How do individual human minds create languages, legal systems, scientific theories, and technologies? From a cognitive science viewpoint, such collective phenomena may be considered a type of distributed computation in which human minds together solve computational problems beyond any individual. This viewpoint may also shift our perspective on individual minds.
To make the computational society more than a metaphor, we need conceptual tools and methods to understand social phenomena in information-processing terms. Fortunately, several different, yet complementary, approaches have emerged in recent years. Here I highlight four promising lines of work: (i) social interaction as computation, (ii) the computational Leviathan, (iii) collective self-correction and rationality, and (iv) computation through spontaneous order.
Cognitive science may stand on the brink of a new revolution, seeing social, organizational, and cultural processes as distributed computation. If so, we will need to look afresh at the computational role of individual minds. For example, rather than seeing each developing child as a lone minilinguist or a scientist-in-the-crib, we may, following Adam Ferguson, see humans as primarily learning to contribute to collective computations beyond the understanding of individual understanding.