The human mind and the artifacts: it could be mutual development or even alienation. Cognitively sustainable design and human experience through the senses.

If on the one hand technology makes life easier and more pleasant, on the other it risks to atrophy the cognitive abilities of human beings. Remembering things, making calculations, orientating oneself in space: there are so many features of the mind that we delegate to machines. How do we exploit digital potential while keeping our neurons trained? We need a cognitively sustainable development of technology.

Human beings have always created artifacts – social, cultural and virtual artifacts. The most common tools are born to complete an operation. We are talking about all those objects “modified by man” to satisfy different purposes like solving a problem or carrying out a specific action. But some artifacts are not limited to this function. Their invention sometimes introduces a new way of interacting with the world. In fact, the objects we create can change the way we act and interact with our surroundings. Think of the wheel – the incredible development derived from such a simple invention to its productive and social implications. But it’s not enough. If we talk about virtual artifacts, as software interfaces or smart objects, they can change the interaction with the world, and, in addition, these entities can even change the mental patterns with which the world is interpreted by us. And, consequently, our way of being.


This is a theme on which Marshall McLuhan and his pupils from the Toronto School have reflected a lot. In fundamental studies, such as Brainframes: Technology, Mind and Business (Bosch & Keuning, 1991) and The Skin of Culture (Somerville Press, 1995), Derrick De Kerckhove developed the concept of psychotechnology. All the artifacts that lead the brain to elaborate new cognitive paradigms are psychotechnologies and therefore modify our perception of the world.

In short, through his mind, the human being develops cognitive artifacts – mental schemes, procedures, also software and communication methods, such as the Internet – which in turn intervene in the development of the mind itself. A cognitive artifact is, in fact, something created by the human being to help him carry out mental tasks, like a calendar. Making use of these tools, in a continuous and mutual exchange, the human mind thus becomes more and more the result of the sum between the natural mind and the cognitive artifacts that it has produced. In this way, the mind is technological and extended.

What happens if the cognitive abilities that man uses to perform daily activities are entirely replaced by the use of new artifacts? You will not be pleased to know that if this occurs, neural processes tend to atrophy.


“Fuck you RFID !!” by Wendelin Jacober.

An instrument as widespread as the calculator can reduce, for example, our ability to make calculations in mind. While the amount of data that we send to our brain every day puts a strain on our memory. Even if not in the short term, the use of services that allow the visualization of digital maps will weaken the human ability to navigate independently. In each moment, our brain receives lots of information at high speeds, which fails to create the so-called synapses at the molecular level: the points of functional contact between two nerve cells – the neurons – that guarantee the transmission of the nerve impulse from one neuron to another. In short, we do not have the biologically necessary time to learn.

Are we speaking about ecological sustainability? No, we aren’t. That’s about cognitive sustainability

So we just have to talk about sustainability even for learning. The term sustainability arises from the confluence of environmental, social and economic sciences. With sustainability, according to the definition provided by the World Commission on Environment and Development, we indicate a vision capable of implementing a «development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs». Meaning the ability to preserve and renew natural resources (environmental or ecological sustainability), generate income and work (economic), guarantee human well-being in terms of health, safety, and (social) education.
Thanks to the theme of “cognitive sustainability”, it emerges the need to keep our cognitive abilities intact. Although the artifacts lift us from the task of putting our mental abilities into practice, our responsibility is in regards to the future generations: we have to preserve our mind capable of learning.

As ecologically sustainable design aims at the design of artifacts that do not cause damage to the surrounding environment, in the same way cognitively sustainable design must take care to safeguard the cognitive abilities of the human mind and not to weaken them: memory, attention, learning, thinking. ‘Sustainable’ because sustainability – intended as the act of sustaining – becomes the property through which a process or a state keeps itself balanced over time.

As we read in the paper Sostenibilità cognitiva degli artefatti nel processo di design (cognitive sustainability of the artifacts in the design process) – from ContiDell’AvaLanzaNardecchiaPassiatoreSejati -, the transition from the ecological, economic and social sustainability to the culturalemotional and, in the end, the cognitive sustainability, is simple. The cognitive sustainability suggests the creation of spaces – digital and otherwise – that are not limited to live in parallel with the real ones, but which are able to merge or integrate the natural ways of interpreting the world by the human being.

In Stefano Caggiano‘s article about cognitive sustainability published in the magazine Interni Magazine, we refer to the smartphone screen as neutral and flat, whose apps are separated individually – a scheme that does not reflect the functioning of the mind. In fact, its functioning doesn’t work for distinct apps or separated blocks. This is a virtual representation that does not take into account the context of our senses. Instead of approaching reality, each of us is increasingly distant and alienated from it. In this regard, Caggiano‘s reference to the concept of functional illiteracy becomes useful. It is the inability of calculation or understanding simple texts and draw from them the information they need in everyday life (if the topic interests you, you can find a detailed study, with data on the situation of the phenomenon in Italy, in this article of Elisa Murgese, on L’Espresso. N.B.: it’s written in italian).

If the virtual artifacts produced by human beings today are relegating man to the prisoner spider trapped by his own canvas, the cognitive sustainability aims to overturn this process. So, starting from man himself, the objects can be incorporated into reality through the sensory channels of the human being.

Colors, shapes, sounds and smells: the senses become the protagonists of a physical process. Imagine bodily interfaces composed of smart materials that are able to capture the senses themselves, interpret them and transmit them back to the human being through sensory manifestations (heartbeat, temperature, and facial expressions). Artifacts that interact with the mind extending its potential and not the other way around.