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The Problem of Agency in Scientific Distributed Cognitive Systems

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From the perspective of cognitive science, it is illuminating to think of much contemporary scientific research as taking place in distributed cognitive systems. This is particularly true of large-scale experimental and observational systems such as the Hubble Telescope. Clark, Hutchins, Knorr-Cetina, and Latour insist or imply such a move requires expanding our notions of knowledge, mind, and even consciousness. Whether this is correct seems to me not a straightforward factual question. Rather, the issue seems to be how best to develop a theoretical understanding of such systems appropriate to the study of science and technology. I argue that there is no need to attribute to such systems as a whole any form of cognitive agency. We can well understand the importance of such systems while restricting agency to the human components. The implication is that we think of these large-scale distributed cognitive systems not so much as unified wholes, but as hybrid systems including both physical artifacts and ordinary humans.

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