Digitalisation at Sea: All Hands on Deck

This article is a reproduction of the Editorial published in HindSight magazine issue 33 in December 2021 (available at SKYbrary)

by Steven Shorrock

In all industries and aspects of society, ‘digitalisation’ has become a watchword – an idea for directing the way that things are to be done. But people have quite different attitudes about this. How far should we go with digitalisation? What are the implications for human and system performance, and life more generally? In my own experience working on digitalisation projects and reviews with people in operational, technical, safety, and management roles, I tend to notice some distinct groups of ‘like-minded people’, each of which disagrees with one or more of the other groups. They don’t see the world, with all its problems and opportunities, in the same way, nor on the best way to progress. 

Related to this, Karnofsky (2021) recently proposed some nautical metaphors for the “different ways of working toward a better world”, including the voyage of digitalisation. It is probably fair to say that each of us, and our like-minded colleagues, has different attitudes and favoured strategies when it comes to the development and deployment of advanced technology in operations. As you read on, you may even see yourself and others in one of the nautical metaphors below. 


Rowing involves helping the ship to reach its current destination more quickly. Advancing technology, or taking advantage of technological developments, is the primary focus, with an emphasis on speed. Rowing tends to be the preferred strategy of technological solutionists, who have most understanding of hardware
and software (e.g., engineers), are more familiar with it (e.g., operational superusers), or who favour digital solutions for other reasons (e.g., entrepreneurs). 

Rowing is obviously necessary for progress, and to gain competitive advantage. As the saying goes, “Time and tide wait for no man.” There are indeed advantages to be gained from the now-familiar cloud computing
and speech recognition technologies, and less familiar artificial intelligence and virtual and augmented reality technologies. But we should not assume that all technological development is good. Hazards are harder to see at speed, and a focus on speed – like ‘press-on-itis’ in piloting – brings
new risks. For instance, there can be insufficient opportunity or willingness for necessary checks and coordination. Overconfidence, simplifications, and assumptions can prevail. As multiple different technologies are developed and connected at speed, technological complexity grows, along with unintended consequences. 


Steering involves navigating toward
or away from a destination or points along the way. Steering tends to be
the preferred strategy of technological sceptics and those with a more long- term and systemic perspective, who are not against digitalisation per se, but who question the claims of technological solutionists. This group tends to have more understanding of complexity
and the wider context within which technology is introduced (e.g., safety scientists, complexity scientists, systems practitioners), but not always (e.g., policy-makers). The group is also likely to have a greater understanding of history and lessons from the past (e.g., major accidents or failed programmes).

From this perspective, speed is secondary to direction and route
when it comes to advanced technologies. What might be the unintended consequences of advanced technologies, and are the intended consequences well thought out? 

Some of these consequences may only be evident after deployment, while others are more foreseeable, with
the right expertise. Karnofsky argues that “‘steering’ has become a generally neglected way of thinking about the world”, as the primary focus is on rowing. 


Anchoring involves holding the
ship in place, or attempting to maintain the status quo. In terms of digitalisation, anchoring tends to be the preferred strategy of technological conservatives, who are more likely to oppose continued digitalisation or see significant threats. But there are downsides to staying put. Karnofsky notes that there has been enormous change in the last two centuries and huge improvements in life quality
for people (but not animals) on most known measures. There have also been remarkable improvements in safety- critical sectors with technological advancements. 

So-called rosy retrospection – our tendency to recall the past more fondly than the present – can be problematic. Many of us seem to think the music of our youth was the best, and some have similar attachments to technologies and worldviews. We may even wish to row backwards (forming another strategy – reverse rowing). 

But Karnofsky argues that a weaker version of ‘anchoring’ can be constructive: “asking that changesto policy and society be gradual and incremental, rather than sudden, sowe can correct course as we go”. As Frischmann (2018) wrote, an anchoring strategy “enables critical reflection and evaluation of the technological world we’re building”. Anchoring allows time to think about our steering and the pace of our rowing. This can be the role of several stakeholders, such as regulators, professional associations, the media, and academics in certain disciplines. 


Equity involves working towardfairer relations between people onthe ship. For any voyage, there are people with different characteristicson board. It is helpful for harmonyand effectiveness if resources and opportunities are fairly distributed, and the right conditions exist for peopleto contribute their expertise. With digitalisation, equity may seem less obvious as a strategy, but many groups are grossly underrepresented notonly as employees but (and partly by consequence) in the products, as their needs are not met. This is eloquently explained in the context of big data by Caroline Criado Perez in her intensively researched book, Invisible Women

The agile-minded approach 

So which is the best approach for
our voyage of digitalisation in safety- critical industries? The answer is
“none”, or rather, “it depends”. As Karnofsky remarked, “The details of where the ship is currently trying to go, and why, and who’s deciding that and what they’re like, matter enormously.” And there are also details that matter enormously about where the ship is now, who is on it, their expertise, and the many contexts of work (technical, physical, environmental, social, cultural, regulatory, etc.). Crucially, people’s expertise concerns not only technology but also fields such as operations, complexity, systems, change, diversity, resilience, and human factors. 

Even if we recognise ‘favoured’ strategies in ourselves or others, we rarely challenge our own interests and ways of thinking. It is problematic to get stuck in our ways, in our like-minded groups. We can become known for
one mindset and one strategy. Our approaches can be in opposition, and
a fifth strategy identified by Karnofsky can even emerge – mutiny (at least a soft form of it). There could be a variety of states that no-one wants, such as drifting, or worse. 

To be more credible and useful in conversations about digitalisation and human performance, it is better tobe agile enough to consider different worldviews and approaches, depending on the situation. The success of our voyage will depend largely on how well we communicate – negotiating and reconciling important differences – and the resulting choices that we make. Since digitalisation and human performance are inseparable, we need to come together to try to do the right things right. In the words of acclaimed transoceanic solo sailor Francis C. Stokes Jr., “In the end, the sea finds out everything you did wrong.”


Criado-Perez, C. (2019). Invisible women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Vintage Publishing.

Frischmann, B. (2018, September 20). There’s nothing wrong with being a Luddite. Scientific American. wrong-with-being-a-luddite/

Karnofsky, H. (2021, November 9). Rowing, steering, anchoring, equity, mutiny. Cold Takes. https://www.

Author: stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.

One thought

  1. Thats an interesting way to metaphor what you are trying to say! My thought are, to your question about Digitalisation. Well, the word Digitalisation is an odd word. It implies that we are here to Digtialise. What if that technology or method is not appropriate? Digital is a technology and the danger is that we think it is the one we have to use.
    In people based, complex services for instance, the application of Digital is having terrible outcomes.

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