July 26, 2010

From Cockpit to Concert Hall: Distributed Cognition

image Michael Discenza

Columbia University, Class of 2013

[email protected]

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 image 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?


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Distributed cognition takes place everywhere. As people sit down to a computer to type a paper on MS Word, we don't think about using the proper coding to italicize, change font styles, or save. We simply press the buttons that do it all for us. The same thing goes for calling someone on a cell phone; we don't have to come up with or remember the technology to make audible long-distance connections, we assume it will happen for us, as it's already programmed into the devices (or so I'd hope). More and more we are relying on exceedingly complex distributed cognition. More and more we are building it up to further our technologize and conveniences. It'll be interesting to see how far we can go.

It’s easier to work towards your own interests than working together as a group to solve a problem. It's even harder to unite other countries with different global agendas towards a common goal.

There's a lot of thought provoking video clips regarding complexity and how global problems become almost impossible to solve on a Facebook community page

Why do we have a tendency to fight one another when we know sharing results in the most optimum outcome for everyone? Why does our biology cause us to hurt the ones we love, hoard resources and compete with one another?

Heres the link to the video

Apparently, our biology determines how we react with the rest of society.

The individual is smart and insightful.

Humans in groups are dumb, act under peer pressure and towards social conformity.

Without great leadership, people in groups are stupid, violent, competitive and selfish. And only if those groups of people are listening to good advice from their leaders or role models.

An other example of distributed cognition is the automatic responce to get our feet off the gas pedal once the car ahead of us move up a bit, after stoping under a red light or during heavy traffic.

Cognitive science combines natural intelligence in humans and artificial intelligence in computers.

Michael, I think this is a really great essay on your experiences learning about distributed cognition. Today I just finished my last lecture with Edwin Hutchins' :( in a two quarter sequence he teaches (Distributed Cognition in fall, Cognitive Ethnography in Winter).

In regards to some of the metaphors used, I would take a look at Resnick's 5 Heuristics on moving away from the centralized mindset. These metaphors may be confusing at first, but what I believe they are tools to help allow you to first stop, and then think about normal human behavior in the discourse of everyday activity.

Another aspect of distributed cognition which I found fascinating is the universal nature of references. Distributed Cognition is the tool which helps you to see the world as if you are wearing x-ray goggles: as you said Michael in your example of the stage lights at the rave, or Eclise's example of stopping the car when a red light hits.

An interesting thing that came to my attention in Eclise's comment about the "automatic response to get our feet off the gas pedal.." Do you remember the time when your feet first touched the gas and brake petals of a car (12 - 25 years of age?) As experienced drivers, I think we can agree that the amount of pressure that goes into gassing a car and stopping a car varies from car to car. This phenomena of using tactile feedback with your feet on the petals might take a few tests, but nevertheless can be achieved and the car can be driven. Of course, the steering wheel of the car, gear shifter knob, orientation of mirrors, and positioning of the seat can all be seen as variable factors that make up the ecology of driving a car.

Andy Clark, a philosopher of Cognitive Science we read about in Distributed Cognition talks about the phenomena of "transparency". This is when a human becomes so acclimated to interfacing with an object, that the actual reaction time or planning to execute the cognitive task is one with the self.

Can you think of any objects that you interact with on a regular basis that you don't even have to think about how to use?

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