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Identity, Guidance and Situational Awareness

by Matthew Schutte -

Rachel’s skis poke over the edge and she peers down. She is over 5000 feet up this unfamiliar mountain. Looking seemingly straight down, she turns to Guido and says: “that formation on the left is the big one that I need to ski under, right?”

Guido nods his head and says “Yes. But remember, don’t go too far to the left. You still need to stay clear of that crevasse that I pointed out on the way up.”

Guido runs a Heli-skiing operation. He takes experienced, often professional, skiers up into high mountain peaks, drops them off from a helicopter and guides them down. Guido knows the mountain. His knowledge of all of the various hazards and opportunities makes his role as a guide vital for the success, and even survival of the guests who pay to come ski.

The role that guides like Guido play is not unique to the ski world. it is ubiquitous in all areas of our lives. The role of the guide is to enhance the "situational awareness" of the individual that is relying upon their guidance.

A skier who is unaware of the situation they are facing is at high risk for death or injury. However, they can minimize the risk and improve the likelihood of finding "excellent terrain" by relying upon a guide and the benefits of all of that guide's accumulated wisdom.

Situational awareness is developed by layer of pattern recognition upon layer of pattern recognition. This can be gained from three sources: direct experience, indirect experience and contemplation.


Direct experience leads to improved situational awareness through a process of experimentation that yields an understanding (whether conscious or unconscious) of what “works” and what doesn’t. As we discover “patterns that work,” the neural pathways that lead to predictive success get reinforced and our likelihood of responding in that way to similar stimuli in the future increases. This is the wet-ware that determines which “patterns” and “predictions” we will find “trustworthy” and will rely upon.

All of the practice that Rachel has put in over the years has built up neural pathways that let her to respond to emerging situations on the slope with what is often described as “muscle memory” -- but is more accurately described as interconnected neural pathways “that have proven successful in the past.” These neurological structures that perform complex pattern recognition -- give her the ability to identify situations and to take actions to navigate them.

Like Rachel, with direct experience, new layers of pattern recognition build upon -- and modify -- existing layers of pattern recognition, and over time we gain the ability to assess, interpret and take action even in rapidly changing contexts. In other words, our situational awareness improves.

However, we are not limited to relying upon just our direct experience.


As humans we rely upon guides constantly. Sometimes they take the form of direct verbal (or non-verbal) advice: Guido’s nod at the top of the slopes is one example. Rachel’s friend Heather saying "Don't even think about dating Guido. He’s been a jerk to every woman he’s ever dated." would be another example.

Other times, guidance takes the form of media, such as a map that marks out hazards or instructions on a product that help us understand how to use it.

In reality, even personal guidance is “mediated” -- in the form of sound, light, language etc. Regardless, in any of these methods for gaining the guidance of others, the relying individual may become better able to assess, understand and navigate the context that they are in as a result of “indirect experience” gleaned from others.

The skier draws upon muscle memory, accumulated knowledge of the downhill terrain and real-time reading of the conditions to determine their next move. If an avalanche gets triggered to Rachel’s right, she will steer to the left, (relying on both direct experience about how to react to such a “pattern”) but will be careful to avoid the crevasse that Guido had pointed out to her during their conversation at the summit, thus making use of his “guidance” as well.

How good is your guide?

Of course, guidance comes in quality of widely varying degrees. For instance, if I was able to convince someone that I was Guido and was able to get them to rely upon me for helping them find ski routes and make their way down the mountain, the consequences would, in all likelihood, be disastrous.

Of course, if the guests were experienced skiers, my complete lack of knowledge in that domain would give me away almost immediately. They would recognize me for the fraud that I was and would ignore any guidance that I offered.

In fact, not only would they recognize my ineptitude, they would probably point it out to others, thus helping to improve the “situational awareness” of those other skiers -- bringing to their attention that I was not a reliable guide -- and should be avoided.


In addition to direct experience and indirect experience, our inner-thought world influences our understanding of our environment as well. Each of us has had that “ah-ha!” moment where suddenly something is clear, that before was not. This mental reasoning and pattern finding activity plays an important role in helping us interpret phenomena and make decisions. It plays an important role alongside direct and indirect experience in building up mental models -- and of reinforcing them -- through visualization.

Situational Awareness and Digital Interactions

In the digital realm, where we are interacting through machines, existing identity systems like PGP and SSL, while not perfect, are relatively good at giving us confidence that: we are communicating with the actor (person or software agent) that we think we are, and we are communicating with only that actor.

However, there are other important aspects of situational awareness that today’s systems routinely fail to assist us with:

  • understanding of what particular areas they are reliable or unreliable in as guides. (decentralized reputation systems like those envisioned by Arthur Brock, Noah Thorp, Harlan Wood, myself and others can help)
  • building confidence that we are communicating about only the things we think we are. (which may require Capabilities style systems, blended with the ability to subscribe to software agents that reduce the “mental burden” of assessing context and determining the appropriate “least authority” to grant in a particular case.
  • understanding what social norms others are expecting will apply to a particular interaction. leveraging effective enforcement mechanisms that build confidence that others will adhere to expected norms.

In other words, while technology such as PGP keys, SSL security certificates, passwords and other tools focus on the problem of impersonation (and there certainly is room for improvement there) that is an important form of a failure of "situational awareness" -- but certainly not the only one that matters. They might help prevent someone like me from impersonating Guido, but they don't do much help beyond that.

There are a wide variety of ways that we can improve the ability for individuals to understand and navigate their way through both the digital and real-world contexts that they will find themselves in -- that our existing digital infrastructures do not yet enable -- but could and should.

Just like Rachel’s reliance upon Guido to help her find a thrilling, but safe route down the mountain, our digital tools need to be built to do more than simple transitive trust -- they need to help humans do the kinds of things we’ve always done on a person-to-person level -- to identify not only who we are speaking with, but to help us understand what we can rely upon them for, and to assist in the creation of shared understandings about how to behave and the appropriately prioritized enforcement of those expectations.

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