The Arts of Augmentation

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.

6 thoughts on “The Arts of Augmentation

  1. I find most fascinating your comments on the paradox of Englebart’s isolation in order to avoid mass ridicule while championing what has become a networked world. This observation of yours deserves more scrutiny in terms of power and persuasion in modern and post modern contexts. Maybe our colleagues in communication might be interesting conversation partners.

  2. Steve and Gardner,

    Excellent posts.

    The entire premise of Englebart’s paper, it seems to me, is under increasing scrutiny. His hope for augmentation systems to harness “neural power” seems oblivious to Postman’s concerns about what such technologies might really mean for us. Could Englebart ever have imagined a world like Chris Hedges describes in his Empire of Illusion? No where in Englebart’s paper does he even pause to consider what this idea might undo?

    Englebart slips into the Technopoly mindset throughout his paper. He repeatedly suggests that by making “a continuous cycle of improvements” (to machines) we can ultimately have “increased understanding”, and by using a “series of specifications and data” we can ultimately make man smarter.

    I get that these guys probably have techno-rapture – admittedly so do I. Theirs in understandable. The world was just saved from the likes of Hitler thanks to technology. (Mine is too, it feeds my family.) But has this vision – ultimately – been a good thing for humankind? I think this is up for considerable debate, no?

    BTW, I simply LOVE this blog and what Baylor (you) are doing at the NMFS.. please forgive my lurking and ignore me if you want.

  3. After reading, and re-reading and re-reading Englebart’s writing, I have to say that I’m not with you on your take on Englebart. I can see from a historical point of view that Englebart is important. Comparing his writing to that of Shakespeare, is a pretty big stretch… I don’t think that any amount of reading or re-reading will make me see this correlation.

    I have some major issues with your impressions of this reading:

    1. This was an opinion that several students had: Still others remarked that Engelbart seems naïve about the various power agendas that motivate human beings and block real collaboration.

    Englebart was aware of this. For God’s sake, he didn’t collaborate with Nelson and Van Dyke on the idea of Hypertext!

    Englebart, like Bush most likely meant collaboration in the academic sense. Academics, Military and Industry working together to help mankind…. Still a pretty lofty goal. I don’t know if this stuff was ever really meant for everyday folks until later, when people like Nelson came along (next week’s reading). Once computers got in the hands of everybody, sure, collaboration became a more widespread idea outside of your own circles. It was a matter of acceptance, because there wasn’t much you could do about it anyhow.

    2. The key is connection, of course.

    How do we connect if we can’t comprehend what in the world is happening? This work was written in a way that makes the ideas inaccessible to many. This is not the best way to get people on board with your ideas. It’s no wonder to me why these ideas took so long to become mainstream… It took time for people with clearer communication skills to make this stuff more accessible to others.

    3. Yes, I do find it a challenging piece of writing—but no more so than Milton, or Shakespeare, or Woolf, or Faulkner, or Joyce.

    The mark of a good storyteller it that they keep people interested in the story. In that respect, “Augmenting Human Intellect” is a terrible story. I was not interested, and it seems others weren’t as well. Even after referring to the larger work, it was more confusing that the excerpt. Englebart is a terrible storyteller, in this reading at least. To me, Englebart tried so desperately to explain his points, that the points were lost in translation. If the goal was to tell the story of how we would do what he was proposing, the story is lost on me, and lots more folks.

    A agree that we can do better – but using Englebart’s method to save humanity is not the way to do it – especially when you see how confused many of the folks that read this felt.

    4. 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.

    I think the bigger issue here is this: If it takes an engineering degree and training to augment our intelligence, is is really beneficial? The short answer is, most likely, probably, but as humans, we expect quick solutions. If I need to be an expert in computers to make a list and access it, give me a damn paper and pencil… I think that’s a big reason why it took so long for these ideas to catch on. It wasn’t easy. It took other people – and they pushed Englebart out of the discussion – to take these ideas and make them accessible to EVERYONE.

    Maybe it’s just me… I can see the value of his ideas, just not in this form… I welcome more discussion on this.

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  5. I agree with Steve–I love Gardner’s thoughts on the ironic twist of Englebart’s isolation and the dream of a networked world. It reminds me of Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. With the upcoming release of the movie “The Social Network,” many have been describing the personality of Zuckerberg as socially awkward and shy. Ironic for a guy who invented such a powerful “social” network.

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