A Shifting Boundary: the dynamics of internal cognition and the web as external representation

Alan Dix1,2

1 Talis, Birmingham, UK

2 InfoLab21, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK

Presented at WebSci'11, Koblenz 15-17 June 2011.

Download draft paper (PDF, 230K)


Various disciplines have begun to emphasise the role of the external environment in human cognition.  While initially focused on physical interactions, these theories are also of clear relevance to the web, especially in its role as external representation of human knowledge, potentially obviating the need to remember basic facts.  Internal representation and cognition remain important, but change in the face of a pervasive digital environment. This paper explores the evolving dynamic between internal and external cognition, in particular the shift from knowledge to meta-knowledge and the way this impacts learning, society and, perhaps, the very nature of our own minds.

Keywords: embodiment, external representation, distributed cognition


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In general evolved creatures will neither store nor process information in costly ways when they can use the structure of the environment and their operations on it as a convenient stand-in for the information-processing operations concerned.
Alan Cark, [Cl89]


Table 1. Kinds of Knowledge.









Everest is 2900 ft high

that an Everest web page exists

search "Everest statistics"


airports have runways

airports have web sites

search for airport name, if that fails look at airport Wikipedia page


"Metadata can be viewed as an invention of the Near East with substantial refinements by the Greeks. Its spread westward formed the basis for Western libraries. Reasons of culture and governmental authority tended to suppress the use of metadata in the east."
David Hyland-Wood [HW08]


"And you can't trust a "Special"
Like the old-time copper
When you can't find your way home."

Music Hall Song [full lyrics]





Alan Dix 20/5/2011