(Re)Awakening the Analog Experience

This blog was meant to be a record of my thoughts and musings while participating in the Fall 2011 installment of the New Media seminar. It was going to be a compilation of ideas — the good, the bad, and the ugly — while I pondered the readings each week. Obviously, I failed at this. I ended up writing only two blog posts in the first two weeks of the seminar. But I didn’t fail at the actual pondering.

A funny thing happened to me during a seminar that was focused on ‘new media’ (or ‘digital media’) and its influence on education, collaboration, creativity, science, art, and culture in general: I ended up enjoying a distinctly non-digital experience.

The best part of this seminar was sitting with other people and talking to them, face to face. We did use Skype (or G+ ‘hangout’) to include out-of-town participants several times, but the foundation of the interaction was people sitting in a circle in a room. This is the first time I’ve had such good discussions about how people connect and collaborate using the internet while not being on the internet at that moment. I’ve been blogging and interacting with others (mostly geoscientists) on the internet regularly for over five years. I’ve had some great discussions with numerous people, typically using comment threads of blogs and, more recently, via Twitter. Having conversations about the internet outside of the internet was powerful for a reason I can’t put my finger on.

The other aspect that added to the analog-ness of the seminar was reading text out of a book. I know, a physical, tangible book! How fantastic — we were reading about the lineage of ideas and technology of this astoundingly complex ‘machine’ that we’ve both built and has emerged/evolved through a much older text-delivery device. I loved it. As with the discussions with others about the internet, the vast majority of my reading about the internet has been on the internet.

I did try to write blog posts throughout the semester, a few times. But, when I sat down and opened the New Media Reader to consult my scribblings in the margin — whether it was before or after we met to discuss — I simply wasn’t feeling it. ‘It’ being that feeling of ideas, thoughts, revelations, epiphanies even, swirling about in your head — that exciting feeling of mental or intellectual discovery. That happened during the seminar. Not associated with or because of the seminar, but during it.

Perhaps this all sounds very obvious. This is why people enjoy seminars — the collective mixing of off-the-top-of-the-head statements and ideas, it gets our intellectual blood flowing. But I didn’t anticipate that the seminar experience would barely intersect with the experience of interacting online.

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Personal Dynamic Media

The 1977 article “Personal Dynamic Media” by Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg [pdf] lays out a clear vision of what we now are quite familiar with — the laptop/tablet computer. At the time of publication, Kay and Goldberg had positions at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) doing research on computing technology within the context of learning.

Mock-up of a 'Dynabook' as imagined in 1977 (left); Apple's iPad from 2011 (right)

This article is concise and not nearly as philosophical as the articles we’ve read to this point in the seminar. Kay and Goldberg get right to the point about what they are envisioning, which is that everyone should have their own ‘Dynabook’:

… we should either build a new resource several hundred times the capacity of current machines and share it (very difficult and expensive), or we should investigate the possibility of giving each person his own powerful machine. We chose the second approach.

After this brief rationale, Kay and Goldberg jump right into details about some experiments they had done at that point evaluating how the interface and concepts might work (or not work) with users even though they did not have a ‘completed’ device yet. And instead of using their peers or colleagues as test users they did something quite simple and brilliant: they had children use the devices:

Considering children as the users radiates a compelling excitement when viewed from a number of different perspectives. First, the children really can write programs that do serious things. Their programs use symbols to stand for objects, contain loops and recursions, require a fair amount of visualization of alternative strategies before a tactic is chosen, and involve interactive discovery and removal of “bugs” in their ideas.

Second, the kids love it! The interactive nature of the dialogue, the fact that they are in control, the feeling that they are doing real things rather than playing with toys or working out “assigned” problems, the pictorial and auditory nature of their results, all contribute to a tremendous sense of accomplishment to their experience.

I get the sense Kay and Goldberg were educators first and technologists second. They were doing this not for the means, but for the end — and their end was to enhance creativity and learning.

They lay out specifics related to many activities one might use the Dynabook fore: recalling information/references, reading, writing, editing, drawing/painting, animation, music, simulations and so on.

The aspect that Kay and Goldberg did not foresee (at least in this article) is how we use our modern Dynabooks as a way to connect to a network (this was also mentioned in the introduction to this article by the New Media Reader editors). That is, we are increasingly using our devices not as a way to store information, but as a tool to access information. Surely by 1977 the idea of networked computers must have been common knowledge to technologists like Kay and Goldberg. Why did they not discuss this aspect in this article? Was it simply a matter of focus and space devoted to discussing hardware and software of a personal computer? Interesting.

Another functionality they did not ever mention was using a Dynabook to view/manipulate photographs. They discussed sketches, animations, even 3-D simulations, but never mention photographs. Is this a function of the graphical limitations at the time? Perhaps they simply did not want to get too far ahead of what they thought was do-able?



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Augmenting Human Intellect

Douglas Engelbart wrote “Augmenting the Human Intellect” in 1962 as part of what I’m assuming is a larger report summarizing the status of their research to sponsors.

To me, this essay is about how to devise technology that best works with how brains already work. There is a lot of discussion about creating symbology and structure, and then reviewing that within the context of how humans think. Human thought and work is iterative and non-linear not simple and serial. He brings up ideas about how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts — or emergence — which is something discussed a lot in the past couple of decades.

In the first sections, Engelbart devotes many paragraphs to discussing the details of how his personal note filing system (what he called the ‘edged-notched-card system’) could be augmented with Vannevar Bush’s associative-trail scheme, the ‘Memex’ machine. Engelbart doesn’t just discuss the concept — he going into details of the mechanics of making this happen in this essay. He wants to take these ideas and actually implement them. In this way, Engelbart comes across as a thinker and a do-er.

As an aside, Engelbart’s note-card scheme reminds me of Evernote, which I’ve been using for about six months now. The system allows the user to write text, paste in links and photos, and organize them by ‘notes’. It’s very flexible as the user can devise their own hiearchy and tagging system. Importantly, the information is stored online and constantly synching such that the user can call up notes with any device. I have it on my desktop, laptop, iPad, and phone and use it for keeping track of research ideas.

What I find fascinating in this essay and the Bush essay we read a couple weeks ago is how the technology they want to help them do their work is placed within the technology of their time. In concept, they foresee technology they did eventually arrive — but not quite in the same form. For example, when discussing the note-filing system, Engelbart says:

I found rather quickly that the job of extracting, rearranging, editing, and copying new statements into the cards which were to represent the current set of product statements in each grouping was rather tedious. This brought me to appreciate the value of some sort of copying device with which I could transfer specified strings of words from one card to another, thus composing new statements from fragments of existing ones.

We now use copy/paste function regularly in our daily lives — on our computers and on our phones. But copy/paste isn’t a “device”, it’s a functionality within a program (within a device). The pre-digital world was dominated by mechanical and electromechanical things, so I wonder if Engelbart, Bush, and others simply had to conceive of these ideas within that framework. How else would they do it? How would one discuss such ideas without placing them in a familiar context? How would we do it for pondering the future?

The other aspect of this I found interesting was how Engelbart et al. were using their research on cognition and machines to help them do their research more efficiently. They were using their research to do their research! This is very self-referential and recursive — very Hofstadter.

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As We May Think

(Note: see the first post for background, context, and other information about this seminar)

Vannevar Bush (credit: Wikipedia)

The first essay is a piece written by scientist/researcher Dr. Vannevar Bush for The Atlantic Monthly in 1945, immediately following the conclusion of World War II, called “As We May Think”. (You can read on the Atlantic’s archives here.)

As a scientist myself, I read Bush’s essay as I might write it — in a way it’s a ‘wish list’ of technology that will help us collect more and better data. And technology that, in concept, should make our task of organizing and synthesizing information more efficient. With the end goal of producing better science.

For example, Bush discussed the state-of-the-art as of 1945 regarding photography and, while not quite saying it exactly, alludes to digital photography (emphasis mine):

A scene itself can be just as well looked over line by line by the photocell in this way as can a photograph of the scene. This whole apparatus constitutes a camera, with the added feature, which can be dispensed with if desired, of making its picture at a distance. It is slow, and the picture poor in detail. Still, it does give another process of dry photography, in which the picture is finished as soon as it is taken.

Bush also discusses the potential of having the whole of human knowledge reduced down to significantly smaller physical space:

The Encyclopedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox.

And a nod to dictation software:

… will the author of the future cease writing by hand or typewriter and talk directly to the record?

But Bush isn’t just predicting advances in tangible technology (hardware, software) — he also discusses potential changes in how we think about mathematical symbology. How me might have to translate that symbolism for the machine to operate correctly:

This is a much larger matter than merely the extraction of data for the purposes of scientific research; it involves the entire process by which man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge.

Bush seems excited about the idea of massive amounts of data — I think most scientists do, the more data the better. But the age of ‘big data’ is leading to entire field of study focusing on data and meta-data. I rather like physicist Sean Carroll’s recent commentary in what he called ‘data fatigue’:

It’s the fetishization of data for its own sake that I find fatiguing.

That is, simply organizing massive amounts of data into a pretty visualization is nice, but if it doesn’t help us understand the phenomenon better, what good is it? This is an important question to keep in mind as we move forward in a time of increasing volumes of data. I suppose one could counter saying that the fact that all these network visualizations of complex systems haven’t led to improved fundamental understanding is important to know. But is that what the data specialists are saying?

Importantly, Bush also discusses, in a round-about way, the concept of a network — of having information calculated, stored, and transmitted via a centralized hub. But while his fictional ‘memex’ machine for individuals alludes to personal computer, it doesn’t combine this with a centralized network — Bush doesn’t really talk about access to information, but the storage of information itself.

More later.


p.s. A cultural aspect of this essay that struck me while reading was the use of “man”, “him”, “he”, etc. when discussing humankind in general, and also when referring to scientists as individuals. Correspondingly, Bush referred to stenographers and typists not just as female, but as “girls”. I realize we still have a ways to go with respect to gender inequities in society, but can you imagine if someone wrote a piece like this now for the Atlantic?

Image: Vannevar Bush portrait — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vannevar_Bush_portrait.jpg


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Blog for the Fall 2011 New Media Faculty-Staff (NMFS) Seminar

Watch this space for my thoughts and reflections on the Fall 2011 New Media Faculty-Staff seminar at Virginia Tech. This seminar is led by Dr. Gardner Campbell (seminar wiki here) and will be exploring how our networked world is influencing and influenced by how we think and work.

The title of the blog comes from a quote in the 1945 essay As We May Think by scientist/researcher Vannevar Bush: “The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.”

More information about this seminar:

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