Networks not chains

Reading selections from Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect” piece for the New Media Seminar.  It’s interesting to read this with several different lenses.  Two that struck me quickly were the Technologist and the Rhetorician lenses.

The technological thinking here in terms of designing fundamental media is really impressive.  Yes, there were a lot of paragraphs that had to be skimmed because of what is essentially irrelevant technological specifications now; there were also, however, a lot of really thoughtful descriptions that foresaw development and the future that is really quite remarkable.  I noted several different technologies — Wikipedia, word processors, concept mapping tools, and database interfaces — all that directly benefitted from this kind of conceptual work.  And that’s the important part about this: though he has some specific technologies in mind, he is clearly a mind playing.  His real message is about the conceptual framework, about the ways in which we can technologize human thought.  That really was impressive, as he atomized units of thinking and then invented technologies that could facilitate associative thinking, flexible thinking, and ultimately creative thinking.  When thinking about the ways he was atomizing thought, I kept thinking of Shirky’s example of LOLcats, or this latest Ice Bucket challenge, and meaning attributed to internet memes (interesting shared root with Memex).  How much of our communication is really becoming a different kind of language (rather than oral or written English, say)?  My daughter attaches a literal “selfie” emotion pic to each of her texts to her friends.  Sometimes it’s only the picture.  We talked in this group about Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat or whatever, but these modes of communication are enabled largely because of engineers like Engelbart building interfaces and technological structures that would allow for this sort of meaning transfer.

And he was playful, which is where the rhetorician comes in.  It’s interesting not being in his audience for this; it felt to be a very time specific piece in terms of encouragement for certain kinds of development projects.   Correct me if I’m wrong, but this seemed to be a summary report for a contract between Stanford and the Air Force.  He really needed to wow his audience I think.  Technobabble aside, which was certainly impressive too, the narrative style was such an interesting choice.  It sort of came out of nowhere, and ultimately it felt a bit controlled/straw-manish to me, but it was nicely bold in the middle of this Air Force report.   It certainly would have helped the lay-people in his audience.  Some of those paragraphs that talk about the structures, substructures, units, etc. could be quite overwhelming and take time to parse out.  Having “you” work it all out with “Joe” was quite helpful.

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