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).

Two birthdays, an anniversary, and a brief lament

First, the birthdays.

Happy birthday to the author I’ve studied and delighted over for the last thirty-three years: John Milton, born 1608.

John Milton, busted.

I never imagined I’d spend my life reading and thinking and writing about this writer. Just goes to show. (Show what? I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.)

Happy birthday wishes also go out to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, the mother of COBOL, a fountain of wit and wisdom, and a pioneering genius of computer science. I first learned about Admiral Hopper from Dr. David Evans’ Udacity course CS101. (Yes, Udacity. It just goes to show.) Dr. Evans linked to her famous interview with David Letterman, and I was an instant fan.

“Grace Murray Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard, c. 1960.” From Wikipedia.

The anniversary: 45 years ago today, Dr. Douglas Engelbart sat on a stage in San Francisco and, according to one awestruck observer, “dealt lightning with both hands.” The event has come to be known as “the mother of all demos.” There’s a very nice remembrance of Doug and his demo in The Atlantic today. I know there’s also a memorial happening right about now in San Jose, as his daughter Christina and many of Doug’s family, friends, and admirers are gathered to remember the demo and Doug, who passed away this year on July 5.

I talked to Doug for about an hour, back in 2006. I met him and shook his hand in 2008 on the night before the 40th anniversary of the mother of all demos. I am humbled to be working with Christina on a project for this summer and beyond. I am so very grateful to be linked in spirit and work with Doug’s vision. When there are dark or confusing days, I try to remember how lucky I am to have found that vision, and to have thanked that visionary, while he was still with us.

Here’s the first part of the mother of all demos:

And here’s a version my wonderful student Phillip Heinrich did for a final project in my second-ever “Introduction to New Media Studies” class, what eventually became “From Memex To YouTube: Cognition, Learning, and the Internet” (and will have another morphing this summer at VCU and worldwide–watch this space):

Phillip’s work is a conceptual mashup of Doug’s demo and Michael Wesch’s “The Machine Is Us/ing Us.” Even four years later, Phillip’s work still dazzles. Apparently Doug himself saw it at one point, which makes me very joyful.


I write these words from a hotel room in Atlanta, where I’m attending the annual meeting of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. I’ve heard some inspiring speakers and learned a great deal about more of the vast machinery of higher education. At the same time, I’ve seen many folks whose eyes are on fire with a passionate devotion to learning and teaching. I honor them, and salute their survival despite the vast machinery that exists, in part and sometimes ironically, to support them and their vocations.

The lament is for the ways in which the notion of “technology” that surrounds me here is untouched by the vision of either Grace Hopper or Doug Engelbart. When I hear a presenter say that a survey couldn’t include questions about “technology” as part of its core because “technology changes so rapidly,” I groan inwardly. In addition to the (typically) underthought use of the word “technology,” the speaker obviously has confused computing devices with computing. In the latter sense, “technology” has not changed substantially since the introduction of networked, interactive, personal computing, with the possible exception of mobile computing. But the confusion here keeps “technology” questions in a different survey “module,” and keeps educators from learning or even asking what they don’t know. (And eventually we all suffer.)

Similarly, when I hear another presenter say “we didn’t know technology would eliminate jobs the way it has,” then offer a list of “technology improvements” for the organization that include new computers and monitors, new office software, etc., I have to gnash my teeth (quietly, but still). How can we be in 2013 and still be so far removed from even the outer edges of the bright light shed by the visions of Hopper and Engelbart, among many others? How can we call ourselves educators and be content not only to remain in darkness, but to spread it through inaction and (I’m sorry, but it must be said) ignorance?

More than once at this conference I’ve heard presenters talk about “technology” in the same breath that they lament how old they are and how strange youth culture seems to them. Sometimes the lament is mingled with a little of that “kids, get off my lawn” curmudgeonliness. We all get to be a little prickly as we age, I guess, but methinks we do protest too much. Doug Engelbart and Grace Hopper didn’t surrender their visions as age overtook them. We do ourselves and our students no good service to remain in the shallows we have created for ourselves, the shallows we continue to excuse and extend. As Janet Murray writes, “When will we recognize the gift for what it is…?” Or as Doug Engelbart asked on that San Francisco stage forty-five years ago today:

If, in your office, you as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly responsive to every action you had, how much value could you derive from that?

Both Murray’s and Engelbart’s questions remain unanswered, and that itself is worth lamenting. The real grief comes, for me, because the questions are almost never asked, even among those who pride themselves on the arts of inquiry.

A sad case, but there is still hope. My students have taught me that.

Thomas Merton on Education

 

Thomas Merton’s hermitage.

Very salutary readings for a rainy Sunday morning at the SACS-COC conference in Atlanta, Georgia. This is the first time I’ve attended this annual meeting. Higher education is my vocation, so you wouldn’t think I’d have culture shock here–but I find I do. Perhaps that’s a first-timer’s gift. I must practice gratitude!

Here are some of Merton’s thoughts. These come from a man who had been educated in France, England (graduating from Cambridge), and the US (graduating with an MA from Columbia University). For a short time, he was a professor of English at St. Bonaventure. So he knows whereof he speaks.

“The danger of education, I have found, is that it so easily confuses means with ends. Worse than that, it quite easily forgets both and devotes itself merely to the mass production of uneducated graduates–people literally unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade which they and their contemporaries have conspired to call ‘life’.”

“The least of the work of learning is done in classrooms.”

“Anyone who regards love as a deal made on the basis of ‘needs’ is in danger of falling into a purely quantitative ethic. If love is a deal, then who is to say that you should not make as many deals as possible?” [One can substitute "learning" for "love" and reach the same conclusion.]

“[A publisher asked me to write something on 'The Secret of Success,' and I refused.] If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. … If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted. If a university concentrates on producing successful people, it is lamentably failing in its obligation to society and to the students themselves.” [Particularly bracing words given the buzz here--and in my own title at work!--regarding "student success." Who would wish that our students would fail? Yet too narrow a view of success may be the most insidious route to failure of them all.]

And finally, in words that I would love to see above every classroom door and on the cover of every learning-related conference (my editorial material is clumsy but I want to present Merton generously):

“The purpose of education is to show a person how to define himself [or herself] authentically and spontaneously in relation to his [or her] world–not to impose a prefabricated definition of the world, still less an arbitrary definition of the individual himself [or herself].”

Source: Love and Living.
h/t @rovinglibrarian, @graceiseverywhere

Doug Engelbart, transcontextualist

@GardnerCampbell's TEDx Talk: Wisdom as a Learning Outcome

I’ve been mulling over this next post for far too long, and the results will be brief and rushed (such bad food, and such small portions!). You have been warned.

The three strands, or claims I’m engaging with (EDIT: I’ve tried to make things clearer and more parallel in the list below):

1. The computer is  “just a tool.” This part’s in partial response to the comments on my previous post.

2. Doug Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” is “difficult to understand” or “poorly written.” This one’s a perpetual reply. :) It was most recently triggered by an especially perplexing Twitter exchange shared with me by Jon Becker.

3. Engelbart’s ideas regarding the augmentation of human intellect aim for an inhuman and inhumane parsing of thought and imagination, an “efficiency expert” reduction of the richness of human cognition. This one tries to think about some points raised in the VCU New Media Seminar this fall.

These are the strands. The weave will be loose. (Food, textiles, textures, text.)

1. There is no such thing as “just a tool.” McLuhan wisely notes that tools are not inert things to be used by human beings, but extensions of human capabilities that redefine both the tool and the user. A “tooler” results, or perhaps a “tuser” (pronounced “TOO-zer”). I believe those two words are neologisms but I’ll leave the googling as an exercise for the tuser. The way I used to explain this is my new media classes was to ask students to imagine a hammer lying on the ground and a person standing above the hammer. The person picks up the hammer. What results? The usual answers are something like “a person with a hammer in his or her hand.” I don’t hold much with the elicit-a-wrong-answer-then-spring-the-right-one-on-them school of “Socratic” instruction, but in this case it was irresistible and I tried to make a game of it so folks would feel excited, not tricked. “No!” I would cry. “The result is a HammerHand!” This answer was particularly easy to imagine inside Second Life, where metaphors become real within the irreality of a virtual landscape. In fact, I first came up with the game while leading a class in Second Life–but that’s for another time.

So no “just a tool,” since a HammerHand is something quite different from a hammer or a hand, or a hammer in a hand. It’s one of those small but powerful points that can make one see the designed built world, a world full of builders and designers (i.e., human beings), as something much less inert and “external” than it might otherwise appear. It can also make one feel slightly deranged, perhaps usefully so, when one proceeds through the quotidian details (so-called) of a life full of tasks and taskings.

To complicate matters further, the computer is an unusual tool, a meta-tool, a machine that simulates any other machine, a universal machine with properties unlike any other machine. Earlier in the seminar this semester a sentence popped out of my mouth as we talked about one of the essays–”As We May Think”? I can’t remember now: “This is your brain on brain.” What Papert and Turkle refer to as computers’ “holding power” is not just the addictive cat videos (not that there’s anything wrong with that, I imagine), but something weirdly mindlike and reflective about the computer-human symbiosis. One of my goals continues to be to raise that uncanny holding power into a fuller (and freer) (and more metaphorical) (and more practical in the sense of able-to-be-practiced) mode of awareness so that we can be more mindful of the environment’s potential for good and, yes, for ill. (Some days, it seems to me that the “for ill” part is almost as poorly understood as the “for good” part, pace Morozov.)

George Dyson writes, “The stored-program computer, as conceived by Alan Turing and delivered by John von Neumann, broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things. Our universe would never be the same” (Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe). This is a very bold statement. I’ve connected it with everything from the myth of Orpheus to synaesthetic environments like the one @rovinglibrarian shared with me in which one can listen to, and visualize, Wikipedia being edited. Thought vectors in concept space, indeed. The closest analogies I can find are with language itself, particularly the phonetic alphabet.

The larger point is now at the ready: in fullest practice and perhaps even for best results, particularly when it comes to deeper learning, it may well be that nothing is just anything. Bateson describes the moment in which “just a” thing becomes far more than “just a” thing as a “double take.” For Bateson, the double take bears a thrilling and uneasy relationship to the double bind, as well as to some kinds of derangement that are not at all beneficial. (This is the double-edged sword of human intellect, a sword that sometimes has ten edges or more–but I digress.) This double take (the kids call it, or used to call it, “wait what?”) indicates a moment of what Bateson calls “transcontextualism,” a paradoxical level-crossing moment (micro to macro, instance to meta, territory to map, or vice-versa) that initiates or indicates (hard to tell) deeper learning.

It seems that both those whose life is enriched by transcontextual gifts and those who are impoverished by transcontextual confusions are alike in one respect: for them there is always or often a “double take.” A falling leaf, the greeting of a friend, or a “primrose by the river’s brim” is not “just that and nothing more.” Exogenous experience may be framed in the contexts of dream, and internal thought may be projected into the contexts of the external world. And so on. For all this, we seek a partial explanation in learning and experience. (“Double Bind, 1969,” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, U Chicago Press, 2000, p. 272). (EDIT: I had originally typed “eternal world,” but Bateson writes “external.” It’s an interesting typo, though, so I remember it here.)

It does seem to me, very often, that we do our best to purge our learning environments of opportunities for transcontextual gifts to emerge. This is understandable, given how bad and indeed “unproductive” (by certain lights) the transcontextual confusions can be. No one enjoys the feeling of falling, unless there are environments and guides that can make the falling feel like flying–more matter for another conversation, and a difficult art indeed, and one that like all art has no guarantees (pace Madame Tussaud).

2. So now the second strand, regarding Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” Much of this essay, it seems to me, is about identifying and fostering transcontextualism (transcontextualization?) as a networked activity in which both the individual and the networked community recognize the potential for “bootstrapping” themselves into greater learning through the kind of level-crossing Bateson imagines (Douglas Hofstadter explores these ideas too, particularly in I Am A Strange Loop and, it appears, in a book Tom Woodward is exploring and brought to my attention yesterday, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. That title alone makes the recursive point very neatly). So when Engelbart switches modes from engineering-style-specification to the story of bricks-on-pens to the dialogue with “Joe,” he seems to me not to be willful or even prohibitively difficult (though some of the ideas are undeniably complex). He seems to me to be experimenting with transcontextualism as an expressive device, an analytical strategy, and a kind of self-directed learning, a true essay: an attempt:

And by “complex situations” we include the professional problems of diplomats, executives, social scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, attorneys, designers–whether the problem situation exists for twenty minutes or twenty years.

A list worthy of Walt Whitman, and one that explicitly (and for me, thrillingly) crosses levels and enacts transcontextualism.

Here’s another list, one in which Engelbart tallies the range of “thought kernels” he wants to track in his formulative thinking (one might also say, his “research”):

The “unit records” here, unlike those in the Memex example, are generally scraps of typed or handwritten text on IBM-card-sized edge-notchable cards. These represent little “kernels” of data, thought, fact, consideration, concepts, ideas, worries, etc. That are relevant to a given problem area in my professional life.

Again, the listing enacts a principle: we map a problem space, a sphere of inquiry, along many dimensions–or we should. Those dimensions cross contexts–or they should. To think about this in terms of language for a moment, Engelbart’s idea seems to be that we should track our “kernels” across the indicative, the imperative, the subjunctive, the interrogative. To put it another way, we should be mindful of, and somehow make available for mindful building, many varieties of cognitive activity, including affect (which can be distinguished but not divided from cognition).

3. I don’t think this activity increases efficiency, if efficiency means “getting more done in less time.” (A “cognitive Taylorism,” as one seminarian put it.) More what is always the question. For me, Engelbart’s transcontextual gifts (and I’ll concede that there are likely transcontextual confusions in there too–it’s the price of trancontextualism, clearly) are such that the emphasis lands squarely on effectiveness, which in his essay means more work with positive potential (understanding there’s some disagreement but not total disagreement about what “positive” means).

It’s an attempt to tell more of the the whole truth about experience, and to build a better world out of those double takes. Together.

Is Engelbart’s essay a flawless attempt? Of course not. But for me, Bateson’s idea of transcontextualism helps to explain the character of the attempt, and to indicate how brave and necessary it is, especially within a world we can and must (and do, yet often willy nilly) build together.

Not perfect; just miraculous.

More on this anon!

Understanding the machine

Last week’s VCU’s New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar took up two related but also quite distinct essays: Norbert Wiener’s “Men, Machines, and the World About” and J.C.R. Licklider’s “Man-Computer Symbiosis.” Aside from the regrettable (but understandable) androcentric language, both essays are forward-looking, yet in different ways. Each of them understands that human history moves in the direction of greater complexity, especially in the accelerating streams of technological innovation and invention. (Wiener wrote a whole book on the subject of invention, one well worth reading, though it was not published until years after his death.) Both writers write about machines, systems, and human-machine interaction. Both writers emphasize that the computer is a new kind of machine. Wiener writes of a “logical machine” with feedback loops, and Licklider emphasizes the “routinizable, clerical” capabilities of the computer. Although neither one uses the magical phrase “universal machine” that Alan Turing uses, they both seem to understand that a difference in degree (speed, memory) can mean a difference in kind. Wiener also writes of “the machine whose taping [i.e., programming] is continually being modified by experience” and concludes that this kind of a machine “can, in some sense, learn.” Such machine learning, and research into its possibilities, is going on all around us today, and that pace too is accelerating. (Google Translate is but one example. Notice that it keeps getting better?)

Part of the experience computers learn from, of course, is our experience–that is, computers can be made and programmed so that they adapt to (learn from) our uses of them. It was hard to see this happening in the pre-Internet era. We could customize various things in DOS, and on the Macintosh, and on Windows (yes, even on Windows), but we didn’t have the feeling of the computer adapting to our uses. For that phenomenon to become truly visible, we needed the World Wide Web and cloud computing. (If you see an unidiomatic translation in Google Translate, click on the word, and Google Translate gives you the opportunity to teach it something.) The computer that learns from us most visibly is the computer formed of the decentralized, open, ubiquitous Internet, as that medium is harnessed by various entities. The most powerful application ever deployed on the Internet, the platform that enabled the macro-computer of the Internet to become visible and self-stimulating, is the World Wide Web.

Which leads me to my point, one already made more elegantly by Michael Wesch (see “The Machine is Us/ing Us“), Kevin Kelly, and Jon Udell, among many others. As we publish to the Web, purposefully and variously and creatively, we also make the Web. This is also true on the micro scale of personal computing, deeply considered, but we see the effects most powerfully at the macro scale of networked, interactive, personal computing enabled by the World Wide Web. The Web, freely given to the world by Tim Berners-Lee, is a metaplatform with the peculiar recursive phenomenon of unrolling before your eyes as you walk forward upon it. It is a world that appears in the very making–assuming, of course, that you are indeed a web maker and not simply a web user.

Wiener writes, “If we want to live with the machine, we must understand the machine, we must not worship the machine…. It is going to be a difficult time. if we can live through it and keep our heads, and if we are not annihilated by war itself and our other problems, there is a great chance of turning the machine to human advantage, but the machine itself has no particular favor for humanity.” If the machine is us, however, as Michael Wesch argues (and in the case of the machine of networked, interactive, personal computing on the World Wide Web, I agree), then Wiener’s statement reads like this:

If we want to live with ourselves, we must understand ourselves, we must not worship ourselves…. It is going to be a difficult time. If we can live through it and keep our heads, and if we are not annihilated by war itself and our other problems, there is a great chance of turning ourselves to human advantage, but we ourselves have no particular favor for humanity.

The idea of enlarging human capabilities should make us nervous, I suppose, but it’s a step forward to understand that that is what we’re thinking about, and that is what’s uniquely empowered and enlarged by interactive, networked, personal computing. From art to medicine to engineering to business and beyond, one capability we have and share, to an alarming and exhilarating extent, is a capability for enlarging our capabilities. Computers are an interesting manifestation of that capability, and a powerful means of using (exploiting, unleashing) that capability. As is education. (Schooling? Depends on the day and the school and the teacher.)

Once we understand that, deeply, we may to Poincare’s observation, quoted by Licklider: “The question is not, ‘What is the answer?’ The question is, ‘What is the question?’”

Licklider dreamed of using computers to help humans “through an intuitively guided trial-and-error procedure” to formulate better questions. I am hopeful that awakening our digital imaginations will lead us to formulate better questions about our species’ inquiring nature and our very quest for understanding itself.

No way out but through

A-Bomb group leaders, via NY Times/Bettmann/Corbis

Last week’s NMFS here at Virginia Commonwealth University discussed Vannevar Bush’s epochal (and, in its way, epic) “As We May Think.” The essay truly marks a profound shift, appearing just as WWII was about to conclude with a display of horrific invention that still has the power to make one’s mind go blank with fear. From Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour to a film that can still give me nightmares, The Day After, the mushroom cloud that signifies this invention hung over my childhood and adolescence–and I don’t expect it will ever go away. Now that we know how, there is no unknowing unless civilization erases itself.

But as myth, fiction, and science continue to demonstrate, each in its own way, there are thousands of demonstrations of the real problem to hand every day: human ingenuity. It’s easy to get distracted by the name “technology,” as if it’s what we make, rather than our role as makers, that’s to blame. But no, it’s the makers we should lament. Or celebrate. Or watchfully, painfully love.

The state of man does change and vary,
Now sound, now sick, now blyth, now sary,
Now dansand mirry, now like to die:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

William Dunbar, “Lament for the Makers”

What shall we do with these vexing, alarming, exhilarating abilities? We learn, we know, we symbolize. Sometimes we believe we understand. We find a huddling place. We explore, and share our stories.

Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems.

Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think”

For several iterations through the seminar, that word “presumably” leapt out at me, signalling a poignant, wary hope as well as a frank admission that all hope is a working assumption and can be nothing more. This time, however, the word “review” glows on the page. Re-view. Why look again? How can repetition make the blind to see? Ever tried to find something hiding in plain sight? Ever felt the frustration of re-viewing with greater intensity, while feeling deep down that the fiercer looking merely amplifies the darkness? (Ever tried to proofread a paper?)

We console ourselves with the joke, attributed to Einstein, that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing again and again while expecting different results. Yet we hope that thinking, mindfully undertaken, may contradict that wry observation. We hope that thinking again can also mean thinking differently, that a re-view strengthened by a meta-view can yield more insight and bring us a better result than the initial view did. Look again. Think again. And, in Vannevar Bush’s dream of a future, a dream that empowered epochal making, looking again and thinking again would be enriched, not encumbered, by a memory extender, a “memex”:

[Man] has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory.

What is this experiment? When exactly did we sign the papers giving our informed consent to any such thing?

Our ingenuity is the experiment, the problem, the hope. Our birthright may also be our death warrant. Is that the logical conclusion?

Yet, in the application of science to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome.

The word “science” signifies more than simply the methodological revolutions emerging in Renaissance Europe. For me, it signifies knowing. We in the humanities enact our own experiments in knowing, exerting our own ingenuity both constructively and destructively. We too are makers.

Re-view. Analyze more completely. “Encompass the great record and … grow in the wisdom of race [i.e., species] experience.” As we may think, and create and share “momentary stays against confusion.”

No way out but through.

Optimism

3. Hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something; a tendency to take a favourable or hopeful view. Contrasted with pessimism n. 2.

So the Oxford English Dictionary. I picked sense 3 because it seems most resilient in the face of abundant evidence that this is in fact NOT the best of all possible worlds (pace Leibniz, at least as he’s pilloried by Voltaire).

It seems to me that educators, no matter how skeptical their views (skepticism is necessary but not sufficient for an inquiring mind), are implicitly committed to optimism. Otherwise, why learn? and why teach?

Satan Overlooking Paradise

I think of this as I begin another semester thinking with faculty and staff across the university (last term Virginia Tech, this term Virginia Commonwealth University) about the possible good we could co-create, and derive, from interactive, networked, personal computing. To be pessimistic (not skeptical, pessimistic–they are not synonyms) about personal, networked, interactive computing is to be pessimistic not about an invention, but about invention itself–that is, about one of our most powerful distinctions as a species.

Computers have become woven into our lives in ways we can barely imagine, but the best dreams about the texture of such a world are hopeful, and stimulate hope. Are we there yet? Of course not. But to be pessimistic about computers is to be pessimistic about humanity. And while that’s certainly a defensible position generally speaking, it seems to me that education is an activity, a co-creation, a calling, that runs clean counter to pessimism.

Last week in the seminar we read Janet Murray’s stirring introduction to The New Media Reader. A colleague from the School of Dentistry. A colleague from the library. A colleague from the Center for Teaching Excellence. Colleagues from University College. And more. Once again, I read these words:

We are drawn to a new medium of representation because we are pattern makers who are thinking beyond our old tools. We cannot rewind our collective cognitive effort, since the digital medium is as much a pattern of thinking and perceiving as it is a pattern of making things.

Indeed–yet this is not to deny the meta level at which we consider our consideration, and think about our blind spots so we can find more light:

We are drawn to this medium because we need to understand the world and our place in it.

Yes–and now the world we need to understand is also a world transformed, for good and for ill but potentially for good, why not?, by the medium itself. Recursive, yes–but more deeply, a paradox, not an infinite regress. That’s the hope, anyway. And educators are committed to hope.

To return to [Vannevar] Bush’s speculations: now that we have shaped this new medium of expression, how may we think? We may, if we are lucky and mindful enough, learn to think together by building shared structures of meaning.

That mindfulness is the meta level. I am optimistic about that meta level. As a learner, I have to be. If mindfulness is impossible, then it’s truly turtles all the way down, and who would care?

How will we escape the labyrinth of deconstructed ideologies and self-reflective signs? We will, if we are lucky enough and mindful enough, invent communities of communication at the widest possible bandwidth and smallest possible granularity.

Lucky, and mindful. Chance favors the mindful mind.

We need not imagine ourselves stranded somewhere over the evolutionary horizon, separated from our species by the power of our own thinking.

Or separated from our history, or from our loved ones–though clearly Hamlet (to name only one) demonstrates that mindfulness alone is no guarantee of anything. But what is on the other side of the horizon? What do we find when we return to the place we left and see it for the first time?

The machine like the book and the painting and the symphony and the photograph is made in our own image, and reflects it back again.

To which I would add: the syntax and punctuation in Murray’s sentence above enact the pulses of ways we may think. Those pulses and the ways they enact are poetry. What more complex shared structure of meaning is there?–unless it’s true that all art aspires to the condition of music. Poetry “begins in delight and ends in wisdom,” Frost writes. He continues: “the figure is the same as for love.” Can the shared structures of meaning emerging from our species’ collective cognitive effort begin in delight and end in wisdom, too? Can the figure our collective cognitive efforts make be the same as for love? I think: I hope so. I think: it better be. I think: how can I try to help? The seminar is one answer, a crux of hopes, the discovery of an invisible republic of optimism.

The task is the same now as it ever has been, familiar, thrilling, unavoidable: we work with all our myriad talents to expand our media of expression to the full measure of our humanity.

And by doing so, that measure increases. May we use that abundance wisely, fairly, and lovingly within this mean old brave new world.

With luck and mindfulness, I am  hopeful that we can.

for my Jewish mother, Dr. Janet Murray, with love and deepest gratitude

So let’s recap

Soaring into the eye of the gods

In mid-March I got an email telling me I was nominated in the search for a senior leadership position at Virginia Commonwealth University: Vice Provost for Learning Innovation and Student Success. I was intrigued. I looked at the leadership profile. I was mightily interested. Can’t hurt to apply, I said to myself. So I did.

The hectic, rewarding pace of life went on. Janet Murray came to VT as the third Distinguished Innovator in Residence. (Very exciting.) The Center for Innovation in Learning prepared its first call for Innovation Grant proposals. (Ditto above.) Learning Technologies began its metamorphosis into Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies. I traveled to Richmond, Boston, Bethlehem (Pennsylvania), and in June, to Rome (Italy) for conference presentations and faculty seminars. And to my wonder and delight, my candidacy continued to advance in the VCU search.

On June 7, as I sat in my lodgings in Barcelona, I spoke with VCU’s Provost, Dr. Beverly Warren, who offered me the job. As a literature scholar, it is my duty of course to tell you that the last time I was in Barcelona, in October of 2010, I was offered the Virginia Tech job. I guess Barcelona is my lucky town in the narrative of my professional life. (No one who’s been there will be in the least surprised.)

On June 24, back in the States, I signed the contract.

On August 1, I formally began my work, though I’d been ramping up at VCU and ramping down at VT since my return to the US. On this same day, my wife and I closed on our new home in Richmond.

Oh, and the conference in Rome was wonderful, far beyond my already-high expectations. The city and country were also pretty stupendous (litotes alert). As was Spain the week before, as was England the week before that. A summer of summers.

And sadly, the cloud over the trip was the death of my beloved mother-in-law on the same day that her youngest daughter, my wife, arrived in Madrid to join me in my travels. That grieving continues. If my experience with my parents at their passing is any guide, one learns to live with death, but one never gets over it.

I guess I’m a little behind in my blogging. Perhaps you can see why? The problem seems to be time, but it isn’t really. Time has become extremely compressed, yes, and spare time has become a vanishing commodity. My perception of time many days borders on the surreal as I adjust to the scale, scope, pace, and challenges of the new job–all very exciting, all very welcome, and all very demanding. Yet the real problem is, as ever, too much to say.

Time to write anyway. Not that I’ve been idle in that department, but I have been silent in this space, and I miss it. I did get 6000+ words done in an article on temptation in Paradise Lost, however–turns out I miss that kind of writing, too. Yes, Gardner writes, even if you haven’t seen it here for several months. Time to write anyway.

McLuhan and our plight

“Plight” is an interesting word. We are in a plight, meaning we’re in a tangle, a mess, a terrible fix, with “fix” itself an ironic noun in this context. Yet we also plight our troth, meaning “pledge our truth.” Plight-as-peril and plight-as-pledge both come from an earlier word meaning “care” or “responsibility” or (my favorite from the Oxford English Dictionary) “to be in the habit of doing.” Along a different etymological path, we arrive at the word meaning to braid or weave together. The word “plait” is a variant that makes this meaning more explicit. It’s not too far into poet’s corner before weaving, promising, and care-as-a-plight become entangled, at least in my mind, and perhaps usefully so.

The first McLuhan reading in the New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar is from The Gutenberg Galaxy, specifically the chapter called “The Galaxy Reconfigured or the Plight of Mass Man in an Individualist Society.” I don’t know if McLuhan is punning here, but it’s not implausible that the man who coined the term “the global village” and paid special attention to the role of mediation in human affairs–mediation considered as extensions of humanity–might think not only about the plight we find ourselves in but also the plighting of troth we might explore or co-create or braid.

The trick (and McLuhan is nothing if not a trickster, as others have noted) is that the plighting cannot be straightforward or “lineal,” lest it not be a genuine pledge or an authentic weaving. His very writing is obviously a plight for many readers, but it’s also a brave (and sometimes wacky) attempt to do a plighting of the plaiting kind as a sort of pledge of responsibility. He writes these stirring words for our consideration:

For myth is the mode of simultaneous awareness of a complex group of causes and effects. In an age of fragmented  lineal awareness, such as produced and was in turn greatly exaggerated by Gutenberg technology, mythological vision remains quite opaque. The Romantic poets fell far short of Blake’s mythical or simultaneous vision. They were faithful to Newton’s single vision and perfected the picturesque outer landscape as a means of isolating single states of the inner life.

From which I draw these conclusions regarding McLuhan’s argument (or plighting):

1. “Lineal” does not mean “synthesized” or “unified.” The straight path or bounded area leads only to fragmentation and reduction. It is not a weaving and cannot be. The lineal and the fragmented are perilously broken promises.

2. Mythological vision is a technology for enlarging awareness of complexity. Mythological vision is both plighted-woven and a means for plighting-weaving.

3. Fragmented, lineal awareness invents technologies of self-propagation that reinforce more lineality, more fragmentation, while giving the illusion of doing quite the opposite. Single-point perspective is not the same as a unifying vision or a simultaneous awareness of a complex group of causes and effects. It is, instead, reductive while pretending to be unified.

4. Even self-consciously or self-proclaimed liberatory movements such as Romantic poetry (or any number of other such apparently radical departures) may quail before the complexity and simply reinscribe a slightly shifted set of boundaries, thus perpetuating a reduction of complexity and a lack of awareness that dooms our technologies to reproducing our failures.

What technologies might reveal, restore, or help us co-construct a mythological vision, a species-wide simultaneous awareness of a complex group of causes and effects? It’s a political question that reaches into the realm of complexity science, art, and potentially even philosophy or (gasp) theology. Does Doug Engelbart’s idea of “augmentation” and complex symbolic innovation answer such a call? Does Bill Viola’s anti-condominium campaign? Is there an eternal golden braid to be had, or woven? What loom should we choose, or make?

Of Flutes and Filing Cabinets

Last week in our New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar, Nathan Hall (University Libraries) and Janine Hiller (College of Business) teamed up to take us through the Alan Kay / Adele Goldberg essay “Personal Dynamic Media.” Janine and Nathan took an inspired  approach to their task. Nathan’s a digital librarian, and he brought his training and interest in information science to bear on Kay and Goldberg’s ideas. Janine’s work is in business law, so intellectual property would have been a logical follow-on for discussion. But wily Nathan segued into wily Janine’s swerve in a direction that in retrospect makes perfect sense but at the time came with the force of a deep and pleasant surprise: the information science of metaphor.

As I look back on the session, I have to admire the very canny way in which the info science/metaphor combination acted out the very nature of metaphor itself: the comparison of two unlike objects. Having made the comparison, of course, one begins to see very interesting disjunctions and conjunctions. The mind begins to buzz. Wholly novel ideas emerge, such as the metamedium of the computer being like a pizza. Seriously.

Janine shared with us a lovely TED video on metaphor …

… and challenged us in small groups to come up with our own metaphors for computing as a metamedium (think of them as seminarian family-isms). We very quickly got to pizza in our group, courtesy of the talented Joycelyn Wilson. (Amy Nelson riffs on that metaphor in her own blog post.) Another group found itself circling back, recursively but sans recursing (dagnabbit), to the powerful and complex metaphor of the “dream machine.” (Go ahead and revive that metaphor by thinking about it again. And again. Stranger than one might suppose, eh?) (Oh, and to get another link in, I believe it was 21st-century studies lamplighter Bob Siegle who led us there.) In our closing moments, we began thinking about metaphor as a metaphor for computing, and computing as a metaphor for metaphor. I do believe Alan and Adele would have enjoyed the conversation.

At the end, Nathan sketched out a continuum between the procedural and the conceptual/metaphorical that he had found in “Personal Dynamic Media.” At one end was the filing cabinet (cf. Memex, cf. info science). At the other end was the flute (a metaphor that Janine beautifully led us to unpack in our discussion). And then, a few minutes after the seminar was over and I was walking to the car, a connection appeared for me.

There is indeed an apparent dichotomy between filing cabinets and flutes, between quotidian documents and art, between the minutiae of our task-filled lives and the glorious expressive possibilities of musical performance, especially with an instrument like the flute (I am a mediocre but enthusiastic flautist) that one plays in such intimate connection with one’s body and breath. It’s simple, direct, a column of air that resonates within the instrument as well as within the hollow, air-filled spaces within one’s own face and chest.

What could be more pedestrian, ugly, and (depending on the tasks) repellent than a filing cabinet? What could be more liberating and beautiful than a well-played flute?

How is a raven like a writing-desk? Alice asks in Alice In Wonderland. The question is never answered. (Brian Lamb once answered it–”Poe wrote on both”–but alas his ingenuity came many decades too late for poor Alice.)

How is a flute like a filing-cabinet? The question makes even less sense. At least, at first.

But considered within the world of Alan Kay’s aphorism that “the computer is an instrument whose music is ideas,” I find myself inspired to think that one may indeed make a flute of a filing-cabinet, awakening and ennobling the detritus of our dreary records and messy operational details with the quicksilver music and responsiveness of a well-played flute.

What if we could bring that vision into our lives? Our learning? Our schools? What if our filing cabinets were less like the warehouse in which the Ark of the Covenant is boxed and lost, and more like thought-vectors in concept space sounding something like the music of the spheres?

It may not be as hard as we may think–unless we actually prefer meaninglessness and stasis to delight and melody.

As Hoagy Carmichael once wrote, “Sometimes I wonder.”800px-Eight_Flute1