Cognitive Ecosystems


World Wide Weird: Rise of the Cognitive Ecosystem

Braden R. Allenby’s article, “Worldwide Weird: Rise of the Cognitive Ecosystem” (Issues, Spring 2021), is timely as we rush to build the cyber-human world. Cognitive ecosystems have always existed, as Allenby cites in the example of Edwin Hutchins’s observations of Micronesian navigators. The difference between the old cognitive systems and the new is that the old were mainly local, and the control of resources and knowledge was also local. The printed word, the industrial revolution, and colonialism produced dramatic changes to the cognitive ecosystem over the past 400–500 years. Allenby describes the cognitive ecosystem of the future taking place around us as a continuation of the trajectory of increasing complexity of techno-human systems. He emphasizes the difficulty in perceiving the challenges that this new direction entails. Emergence is inherent in any complex adaptive system, but scale multiplies techno-human systems and complexity over time. 

Since the industrial revolution, scaling, power amplification, and efficiency have been primary drivers of development. As we scale, complexity increases and the need for control increases, with lack of predictability leading to nonlinear effects. The sociologist Charles Perrow has warned us that complex designed systems will lead to emergent failures embedded in the design that were unknown to the designers. The challenges becomes unfathomable for open systems with lots of “intelligent” black boxes built in and for distributed cognitive ecology. Who is building them?

Emergence is inherent in any complex adaptive system, but scale multiplies techno-human systems and complexity over time.

An emerging model is China’s social credit system that wants to shape the cognitive ecology ordained by the party. Elsewhere, tech giants and other entities determine our ecological direction, primarily for profit. In both cases, the systems are leveraging technology to consolidate and centralize data on the physical world and citizenry, its processing and memory afforded by the scalability of the techno-cognitive ecosystem.

Allenby points out that citizens and institutions are not oriented to absorb this mass scale rapid evolution of the cognitive ecosystem—Alvin Toffler’s “future shock.” Cognitive technologies enhance centralization, at the cost of reshaping local structures and making them less independent. The loss of local newspapers weakens the local cognitive ecosystem. Consolidation of power is inevitable when scaling is made possible through technology for physical or calculative power. The real question Allenby raises is whether the United States understands this well enough to compete to preserve the power of the people while not losing to China in its march to consolidation of power in an authoritarian cognitive ecology. 

Technology facilitates scaling, in turn producing consolidation of power that leads to loss of local cognitive autonomy and ecology. American democracy was envisioned to flourish by providing a space for democratic experimentation. If that spirit is lost to this new consolidation of power, the United States will in effect will become no different than China with a different illusion of harmony—not of fear but unconscious subjugation. Without the democratic ability to shape this cognitive ecosystem, it will only consolidate existing social and national power relationships rather than the imaginary freedom that the computational cognitive ecosystem promised. The centralization of power in this cognitive ecosystem to the state or corporate structures will be the end of social democratic innovation in a democracy.

Rephrasing Allenby’s challenge, how we design institutions that check the consolidation of social power and preserve the innovative and adaptive local cognitive ecosystems without loss of freedom, while taking advantage of the global cognitive ecosystem, is the question to be answered. Justice Louis Brandeis is speaking to us and warning us again of consolidation of power in democratic societies.

Research Professor

Engineering Research Accelerator

Engineering and Public Policy

Carnegie Mellon University

Cite this Article

“Cognitive Ecosystems.” Issues in Science and Technology 37, no. 4 (Summer 2021).

Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Summer 2021