Joint Cognitive Whiteboard

Yesterday I learned something new to me about joint cognition and socio-technical systems. A group of software engineers gathered around a whiteboard are a joint cognitive system. The scrawls on the board are spatial cues for building a shared model of a complex system. My co-workers and I were wrestling with an authentication problem... we're implementing a thing that'll run in a browser and go through graphql queries to get to a few different internal apis. Authentication is always difficult. This problem is complicated by options about which domain names we use for the different components (because identity starts with cookies in browsers & browser security depends on domain-certificate pairs, among other things), where the name spaces are under different administrative domains (different teams control the different names), different teams control different apis.

Details are less important than the fact that there were a lot of tangled branching options and choices to consider. These details might evoke your own memories of the last time you were wrestling with authentication or security policy architectures or similarly tangled software problem.

Here's how we were situated as participants in a conversation. I work remotely at a keyboard in a basement in Boulder and my colleagues were at their keyboards with headsets in an open office in Portland.

This conversation has been going on for weeks in small moments in varying levels of detail in our busy and fragmented schedule. Yesterday we were trying to finally choose some path in the maze of twisty passages. I found myself profoundly frustrated that I couldn't understand enough to contribute usefully to the conversation. And then I suddenly understood.

I didn't have a mental model of the decision space or the systems, and I wasn't getting any closer to building one.

It turns out I need to be in the same room with a white board in order to even have that conversation. Because I need to build a shared spatial model in order to situate the components of the discussion so I can point and waive and look around and trace paths with pen or finger in order to talk about how the tokens of identity will flow through the components of the system.

I think I only recognized this feature of a small group of computer geeks in front of a white board because I just recently read carefully about how a flight deck of a 1995 vintage commercial airplane remembers the speeds where the wing configurations need to change in takeoff and landing.