Augmenting Human Intellect

Source | Douglass Engelbart

If you have not had the pleasure of reading Douglass Engelbart’s Augmenting Human Intellect take the time to browse through the concepts he presents, you won’t be disappointed. As in most papers the abstract is the most information dense. Engelbart’s goal is not to develop frameworks for a specific domain on human endeavor, but rather to make a fundamental shift in how individuals see the world, represent their problems and work towards solutions.

We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human “feel for a situation” usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.

It’s worth noting here the totality of Engelbart’s vision and just how far away we are from a world that he would be happy with. In fact if you take a look at his 1969 demo, you’ll notice we have most of the concepts that Engelbart shows, at least at first glance. However this initial intuition is incorrect, Engelbart’s systems go beyond what we have today due to goals he outlines and the intentions of his implementation. Bret Victor makes an excellent point about the specifics of Engelbart’s implementation, which is worth a read. Rather than having sectioned off services or remote collaboration that lacks a shared collaborative space - instead emphasizing synchronized documents - we ought to have systems that represent information in a flexible manner, and facilitate a collaborative exploration of that information.

Engelbart stresses the relationship between the computer (clerk) and the user. This is a unique representation of a computer, instead of the computer being a tool for computation, it is an assistant there to aid the user in their task. Furthermore this relationship is interactive and intelligent, the user an tweak settings and get results as we can now, but those queries and results are much more powerful. We have gotten quite good at pulling out information, you can know the height of the Statue of Liberty within a few taps, and you can even make verbal queries but that is not the same thing as what Engelbart describes. For Engelbart such interactions can not be limited by a single Q/A system that search has pioneered. Instead such interactions ought to be done with context of the task at hand, contain representations of the model that are easily manipulated, and facilitate fluid exploration of the problem space.

What we currently have is far from this ideal, instead of a clerk we have systems that are difficult to customize and walled gardens. Don’t get me wrong, you can do a lot with computers today, but we are no where near an ideal. We solve small problems, and in the process create more standards, and larger walls. The next new thing adds more complexity to the heap, when we ought to consider the information that we’re manipulating, not it’s formats or the database in which it’s contained. In part this is due to the question of how to represent information, which is not an easy one. However we ought to focus on the core of the problem, and take better advantage of the possibilities computers afford us.

Engelbart lights the way, and places the emphasis where it ought to be, Augmenting Human Intellect. Inventions are the result of following a vision, not the vision itself.