Cognitive anthropologist Edwin Hutchins was part of the U.S. Navy in November 1980, when he spent most of his time on the navigation bridge, the room from where the ship was commanded.5 Hutchins studied what the operators of the ship’s steam propulsion plant knew and how they gained this knowledge. The week before, he had spent his time in the bowels of the ship, observing engineering operations and engaging with those who worked in such spaces. Together, these observations sparked Hutchins’ interest in how these two parts of the ship worked together.
In 1984, Hutchins was working for the Navy Personnel Research and Development Center as a research psychologist.5 Due to his prior research success, he was granted the freedom to conduct an independent research project. He chose to study what he called at the time “naturally situated cognition.” Based on his love of navigation, Hutchins once again worked in and studied a naval ship’s navigation bridge. In the beginning, Hutchins considered navigation in terms of cognition at an individual level. But at the end of his first study period at sea, he realized the importance of the social distribution of cognition.
Hutchins’ experiences in 1980 and 1984 laid the groundwork for his 1995 book, Cognition in the Wild, where he outlined the principles and applications of distributed cognition.5 But much of his work drew from existing research in psychology and sociology.2 4 Memory, for example, has a long history of being treated as a socially distributed cognitive function. Other researchers focused on social organization, and proposed a distributional model of culture that emphasized the distribution of beliefs across members of a society.
Hutchins’ book aimed to give a comprehensive, cohesive explanation of these different strands of research. His model of distributed cognition was the result. In distributed cognition, we find a system that can change and redistribute itself for different cognitive processes. A cognitive process is limited by the functional relationships between the elements that participate in it, resulting in three types of distribution of cognitive processes:
- Cognitive processes may be distributed across the members of a social group;
- Cognitive processes may involve coordination between internal and external (material or environmental) structures; and,
- Cognitive processes may be distributed through time such that the products of earlier events can transform the nature of later events.4
One of its general assumptions is that cognitive systems consisting of more than one person have cognitive properties that differ from the people who participate in those systems.3 The knowledge possessed by members of the cognitive system is highly variable: people who work together are likely to possess different kinds of knowledge, and will engage in interactions that help them combine what they have and what they know. This makes sharing access, resources, and knowledge key for the broader cognitive system to function.