This post is inspired by Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson. It is dedicated to the late Edward J. McPherson, a colleague whose gentle persistence continually focused our attention on social justice and equity issues within and beyond our own community, and to the 99 percent in NYC, in Boston, in Chicago, in cities across our great nation, who are currently focusing our attention on the very complex and urgent problems we must solve.
Last week I met Doug Engelbart’s heart and vision. I did not expect when I began reading his 1962 summary report, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework,” that I would discover that he was driven to help us make ourselves more humane, to evolve rather than devolve. Technology to make us more human, not less. A huge heart and extraordinary vision and innovation and such compassion. Why was I surprised? What unexamined assumptions and cultural narratives about technology have I uncritically bought into, anyway?
This week I was introduced to Ted Nelson. Not literally, of course, but in that wonderful way that sometimes happens when you read something amazing, and want to meet the writer, have coffee and ask questions and hear more. Instead, I settled for marginalia. With coffee in hand, I conversed with Ted’s texts. I did not expect to have him so completely redefine computers for me. Dream machines.
My first computer experiences did not inspire or engage. I did not read nor hear the refrain: “Come Dream along with me: The Best Is Yet To Be.” I never felt that way about computers in 1977 when FORTRAN IV was new to me. Feeding cards into the machine back then, I hoped only that errant space would not somehow locate itself next to a comma to stop things from compiling. I think I ran into too much cybercrud and did not discover the magic back then. I was much more interested in playing with metaphors.
But who is this Ted Nelson who talks about computers as dream machines and plays with metaphors? I started with the anthologized excerpts from Computer Lib/Dream Machines and got unreasonably excited, so much so that I now have the complete 1974 oversized, zine-like manifesto in my hands. Oh, my. Reading backward and forward and forward and backward and upside down and right side up I chanced upon (or not, since there are no accidents, I think, only very cool synchronicity) page CL 83 / DM 46 and read:
Douglas Engelbart is a saintly man at Stanford Research Institute whose dream has been to make people smarter and bring them together. His system, on which millions of dollars have been spent, is a wonder and a glory.
He began as an engineer of CRTs . . . but his driving thought was, quite correctly, that these remarkable objects could be used to expand man’s mind and improve each shining hour.
Doug Engelbart’s vision has never been restricted to narrow technical issues. From the beginning his concern was not merely to plank people down at display consoles, but in the most profound sense to expand man’s mind. “The Augmentation of Human Intellect,” he calls it, by which he means making minds work better by giving them better tools to work with.
Yes, exactly. Simply put and nothing simple about it. Yes, Engelbart as a wonder and a glory, working to make people smarter and better at working together, so that we can improve every single shining hour. Yes, exactly. And, who is this Theodor Holm Nelson who can see it and say it just like that? That prompted more exploring. “Literary Machines,” a title to compel and draw in any English professor, and “Computopia Now!” (from which this post’s title comes, and what a powerful declarative opener for an essay it is: “Dream no small dreams, make no small plans. . . . Choose your dream’s direction first, without worrying about the possible limitations.”). Oh, my. Yes.
Last week our seminar conversation wandered around at the end of the session to wondering if our students really use their technologies to augment the human intellect. We collectively wrestled with that–some wondering if students were really capable of innovation, of building and creating with these tools, while others suggested that there are tons of examples of innovation and that the problem isn’t with the technologies, or with students per se, but with our control and contain teaching. We curb their enthusiasm and disrupt their desire to be innovative and squelch their impulse to use their machines to dream. I don’t think blaming technology or blaming students is useful. It is the failure of our imagination that is a big part of the problem. It is the failure of our praxis. We can do better.
I have been thinking about Engelbart and Nelson all week. I have also been thinking about the OWS movement, nearly a month strong, and growing. I have been thinking about how the 99 percent are using the dream machines to capture our collective imagination in order to spark problem-solving and ignite a sense of urgency to discover complex solutions to complex problems. Connections.
In “Tell Me More, Mr. Engelbart,” Yanna celebrates Doug Engelbart’s vision, and reminds us that “our world today needs more, many more, augmented imaginations, augmented determinations, augmented visions….” and that “the augmentation of the human intellect, via the augmentation of human interaction with artifacts-language-methodology, is helping not only professionals but also many ordinary people to finally address (and sometimes even resolve) complex and seemingly insoluble problems.” And, she wonders, had he known that his vision would give voice “to people who often go unheard?” It has. It does.
In honor of the vision of Engelbart and Nelson (and many others before them and since), and in honor of Ed McPherson, whose commitment to an equitable and just society lives on, here are a few compelling examples of how ordinary people use technology to augment our human intellect and our hearts–both of which are necessary in order to solve the complex and urgent problems that affect all of us. Regardless of what you may think about the strategies of the OWS movement, I think the stories shared on the Wearethe99percent blog are powerful voices that inform and connect us, and that we should listen.
I will be 24 in exactly 1 month
I moved to a big city in 2009 with bright eyes and a job bartending where I pulled $100+ a night in tips.
Shortly after my arrival, the bar went bankrupt and I began working in the adult industry behind the scenes to make ends meet.
Even the adult industry was hit hard and with no work in sight, I decided to go back to college to pursue a specialized degree that I love (and that is a growing field with prospects).
My degree will put me $60,000 in debt by graduation because I attend one of the top 50 schools for this degree. I was accepted into the #3 in the nation for my degree but decided that 60k in debt was better than $225,000 in debt. Because I made the more frugal choice it will harder for me to get a job in this field.
I may not be able to attend much longer due to not having enough credit to get a loan this year. Now that I am 24 I do not qualify for loans given to first time college students.
I now live with my mother, sister, her two children and her fiancé who also struggle to make ends meet.
Our house is roach infested and mouse infested, but we can’t afford to move despite my mother working 60-80 hours a week and my sisters fiancé working 40 hours a week. We also can’t afford an exterminator either and our landlord won’t pay for one.
For the first time in my life I know what hungry is. I use my credit card to buy milk, bread, cheese and lunchmeat for my family.
Even when I had a high paying job I was denied health care because I was “overweight” with a pre-existing health condition. I now can no longer afford the gym membership I was using to get to a healthy weight, even though it’s only $10 a month.
I do not qualify for food stamps because my household makes too much money yet we live check to check and some weeks can’t afford groceries.
I do not qualify for free health benefits because my “condition” is not serious enough despite the fact that I may have cancer. I can’t afford the $250 to get a biopsy done or the $200 for the lab results.
I cannot get jobs at fast food places or cleaning offices because I am “too qualified” (yay college) and I cannot get jobs working in my desired field because I have “too little experience.”
My old boss calls me telling me that he can make me money in the adult entertainment industry if I ever wanted to be in front of the camera. The prospect of ever doing that job makes me cry at night. I shouldn’t have to give myself away for someone else’s viewing pleasure to live. For now I would rather 100% broke, than give up my integrity.
It is only through the wisdom and guidance of my best friend and the hope of starting my own business with him that I have not taken my own life.
I am the 99%.