Sunday, November 06, 2005

hierarchies in distributed cognitive

I'm a bit behind in the reading here, so pardon me if what I'm talking about gets somewhat resolved or at least addressed later on in the book. Pardon me... but also tell me about these parts.

(This is related to jmj's post in some way, too.... See my comment there.)

One thing I can't ignore in the first chapter is how Hutchin's description brushes up against but doesn't delve very far into the power politics of the distributed cognitive system that is made up largely of officers and enlisted sailors. It comes up in his description of "Military Identities" (14-17), which begins by suggesting that all enlisted people defer to all officers without serious problems and ends with the rather cursory remark, "the dynamics of the relationships among people engaged in the task of navigation are in part constrained by these identities" (17). The picture is made a little more complicated in the description of cheif's in-between-ness, but his image still seems neater than I'd expect...
(I guess my expectations are largely determined by some body of very politically-motivated research I imagine I read at one point, reasearch that would have paid lots of attention to the class dynamics (because that's sort of what it is) between officers and enlisted people. I can't point to any examples of research like this because none may actually exist, and if any does, I might not have ever read it...)
I guess my point, though, is that looking at all social activity as cognition (I think this is what Hutchins said he did in his manifesto) might ignore or not adequately account for asymmetrical power relations. (It's probably not totally crazy for me to guess that there was another phase of social research that focused on this.) It doesn't seem problematic at all to talk about "hierarchies" in cognition when it's something that a brain or a computer does, but it sort of bothers me (being the adolescent/Marxist that I suppose I am) to take hierarchies in social groups for granted...
Maybe the way to not worry about this is to realize that when we talk about people acting as part of these cognitive/social systems, we are not talking about their whole lives or their whole selves, but only the (perhaps negligible?) part of them (?) that works in the system...? Or maybe I should just read more of the book.


Blogger jmj said...


I'm not sure Hutchins deals explicitly with the political effects you mention, but his description of the Coast Guard wreck in chapter 5 does point out that the captain made an error, while another officer on deck was aware of the way in which to correct that error but did not speak up. It seems here that Hutchins is implying, at least implicitly, that those power structures can sometimes be harmful.

4:16 PM  

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