Snail to Cat?

Yesterday in the seminar we kicked off our discussion of Douglas Engelbart’s work with a tribute video featuring interviews with Engelbart and footage from a conference commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the “Mother of All Demos” in 2008.

Hearing Engelbart, who just passed away in July, talk about his life’s work and hopes for the creative potential of networked knowledge and computing reminded us that while we sometimes think about new technology in terms of our individual abilities and aspirations (we are human after all), many of the kinds of “augmentation” Engelbart invented or inspired leverage the power of groups of people communicating and working with each other socially (we are human after all).

Engelbart envisioned “augmentation” as a conceptual framework that would enable humans to extend their sensory powers as well as their mental and motor capabilities, and open up new possibilities for people to cooperate intellectually as a result. Looking back on his memory of his motivations in the late 50s: to address both the increasing complexity of the human situation and a mounting sense of urgency to solve critical problems, I am struck by a couple of things.  1) new media and the internet have undoubtedly helped on both of these issues; and 2) our situation seems even more complex and the problems more critical now.  (No, we don’t live in fear of imminent nuclear annihilation any more, but climate change and the dispersion of battlefields into shopping malls, train stations, marketplaces, and schools of countries nominally at peace are at least as frightening and seemingly more intractable as the mutually assured destruction “security” strategy of the Cold War. Our contemporary situation and problems are urgent and fiendishly complicated. But I digress.)

In the seminar there were some doubts about the emancipatory potential of Engelbart’s vision as well as appreciation and enthusiasm for the ways in which dynamic digital environments and networks have helped us all.  One of us mulled over the possibility that augmentation through new media / technology might be encouraging us to neglect our native / natural intelligence.  Another took an in-depth look at the need for and implications of training where new technologies are concerned, pointing out that the more integrated, easy to use, and “natural” the augmentation (think Ipad), the less useful it might be as a training device (think programmable calculator). A third researcher, who specializes in human-computer interaction proposed that, counter to the prevailing trend of “naturalizing” the integration of human-computer factors, new applications should be designed with some seams in mind.  “Seamful rather than seamless interactions” between humans and technology will create and encourage opportunities to proceed mindfully and ethically into the future.

And yet we all found some measure of inspiration in Engelbart’s vision for collectively using technology to make better sense of our existence, communicate more effectively, and surmount the challenges facing us.  Thinking back to our conversation last week, this piece of the mural from the Engelbart tribute (a more complete panorama starts at 6’34” in the video) gave me chills:


As we’ve been reading some of the visionaries of computing and new media from the mid-twentieth century, we’ve also speculated about who the current Doug Engelbarts are.  What is the shape of things to come?  Will I be interacting with a descendent of my Iphone in 2030? or will our current technology seem antediluvian? What will the next paradigm-shifting wave of innovation be?

Metaphorically, I see the augmented organization or institution of the future as changing, not as an organism merely to be a bigger and faster snail but to achieve such new levels of sensory capability, speed, power, and coordination as to become a new species — a cat.

Douglas Engelbart, “From Augmenting Human Intellect. A Conceptual Framework,” in Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort eds., The New Media Reader, p. 94

I’m not sure I want to be a cat (they aren’t social enough), but I don’t think we are snails anymore either.

P.S re: writing and open access

We got sidetracked from a discussion of writing that was really intriguing, so I thought I’d leave a few comments here:

Question (from the techies to the humanists): How has computing / keyboarding changed your writing (for better of worse)?

Answer: It’s complicated by experience and the hope that writing (like any other skilled, creative activity) improves over time and with practice.  But we definitely are in the midst of a sea change about how we think about writing and scholarly communication.  We used to think about crafting the “definitive” book on a topic.  Peer review, the university press system, and the hierarchies of the academy encouraged us to attend to every nuance and detail, and make sure everything was “just right,”  because once something was published it was “set in stone.”  Permanent. In fact, the first word processor I used was called “FinalWord.

Distributed conversations (like this one) and the possibilities for collaborating over the internet are eroding this perspective (although we haven’t seen the end of it yet).  Many of us (humanities types) now approach writing and presentation as a dynamic, more open-ended activity.  There’s talk of “Hacking Scholarship” and the prospect of Open Access.  (I’m very excited about John Willinsky‘s  visit later this month.) And while in the old days, once a paper went to press it was pretty much set in stone, Doug Engelbart’s obituary in the New York Times has been revised twice since July.

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