That’s the stark dictum that closes this very beautiful lyric by the 19th-century German poet Rilke. It’s a poem worth reading:
|Archaic Torso of Apollo|
|by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Stephen Mitchell
We cannot know his legendary head with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low, gleams in all its power. Otherwise the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through the placid hips and thighs to that dark center where procreation flared. Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur: would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.
I love everything about that poem, particularly in this translation. The lyric manages to be awestruck, roguish, erotic, stern, and breathtakingly imperative all at once. It represents a very complex frame of mind indeed. And the greatest complexity comes at the end, with that command that is so direct and at the same time so dense with meaning. Is it a conclusion? A rueful or resigned admission? A command? Why does the inclusive “we” quickly morph to “you,” allowing the poet to address an unseen companion so very urgently?
Rather than get all lit-crit on you, dear reader, I want to say that the conceptual framework in this poem is one of augmenting human intellect, just as surely as Doug Engelbart’s vision for interactive computing was and is. When we are faced with the shared experience of beauty and meaning, or at least the potential for these things, we understand that we are challenged to be answerable to that experience, and to create within it those things we will in turn share with our fellow human beings. Not to put to fine a point upon it: I’m talking about bootstrapping, recursion, feedback and feedforward loops, symbols and metaphors and carefully noted observations and measurements, an integrated domain.
But to get there, even to recognize the “there” that we want to get to, we have to alter our conceptual frameworks. We have to change our lives. The change comes, not in response to coercion or lemming-like marches to the superdrumming of consumer culture, but in response to an unmistakable encounter with beauty, meaning, life. A conceptual framework that recognizes the augmentation inherent in learning, narrating, curating, sharing. An integrated domain.
I did my deepest dive ever into Engelbart’s conceptual framework just a few weeks ago, when at Brandeis University I led a group of librarians, faculty, and edtech folk in an Engelbartian analysis of a live performance by Jimi Hendrix of “Red House.” Nine minutes long, and I played it all. I had the folks organize themselves into five small groups and gave them all the same charge, though I didn’t tell them what was coming. I expected to get bafflement, resistance, incredulity, and maybe a few brave imaginations who’d at least try to engage with my deeply strange and ambitious idea. What happened instead took *my* breath away. Every single group rose beautifully to the challenge, teaching me things about that performance I’d never thought of before, with each group building on the preceding groups’ work, on the fly, and with a depth of commitment and beauty of expression that nearly brought me to tears more than once.
It’s all in the frame of mind, the invisible “largest organ” that Scott McCloud memorably compares to our skin in the chapter “Time Frames” from his Understanding Comics. When the conceptual framework is in place–and the framework is both an integrated domain and a platform for bootstrapping and augmentation–almost everything is possible. When the conceptual framework isn’t there, the deepest engagement forever eludes us. Worst of all, we never get to the deepest understanding of all, the one that brings us to the awe Rilke describes and Sherry delightfully imagines here.
Engelbart’s essay ends with these words, words that sadly are not included in The New Media Reader:
This is an open plea to researchers and to those who ultimately motivate, finance, or direct them, to turn serious attention toward the possibility of evolving a dynamic discipline that can treat the problem of improving intellectual effectiveness in a total sense. This discipline should aim at producing a continuous cycle of improvements–increased understanding of the problem, improved means for developing new augmentation systems, and improved augmentation systems that can serve the world’s problem solvers in general and this discipline’s workers in particular. After all, we spend great sums for disciplines aimed at understanding and harnessing nuclear power. Why not consider developing a discipline aimed at understanding and harnessing “neural power?” In the long run, the power of the human intellect is really much the more important of the two.
In many respects, Engelbart’s plea echoes through all the readings we’ve done this semester. It echoes in my own open plea for my fellow educators, faculty and staff and students alike, to embrace the challenge of making real school into that “dynamic discipline that can treat the problem of improving intellectual effectiveness in a total sense.” School should be the place where bootstrapping is at its finest, where conceptual frameworks for augmenting human intellect are explored and co-created by staff and students and teachers alike, where an integrated domain is constantly imagined, experienced, and invented anew. The astonishing, troubling, and inspiring power of interactive computing can make that possible, if we bring our whole new minds to the task, and if we have the honesty and courage to engage with the conceptual frameworks interactive computing represents and can, in turn, make newly possible. Alex Reid says it succinctly and eloquently:
Simply put, you cannot keep your non-digital notion of what it means to be an academic and become digital. It is a more fundamental transition than that. It means inhabiting a new academic space with new behaviors and expectations. Just like we all learned in graduate school what it meant to be non-digital academics, one must now learn those ethics anew.
I leave this seminar being really excited about the future–what it holds for us as educators and parents, the possibilities for our children to live richer lives as a result of New Media…. As I think about all this, my minds goes back to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” the part that says,
I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world.
And then I think about my own children, and realize that this is what the New Media will make possible.
Or at least, what it can make possible, if we see that we must change our lives. Parenting makes that imperative very vivid. Perhaps the opportunity to bring a new academy into being can do this for us as well. Perhaps if we stop trying to tweak our tired industrial schooling processes, and instead change our conceptual framework to imagine a newly integrated domain in which we actually do co-create that augmentation we claim we want, the augmentation so many of these thinkers and dreamers invented computers to empower, we can keep our eyes on that wonderful world, not as techno-utopians, but as fellow laborers in the vineyard (to choose an old metaphor), fellow new medianauts struck with wonder at the possibilities this new language of interactive computing reveals.