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Nov 1, 2008 8:59pm

blog some dog-eared pages: cognition in the wild

It's been a while since I've done one of these, I'm a bit rusty. I started Cognition In The Wild over a full year ago, put it down for a while, and only recently came back to finish the book. The topic is cognitive activity, and how it plays out in social situations. Sort of a behaviorist tract in a way, which is interesting because the idea that everyone loved to hate (everyone in UC Berkeley CogSci department ten years ago that is) is starting to pop back up in some odd places in my life: this book, another one about politics from 1908, Obama's economic policies, etc.

Edwin Hutchins frames his story in the context of an observational trip aboard a U.S. Navy vessel, the Palau, and its crew of sailors and navigators. Hutchins particularly concerns himself with the way in which practice and instrumentation constitutes a meta-cognitive process above the level of the individual: the observations and computations that enable the crew of the ship to steer it are carried out by a collection of participants, some of them quite inexperienced, all of them performing small pieces of a bigger task. Together, they form a complete computational process, a sort of full adder made of half adders. He's particularly interested in the instrumentation that lets these guys do their jobs: slide rules, sighting scopes, variations on the protractor, and conventions surrounding verbal communication on the bridge and over the ship's intercom.

Hutchins's theory seems to be that these devices and practices act as a form of cognitive jig, embodying complex trigonometric and geometric processes in tangible form the way a slide rule converts multiplication into a simple linear movement. I've been interested in this idea before, via David Pye's Nature and Art of Workmanship. Pye argued that a lot of what we consider to be "hand work" is actually jigged and regulated through external forces. Pye calls unregulated workmanship "the workmanship of risk", and it's an interesting contrast to the kind of cognitive risk minimization that Hutchins is describing here. There's joy in navigation by dead reckoning as in risky, dextrous workmanship, but the U.S. Navy is having none of it and prefers its interpersonal procedures immaculately specified to the finest detail.

The place where I think this touches some of my recent interests in tiling and flows is that the purpose of a jig is to turn the latter into the former, to transform fluid into constrained motion. In particular I'm thinking about by most recent favorite general-purpose example, the use of "remaining days" as a transposed operations metric by Flickr's capacity planning guru John Allspaw.

Flickr takes one kind of motion, the consumption of storage space or saturation of network bandwidth, and transposes it into another kind of motion, the number of days they're free to sit on their hands until everything falls to pieces.

There's an extended example in Hutchins' book that's similar in spirit to this, and it forms the only coherent set of pages I bothered to dog-ear. As a counterpoint to Western-style navigation that places a moving boat in the context of a static ocean, he offers an in-depth analysis of Micronesian navigation practices that proceed along utterly different lines and yet still allow canoe navigators to travel between tiny islands out of sight of land without losing their bearings. The background to this alternate navigation frame is rote memorization of angular relationships among islands, but the surprising bit is the way it recontextualizes the navigator as a static center with respect to the sidereal compass, surrounding islands moving past him on parallel tracks to the left and the right.

These excerpts constitute my first donation to the Analogy Library. That Flickr capacity thing above is my second. Also worth a read is UPenn's Traditional Navigation in the Western Pacific: A Search for Pattern, written by 1989-2003 This Old House host Steve Thomas.

Page 66, a bit of context:

Without recourse to mechanical, electrical, or even magentic devices, the navigators of the Central Caroline Islands of Micronesia routinely embark on ocean voyages that take them several days out of the sight of land. Their technique seems at first glance to be inadequate for the job demanded of it, yet it consistently passes what Lewis has called "the stern test of landfall." ... Western researchers traveling with these people have found that at any time during the voyage the navigators can accurately indicate the bearings of the port of departure, the destination, and other islands off to the side of the course being steered, even though all of these may be over the horizon and out of sight. These navigators are also able tack upwind to an unseen island while keeping mental track of its changing bearing - a feat that is simply impossible for a Western navigator without instruments.

Page 67, on clues from what lies beneath:

The world of the navigator, however, contains more than a ser of tiny islands on an undifferentiated expanse of ocean. Deep below, the presence of submerged reefs changes the apparent color of the water. The surface of the sea undulates with swells born in distant weather systems, and the interaction of the swells with islands produces distinctive swell patterns in the vicinity of land. Above the sea surface are the winds and weather patterns which govern the fate of sailors. Seabirds abound, especially in the vicinity of land. Finally, at night, there are the stars. Here in the Central Pacific, away from pollution and artificial light, the stars shine brightly and in incredible numbers. All these elements in the navigator's world are sources of information.

Page 68, on the sidereal compass:

Seeing the night sky in terms of linear constellations is a simple representational artifice that converts the moving field of stars into a fixed frame of reference.

This seeing is not a passive perceptual process. Rather, it is the projection of external structure (the arrangement of stars in the heaves) and internal structure (the ability to identify the linear constellations) onto a single spatial image. In this superimposition of internal and external, elements of of the external structure are given culturally meaningful relationships to one another. The process is actively constructive.

Page 71, on picturing a frame of reference:

The fundamental conception in Caroline Island navigation is that a canoe on the course between islands is stationary and the islands move by the canoe. This is, of course, unlike our notion of the vessel moving between stationary islands. A passage from Gladwin (1970: 182) amplifies this:
Picture yourself on a Pulawat canoe at night. The weather is clear, the stars are out, but no land is in sight. The canoe is a familiar little world. Men sit about, talk, perhaps move around a little within their microcosm. On either side of the canoe, water streams past, a line of turbulence and bubbles merging into a wake and disappearing into the darkness. Overhead there are star, immovable, immutable. They swing in their paths across and out of the sky but invariably come up again in the same places. ... Everything passes by the little canoe - everything except the stars by night and the sun in the day.

Page 81, intersecting lines:

It is tempting to criticize the Caroline Island navigators for maintaining an egocentric perspective on the voyage when the global perspective of the chart seems so much more powerful. Before concluding that the Western view is superior, consider the following thought experiment: Go at dawn to a high place and point directly at the center of the rising sun. Return to the same high place at noon and point again to the center of the sun. That defines another line in space. I assert that the sun is located in space where those two lines cross. Does that seem wrong? Do you feel that the two lines cross where you stand and nowhere else?


Our everyday models of the sun's movement are exactly analogous to the Caroline Island navigator's conception of the location of the reference island. The choice of representations limits the sorts of inferences that make sense.

Page 92, on relative difficulty in frames of reference:

All navigation computations make use of frames of reference. The most prominent aspect of the Micronesian conception is the apparent motion of the etak island against the fixed backdrop of the star points defined by the sidereal compass. Here there are three elements to be related to one another: the vessel, the islands, and the directional frame. In order to preserve the the observed relationship of motion parallax, one can have the vessel and the directional frame move while the islands stay stationary (the Western solution) or one can have the vessel and the directional frame stationary while the islands move (the Micronesian solution). ... Each of these schemes makes some things easy to compute and other difficult.

Comments (1)

  1. Damn, I've had this book for almost seven years with the earnest intention to read it. I bought it on recommendation from a friend but didn't really have anything to apply its contents to, or so I thought. Perhaps it's time to dust it off once again!

    Posted by Dorian Taylor on Sunday, November 2 2008 1:45am EST

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