Problems:The main problems with getting excited with Douglas Engelbart's visions and plans for us reading today are two-fold:
1) We are not NACA engineers:
2) We have the expectation of the technology that we've always had.
The combination of these factors leaves us underwhelmed by the descriptions and details of the process by which Engelbart performs what is essentially an amazing feat of combining vision with engineering and programming.
In short, we are not impressed because many of us have lived with this level of technology for 20+ years. Our students and younger colleagues have even greater difficulties in imagining the amazement at being able to coordinate data in the ways suggested.
However, I do not want to stay on why it is difficult to engage with Engelbart. I want to engage with his vision and ideas. As the former winner of the Delaware BASIC team programming challenge in 6th grade, I am fascinated by the level of detail and attention needed to get a machine to coordinate these different categories of information that lead to the invention of the personal computer (even as Engelbart does not really intend to envision a personal, consumer computer).
Engelbart v. EngelbartIn reading the first Engelbart/vision essay and comparing that with the second (Engelbart/English proposal) and the video of his presentation, I'm really seeing two different ideas.
On one hand, Engelbart/English propose a work terminal system to analyze and support research into ways of analyzing and supporting research, but in the renowned live presentation, Engelbart introduces the potentialities of the technology in word processing and mapping, interestingly combined with the narrative of his wife calling and asking for him to do the shopping. The development of handheld organizers in the late 1980s, PDAs in the mid-late 1990s with devices like the Newton & Palm Pilot, and continuing with advertising for smartphones and tablets also often confronts the consumer with the ability of this hand-held device to help with....gasp...shopping, maps, and relationships.
Palm ads here and here. (Interesting history of Palm Pilot here from the Computer History Museum)
The Case of Newton
Apple's Newton Intro Video here shows that a direct connection exists between Engelbart's vision and this kind of device. Watch the video and be amazed as the Newton users are excited about being able to get down and manipulate their thoughts on the device in a variety of ways, including drawing/design/handwriting, etc.
But, there's an interesting addition about a minute in. Now, the Newton will do things for the user, not just be an augmentation. Don't know how to put text and images together well? Don't worry. Newton will do it for you. Newton will not only assist you. It knows enough about what you are doing to do it for you.
This sort of personification and extension of technology beyond being an extension is even clearer in this Newton TV ad. Newton is now not just a thing or an assistant, an adjunct. It is a separate being who is friendly and worldly and intelligent.
While this might appear to be a minor shift from helper to friend used to achieve a marketing goal, it also reflects a vital shift rhetorically that has real consequences. Engelbart envisions a device that works on a hierarchy of symbols that he and his team devise and program into the system.
In fact, he envisions that these sorts of machines will always comes as a product of a team that analyzes needs and wants and develops a system that serves to allow users to manipulate those symbols in meaningful ways to achieve their goal. In essence the technology becomes a product of individual/small-group's needs and wants.
However, as we see the evolution to the PDA world, we realize that what has happened is that devices have been produced on the large scale where the individuals need to now be assimilated into the system of symbols developed by the engineers and programmers. In effect, the augmentation has taken over.
It is not just a tool to be used and shaped at will. Jobs, actions, wants, and needs must be shaped to fit into the use of the tool, as shown by the instructional videos on how to use a PDA.
And while the Newton perhaps tried to do too much and cost too much, the iPad and other augmentations of today seem to be facing less resistance. Built on an iPhone UI, the iPad seems "instinctive" and "responsive". No, it's more than that.
Apple wants it to be "magical"
And it is, but what is lost is the knowledge of how it works and the ability to shape the technology to the standards and hierarchies or OUR symbols. The process of learning about how we learn has been sublimated to make invisible what might be better made visible: the construction and sharing of symbolic systems.
Without an understanding of the logic behind the systems of symbols, students and users become consumers of symbols and leave their creation and manipulation to "magic."
The problem, from a cultural studies POV, is that these systems of meanings and symbols are not segregated from reality in an ether of pure entertainment. They are heavily ensconced in the networks of economics/class, culture, language, race, ethnicity, politics, gender, sexuality, and differences of all kinds. The order and preferences that are given to some symbols over others carry with them ideological values and meanings beyond the symbol and its meaning alone. Pure data connection is not possible.
Therefore, shouldn't we be aware of how, why, and when these sorts of decisions get made and by whom?