Man-Computer Symbiosis & Flight – Amanda

This week’s readings were a good reminder that we’ve come a long way from the first days of computing. However, our products still hold on to concepts that were applied in the beginning – in other words, with each new piece of technology that comes out, it contains traces of everything that has come before it.

Our reading, particularly “Man Computer Symbiosis” by J.C.R. Licklider, made me think of the way that technology in airplane cockpits has changed over the years. I am familiar with smaller airplanes, and I often hear the “glass cockpit” vs. the conventional, analog, “round dial” cockpit argument.

002Take, for example, the Grumman Tiger that was built in the 1980s. The cockpit looks a lot like the picture on the right. All of the instruments are analog, and there is a radio complete with a dial to change the frequency. That is about as high-tech as the cockpit gets. This is an older airplane, but it works just fine as long as the pilot knows how to function in the cockpit. While the instruments tell the pilot his/her speed, altitude, amount of gas, etc., the pilot must know how he or she is going to get to the desired destination because there is no built-in map system. The pilot must know how to turn various dials and in what direction they must go in. The pilot must manually change the radio frequency to communicate with the tower before takeoff and landing. The pilot is required to input a certain amount of information, and the instruments work with what they’ve been given.
Cirrus-CockpitOn the other end of the spectrum, airplanes are now coming out with “glass cockpits,” which have been around for a while (the military used them in the 1960s), but are just now finding their way into small aircrafts. A glass cockpit features electronic (digital) flight instrument displays (typically LCD screens), as opposed to the traditional analog dials and gauges. Because these displays are driven by flight management systems, the aircraft operation is simplified because pilots only have to focus on the most pertinent information, such as the flight path. Numbers are punched and data is processed. Essentially, a new interface has been added to the cockpit – the LCD screen represents what used to be the analog instruments. It is helpful to note, however, that there are still some back-up dial instruments that are not computerized (so analog is not completely obsolete).

There is a lot of debate as to which cockpit is A. easier to work with, and B. safer. Many pilots do not believe that the glass cockpit is a safe option because it is all computerized.

Licklider’s notes on man-computer symbiosis made me think of how this would apply to both analog and digital instruments. It seems as though in both cases, the human operator must supply basic information. However, in an older airplane with analog instruments, everything must be inputted manually (which often results in a slower process). It is very much a man working with the machine process. With the digital instruments, a person must still work with the machine. But in this case, there is much more automation and computing done by the machine, and less done by the pilot. As Licklider writes, in the instance of some computer-centered systems, the human operators “are responsible mainly for functions that it proved invisible to automate” (75). I see this statement being true in the case of pilots who work with digital instruments – the cockpit may be easier to work with because less information is required from the pilot.

Arguments in the pilot community often arise when talking about what happens when the instruments fail. Many argue that pilots who fly with glass cockpits are “lazy,” or not prepared for an emergency situation. If the digital instruments fail on a pilot, there aren’t a lot of choices left. Many small planes with glass cockpits come with a parachute, perhaps because of that assumption. In comparison, if failure is experienced in an analog cockpit, the pilot still has a chance to work with all of the other still-working instruments. The entire cockpit doesn’t go blank. And this takes me back to the idea of man-computer symbiosis.

Aviation technology has certainly progressed from the time of the Wright brothers and other early pilots and engineers. However, as technology has progressed, the relationship between people and computers does change. It makes life easier, for the most part. However, I question whether – when the computer, or instrument, stops working – whether that idea could still be applied.


Licklider, J.C.R. 1960. “Man-Computer Symbiosis”. New Media Reader. Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, Nick Montfort, ed.. 74–82. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.

Irvine, Martin. 2016. “Introduction to Affordances and Interfaces: The Semiotic Foundations of Meanings and Actions with Cognitive Artefacts”.