The redistribution of situation awareness: are we going too far?

As technologies become more sophisticated, the onus for storing and communicating the information we need to complete work and everyday tasks is increasingly being placed on them. This reliance on artefacts in the world for critical information is nothing new – indeed it formed the basis for popular Human Factors theories such as Distributed Cognition, Transactive Memory and Distributed Situation Awareness (DSA). What is concerning, however, is the extent to which situation awareness is now held by the world around us. Awareness is rapidly becoming technology led rather than human led. As the awareness of technologies becomes more expansive it is worth asking whether we are going too far? Is it safe to place such a heavy reliance on technologies and artefacts for our awareness – or should we be attempting to find more of a balance when designing the systems of the future?

An example of technology-led awareness occurs everyday on our roads. A few weeks ago I had to drive into London to find my hotel prior to giving a research seminar (on DSA of all things). Being overseas and in a hire car, I had no map or GPS device, and, given the price of data roaming, did not wish to use my mobile phone. Everything was fine until I hit London – what followed can only be described as a total loss of awareness, both of where I was and where I needed to go. This profanity laden exercise in increasing one’s blood pressure continued for 30 minutes until I resorted to activating the data roaming function on my phone. After initiating Google Maps, I was immediately back on track and arrived at my hotel with no further issues.

Mobile gps navigation, travel destination, location and positioning concept

A few things struck me hard – my total reliance on the device, the fact that I did not have any awareness of where I was at any point in the drive, and that, upon arriving at the hotel, I had no idea how I had got there. I was blissfully unaware. My mobile phone, via Google Maps, held all of the awareness. I merely did what it told me to. I recalled the days (long ago now) when I used a paper map in similar circumstances – this required more of an understanding of what was going on on my behalf – the awareness was distributed more evenly between human and artefacts.

The example above is not an isolated one. Argue with your friends in the pub about the lyrics of a song or the 1985 FA Cup Final winning goal scorer, or debate with your family about the name of the actor in the movie you are watching and you will undoubtedly resort to a Google search. Plan the workday ahead and you will quickly dive into your electronic calendar to see what your day will entail. Cook your partner a romantic meal and you will likely search on-line for a recipe and then strategically place your IPad next to the chopping board. The amount of things we need to know and remember has diminished dramatically – we have handed this responsibility over to the Internet and its web of interconnected technologies.

This is worrying in of itself – and there have been plenty of articles about the impacts on memory; however, it becomes even more problematic when we look at the impact within safety critical systems. In most modern day safety critical systems advanced technologies are doing much of the grunt work, leaving human operators as bit-part players or even passive supervisors.

In extreme cases this over-distribution of awareness has killed – some recent disasters occurred because the distribution of situation awareness wasn’t quite right. For example, the series of events that led to the Air France 447 disaster began when the aircrafts pitot tubes froze and passed spurious airspeed information to the cockpit. As a result, the autopilot handed control back to the aircrew without clearly telling them why. DSA failed and the technological agents within the system played a significant role in this. In the future accident investigation reports citing technologies’ loss of situation awareness as a key contributory factor will become the norm.

So what can we do? Technologies will no doubt become more advanced and push the boundaries even further – driverless vehicles are a clear example of where almost all of the situation awareness formerly required by humans will be handed over to technologies. In the future our awareness will be driven by the need to check whether driving technologies are working as they should be. Other systems will follow suit. As Human Factors professionals we need to ensure that we are not using technologies to hold and communicate situation awareness just because they can. Rather we need to use appropriate methods to work out who needs to know what and who should know what.

Methods such as Cognitive Work Analysis and the Event Analysis of Systemic Teamwork should be used proactively to tell us where too much technology-led awareness will create emergent problems. Moreover, where we accept that technology is better placed to know what is going on – we need to ensure that the exchange of awareness between technologies and humans is optimised through design. As for everyday tasks such as trivial pursuit, movies and cooking, we owe it to ourselves to not become reliant on technologies for our knowledge.

Although I’m cooking dinner tonight – can somebody pass me the IPad?

Professor Paul Salmon, ARC Future Fellow and Director of the Centre for Human Factors and Sociotechnical Systems


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