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Engelbart – astonishing vision and hubris?

by on October 2, 2011
Father of modern computing giving the mother of all demos?

Engelbart giving his 1968 demo of NLS

In the New Media Faculty Seminar this fall, we’ve read and discussed exceptional thinkers and visionaries who laid the foundations of modern computing. Vannebar Bush and Norbert Wiener were both involved in weapons development for World War II. Bush’s “As We May Think,” published in The Atlantic in July 1945, laid out a vision for peaceful use of technology, while he was advising Truman to use the atomic bomb to finish the war in Japan. His description of the “memex” machine for information storage, retrieval and cross-referencing uncannily foresaw modern information technology. Wiener’s war contribution was in the development of automated fire control systems for anti-aircraft guns. His 1954 essay, “Men, Machines and the World About,” discussed cybernetic communication and control systems, and also worried that we may “make the machines our gods and sacrifice men to machines.” J.C.R. Licklider also worked on air defense systems, as part of a Cold War project. In contrast to Wiener, Licklider’s expressed a much sunnier vision of human-computer interactions in his 1960 paper “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” where “men will set the goals, formulate the hypotheses, determine the criteria, and perform the evaluations.” Licklider, as head of the Information Processing Techniques Office of ARPA, developed the network of interconnected computers that became the internet, and funded the work of this week’s focus, Douglas Engelbart.

Engelbart’s report Augmenting Human Intellect was published October 1962.Both the introduction in the New Media Reader and the content of the report shows a remarkable visionary, whose daring verges on hubris. In a 1986 interview Engelbart explains that he wanted to maximize the good he could do for humanity while still making a reasonable living. He discarded the more conventional humanitarian goals such as fighting malaria and ameliorating hunger because he foresaw the complications. Instead, he would go about developing a system to improve how people could tackle problems of increasing complexity and urgency!

His work draws inspiration from Vannebar Bush’s memex, and parallels Licklider’s idea of a human-computer partnership. But the ideas in Augmenting Human Intellect go deeper and surpass anything expressed by Bush or Licklider. Engelbart’s human-computer partnership is the H-LAM/T; humans augmented by language, artifacts, methods and training. In Section IIC (omitted in the excerpt in the New Media Reader), he explains augmentation in terms of the biology of human evolution. The first stage of the evolution of human intellect was the ability to form and manipulate abstract concepts. The second stage occurred when humans acquired the ability to create and manipulate symbolic representations. The third stage arrived when humans externalized symbols and their manipulation – drawing images and maps. Here he recapitulates ideas by Whorf and others that language affects human thinking. He extends these ideas to what he calls a neo-Whorfian hypothesis that the symbols and their manipulation also affect how humans think. Then we arrive at the fourth stage of human evolution through “automated external symbol manipulation.” Engelbart imagines that progression to stage 4 would open up new evolutionary spaces for humanity.

This is heady stuff for a biologist like me.

The report is long, and other sections deal with how such automated symbolic manipulation would be implemented, with details of capabilities and the workings of the human-computer interface. He discusses in fictional scenarios how the H-LAM/T augmentation will change how people will think and work. Lots to talk about at this week’s virtual meeting in Second Life.

In 1968, Engelbart gave a 90-minute demo of his oN-Line System (NLS). This came to be known as the “mother of all demos” and the link at the top of this post is a site where you can watch this demo either as one video or in short segments of a few minutes each.

Both the video and the report show very complex manipulations. I wonder who are the intended beneficiaries of augmentation via H-LAM/T? Is training the missing piece today? How has the Apple-led emphasis on computing that should be intuitive, without a keyboard, advanced or limited human augmentation? Instead of “men worshiping machines,” will we have less-augmented people subservient to more-augmented people?


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  1. lizdorland permalink

    Excellent summary and preview Jung! It will help a lot when I’m reading the Englebart piece for Wednesday. If you want help in constructing any visual displays for your session just let me know.

  2. sabinereljic permalink

    yes, i appreciate the synopsis. I admit going back and forth in the reading, jumping to the summary section, then back to section 2, then somewhere in section 3, back to section 2, then conclusion section….The technicality of section 2 lost me a few times, but the fiction-ality of other sections grabbed me back.
    I also appreciate how to set this reading in context to last weeks’ readings and discussions (Engelbart quotes Bush extensively, but our discussions inworld helped tremendously).

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  1. Augmenting Human Intellect, D. C. Engelhart, 1962 « EducEdge

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