Happy New Year: Here’s Our Challenge

On December 9, 2013, Doug Engelbart and his work were honored in a memorial gathering at the Computer History Museum in San Jose, California. The tributes, with a panel discussion following, are up on YouTube. If you’re at all curious about Doug’s vision and the legacy it offers us, I urge you to watch the video. It’s two hours very well spent.

There are several challenges in the video, not just one, but the one I want to highlight here comes from the tribute by Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler, who worked with Doug for several years at the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) and went on to become the founding director of ARPANET’s Network Information Center after. Her tribute starts at 30:12 into the video.

Ms. Feinler had many great memories of Doug and ARC, but the part that resonated most deeply with me came in words she quoted from Doug himself.  The words illustrated Feinler’s experience of ARC as well as her intense admiration for Doug’s vision and humanity. Here’s what Feinler read, from an essay titled “Working Together,” written by Doug and Harvey Lehtman (also of ARC) and published in the December 1988 issue of Byte magazine.

We thought that success in tools for collaborative knowledge work was essential to the necessary evolution of work groups in increasingly knowledge-rich societies and to increasing organizational effectiveness. Until the recent growing interest in CSCW [computer supported collaborative work], most developers limited their analyses to technical issues and ignored the social and organizational implications of the introduction of their tools; such considerations were, however, key to our work.

There is growing recognition that some of the barriers to acceptance of fully integrated systems for augmenting groups of knowledge workers may be more significantly social, not solely technical. The availability of rapidly evolving new technologies implies the need for concomitant evolution in the ways in which work is done in local and geographically distributed groups.

ARC [the Augmentation Research Center] experienced this phenomenon continuously. The bootstrapping approach, so important to the continuing evolution of the system, caused us to constantly undercut our world: As soon as we became used to ways of doing things, we replaced platforms to which we were just becoming accustomed. We needed to learn new roles, change attitudes, and adopt different methods because of growth in the technical system we ourselves produced.

We brought in psychologists and social scientists to serve as observers and facilitators. They were as important to our team as the hardware and software developers. The resistance to change, which we soon realized was an essential part of introducing new technologies into established organizational settings, and the psychological and organizational tensions created by that resistance were apparent in ourselves. We were required to observe ourselves in order to create appropriate methodologies and procedures to go along with our evolving computer technologies. [my emphases]

This language, shifted only slightly, applies equally well to the process of education itself. True learning generates both increasing complexity and, at a meta level, an increasing awareness of the nature and potential uses of that complexity–i.e. strategies of mindfulness. A university is an augmentation research center, is it not? And yet how much time do we spend in fruitful self-observation, in bootstrapping ourselves into higher levels of mindfulness and invention despite the fact that by doing so we inevitably, constantly “undercut our world”? “World” means not the planet or civilization, but the structures and organizations that inevitably choke new growth. These “worlds” must serve the values we profess, not the other way around. These “worlds” and ourselves as their architects and inhabitants must evolve and grow even as we struggle to keep up with the change we have set in motion. “Undercut” is one way to acknowledge the struggle–but “reinvent” is also apt, for it points to the essential goals of learning.

What is the alternative? Bureaucratic self-defense? Does the world need more lessons in that?

2014 is likely to be a full-on year of Engelbart activity for me. The cMOOC I’ll be teaching with Jon Becker (with the able disruptive ingenuity of Tom Woodward) will explore topics central to Doug’s vision and work. There will be at least two Engelbart Scholars among the VCU students who take that course (more details coming soon). And as always, I will be doing my level best to bring Doug’s ideas and the ongoing work of the Engelbart Institute to the conversation about networked learning, wherever I can find it (or it can find me).

One thought on “Happy New Year: Here’s Our Challenge

  1. Dr. C! Thanks for sharing this — inspiring, as always. I esp. liked this quote and will work it into some academic planning discussions underway here:
    “…True learning generates both increasing complexity and, at a meta level, an increasing awareness of the nature and potential uses of that complexity–i.e. strategies of mindfulness. A university is an augmentation research center, is it not?…”
    Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2014!


    p.s : please keep me posted on the cMOOC.

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