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.)

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