It’s been quite a week since last Wednesday’s New Media seminar at Baylor. The seminar meeting itself was an extraordinary session, as Christina Engelbart, Executive Director of the Doug Engelbart Institute, joined us via Skype to discuss the many facets of her father’s work and the Institute’s ongoing mission. Christina’s contributions were warm, direct, and clear throughout. Several participants remarked how much better they understood her father’s conceptual framework as she explained it. Christina’s great gift for connection came across very compellingly through that Skype window. There we were: she in her house, and we in our seminar room, our company knit closely by a version of the very affordances her father had imagined and helped to bring into being all those years ago. The effect was uncanny, especially as we had begun the session with the clip from the end of “The Mother of all Demos” in which Doug Engelbart thanks his team for their support and dedicates the entire demonstration to his family, the loved ones who for as long as seventeen years had endured his “monomaniacal” commitment to augmenting human intellect. Moving from that digitized movie on YouTube to our conversation with Christina via Skype, all displayed on a flat panel LCD screen at the side of the room fed by a Mac mini controlled wirelessly by a keyboard and mouse—well, it was a richly recursive experience in what sometimes seemed to be a time machine connecting us to the past, and at other moments seemed to be a time machine connecting us to the future.
The key is connection, of course. Christina reminded us that for her father, the technology was always a means to an end, and the end was always collaborating and communicating in a way that would bring our collective IQ into the fullest range of its expression and usefulness. Otherwise, we cannot possibly address the complex, urgent problems we face as a species, nor will we ever realize the enormous potential we have for learning, creating, and sharing. Without a strong, committed co-evolution between us and our tools, especially the tools represented by the promise of interactive computing, we’ll be forever distracted by our “isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations,” and never attain the “integrated domain” of which Doug writes so movingly in the opening of his seminal “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.”
In the blogs around the seminar meeting, at Baylor and elsewhere, and in the discussion at the Baylor meeting as well as at Tulane on Friday (I was privileged to be their guest facilitator), many folks commented on how difficult and dense they find “Augmenting Human Intellect.” Some speculated the difficulty comes from Engelbart’s engineering background. Some were troubled by the way Engelbart switches from first-person to third-person as he tells the story of “Joe” trying to tell the story of the augmentation framework. Still others remarked that Engelbart seems naïve about the various power agendas that motivate human beings and block real collaboration.
When she spoke with the Baylor seminar, Christina Engelbart emphasized that her father had written “Augmenting Human Intellect” pretty much in isolation, as he had been strongly warned against sharing these ideas with anyone, lest he be thought crazy. (There’s an irony as well as a paradox in Engelbart’s isolated writing—more to consider there.) Many did think Engelbart a “crackpot” for many years until the Mother of All Demos—and the future it pointed toward—showed that Engelbart was not only sane but indeed a towering visionary. It’s never easy to sum up a decade’s worth of thought, especially when that thought has seemed dangerous to utter.
But now it’s time for a confession. When folks ask me if I, too, find the essay difficult, I usually mumble some kind of assent out of fellow feeling. Yes, I do find it a challenging piece of writing—but no more so than Milton, or Shakespeare, or Woolf, or Faulkner, or Joyce. In fact, in its complexity and playfulness, “Augmenting Human Intellect” resonates with me very strongly as a work of art, even a work of philosophy. I can’t claim to have gotten to the bottom of it. Perhaps I never will. Art is like that. But I rejoice in it, and enjoy the many wry twists and turns of rhetoric and storytelling Engelbart employs. (Christina spoke movingly of her father’s gift for storytelling, and how her childhood friends ask her if he’s still telling those stories.) For me, the idea of working collaboratively within the structure of a concept and all its associative trails is positively thrilling, and Engelbart describes it so vividly that I cannot help believing it can truly happen at the scale and with the fluency he imagines. When I compare his vision to the reality of most of the meetings I participate in during the course of a normal week, well, there’s really no comparison. We’ve devised so many methods for de-augmenting our work together that one would almost think we actually prefer a state of de-augmentation. Engelbart’s hope lifts my spirits and strengthens my resolve that we can do better.
And if it all boils down to hegemonies and power games, and collaboration is always already a mask for overtaking the other, then permit me my callow hopes. The sophisticated, brittle, cynical alternatives don’t much interest me. No nourishment there.
When I read “Augmenting Human Intellect,” beginning with that astonishing first paragraph on the integrated domain, I feel I am reading one of the great humanist essays of our time. My confession for you is that the real difficulty I feel is not in reading the essay. It’s in measuring up to its deeply felt humanity.