The puzzle of social activity the significance of tools in cognition and cooperation

University dissertation from Institutionen för datavetenskap

Abstract: This dissertation addresses the role of tools in social interactions, or more precisely the significance of tools in cognition and cooperation, from a situated cognition perspective. While mainstream cognitive science focuses on the internal symbolic representations and computational thought processes inside the heads of individuals, situated cognition approaches instead emphasise the central role of the interaction between agents and their material and social environment. This thesis presents a framework regarding tools and (some) of their roles in social interactions, drawing upon work in cognitive science, cultural-historical theories, animal tool use, and different perspectives on the subject-object relationship. The framework integrates interactions between agents and their environment, or agent-agent-object interaction, conceptualisations regarding the function of tools, and different ways in which agents adapt their environments to scaffold individual and social processes. It also invokes stigmergy (tool mediated indirect interactions) as a mechanism that relates individual actions and social activity. The framework is illustrated by two empirical studies that consider tool use from a social interaction perspective, carried out in settings where tools assume a central role in the ongoing collaborative work processes; a children’s admission unit in a hospital and the control room of a grain silo. The empirical studies illustrate theoretical issues discussed in the background chapters, but also reveal some unforeseen aspects of tool use. Lastly, the theoretical implications for the study of individual and social tool use in cognitive science are summarised and the practical relevance for applications human-computer interaction and artificial intelligence is outlined.