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  • Cognition Everywhere:The Rise of the Cognitive Nonconscious and the Costs of Consciousness
  • N. Katherine Hayles (bio)

Amassive shift is underway in our intellectual and cultural formations. Many different streams of thought are contributing, coming from diverse intellectual traditions, holding various kinds of commitments, and employing divergent methodologies. The differences notwithstanding, they agree on a central tenet: the importance of nonconscious cognition, its pervasiveness and computational potential, and its ability to pose new kinds of challenges not just to rationality but to consciousness in general, including the experience of selfhood, the power of reason, and the evolutionary costs and systemic blindnesses of consciousness.

The implications for interpretation are profound. Interpretation is deeply linked with questions of meaning; indeed, many dictionaries define interpretation in terms of meaning (and meaning in terms of interpretation). For the cognitive nonconscious, however, meaning has no meaning. As the cognitive nonconscious reaches unprecedented importance in communication technologies, ambient systems, embedded devices, and other technological affordances, interpretation has become deeply entwined with the cognitive nonconscious, opening new avenues for exploring, assessing, debating and resisting possible configurations between interpretive strategies and the cognitive nonconscious. In a later section I will identify sites within the humanities where these contestations and reconfigurations are most active and comment upon the strategies emerging there. Whatever one makes of these changes, one conclusion seems inescapable: the humanities cannot continue to take the quest for meaning as an unquestioned premise for their ways of doing business. Before we arrive at this point, some ground clearing of terminology is necessary, as well as consideration of how the cognitive nonconscious differs from and interacts with consciousness. [End Page 199]

Rethinking the Cognitive Nonconscious

One way into understanding the cognitive nonconscious is through Stanisław Lem’s Summa Technologiae,1 a work that, as far as the Anglophone world is concerned, has been caught in a time-warp. Published in Polish in 1964, Summa was never completely translated into English prior to its present appearance in 2013. Lem presciently understood that our society was facing what he called an “information barrier,” a deluge of information that would overwhelm scientific and technological enterprises unless a way was found to automate cognition. He observed that formal languages, such as mathematics and explicit equations, do not deal well with complexity. For example, equations for gravitational interactions do not have explicit solutions when as few as three bodies are involved. Nevertheless, there are many instances when complex problems are solved effortlessly by nonconscious means. For example, when a rabbit chased by a coyote leaps over a chasm, the feat would require many equations and considerable time to solve explicitly, but the animal does it instantly without a single calculation.

Reasoning that translating tasks into formal languages may be unnecessary for solving complex problems, Lem proposes a form of evolutionary computation programmed in natural media, an “information farm” in which systems could successfully perform cognitive modeling functions without consciousness. He suggests modeling a dynamic system by first creating a “diversity generator” such as a fast-running stream carrying along rocks of various sizes. Then, to match the target system’s momentum, one places some kind of barrier or “sieve” that selects only rocks of a specific size and velocity. Other “sieves” select for different variables, and the process continues until the desired match is achieved.2 One could imagine expanding this kind of modeling by using living cells, which in carrying out division, excretion, and osmosis employ many different kinds of “sieves” as selection devices. In fact, contemporary experiments by Leonard Adleman show it is possible to use DNA sequences to solve complex topological challenges similar to the traveling salesman problem, another example of how the cognitive nonconscious can be harnessed to arrive at solutions difficult or impossible to achieve by explicit means.

What kind of processes do such systems entail, and what is implied by calling them cognitive? First, these systems operate within evolutionary dynamics, that is, they are subjected to fitness criteria that select certain states out of the diverse range available. Second, they are adaptive; they change their behaviors as a result of fitness challenges such as homeostasis for the cell. Third, they are complex, composed of parts...