Columbia University, Class of 2013
Edwin Hutchins, a professor and researcher in the field of cognitive science, has conducted extensive research about distributed cognition. Distributed cognition means that an individual’s understanding of and actions in the world are not merely a product of that one person’s individual decisions or desires, but are influenced by non-human agents.
One of the focuses of Hutchins’ research is the airplane cockpit. In a series of papers about the inner workings of the flight decks of commercial airliners, he explains how much of the cognitive work required for flying an airplane is done by the instrumentation and technology that makes up the flight control consoles. The communication technologies, instrumentation, and industry jargon serve as agents, non-human actors, which store and institutionalize knowledge and past cognitive efforts. The various components of the cockpit free the pilot from a glut of cogitative demands and make piloting a large commercial airliner, which would be an otherwise unwieldy cognitive task, a typical day’s for pilots. The functional system that results from this combination of human and non-human actors is what we call a socio-technical system.
Distributed cognition is a quite straightforward concept, but it requires a certain degree of childlike imagination to internalize, namely a mindset similar to that which is required pass the “how do you put an elephant in the refrigerator” test. I was first exposed to the notion of a socio-technical system in a simple demonstration that Professor David Stark at Columbia University presented to a sociology class that I was taking. Professor Stark walked over to the door of the lecture hall, opened it, and walked away from the door as it closed. He then asked the class what had happened. After a few looks of confusion, the class hesitantly contributed suggestions until one student, in addition to mentioning that the professor had opened the door, included in his explanation that door had closed itself. The point of the demonstration was that the preceding actions were not just the effects of human manipulation of the environment, but that the spring on the door had caused the door to shut itself afterward.
The action of a door closing itself after someone opens it and walk through is one of the most basic examples of distributed cognition across the simplest of networks. The person who opened the door does not have to think about closing it because the architect already decided that the door should close automatically and incorporated the spring technology of the designer of the door and the door’s manufacturer. When we start to recognize non-human agents and give them credit for their influence in our lives, we see can find socio-technical systems everywhere.
The cockpit is an extremely complex socio-technical system, and so is a library—the protocol and tools, card catalogues, databases, and librarians are agents and actors in the system. Any store, home, factory, restaurant, sporting event, or traffic regulation system with stoplights and signage, any system that incorporates even the most simple of technology, is a locus of a socio-technical network across which cognition is distributed.
Photo courtesy of Sarah Sheu
At a recent Electronica concert in a large Mid-town Manhattan venue called Terminal 5, I found myself struck by the salience of the socio-technical system at work. The coordinated efforts of pilots, co-pilots, and air traffic controllers, achieved in the cockpit with the use of complex jargon corresponded to the use of primal cuing with the rhythmic patterns of the music and the lighting, which together induced periodic climaxes of excitement among a crowd of 3000 young adults. The turntable became the flight deck and the DJs and tech crews, pilots not of planes but masses of music fans.
The music groups and DJs at this concert all adhered to similar conventions in their music, crescendos and holds that created tension were followed by a release into up-tempo danceable beats. The corresponding lighting scheme was a mesmerizing lighting pattern that broke into rapidly flashing strobe lights and quickly circling spotlights and lasers. The DJ and support team on stage flashed hand signals from the stage to the tech team in the back of the hall, as the traditional walk-talkie cuing was rendered useless by the deafening roar of the music. Interestingly, as I watched over the shoulders of the tech crew I observed that the lighting patterns were pre-programmed and just required activation from their laptops, lifting a significant cognitive burden from the tech crew.
Although there is no concert-goers handbook that tells people when to put their hands in the air and go crazy, no instructions flashing across the stage signaling the crowd to dance in a certain way, and certainly little cognitive power among the crazed masses, the changing environment induced a crowd reaction that appeared to be carefully choreographed. Everyone’s hands flew into the air at the same time. These gestures were not prompted not by any single person’s will to throw their hands up or by any DJ’s instructions; they were an unconscious response to a complex system employing turntables, lights, tech crews, musical conventions, and previously established signals.
What other examples of examples of distributed cognition take place in our everyday lives?