasks onto the technological and social environment, as as well as other, less distributed competencies whose development resides from the intellectual partnership afforded by situations of distributed cognitions.


Salomon, Gavriel. 1993. “No distribution without individuals’ cognition: a dynamic interactional view.”  In Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and Educational Considerations, Salomon, Gavriel (ed). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 111-4, 128-35. || Amazon || WorldCat


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