Lee Chen, Doctoral Student, Computer Science

Living Systems, Collective Intelligence and Awareness on the World Wide Web, October 16, 1995

Speaker Notes

Belief Systems

In his discussion of the Origin and Growth of the Web, Lee Chen describes the emergent growth property of the Web, in which the state self-organizes from existing parts. ChenÕs comments are similar to Anne BranscombÕs, in which she describes how the Internet culture is self-regulating and rule-based. BranscombÕs comments were made in reference to FAQÕs, and also the difficulty in applying laws from the physical world to the electronic world. Web culture did not develop as a result of imposed regulation. Instead, users seemed to self-organize from existing parts. Chen touches on the fascinating development of the Web by diffuse communities collaborating through the Web. ChenÕs focus seems to be on the coordination and maintenance of information artifacts, and whose responsibility it might/should be to provide tools for this purpose.


NormanÕs (1980) comments regarding the animate cognitive organism seem relevant to a consideration of ChenÕs collective awareness. Norman (1980) states that an animate organism cannot afford the luxury of concentrating entirely upon a problem until it has been completed. Animate organisms must be multiple-minded, data-driven by environmental events. Tasks we assign ourselves are often long and complex, and we are unable to complete them in one sitting. We must be able to deploy our finite cognitive resources effectively, and selectively attend to or concentrating upon that which is most important. With respect to a groupÕs LTM, Chen describes deep awareness, peripheral awareness, and global awareness. With respect to an individualÕs awareness of other members of a group, Chen speaks of resource awareness, task-socio awareness, and chronological awareness. In order to maintain chronological awareness of Web Site changes, Chen argues we need an artifact to inform us when and what by whom something in the collective system, or the WWW, is changing. Relating ChenÕs comments to NormanÕs, one can see the relationship between an individual or groupÕs finite cognitive resources, and the attempt to maintain awareness of changes to particular Web sites of interest. In order to reduce the userÕs task load, tools which reduce the need to selectively attend to, or concentrate upon changes to Web Sites, will make us more effective. We can allocate our attention to changes when we are made aware of them, rather than having to invest cognitive resources investigating Web Sites of interest to determine whether there have been changes.


Although not addressed by ChenÕs study, the development cycle of the adult, and possible implications for collaborative behavior on the Web might be an interesting issue to investigate. With increased connectivity and access to the Internet, and WWW browse tools, in education and at home, it will be interesting to study whether children construe electronic information artifacts differently than do adults. Investigation of childrenÕs use of the Web at various stages in the development cycle may give us insight into adult behavior.


The role of emotion is not an aspect considered by ChenÕs study. It might be interesting to study whether there is evidence for state-induced Web browsing and retrieval. Do we better remember Web Sites whose emotional content matches our current state? Do individuals and groups collaborate differently depending upon their emotional state? Is efficient use of the Web influenced by emotional state? Such studies would build and extend upon GeschwindÕs work on state-induced memory retrieval.


ChenÕs model Classifying Web Services for Awareness Maintenance, identifies the responsibilities of Web site originators and site retrievers to organize their information on the Web. Chen divides the levels of awareness into group, organization and community. Norman (1980) describes human beings as social organisms. We supplement our intelligence with social interaction, by our use of the environment, through the construction of artifacts. The interactions that result become a fundamental aspect of our behavior. In some sense our intelligence has become partially externalized, contained in the artifacts as much as in our head. There is a plethora of information artifacts available on the Web. Norman (1980) states that we need to have mental models of the things with which we interact, for communication depends strongly upon mutual use of shared knowledge, shared understandings. With a good mental model, the use of a system makes sense. Without a good mental model, our use of a system does not progress. ChenÕs model of existing Web services and the distributed groups or individuals whose responsibility is might be to maintain them, shares a perspective with Norman. If we are to mutually benefit from shared knowledge and shared understandings on the Web, we need to have some method for finding information artifacts that are of interest to use, and updating our awareness when that information changes. Without a method or a model for representing this organization, we will not be able to make efficient and productive use of this shared knowledge. Our communication (interaction) efficiency will not be maximized.

Learning, Performance and Skill

Norman (1980) describes the process of becoming expert as a slow, continual exposure to the topic, probably accompanied by several bouts of restructuring of the underlying mental representations, reconceptualizations of the concepts, plus many hours of accumulation of large quantities of facts. Human Factors concerns were used by Chen as an evaluative tool for the three systems compared in his study. CHRONOÕs simplicity of user interaction is an important concern, as more novices and first time users access Web sites. However, I question whether the novice user would have an immediate need for such tools until they have spent time navigating the Web, and locating sites of interest. The customization capabilities of WebWatch are an important feature for expert users who may have different requirements and needs for the tool. It seems that the awareness maintenance tools examined in ChenÕs study would not have immediate relevance to a novice user until they have formed an underlying mental representation of the Web, and what sites they would like to monitor.


Chen presents and compares three different artifact tools that offer different capabilities for awareness maintenance of Web Site changes. In his evaluation, Chen lists the relative benefits of CHRONO, WebWatch and URL-Minder. Chen describes the WWW as an emerging, living system. Either individually, or collectively, humans need tools to facilitate different activities on the WWW. Search engines have been developed to assist us in querying the different resources on the Web. Bookmarks enable us to create lists to organize access to sites we use often. These tools are memory aides to extend our human memory capacity, and save us online browse and retrieval time. The systems presented by Chen fill a need to extend the capacity of human memory organization, retrieval and attention allocation. It is unlikely that one will recognize or realize changes have been made to a Web Site if one only occasionally visits the site. This would require us to represent the Web Site in memory, and then conduct a comparison when one accesses the site. Unless one has eidetic memory capabilities, it is unlikely, and it would be inefficient, to maintain representations of Web Sites in memory. It is also an inefficient use of cognitive resources to visit a site sporadically to check for changes, updates and or additions.


Norman (1980) suggests a question to be debated seriously is how much thought can be studied in isolation, as if it were a pure, abstract activity, divorced from special knowledge or special mechanisms. Norman (1980) also ponders the possibility that our individual thought processes are designed for world interaction, with mental models of experiences being the major reasoning method, with limited ability to hold formal constructions in mind while we perform abstract operations upon them. ChenÕs investigation includes consideration of SmithÕs (1994) Collective Intelligence Model. ChenÕs discussion seems related to the thought issues Norman speaks of in his paper. In the Collective Intelligence Model, task oriented groups, collectively, act as deciders for higher systems. Chen points to the individual cognitive processing abilities, as well as group cognitive processors operating in a distributed system. As a whole, collective strategy enables coherence in the cooperative work. Norman (1980) suggests we solve some problems by imagining the environment, and others by using the environment. We use external aids as artificial extensions of our intellect in order to extend human thought processes. Chen seems to suggest that the collective use of the Web builds and extends upon the individual thought processes, allowing each of us in the group to contribute to and benefit from collaborative information environments.

  • Return to CPSC 679: Michele Jacobsen's Stuff