“….it really gets hard when you start believing in your dreams….” — Doug Engelbart

In the hope that anything worth posting once can be re-posted again (different audiences?), I’m offering this reflection / question I wrote for Gardner’s New Media Seminar a couple years ago .  Thoughts, anyone?


I’ve posted before about how central Doug Engelbart is to the Awakening of the Digital Imagination. This time I’m going to let an image — or more precisely, a mural — do the talking.  Created by Eileen Clegg and Valerie Landau for the fortieth anniversary of the Mother of All Demos, this graphic representation of the interaction between cultural change, technological innovation, and what Engelbart called “collective intelligence” suggests how we have co-evolved with our technology since the early twentieth century.  At the end of the mural, a blue wave asks us to think about “the next paradigm-shifting wave of innovation”….which seems to be happening in 2015.  I mean, RIGHT NOW.

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So I ask you, looking at the elements of the mural and the interactions and shifts it depicts — can we imagine and work for a future using technology and our collective intelligence to deal with the world’s “increasingly complex problems” in ethically responsible and constructive ways? Put another way, can we afford not to do this?

For the Wholiness of the Human Spirit

Re-watching Ted Nelson’s eulogy for Doug Engelbart last week reminded me of one of the many (many) reasons Nelson’s thinking about computers and society resonate so powerfully with me. Mourning the loss of one of the most pivotal stars of the new media revolution by indicting his colleagues and making them laugh (nervously), invoking the tropes of classical funeral orations and quotes from Shaw and Shakespeare, and recounting the highlights and tragedies of Engelbart’s career, Nelson’s eulogy is a tour de force in terms of form (technique) and content.  He insists, as passionately as he had in 1974, that computers should support our dreams, indeed that technology is an expression of those dreams.  And dreams, of course, are as much about the emotions as they are about reason and calculation.

 Movies and books, music and even architecture have for all of us been part of important emotional moments. The same is going to happen with the new media. To work at a highly responsive computer display screen, for instance, can be deeply exciting, like flying an airplane through a canyon, or talking to somebody brilliant. This is as it should be…..

In the design of our future media and systems, we should not shrink from this emotional aspect as a legitimate part of our fantic (see p. 317) design. The substratum of technicalities and the mind-bending, gut-slamming effects they produce, are two sides of the same coin; and to understand the one is not necessarily to be alienated from the other.

Thus it is for the Wholiness of the human spirit, that we must design. (NMR, p. 307)

The democratizing, radically-reimagining agenda laid out in Computer Lib / Dream Machines is as relevant today as it was in 1974.  In the early seventies, computing was about inscrutable calculations, fiendishly massive quantification, and the expertise of, yep, experts.  Nelson summoned every woman to “understand computers,” to engage with them, and to create with them. He insisted (rightly) that we are creatures of culture and of interaction as much (perhaps even more so) as we are creatures of reason and calculation. And he wanted us to use computers to develop a “fantic space” (inspired by Eisenstein’s and Pudovkin’s concept of filmic space) to help us communicate emotionally as well as cognitively:

 RESPONSIVE COMPUTER DISPLAY SYSTEMS CAN, SHOULD AND WILL RESTRUCTURE AND LIGHT UP THE MENTAL LIFE OF MANKIND. (NMR, p. 317)

Forty years later, the landscape has changed, but the challenge remains.  We carry computers with us all day long, communicate with people downstairs and around the world in the blink of an eye, and can summon nearly all the world’s texts and many of its numbers to our screens with a few key strokes and a good internet connection. I do feel that my mental life has been illuminated and transformed by the innovations Nelson envisioned. But do we understand computers and the networked world in the way that Nelson thought we needed to? Has the Computer Priesthood” been ousted? Or just changed clothes?  And what about “Computer Aided Instruction” (CAI, as Nelson calls it)?  I look at computerized testing,  video taped lectures, the march of MOOCs, the “Learning Management System” industry, and the relentless pressure to scale, standardize, measure and homogenize an experience that should be so much more….and I think we still need to focus instead on using this technology to provide students (and ourselves) with a real education:

Instead of devising elaborate systems permitting the computer or its instructional contents to control the situation, why not permit the student to control the system, show him how to do so intelligently, and make it easy for him to find his way? Discard the sequences, items and conversation, and allow the student to move freely through materials which he may control. Never mind optimizing reinforcement or validating teaching sequence. Motivate the user and let him loose in a wonderful place” (NMR, p. 313).

I want to keep my beacon set on that wonderful place.

Jeffrey on Steroids

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Eric Fisher – Language communities of Twitter (European detail) 2011

The release of Walter Isaacson’s, The Innovators’ this week offers an ideal backdrop for tomorrow’s  discussion of Doug Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect,” a text which in many ways serves as the animating heart of the New Media Seminar syllabus. Isaacson’s saga of the digital revolution — from its origins in the 1840s in the visions of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage to the incorporation of Google — locates collaborative creativity as the engine driving the innovation that made the computer and the internet indispensable pieces of the global economy and social fabric. (See Matthew Wisnioski’s deft review in the Washington Post for the lowdown on this – better yet, read the book – I’m on the fence as to whether to Kindle this one or hold out for paper.) In any case, Isaacson’s  shift away from the ineluctable preoccupation with lonely geniuses and transcendent individuals that shapes so many intellectual histories foregrounds a modality of innovation that Engelbart not only promoted, but considered essential to the project of leveraging “augmented” human intellects to address the world’s increasingly complex problems.  (This post from last year talks about that a bit more.)

As good discussions often do, our encounter with Norbert Wiener and J. C. R. Licklider last week kept percolating with me long after we adjourned. One nugget I kept returning to was a conversation with the author of Icarus Falling. Just before the seminar began we empathized over the challenges of writing a reflective, substantive piece for a blog, and I admitted that I am still working against decades of training and discipline when it comes to getting my ideas formulated and expressed here. Historians tend to be solitary in their pursuits. We value rigor, depth and polish in our research and writing. Speed is not a common descriptor of our mode of production. I like to mull things over, draft, revise, go for a run, revise, repeat, repeat, repeat….And blogging, which is all about collaboration and creativity is just not compatible with those habits. And that is a good thing, in fact it is a great thing, but it is also a hard thing.

So, I was grateful when Anil Dash’s 15 Lessons from 15 Years of Blogging showed up in my Twitter feed. I can take something to heart from all 15 lessons  — especially #9: Meta-writing about a blog is generally super boring.

(Ok. Enough of that then. Back to collaborative creativity as the innovative warp and intellectual weave of the web….)

Better encouragement came a couple days later in a student’s reflection that used the enlightening awe of a parent engaging a talented child to describe how blogging for our graduate historiography course has invigorated her work:

 “So…Jeffrey, what do you think?”

This is actually a question that I ask often. Let me explain.

Jeffrey is my son and he often sees more sides to things than I do. I don’t actually remember exactly how old he was when I discovered this, but I remember thinking, “Wow, those are great ideas. I never thought of them.” Today, Jeffrey speaks three languages, holds degrees from Yale and Amherst and I continue to call him when in a quandary.

I say this not to be the ‘proud mama,’ but to explain what I think about our blogging activities. I think our blog page is like ‘Jeffrey on steroids.’ I can’t say that any one blogger influences me more than another. The corporate effort is really what illuminates ideas and impacts my thinking and writing.

She is wise and she is right. A published post joins the ecosystem of ideas, people, and information that make the web an augmenter of human intellect.  In the reading, the writing, the commenting and the reflecting we engage each other in a transformative project that can help solve the world’s increasingly complex problems.  I think Doug Engelbart would agree that “this” is indeed like Jeffrey (lots of Jeffries — and Sofias as well) on steriods (lots and lots of steriods.)

In Praise of Dinosaurs

Dinosaur VisionYesterday my colloquium students worked in teams on their research projects.  While “Team Ungulate” discussed the similarities and differences of reindeer, horse and donkey evolution, “Team Fowl” (ultimately dedicated to the chicken and the pigeon) became immersed in the miracles of dinosaur vision.  Like other reptiles, dinosaurs saw the world in technicolor, and many of them had full binocular vision that could capture minute details in a landscape a mile away.  We might assume that extinction was a just desert for a life form that proved unable to adapt to climate change, but I was struck by how central vision — or at least the visual imaginary — was to Augmenting Human Intellect and the Memex.  Douglas Englebart and Vannevar Bush both sought to capture, store and extend (augment) associative trails of information that humans use to order, synthesize, and create knowledge.  As Englebart’s initial vision of the word processor suggests, the apparent “magic” of  the CRT is its ability to replicate both the shape and speed of what we “see” in our “mind’s eye,” and to quickly summon the associative trails we stash in its remote corners.

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The modes of augmenting human intellect that have emerged from these mid-20th century visions have revolutionized our ways of knowing, modes of being, and social interactions in miraculous and often disturbing ways.  Yet their initial inspiration and enduring touchstone is the kind of symbolic reasoning intimately bound up with visual perception and the organization of space.  Dinosaurs, with their eagle eyes, may have been way ahead of their time:

“Dinosaur eyes take in a wider view, bending in at the edges like a glass globe filled with water. Nothing is gray or drab or dull; rather they see swimming particles of color, a moving mosaic of dancing colored specks. As we would see a starscape in the night sky, they see a sparkling “lifescape” in the woods by day, a world teeming with life.

Some humans see with dinosaur vision, Bix explained: artists, poets, and children. But for the rest of us, as we grow older, the mammalian part of the brain clouds over the reptilian part, and drains away a little glory of the world.” –James Gurney, “Dinotopia”