3.4 The mind

The notion of mind as the seat of human cognition has long been a source of debate among scientists and philosophers.  Only recently, with advances in detailed understanding of the functions of the brain, are we beginning to articulate a coherent explanation of the mind and its workings.  The distilled essence of this work provides direction to our thinking about the role of information systems in business.

In a survey of the current state of knowledge about the mind, David Taylor raises several interesting issues.  He notes that the key functions of the human mind are perceiving, imagining, remembering, thinking, feeling, and controlling action.  Contrary to popular belief, a memory is not housed in a single place in the brain, but rather is a distributed function.  The most interesting dimension of the mind is its provision of the quality of consciousness.  The external sharing of consciousness through communication is the force that drives the newest form of evolution, cultural evolution.   We might argue whether businesses exhibit consciousness, and it might be interesting to consider what imagining and feeling are for an organization.  At a minimum, how-ever, it is clear that organizations must sense, or perceive changes in their environment, and they must think, or make decisions that affect their course of action, based on external stimuli and corporate memory.

If memory is a distributed process in the mind, how is it (and other mental functions) accomplished?  Marvin Minsky presents an architecture of very simple mental agents, each of which is far from intelligent, but which work together in increasingly complex ways to form the society of mind.  It is necessary that each agent, from the most primitive sensing mechanisms on up, per-form its specialized work correctly.  It is equally necessary that the relationships among these agents be maintained and continue to evolve in the learning process.

Arnold Trehub proposes a possible architecture of the physical brain, to account for basic human cognitive capabilities.  Starting from the physiology of the neuron, with synaptic junctions among axons and dendrites, a mechanism is proposed that can perform tasks that range from parsing any arbitrary object as part of a scene, learning and recalling names for various entities, generating sequences and related inferences, planning, executing and learning sequences of actions that satisfy motivational needs.  The components include synaptic matrices, simple input preprocessors, clock rings, size and rotation transformers, a semantic network, and various high-level executive processes, such as registers for plans and actions.  This physical architecture sheds light on the kinds of primitive capability that are required by organizational information systems.  

One of the interesting aspects of the study of cognition is how much the attempt to simulate intelligence with machines has shed light on the nature of human cognition, and vice versa.  Out of that convergence toward a unified theory of cognition, Allen Newell proposes the following useful definition that can apply equally to businesses, computing devices, or human beings:  “intelligence [is] ... a description of adequacy over the joint range of two complex domains, the system’s goals and the system’s knowledge.”   This highlights two general issues that must be present in any adequate account of organizational information system requirements:  organizational goals and organizational knowledge.

This excursion through the literature has not been provided simply for entertainment value.  It is meant to lay the groundwork for thinking about business information systems in a different way.  The key to this new way of thinking is the recognition of the importance of concepts and meaning in the life of the organization, and acceptance of the validity of the study of meaning for those who would undertake to create or modify the systems that embody this meaning.  The issue now becomes, how can this new approach to information systems be applied in practice?  How can we take the lessons of systems, living systems, and minds, and use it productively in the service of business?  Part of the answer is found in the venerable (on a software timescale) approach of ob-ject orientation.