Friday, December 12, 2008

engelbart: co-evolution of humans with machines

It's hard or impossible to imagine a world without all the things that Doug Engelbart demonstrated at his 1968 mother of all demos ("... a computer mouse, which controlled a networked computer system to demonstrate hypertext linking, real-time text editing, multiple windows with flexible view control, cathode display tubes, and shared-screen teleconferencing" 40th Anniversary)

But with respect to his vision it does seem clear that we have become far too techno-centric in the way we conceptualise the computer - as a bunch of more or less independent applications to get various jobs done, rather than as an integrated vehicle to augment our co-evolution.
By 1959 he had enough standing to get approval for pursuing his own research. He spent the next two years formulating a conceptual framework for a new discipline that became the guiding force for his 1962 seminal work, "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework," ...

Concepts such as augmenting human intellect, improvement infrastructure, co-evolution of artifacts with social-cultural language-practices, and bootstrapping evolved directly from this work, as did the following twenty years of applied co-evolution. Motivating that framework were, and still are the assumptions that complexity and urgency are increasing exponentially and that the combination of these two will soon challenge our organizations ...

A myriad of technical and non-technical elements came into play, such as tools, media, language, customs, knowledge, skills, procedures, and so on. He perceived that these elements had co-evolved slowly over centuries, but that with the explosive emergence of digital technology, the technical elements would shoot way ahead of the non-technical and cause a trend toward automating rather than to augmenting peoples' activities
- A Lifetime Pursuit by Christina Engelbart

1 comment:

Mark Miller said...

Engelbart was more perceptive than I thought. When I heard about Engelbart being worried about complexity, I thought it just had to do with people being unable to keep up with the mechanisms of civilization, and the important interactions in our world.

According to what I read a couple years ago there has been a battle going on for decades between those who believe in augmentation/symbiosis/a scientific approach to computing and those who believe in automation. More often than not automation has won. Alan Kay would probably say that the reason augmentation has not been supported and adopted more is cultural. It takes seeing the computer as a technology of historic cultural significance, as significant as the printing press and the book, rather than just a machine for processing data. This is the hard part of the challenge, because how do we affect cultural change so that people will see what the computer is really good for? One way is through the schools, but then you run up against old ideas in the teachers and those who govern the curriculum. That's a problem I don't know how to solve, except to just communicate the ideas as best we can to those who will listen.