Physical Creatures in a Digital World

Alan Dix1,2

1 Talis, Birmingham, UK

2 InfoLab21, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK

Keynote at ECCE 2011, Rostock 24-26 August 2011.

Download draft paper (PDF, 167K)


We are creatures of flesh and blood, our whole cognitive nature well fitted to a physical world of solid things, and yet, within our lifetimes, learning to deal with digital devices our flint-knapping forbearers could never envisage.  This paper explores some aspects of this.  Inter alia, we see how Fitts' law is really a law of cybernetic extension and how this extension has been part of our being since the earliest humans and we discus the way imagination and externalisation, two complimentary aspects of our cognitive being, fit us for physical life and yet are also essential as digital denizen.

Keywords: embodiment, external representation, Fitts' law, imagination

Extended Abstract

We are creatures of flesh and blood, born into a physical world of solid things; our whole cognitive nature has evolved over the aeons to be well fitted to this world, and yet within our lifetimes we must learn to deal with complex digital devices that our flint-knapping forbearers could never envisage. For many years I have been driven to understand our physical nature.  This is partly to inform the design of the many devices that surround us, phones, washing machines, automatic doors, which have both physical form and digital behaviour.  It is also partly to understand the design of purely virtual spaces; and at present especially the web as I work part of my time for Talis a semantic web company.  In the digital world of web, desktop, VR and visualisation, some, but not all the rules of the physical world are relaxed, but which are the ones that really matter?

Keeping an eye on both these worlds gives many insights.  Optimality is one example Simon's bounded rationality vs Anderson's rational analysis is partly about taking into account the limited physical resources available, and Turing also considered the physicality of computation.  The action perspective arising in the philosophy of embodiment and in ecological psychology is a legacy of our physical origins and yet also critical in our digital interactions as information foraging theory seeks to understand.  And even Fitts' Law is not, as is normally considered, about our 'normal' human limits, but is really about our cybernetic nature, as we have been technologically and informationally augmented ever since we were recognisably human.

Within this space we have two complimentary aspects of our cognitive being which both fit us for physical life and yet are also essential as digital denizens.  Imagination allows us to take the physical world outside and bring it inside, to be considered, planned, and perhaps act as the crucial link between disparate cognitive systems.  I have been particularly fascinated by the nature (and computational modelling) of regret and how it brings together imagination, rationality, emotion and primitive response, and also the way the orderliness of dreams gives insight into the of waking life.  The counter to this is externalisation, the way in which we represent our internal concepts and thoughts in the world outside – both digital and physical: from cave art to mathematics, from maps to design sketches. There is a peculiar power when we make both explicit and observable what was tacit and hidden exposing the 'unknown knowns', and also allowing higher levels of cognition as we can talk about out very concepts and thoughts.  It is when we make thought most concrete and lowly that it can become most abstract and rich.


  1. Anderson, J. 1990. The adaptive character of thought. Erlbaum
    Carr, L. and Harnad, S. 2009. Offloading Cognition onto the Web. Proc. of WebSci'09
  2. Clark, A. 1998. Being There: Putting Brain, Body and the World Together Again. MIT Press.
  3. Cosmides, L. 1989. The Logic of Social Exchange: Has natural selection shaped how humans reason? Studies with the Wason selection task. Cognition, 31:187-276.
  4. Dix, A. 2003. A Cybernetic Understanding of Fitts' Law. Human-Computer Interaction: Online!.
  5. Dix, A. 2003. Imagination and rationality.
  6. Dix, A. 2005. The adaptive significance of regret.
  7. Dix, A. 2006. The stuff of dreams.
  8. Dix, A., Ormerod, T., Twidale, M., Sas, C., Gomes da Silva, P. and McKnight, L. 2006. Why bad ideas are a good idea. in Proc. of HCIEd.2006-1 inventivity, Ballina/Killaloe, Ireland. 23-24 March 2006.
  9. Dix, A. 2008. Externalisation – how writing changes thinking. Interfaces, 76, 18-19.
  10. Dix, A. 2011. A Shifting Boundary: the dynamics of internal cognition and the web as external representation. In Proceedings of WebSci'11.
  11. Dix, A., Gill, S., Ramduny-Ellis, D. and Hare, J. 2011. Touch IT exploring the physicality of the world and the design of digital products.
  12. Drewes, H. 2009. Eye Gaze Tracking for Human Computer Interaction. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich.
  13. Eslambolchilar, P. 2006. Making Sense of Interaction Using a Model-Based Approach, PhD thesis, Hamilton Institute, National University of Ireland, NUIM, Maynooth, Ireland.
  14. Fitts, P. 1954. The information capacity of the human motor system in controlling the amplitude of movement. Jnl Exp. Psychology, 47, 6, 381-391.
  15. Gardner, H. 1983. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Basic Books.
  16. Gaver, W. 1991. Technology affordances. In Proc. of CHI'91.  ACM Press. 79-84.
  17. Gibson, J. 1979. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.  Lawrence Erlbaum.
  18. Gray, W. and Fu, W. 2001. Ignoring perfect knowledge in-the-world for imperfect knowledge in-thehead. In Proc. of CHI '01. ACM Press, 112-119.
  19. Halpin, H., Clark, A. and Wheeler, M. 2010. Towards a Philosophy of the Web: Representation, Enaction, Collective Intelligence. In Proc. WebSci10
  20. Hartson, H. 2003. Cognitive, physical, sensory, and functional affordances in interaction design. Behav Inform Technol. 22, 5, 315-338
  21. Heidegger, M. 1927. Sein und Zeit. (English translation: Being and Time. Harper, 2008)
  22. Howes, A., Vera, A., and Lewis, R. 2006. Bounding rational analysis: Constraints on asymptotic performance. In Gray, W. (ed.), Integrated Models of Cognitive Systems, Oxford University Press.
  23. Hutchins, E. 1995. Cognition in the Wild. MIT Press.
  24. Mithin, S. 1996. The Prehistory of the Mind. Thames and Hudson.
  25. Norman, D. 1998. The Design of Everyday Things. MIT Press.
  26. Pirolli, P. 2007. Information foraging theory: adaptive interaction with information. Oxford University Press
  27. Tooby, J. and Cosmides, L. 1997. Evolutionary Psychology: a primer. research/cep/primer.html
  28. Salmoni, A. and Payne, S. 2002. Inferences of Content from Search Engine Summaries and Headings. Proc. HCI2002, vol 2.
    Simon, H. (1992). What is an "explanation" of behavior? Psychological Science, 3, 150-161.
  29. Star, S. The structure of ill-structured solutions: boundary objects and heterogeneous distributed problem solving, in: Gasser, L. Huhns, M. (eds.), Distributed Artificial Intelligence, Volume II, Morgan Kaufmann, SF Mateo, 1989, pp. 37-54.
  30. Suchman, L.  Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication. Cambridge University Press. 1987
  31. Ware, C., and Mikaelian, H. 1987. An Evaluation of an Eye Tracker as a Device for Computer Input. In Proc. CHI '87, 183 – 188
  32. Weaver, W. and Shannon, C. 1963. The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Univ. of Illinois Press.


Alan Dix 4/7/2011