After several days conducting military drills off the coast of California, the USS Palau was headed home. The massive aircraft carrier, large enough to transport 25 helicopters, was steaming into San Diego Harbor at a brisk clip. Inside the pilothouse—located on the navigation bridge, two levels up from the flight deck—the mood was buoyant. Members of the crew would soon be disembarking and enjoying themselves on shore. Conversation turned to where they would go for dinner that night. Then, suddenly, the intercom erupted with the voice of the ship’s engineer.
“Bridge, Main Control,” he barked. “I am losing steam drum pressure. No apparent cause. I’m shutting my throttles.”
A junior officer, working under the supervision of the ship’s navigator, moved quickly to the intercom and spoke into it, acknowledging, “Shutting throttles, aye.” The navigator himself turned to the captain, seated on the port side of the pilothouse. “Captain, the engineer is losing steam on the boiler for no apparent cause,” he repeated.
Courtesy of MIT Press
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Everyone present knew the message was urgent. Losing steam pressure effectively meant losing power throughout the ship. The consequences of this unexpected development soon made themselves evident. Just 40 seconds after the engineer’s report, the steam drum had emptied, and all steam-operated systems ground to a halt. A high-pitched alarm sounded for a few seconds; then the bridge fell eerily quiet, as the electric motors in the radars and other devices spun down and stopped.
But losing electrical power was not the full extent of the emergency. A lack of steam meant the crew had no ability to slow the ship’s rate of speed. The ship was moving too fast to drop anchor. The only way to reduce its momentum would have been to reverse the ship’s propeller—operated, of course, by steam. On top of that, loss of steam hobbled the crew’s ability to steer the ship, another consequence that soon became painfully evident. Gazing anxiously out over the bow of the ship, the navigator told the helmsman to turn the rudder to the right ten degrees. The helmsman spun the wheel, but to no effect.
“Sir, I have no helm, sir!” he exclaimed.
The helm did have a manual backup system: two men sweating in a compartment in the stern of the ship, exerting all their might to move the unyielding rudder even an inch. The navigator, still gazing out over the bow, whispered, “Come on, damn it, swing!” But the 17,000-ton ship sailed on—headed for the crowded San Diego Harbor, and now veering far off its original course.
Watching all of this unfold on that day in 1984 was Edwin Hutchins. Hutchins was a psychologist employed by the Naval Personnel Research and Development Center in San Diego. He had boarded the Palau as an observer conducting a study of the cognitive demands of ship navigation, taking notes and tape-recording conversations. Now the ship was roiled by a crisis—a “casualty,” in the crew’s lingo—and Hutchins was along for the ride.
From his corner of the pilothouse, Hutchins looked over at the crew’s leader. The captain, he noted, was acting calm, as if all this were routine. In fact, Hutchins knew, “the situation was anything but routine”: “The occasional cracking voice, a muttered curse, the removal of a jacket that revealed a perspiration-soaked shirt on this cool spring afternoon, told the real story: the Palau was not fully under control, and careers, and possibly lives, were in jeopardy.”
Hutchins was aboard the ship to study a phenomenon he calls “socially distributed cognition,” or the way people think with the minds of others. In a book that grew out of his experience on the Palau, Cognition in the Wild, he wrote that his goal was to “move the boundaries of the cognitive unit of analysis out beyond the skin of the individual person and treat the navigation team as a cognitive and computational system.” Such systems, Hutchins added, “may have interesting cognitive properties of their own.” Faced with a predicament that no single mind could resolve, the socially distributed cognition of the Palau’s crew was about to be put to the test.