Monthly Archives: January 2012

“Interactive computers can give us our first look at unfettered thought.”

“What would it do to a brain to think creatively, continuously?”
Because I did this reading after class today, that was my first thought as I read the first two pages. Because computers, as Licklider implies, would allow (and do allow) us to do that — they can do the “dirty” (monotonous) work, while we as intelligent beings can come up with ideas of a more perhaps profound nature. To me as an engineer, this means I can come up with some complicated equation (maybe a horrible integral or an infinity x infinity matrix), and I can have a program solve it in mere seconds, or minutes, when it might have taken me hours (or worse, days, depending on the complexity of the problem) to solve by hand. Which, in theory, allows us to use more of our time formulating complex programs, which we can then program a computer how to solve. And thereby, we can be spending more time thinking “creatively.”

It is truly astonishing how well Licklider was able to describe the potential functionality of computers. His “symbiosis”, though I’m sure few people actually think about it in those terms, is so accurate and applicable to the average person’s relationship with computers today. I for one, could not live without my laptop — and it really hit home when I spilled water on my keyboard last week, and half the keys didn’t work. Not being able to use its functionality had me feeling unbelievably restricted! Fortunately, I was able to get a loaner, but even that small period of time made me realize just how dependent I was on my laptop, and how ridiculously useful it is. Computers are so versatile and capable of doing almost anything — if we can figure out how to program to do so. Truly, if we can dream it, we can do it – “As we use the web, the web gets smarter.”

One of the most amazing parts of this article was how Licklider, a man (of great innovation, no doubt) was able to see past the limitations of computers in his day (1960 – I had to look at the date this was written because it is so applicable to the present) to their future capacities. He was able to recognize all their present faults (such as incompatible language programming, memory storage and organization, and costliness) and present solutions to these, of which most are still viable today. In particular, as a daughter of computer programmers, I’m quite familiar with the problems of nationally-used programs that are written in largely obsolete languages upon which the government is trying to update and modify. Some of these issues stem from the fact that there are not enough people who even know those languages anymore, so only a few can actually go in and edit the programs. Then there is the process of updating them, and theoretically rewriting them into a different (theoretically, better) language, which is terribly time-consuming and, in my opinion, almost impractical. So, it was quite interesting to read an article which touched on these types of problems that dated from about 50 years ago — and to think they haven’t gone away! Well, I suppose as with any form of technology, improving it only brings new problems.

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Meaning Making

One of the most fascinating things to me about being human is our ability of making meaning out of lives, experiences, and phenomenon.  We read meaning and story into the stars, the weather, animals, and the F on our Chemistry exam.  From when I first woke up this morning, I have been at it… my dog who keeps being particularly clingy does so because he loves me and the guy who flew around me because my driving at the speed limit was not fast enough for him is clearly a self-centered, reckless, inconsiderate punk with no regard for any one else.  The meaning I attach to these acts, and many others, can be largely independent of “truth” or the actual circumstances.  My dog might be a master manipulator who knows that my perceptions of his affections are often paid off in food and head rubs.  The person in such a hurry may have been frantically driving a friend or family member to the hospital rather than just being a jerk.  But, in both cases, I made meaning in a particular way and filed it away – my interpretation of those experiences may be independent of actuality, but how I remember them has more of an impact on me and my future actions then what actually happened.

I’m sure we can all talk about”reflection” in many different ways.  One way I often think about it, is exploring the depth of an experience – trying to take both a personal and an objective look to dig for meaning and to integrate it into who I am, to let it affect how I think and act.  It is also an opportunity to make connections between experiences, disciplines, ideas, etc.  For me, it is a sometimes messy mental and emotional space – a place to try out new ideas and thoughts.   To let things hit me, challenge me, shake me, inspire me.

As we all think about the role of technologies like the Internet and social media, it is easy to be at either end of the spectrum – either a die-hard blogging-facebooking-tweeting-guru or a staunch the-Internet-text-messages-and-cell-phones-will-be-the-downfall-of-everything-good-in-the-world.  Regardless of where you land on that continuum, THE TRUTH IS THAT WE CONTINUE TO BE MEANING-MAKERS IN THESE REALMS AS WELL!  For example, you might be asking yourself why I was just “shouting” at you.  Or, if you received a text from a friend that said “Ok.” you know that little dot brings a whole slew of attitude in a way that “Ok” does not.

When thinking about the reflection I described earlier, I really think we must be very deliberate in how we use, and understand the use of, modern technologies to foster deep reflection.  Take for example that I’ve heard it said that Facebook is this generation’s “smoke-break.”  Facebook offers an opportunity to connect and make connections.  It does not seem to encourage personal, thoughtful reflection on ones own day.  It does offer the opportunity to share one’s personal, thoughtful reflection on the day.  A “smoke break” in days gone by does seem to offer some of that same opportunity to connect to others casually (if you take time together with friends/colleagues).  It could also offer some inner quiet to process and reflect.  But, this reflection would likely remain in one’s head.

I’m still figuring out my own feelings about all of this so I apologize for the scattered post.  However, I want to leave you with the thought that is stuck in my head right now.  I have come to believe that learning relies heavily on both cognitive (what is going on in my own head) and social (what is going on in everyone else’s head, how what is going on in my own head fits in the broader context) factors.  How can we carefully use all of the tools at our disposal to most effectively make meaning of our experiences?  To me, it is not an all or nothing with technologies – I need to think about intentional use.  In what ways can facebook or blogging or twitter or… help me to best make meaning of my life, best make connections about myself and the world around me?  It what ways can these tools and tools unknown help me be a better learner, teacher, friend?

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What Was Once Science Fiction…

During the 1960s, it was possible to rent a book from the library regarding computers. (Who knew?) What was even more surprising was that this book would be stored under the genre “science fiction.” Today, when we think of science fiction we think of aliens, space ships, and robots. (Not computers?) We all know that computers are far from these things. What was once science fiction has remained science but become transformed from fiction to reality.

We have partially brought to life what was referred to as “man-computer symbiosis,” an idea first proposed by J.C. R. Licklider. This was an idea that encouraged a loving relationship between man and his computer. Not only would the computer aid man but also work in partnership with man.

Whether we are using the computer for simple problems (Microsoft office) or complex problems (the Internet), it has become our “go-to” electronic. We “go-to” the computer if we have any sort of question needing an answer. Writing an essay in Microsoft office or finding information on the Internet for this essay have transformed from what was once the exception to what is now the rule. We were not conscious of this transition as it was occurring. If this shift was possible, presumably the next step would be that one day the computer would become more intelligent than a human. The computer may stretch the human brain beyond it’s limit. It may at some point outsmart humans. With this, our hope is that the computer would work in partnership with a human. I would compare it to doing homework with a friend in class. The computer may have the answer to a problem that the human was not able to reach on their own. From here Licklider’s idea of “man-computer symbiosis” will have been fully fulfilled.

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A Successful Symbiosis

If today’s technology had not already encompassed Licklider’s speculations for interaction between humans and electronic computers, I would not have been able to  process some of the ideas in his article, Man-Computer Symbiosis.  It is interesting to think of the respective roles of  each part of this symbiotic relationship.  Licklider makes an very valid point, one that remains today; he says “instructions directed to computers specify courses; instructions directed to human beings specify goals” – the key words being “courses” and “goals.”  Humans for the most part have full control over what they find on computers, especially through the utilization of the handy-dandy search bar (which relates back to the associational way we think, discussed last class).  The search bar, among other technical processes which I have yet to understand completely, provides the “courses” through which we reach our “goals.”  Humans rely so heavily on computers today for the “clerical” activities Licklider describes.  Think about how many times we use our calculators to do simple math; most of us do not even trust our own mental math today.  The fact that our heavy reliance on computers has not compromised our control of them represents  the sheer success of this symbiotic relationship.

On a side note, something I found kind of paradoxical for today’s time was the statement that established books as a “functionally important” component “with-in the context of man-computer symbiosis.”  With dependence on computers increasing exponentially, it seems that libraries become more and more futile everyday.  This is a major theme in news today and it shows how much our values have changed, all because of this successful symbiosis.  It’s kind of bittersweet if you think about it.  Current technological innovations, like the Kindle, the Nook, and the many assortment of smart-phones, cause the phasing out of a centuries old information source, the book.  What’s the old saying?  When one door closes, another one opens?

 

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We’re all cyberogs now

Amber Case (2010) stated that our devices are not an extension of ourselves (like tools) but an extension of our mental self.  Chocano cites Amber in his New York Times Magazine piece titled, “The Dilemma of Being a Cyberorg.” The article relates to our discussion of categorization from last week.  Our external devises are allowing us to categorize in ways that may be more natural (folkxonomy?)  Yet, at the same time, we are losing out in the process of categorizing.  Chocano states, “It’s that we’re collectively engaged in a mass conversion of what we used to call, variously, records, accounts, entries, archives, registers, collections, keepsakes, catalogs, testimonies and memories into, simply, data.”

But in a way, this makes sense.  In an earlier post, I commented on the machine’s ability to help our mental selves navigate a complex world with enormous amounts of information.  Are we intentionally deconstructing our records and archives in order to simply understand them as pure data points?  I for one, would find that more difficult than understanding a well-thought through system of classification.  Outsourcing memories to data devices is our way of coping with the fact that we ought to be making memories.  I often think that my memory will be way better if I don’t whip out the camera, and ruin the moment, in order to capture the memory digitally.

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An “interest”ing topic

So last week in my class, as we talked about various topics involving the World Wide Web and the internet, we came across a discussion that I found very stimulating. A member of the class asked the question, “Does interest depend on others around us?”

When this question was asked, I immediately thought, “No! My interests can be completely different from others!” But as I started to ponder this question, I realized that maybe the internet and sites like Youtube.com and Facebook.com have become so popular because people are interested in the same things.

We began to discuss how the internet is all about networking and that we connect because we are all interested in things. But why? I can understand that the internet is a useful tool for learning, but how does it connect us? Are we only connected through Facebook, twitter, linkedin, etc? I (and my classmates) think no.

Think about this blog. Why are you reading it? Why is it benefiting you? Think about popular YouTube videos like “David after Dentist” or “Sh*t ___ Say”…why do people find them interesting? They are usually humorous..but I believe there is something more to it. I feel out of the loop if I haven’t watched the latest trending video on YouTube. They are something to talk about – something to connect you and other people.

I’ve posted below one of the most popular videos on YouTube – ever. I know I have had multiple conversations about it, and you probably have too since it can relate to almost everyone…if you haven’t seen it you should check it out by clicking the link below:

Evolution of Dance

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Symbiosis in the Future

In my opinion the perfect computer is one that is easy to use. Making a computer easy to use allows it manipulated by a variety of different people with little or no training. This was a major part of Licklider’s vision of the computer of the future, when he described a symbiotic relationship between computers human. Machines and humans working together as a team to accomplish complex and previously impossible tasks. In symbiosis both things benefit from a relationship. This classification at the present accurately describes our relationships with computers. Computers allow us to accomplish complex and time consuming tasks very quickly and easily, along with countless other beneficial features. In return computers benefit because we make their existence possible, and we provide them with the command. Without humans to build, maintain and control them, computers would not exist. With time the symbiosis of man and machine will certainly increase as computers become more advanced and powerful.

Reading this made me consider this question. What will happen in this symbiotic relationship, when humans no long can provide computers something they need? Computers are improving at a incredible rate, while as humans we are remaining stagnant in comparison. Once computers become skilled enough to make more computers and become complex enough to think for themselves and innovate, we really won’t have a role in the symbiotic relationship anymore. The computers will providing us with everything for nothing in return. It’s impossible to tell if this type of scenario would ever occur, but it seems like it would be possible. I’m not saying I think this would cause some type of machine apocalypse, but it would drastically change our relationship with machines. Just something I thought of while reading.

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Search Bars: Sometimes Simple is Best

While reading “Man-Computer Symbiosis” I was struck by the discussion of the need for a more efficient way to locate items on a computer than a serial search. I started thinking about how many times a day I use engines like google, the finder on my macbook or the command F to locate random words within pages of text. Having easy and convenient search abilities makes having a computer a hundred times more useful. I decided to search articles on searching. I came across “Designing the Holy Search Box: Examples and Best Practices” on smashingmagazine.com. I found the article interesting in that it did discuss how convenient the search bar is, but also how a simplified version of it is important. The author of the article György Fekete called a search bar not only helpful but “crucial” and even a “user’s lifeline to mastering complex websites”. If a websites content is confusing or unorganized, a user is either going to use a given search box or leave the site entirely. But he says that because the search box is so crucial, it should actually be simple and not complex. Although the technology is there to make it more advanced a simple search bar is best. Problems in search bars come in when they are hard to find or use. Or when they are connected to areas of the site, or other sites, that do not relate to what the user is looking for. (Such as a newsletter box). Fekete continues to go into do’s and dont’s of creating search bars. I never realized how much could go into a search bar or even thought about how it could stray wrong. The article was interesting and I have found that smashingmagazing.com has a lot of tech related articles that appear to be intriguing if anyone is struggling with finding them.

http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/12/04/designing-the-holy-search-box-examples-and-best-practices/

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We Must Learn From Ourselves First

We Must Learn From Ourselves First:

I’d like to make some comments about the most recent reading, Licklider’s “Man-Computer Symbiosis” in The New Media Reader. First of all, I found this peice to be much easier to read than our previous assignments. Not only does it use less technical jargon and extensive metaphors, but it also connects with a video that we watched, which is attached as the hyperlinked title of this post. In both works there is a sense of learning and teaching co-existing. In the video, we learn how orchestrators/conductors have so many different styles of doing their job; some are stern and want their work to be expressed by the book, others enjoy letting their students flow and teach them how their work can be guided through varying avenues. Throughout the 20 minutes of that video I was staggering and pushing through, attempting to make the connection between that video and our class. But, then I read the article and said to myself, of course! We have to learn our own work before we can even begin to teach others. Once we can teach others, then they can give feedback, so on and so forth- a sort of learning cycle.

Licklider poses two goals for the relationship between man and computers:

  • “let computers facilitate formulative thinking”
  • “enable men and computers to cooperate in making decisions and controlling situations without inflexible dependence on predetermined programs”

I found these two goals to be somewhat opposite. The first goal basically states that the computers will allow men to use computers as a clerical mechanism, which later in the paper he restates and even gives an experiment he did on himself to explain his rationale (a conclusion I relate to myself). In this experiment, Licklider examines how much time he actually thinks and concludes technically and then what he does with the rest of his time. He ends up finding that a significant portion of his itme is spent doing clerical works, things like making graphs, telling his assitant how to make graphs, lookig up information and resources, etc. Whereas, his actual conclusion took seconds. So, the use for a computer can be argued as limited to simple formulated, pre-organized searches of information and pre-layed out graphs with only the need of data to complete them. Certainly this is a huge use of computers today, many find their technical abilities to be extremely useful.

However, on the other end of the spectrum Licklider also wants a computer to be able to be flexible in its cooperation with men to make decisions. So different from the structure of the limited computer in goal number one. But, interesting. Is that goal acheived? So far, I think both have been! We have mathematical models and even speech recognition (which is also mentioned in the article) that I do not understand. How can a computer give you a suggested solution or understand words that you never preset? My dad uses speech recognition for work for the very reason suggest by Licklider, there is no time in our world for decision makers to learn to type. So, instead we make our life easier and more effective by creating tools that go beyond the scope of a precalculated tool. The computer helps us to learn, and in learning, we can teach the computer to do more complex things, such as Photoshop, interactie graphics, Skype, social media, etc.

In conclusion, I think that, although these goals are not similar at all, it does not have to be one or the other. The computer should be used as a tool, just as the instruments are being used as tools in the orchestra in the video. Just because a tool has one specific definitonal value does not mean it cannot lead to other things, whether that be different versions of a peice of music or different technologies such as voice recognition. The modern computer is not just a formulaic generator, it is an innovation that with speed up the art of learning in a way that we can not predict.

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And Here’s the Reason Why Cyborgs are not a Symbiosis

The nice thing about TV-shows and Hollywood is that they get a free pass from most people on accurate portrayal of… stuff. Allow me to go off a tangent here (oh look at the time, it is merely the second sentence in): If I have to watch another CSI episode where they “enhance” a blurring photograph by creating previously non-existent pixels out of nowhere, or “match the DNA” of an evidence to a suspect overnight I am going to stab myself in the face with a blunt object. The point is, too often when we think of interfacing, or perhaps blurring the line between the human mind and a computer, we conjure up a image of a half-human/half-machine cyborg, not unlike the once from Star Trek (incidentally, these cyborgs from the TV show were villain aliens named “Borg”. Lack of imagination indeed). When we dream of the far future where we can perhaps implant computer “chips” and whatnot into our brain, we are simply think of new, unimaginative ways to utilize computer technologies as a tool.

Licklider described his vision of the relationship between computers and the human mind elegantly by using the word “symbiosis”. Symbiosis is a peculiar phenomenon that occurs in nature. In essence, two organisms in symbiosis MUST rely on each other to survive and be viable (note that this definition is rather rigorous and not shared by all authority on the subject, but for our purpose we will accept it). An example that is very close to us is that we rely on many microbes in our digestive system to help break down food into nutrients we can then absorb. Our body will starve and die without these microbes, all the same the microbes rely on us to provide “food” for them. For this reason, when reading Licklider’s article we must keep in mind that, in order to be in a symbiosis relationship with the computer, the outcome of this relationship must rely on the contribution of both party.

In Licklider’s vision, he foresaw – and at the same time, admitted – that the tool that is the computer we created, will be (and was) better at some jobs than their creators. We can easily see that today. I can run a model on the chemical interaction of a fresh water lake with only papers and pencils and encounter no obstacles… except it would take me at least six hours to do so. If I run the same model on a computer it will take it all but a fraction of second to do the same. On the other hand, I can draw a picture with three stick figures on it for no reason other than the fact that I wanted to, whereas the computer will not do anything that was not specified in a preconceived algorithm.

The image Licklider painted is a powerful one especially because it was written in 1960, and basically read like a prophecy of the future that is today. I am, in a (loose) sense engaged in a symbiosis with my computer (and my smart phone, and my internet connection and…), because, as I have mentioned in a previous post, the way I live is shaped by the technology I am using. The man-computer symbiosis is more than just a cyborg, it must be a mutual relationship the runs much deeper just grafting pieces of technology into our body. Because, if you think about it, I carry on me my phone, my laptop and various other gadget with me all the time. I’m practically a cyborg aside from some plastic surgery.

I shall end this long-winded babbling with the amused observation from Licklider’s article section 5.5. I am renaming that section to “Licklider’s Wish List for Christmas”. Yes, I would like a computer with “large wall displays” and “automatic speech production and recognition” too thank you.

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