After several days conducting military exercises off the coast of California, the USS Palau was heading for the house. The enormous aircraft carrier, large enough to carry 25 helicopters, was rapidly entering the port of San Diego. Inside the wheelhouse, located on the navigation bridge, at two levels of the cockpit, the atmosphere was there. The crew would soon be disembarking and having fun ashore. The conversation turned to where they were going to have dinner that night. Then suddenly the intercom burst with the voice of the ship’s engineer.
“Bridge, main control,” he barked. “I am losing pressure in the steam drum. No apparent cause. I turn off my gas.
A junior officer, working under the supervision of the ship’s navigator, quickly walked over to the intercom and spoke into it, acknowledging: “Turn off the throttle, yes.” The navigator himself turned to the captain, seated on the port side of the wheelhouse. “Captain, the engineer is losing steam on the boiler for no apparent cause,” he repeated.
Everyone present knew the message was urgent. The loss of vapor pressure effectively meant a loss of power throughout the ship. The consequences of this unexpected development soon made themselves felt. Barely 40 seconds after the engineer’s report, the steam drum had emptied and all steam systems shut down. A high-pitched alarm sounds for a few seconds; then the bridge became eerily silent, as the electric motors of radars and other devices stopped and stopped.
But the loss of electricity was not the full measure of the emergency. A lack of steam meant that the crew did not have the ability to slow the speed of the ship. The ship was moving too fast to drop anchor. The only way to reduce her momentum would have been to reverse the ship’s propeller, powered, of course, by steam. On top of that, the loss of steam hampered the crew’s ability to steer the ship, another consequence that quickly became painfully evident. Looking anxiously over the bow of the ship, the navigator told the helmsman to turn the rudder ten degrees to the right. The coxswain turned the wheel, but to no avail.
“Sir, I don’t have a helmet, sir! He apologized.
The helm had a manual back-up system: two men sweating in a compartment at the rear of the ship, exerting all their might to move the inflexible rudder an inch. The navigator, still looking over the bow, whispered, “Come on, fuck, balance!” But the 17,000-ton vessel has sailed, headed for the crowded port of San Diego, and has now strayed from its original course.
Edwin Hutchins watched it all unfold that day in 1984. 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 maritime navigation, taking notes and recording conversations. Now the ship was rocked by a fit – a “victim,” in the crew’s parlance – and Hutchins was in on it.
From his corner of the wheelhouse, Hutchins looked at the crew chief. The captain, he noted, was acting calmly, as if this was all routine. In fact, Hutchins knew, “the situation was anything but routine”: Palau was not fully under control, and careers, and perhaps lives, were in danger.
Hutchins was on board the ship to study a phenomenon he calls it “socially distributed cognition,” or the way people think with the minds of others. In one delivered which was born from his experience on the Palau, Cognition in the wild, he wrote that his aim was to “move the boundaries of the cognitive analysis unit beyond the skin of the individual person and treat the navigation team as a cognitive and computer system.” Such systems, Hutchins added, “may have their own interesting cognitive properties.” Faced with a difficult situation that no mind could resolve, the socially distributed cognition of PalauThe crew was about to be put to the test.