Accelerating Augmentation

For what one might call “Engelbart Week” at Open Learning ’17, I abridged Engelbart’s epic, and epochal, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” My thought was to make the reading more manageable, and to bring together resonant passages in a way that revealed some of the more subtle and nuanced textures of the 1962 framework. As often happens, my efforts to help present the material helped me attend to it more thoroughly as well. That, and a Twitter chat in which for the first time, courtesy of the mighty Mo Pelzel, I saw the lovely “whing-ding” part. (Thanks, Mo!)

I always have a lot to say about “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” I’ve blogged about it many times. I’ve mulled it over since 2004, when I first learned of it, and first encountered the name of Doug Engelbart. Rather than rehearse every bit of that, however, I want to share just a few thoughts. I hope they’re relevant to the larger goals of Open Learning ’17 and the Faculty Collaboratives initiative from which our cMOOC springs.

First: It’s interesting that Engelbart is not asking us to consider augmenting human intellect. Instead, he’s asking us to think about the way we as a species have always sought to augment our intellects–with language, with math, with engineering, with symbols generally–and consider his conceptual framework as a research opportunity for studying how we might accelerate the augmentation of our intellects. In this way he’s very aligned with Vannevar Bush. Rather than focusing on the means of augmentation–associative trails. shareable archives, and multiple modalities, etc.–Engelbart focuses on the nature of augmentation itself, what he calls Humans using Language, Artifacts, and Methodologies in which they are Trained (H-LAM/T). He also recognizes that language, artifacts, methodologies, and training will change the humans, who in turn will find ways to change language, artifacts, methodologies, and the process of training itself.

I’m not a big fan of the word “training,” but I take Engelbart’s point. There is an interesting process at work in this suite of human-tool interactions. Engelbart refers to that process as co-evolution. The research project he proposes is to study whether, and in what ways, that co-evolution might be accelerated. Without that research, he argues, we risk being at the mercy of our own ingenuity, forever inventing problems faster than we can solve them. Augmenting human intellect is what our intellects strive to do. The question is whether we will do that intellectual augmentation well, to good purposes, and create solutions faster than we create problems.

Second: purposeful, beneficial co-evolution will require much improved LAM/T affordances for communication and collaboration. Vannevar Bush’s magic desk, the Memex, becomes a visual display, backed up by computers available to individual knowledge workers, that permits and encourages complex symbol exchange as well as flexible storage, retrieval, and sharing capabilities.

Third, and this is something that became newly vivid for me this time, a system that permits and encourages complex symbol exchange as well as flexible storage, retrieval, and sharing capabilities will almost inevitably lead to newly complex symbols and symbol manipulation processes. Mo has blogged very insightfully about this facet of Engelbart’s imagination. What I’d add is two more points. One, that these co-evolutionary processes need to be considered within Engelbart’s conceptual framework in an ongoing manner–as John Seely Brown puts it, the interactions of increasingly complex systems become hyperexponential. (“No top to the ‘S-curve’.”) The other is that even as modes of comprehension increase for some, modes of incomprehension increase for others. The person who sits with “Joe” as Joe demonstrates his new symbol-manipulating capacities reacts in ways that many of us may recognize, either in ourselves or, when we have some inkling of Engelbart’s vision, in those who watch us do the work in open learning that we believe will accelerate the augmentation of human intellect in formal schooling:

[Joe] suggests that you sit and watch him for a while as he pursues some typical work, after which he will do some explaining. You are not particularly flattered by this, since you know that he is just going to be exercising new language and methodology developments on his new artifacts–and after all, the artifacts don’t look a bit different from what you expected–so why should he keep you sitting there as if you were a complete stranger to this stuff? It will just be a matter of “having the computer do some of his symbol-manipulating processes for him so that he can use more powerful concepts and concept-manipulation techniques,” as you have so often been told….3b3b

Lacking some essential humility, Joe’s colleague decides Joe is “just” going to do a little something more with regard to work and contexts Joe’s colleague is already quite familiar with. That word “just” comes up twice. It signals the way in which learning can be exceptionally difficult for many highly trained knowledge workers–not as a result of learning, necessarily, but as a result of the culture within which that learning has occurred. Namely, school.

Then you realized that you couldn’t make any sense at all out of the specific things he was doing, nor of the major part of what you saw on the displays. You could recognize many words, but there were a good number that were obviously special abbreviations of some sort. During the times when a given image or portion of an image remained unchanged long enough for you to study it a bit, you rarely saw anything that looked like a sentence as you were used to seeing one. You were beginning to gather that there were other symbols mixed with the words that might be part of a sentence, and that the different parts of what made a full-thought statement (your feeling about what a sentence is) were not just laid out end to end as you expected. But Joe suddenly cleared the displays and turned to you with a grin that signalled the end of the passive observation period, and also that somehow told you that he knew very well that you now knew that you had needed such a period to shake out some of your limited images and to really realize that a “capability hierarchy” was a rich and vital thing.3b3f

Given the exuberance and even the playfulness with which Engelbart shares his vision, I am confident Joe’s grin was friendly, even empathetic. But it probably didn’t feel that way to Joe’s colleague, whose sense of self-worth was bound up in a strong sense of self-sufficiency that doubtless made it even harder to follow Joe than it might otherwise have been.

“I guess you noticed that I was using unfamiliar notions, symbols, and processes to go about doing things that were even more unfamiliar to you?” You made a non-committal nod–you saw no reason to admit to him that you hadn’t even been able to tell which of the things he had been doing were to cooperate with which other things–and he continued. “To give you a feel for what goes on, I’m going to start discussing and demonstrating some of the very basic operations and notions I’ve been using. You’ve read the stuff about process and process-capability hierarchies, I’m sure. I know from past experience in explaining radical augmentation systems to people that the new and powerful higher-level capabilities that they are interested in–because basically those are what we are all anxious to improve–can’t really be explained to them without first giving them some understanding of the new and powerful capabilities upon which they are built.

This is a crucial moment in Joe’s explanation, underscoring Engelbart’s fundamental insistence on establishing a robust conceptual framework available for considering every single part of the “capability hierarchies.” As Joe will go on to argue, it’s no good tinkering with improvements at a higher level if one cannot understand and conceptualize every other level as well. (Which of course can make it difficult to distinguish “higher” and “lower” levels–as it should, confusing as that may seem.)

This holds true right on down the line to the type of low-level capability that is new and different to them all right, but that they just wouldn’t ordinarily see as being ‘powerful.’ And yet our systems wouldn’t be anywhere near as powerful without them, and a person’s comprehension of the system would be rather shallow if he didn’t have some understanding of these basic capabilities and of the hierarchical structure built up from them to provide the highest-level capabilities.”

I take it that Joe’s point, and Engelbart’s, is that we should be humble enough to recognize that a reconceptualization of much that we take for granted as a “low-level capability” will probably be necessary before we can have the depth of comprehension we need to pursue co-evolution and collective IQ (of all types!) in beneficial ways.

It takes humility, and hospitality, to spend time with new ideas, to try them on our pulses, to go deep and go long with concepts that ask us to re-examine many things we take for granted. There’s work to be done. No one has time for this kind of engagement. And what’s the incentive?

For Engelbart, the incentive was the chance to work toward the betterment of humankind by thinking about human ingenuity in a new framework, and with a new mind-like technology, the digital computer, that could accelerate both a) the research that discovered new knowledge and b) improvements in the knowledge-working environment that could c) devise ways to implement that knowledge and keep the process going in a beneficial direction.

It’s always seemed to me that this incentive is the very mission of education, particularly of higher education. Yet as many Open Learning ’17 participants pointed out in our Twitter chat last Friday, intellectual humility and hospitality can be hard to come by.

Engelbart said he never got over being naive. I take him at his word. But I also see that even in 1962, he knew all too well the cultural, intellectual, and professional barriers he would be likely to face. Certainly post-1962, Engelbart experienced several setbacks that would have stopped a lesser person. Yet in 2006, over forty years after he wrote “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework,” he was humble and hospitable enough to telephone an English professor at a small public liberal arts college in Virginia, just to return his call, and to talk, if only for a little while, about the long-distance thinking Doug Engelbart never abandoned.

One thought on “Accelerating Augmentation

  1. “It takes humility, and hospitality, to spend time with new ideas, to try them on our pulses, to go deep and go long with concepts that ask us to re-examine many things we take for granted. There’s work to be done. No one has time for this kind of engagement. And what’s the incentive?”

    Unfortunately, I find myself thinking this way every week.

    How might we realign the incentive structure of academia to make it easier for faculty to pursue this critical “mission of higher education?”

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