Trails of wonder, rigorously explored.

On our way to Solsbury Hill, 2003

This week, Open Learning ’17 turns to Doug Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework”–but I want to write a few words about “As We May Think,” first.

One of the great things about a learning experience undertaken with others is the way familiar texts reveal new layers of meaning and implication. This time around with “As We May Think,” an essay I’ve read maybe twenty times or more, I was particularly struck the multiple meanings of Vannevar Bush’s idea of “associative trails.” Some of these trails we make deliberately, the way we construct an argument, but also the way we build a curriculum, organize a course of study, or even write a story. Bush envisions a time when such trails, with all the context (or “scaffolding”) that’s part of the story of the trail-blazing, will help good ideas come into being more frequently:

When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined. In each code space appears the code word. Out of view, but also in the code space, is inserted a set of dots for photocell viewing; and on each item these dots by their positions designate the index number of the other item.

Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space. Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.

This process, amplified considerably across the Web, is very much what Jon Udell describes during our conversation last week, in a powerful demonstration of as both an individual and a crowdsourced Memex.

I think it’s fair to say that we believe expertise will result in more interesting and fruitful trails, some of them so interesting and fruitful that the trails themselves become objects of study. The Memex also gives us a better opportunity to study both results and process, and to study in particular those associative trail-makers who are particularly ingenious and conceptually powerful in their ability to build new ideas and implementations out of new combinations. This power of juxtaposition and connection drives the primary modes of discovery Steven Johnson analyzes in Where Good Ideas Come From, and it also underlies Jon Udell’s idea of “manufactured serendipity” that’s taken up as “designed serendipity” by Michael Nielsen in Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science

Of course, environments that increase the likelihood of interesting and revelatory juxtapositions only work if the learner in those environments has a combinatorial disposition, one that adds to innate curiosity the disciplined education that yields the conceptual frameworks one can build with and upon, the divergent-convergent meta-education that helps one recognize when to arrange the cards and when to shuffle them (and thus try to elude confirmation bias and path dependency), and the cognitive energy to present novelty to a blinking audience and share that novelty widely whether or not the occasion provides immediate affirmation–or any affirmation at all.

Bush writes:

There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.

This new profession is in one respect an old one: that of the teacher. (A quick aside: I recognize and regret that Vannevar Bush is sexist throughout the essay, even allowing for the old and regrettable practice of using “he” and “him” as so-called “general pronouns.” At the same time, I want to be hospitable to his ideas, and humble about matters about which the future will likely judge us harshly because of our own blindnesses.) The talk of “master” and “disciple” may cause our Foucault to fall off the shelf, narrowly missing our heads, or not. For me, the language is deeply resonant and liberating, as the idea of mastery conveys what Bruner defines as “understanding,” that is, “going beyond the information given.” That power of going-beyond can, I believe, be taught, not so much through direct instruction but by the teacher’s energy and commitment in modeling that process. For me, that’s what it meant to be a disciple of Dr. Elizabeth Phillips, my beloved English professor. She found delight in her making, in her going-beyond, not as a means of humiliating her disciple Gardner, putting me in my place, but as a way of encouraging me, putting me in her place, if only by helping me to imagine her and her place more deeply.

In the poet Walt Whitman’s words:

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you. (Song of Myself, section 52, 14-16)

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill

Though her death has put our lives so far apart we can no longer hear each other speak, I continue to find my beloved professor, indeed to find her by following her, emulating her as I practice my own mastery, such as it is. For among many other things, Elizabeth’s mastery revealed itself in her delighted sharing of the scaffolding of her additions to the world’s record. She instructed me, but she did so by inviting me into the workshop where she crafted those additions. That invitation is precious indeed, because the associative trails of master trail blazers can become mere “content” to be “delivered,” and thus lose what the poet Robert Frost calls the “most precious quality” of a poem, “its having run itself and carried away the poet with it … its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.” My intellectual discipleship (a word related to discipline, as in the object of study we pursue and the focused energy of that pursuit) follows not only the trails she blazed, but the light of that blazing, the surprise and delight shared generously and openly by my beloved English professor, shared that I might follow.

That opening does not come within “the information given,” but in the masters’ willingness to share their experience of being carried away. The disciples learn they may be carried away too, not by the cult of personality (always a danger, to be sure) but by the energy of insight as experienced in the context of lived experience. Michael Nielsen describes something like this in Reinventing Discovery, when he recounts a transformative moment in his own learning, one that the Internet at its best can amplify and extend:

What’s important then is that blogs make it possible for anyone with an internet connection to get an informal, rapid-fire glimpse into the minds of many of the world’s scientists. You can go to the blog of Terence Tao and follow along as he struggles to extend our understanding of some of the deepest ideas of mathematics. It’s not just the scientific content that matters, it’s the culture that is revealed, a particular way of viewing the world. This view of the world can take many forms. On the blog of experimental physicist Chad Orzel you can read his whimsical explanations fo physics to his dog, or his discussions of explosions in the laboratory. The content ranges widely,but as you read, a pattern starts to take shape: you start to understand at least a little about how an experimental physicist views the world:L what he thinks is funny, what he thinks is important, what he finds irritating. You may not necessarily agree with this view of the world, or completely understand it, but it’s interesting and transformative nonetheless. Exposure to this view of the world has always been possible if you live in one of the world’s intellectual capitals, places such as Boston, Cambridge, and Paris,. Many blog readers no doubt live in such intellectual centers. But you also routinely see comments on the blog from people who live outside the intellectual centers. I grew up in a big city (Brisbane) in Australia. Compared to most of the world’s population, I had a youth of intellectual privilege. And yet the first time in my life that I heard a scientist speaking informally was when I was 16. It changed my life. Now anyone with an internet connection can go online, and get a glimpse into how scientists think and how they view the world, and perhaps even participate in the conversation. How many people’s lives will that change? (168-169)

I suppose the answer to Nielsen’s question depends on the willingness of professional trail blazers to keep an open Memex, and the willingness of other trail blazers to make their own Memexes available to help even more trail blazers to discover the work of those professionals … and the scaffolding of their delights and serendipities, the records of insight in the context of their lived experience, the context we provide to each other, to keep each other encouraged to keep looking.

Nielsen writes:

Science blogs show in nascent form what can happen when you remove the barriers separating scientists from the rest of the community, and enable a genuine two-way flow of information. A friend of mine who was fortunate enough to attend Princeton University once told me that the best thing about attending Princeton wasn’t the classes, or even the classmates he met. Rather, it was meeting some of the extraordinarily accomplished professors, and realizing that they were just people–people who sometimes got upset over trivial things, or who made silly jokes, or who made boneheaded mistakes, or who had faced great challenges in their life, and who somehow, despite their faults and challenges, very occasionally managed to do something extraordinary. “If they can do it, I can do it too” was the most important lesson my friend learned. (167-168)

Vannevar Bush’s idea of “associative trails” extends that insight in yet another direction, one that links the professional trail blazer sharing connections and scaffolding with the amateur trail blazer, the disciple, who realizes, as Nielsen’s friend realizes, that associative trail blazing is a human birthright, one to be exercised within freely chosen following as well as idiosyncratic non-following. The idea is that we should attend to our own thinking, and learn from it, and respect the humanity of it, and let that respect free us into agency: “If they can do it, I can do it too.” To which the best mastery will reply, “Yes! Go discover and create your mastery!”

Solsbury Hill

Vannevar Bush writes:

The human mind … operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.

Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency. The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.

There are holes in the argument, things to critique, and (regrettably, as one sees from the Hypothesis annotations online) occasions for smuggery and snark. First, however, hospitality: the “speed of action” in our minds that creates an “intricate web of trails” and “detail[ed] mental pictures” is “awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.” The human mind: as we say to our toddlers when we walk them to the mirror, “Look, that’s you!” The associative trails within each of our minds, linkages that include others’ associative trails as well as the results and modes of professional trail blazers whom we follow, constitute the poem of the self that we draft each day, writing ourselves into being yet once more. How can one not feel interest, surprise, wonder, awe, or even liberating confusion, all of the feelings Paul Silvia calls “knowledge emotions,” at these daily rites, profoundly individual, profoundly shared? Perhaps more open and opening Memexes will bring us more occasions for wonder, at ourselves and at others. Perhaps wonder will open the way to equity, reverence, love. Perhaps we have something to say about that.

Overlooking Bath on Solsbury Hill

So what does all of this have to do with mind-liberating education? Dear reader, fellow traveler, you have some of my scaffolding and some of the trails they support. If you’re part of my network, as very many of you are, I have some of your scaffolding and the trails they support as well.

Thank you.

There is no easy way to be free.

Let us keep encouraged.

Overlooking Bath, Solsbury Hill

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