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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